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September 25, 2005 - An Odd New Lobby Group in Washington

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The most unlikely news item of week comes from Jill Lawrence, reporting in USA TODAY on Monday, September 19, where she tells a new lobbying group in Washington, representing Americans who don't believe in God.  Those would be the atheists.  See Non-Believers Raising Voice In Capital.

This is about Lori Lipman Brown who started Monday as executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. She describes herself as a "soft, fuzzy atheist" and says her two goals are to keep religion out of government and win respect for "a stigmatized minority."

Good luck. Lawrence:


Christian conservatives wield enormous clout here through a network of advocacy groups and relationships with politicians from President Bush on down. Atheists, humanists and freethinkers, as Brown's constituents call themselves, are usually ignored .

Is she scared? "Nah," says Brown, 47, an atheist with a Jewish background. "It feels good to be the first."


Why would she be sacred? No Christian leader ever advocated violence against anyone, like an assassination or some such thing. We'll maybe some have, but not against a pleasant, middle-aged formerly Jewish woman, at least not yet.

So what's going on with the new lobbying group? Lori Lipman Brown says atheists these days are like gay folks in the seventies - people just coming out of the closet to fight for acceptance. Yeah, think of the Village People. Lawrence quotes her saying this: "There's been so much rhetoric in the past decade about how important religion is to being a good person that it's been scary for people to say they don't believe in God." Brown vows to "use the A-word and not cringe."

This is a not going to go down well, and Lawrence trots out the figures from a recent Pew Research Center poll:

• Eleven percent of Americans said they do not believe in God but do believe in a "universal spirit" or "higher power."
• Three percent said they do not believe in God or a spirit or power.
• One percent identified themselves as actual atheists (no God there, folks)
• Two percent identified themselves agnostics (could be a God, one never knows)

And then there is the eleven percent who says they "have no religious preference." Pew Director Andrew Kohut says this includes people "who may not be ready to declare themselves atheists or agnostics." But what are they waiting for? Proof of the existence of God? Proof of the absence of God?

In any event, these are small numbers. But Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, counts them all and says he has "a thirty-million-strong constituency that is informed about the issues and votes." Herb is an optimistic fellow.

Lori Lipman Brown, however, has her plans - building "broad coalitions" fighting policies rooted in religious beliefs, and that would be fighting limits on stem cell research and access to emergency contraception and that sort of thing. And then there is that matter of building alliances with groups opposed to policies that blur the "wall" between church and state, like tossing great wads of taxpayer money at "faith-based" service programs. Curiously she says she doesn't want to fight about eliminating references to God from the oath of citizenship. No point to that, as she says, "the courts are on our side." And so they are, or were last week in the Ninth Circuit out here in California.

Of course, Gary Bauer, the most Christian of Christian conservatives, who now lobbies against gay marriage and for conservative "values," says atheists' timing couldn't be worse, given Hurricane Katrina. He's quoted as saying this: "We're right in the middle of a horrible event when people are turning to God. They're going to find it very hard to get people to vote for the sort of things they're in favor of."

Of course he's not considering those who now are pretty puzzled by God's gulf storms this year, or wondering if there is a God we can blame (or praise) for this massive devastation - maybe this global warming stuff the Bush administration says isn't happening, and the Christian conservatives ignore, plays a part here, and God has nothing to do with it all.

And Brown says she's just raising issues and thinks she and her like-minded folks deserve to be heard: "We want to get people thinking about what they do that excludes us. The things that perpetuate the idea that we are outsiders - that we can't be patriotic or that we can't be moral or ethical - when in reality our community is tremendously active in making the world a better place to live." She just wants in on the discussion. And she took a pay cut to do this. She was a Nevada state senator from 1992 to 1994 and she fought for gun control, gay rights and abortion rights got all the threats and hate messages and calls. No big deal. She has taught college-level constitutional and high school English. Now? The first-year budget for the coalition office, including her salary and a six-month stipend for a legislative assistant, is a hundred grand. But whatever - she's having fun. "It's important to do the work, even if you're not a high-paid lobbyist. At least there'll be an atheist voice in the mix."

Yeah, but at best she'll be ignored, or patronized. At worst? Perhaps another fatwa from Pat Robertson.

On a more scholarly note, Ronald Aronson, "Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies" at Wayne State University and the author of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It (University of Chicago Press, 2004), in the October-November issue of Book Forum has a lengthy review of seven recent books on atheism, Faith No More? - so something is up.

The books?

  • The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise And Fall Of Disbelief In The Modern World - Alister Mcgrath. New York: Doubleday. 320 Pages. $24.
  • The Transformation Of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith - Alan Wolfe. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 320 Pages. $16.
  • The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, And The Future Of Reason - Sam Harris. New York: Norton. 256 Pages. $14.
  • Atheism: A Very Short Introduction - Julian Baggini. New York: Oxford University Press. 144 Pages. $10.
  • Value And Virtue In A Godless Universe - Erik J. Wielenberg. New York: Cambridge. 202 Pages. $21.
  • Traité D'athéologie - Michel Onfray. Paris: Grasset. 281 Pages. $23.
  • An Intelligent Person's Guide To Atheism - Daniel Harbour. London: Duckworth. 160 Pages. $15.

If you go to the Book Forum article there are links so you can buy each of these over the net.  Of course Homeland Security may track your purchases, particularly if you order the one in French.

What's in the review? Well, it has a cute opening:


At the sight of Stephen Colbert the studio audience begins cheering with anticipation: It's time for "This Week in God." Colbert calls up the "God machine" and gives it a tap, and a window begins spinning to the most unholy sound as a panoply of religious symbols and images - the pope, believers in the shroud of Turin, assorted rabbis, imams, ministers, priests, creationists, spiritualists, even those those professing secular humanism and atheism ("The religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority") - flash on the screen. Finally the machine comes to rest on a particular target. We see a Jerusalem rabbi, imam, and priest set aside their mutual hatred long enough to denounce that city's gay-pride parade. Or we watch Colbert conduct a blind taste test to see whether he can tell the difference between holy water and Pepsi. Through it all he pokes fun at faith itself, sparing no religion and no holy man (in Blasphe "Me!!!" he takes on deities themselves, challenging, say, Quetzalcóatl to strike him dead by the count of five). Watching "This Week in God" on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, we are, it might seem, witnessing the culmination of a historical progression, from Robert Ingersoll, the great nineteenth-century public unbeliever, to Clarence Darrow, who in the 1920s and '30s would debate a rabbi, priest, and minister during a single evening.

No wonder, then, that it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is on the defensive today.


And then he explains the books

Alister McGrath:


• In his telling formulation, we are living in the "twilight" of the great modern era of disbelief. In 1960, he points out, "half the population of the world was nominally atheist," but by now the "sun has begun to set" on this "great empire of the mind."

• ... atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity."

• ... new currents demonstrate that "Christianity is perfectly capable of reinventing itself" to satisfy the spirit, feed the imagination, and satisfy the longing for transcendence. On the other hand, atheism's "embarrassing intolerance" is demonstrated by the millions of people sacrificed to Russian Communism, which confirmed the fact that modernity was as much an oppressive as a liberating force. McGrath here links Marx's liberating vision to violent "social engineering" and Freud's to "manipulating mental processes." And so he endorses the verdict of postmodernism on this ultimately uninhabitable universe: "Far from providing eternal and universal truths of reason, by which humanity might live in peace and stability, modernity found itself implicated as the perhaps unwitting accomplice of Nazism and Stalinism." Thus occurred "the decline, then the death, of modernity" and with it its partner, atheism. Atheism is now adrift in a newly respiritualized world, "uncertain of its own values," its record of violence and bigotry exposed. Thus "the established religion of modernity suddenly found itself relegated to the sidelines, increasingly to be viewed more as a curiosity than as a serious cultural option."


Alan Wolfe:


• ... over the past generation religion has become closer to people's needs, more positive and personal, and more tolerant and less authoritarian. In 2004 Wolfe pointed out that atheists seemed not to understand how religion had changed. There is a paucity of "serious treatments of why Americans might be better off intellectually, and perhaps even emotionally, if they relied more on themselves and less on powers greater than themselves, and our cultural and political life is poorer as a result." What would it look like if this were to change?


Michel Onfray:


• ... presents atheism in old-fashioned terms, as part of a world-historical process of social emancipation. Onfray's philosophical goal is to renew the modern radical project by integrating the insights of atheism with utilitarianism, hedonism, psychoanalysis, and anarchism, for the first time allowing humanity to "look reality in the face." To prepare the ground for this he seeks to lay bare the many ways in which pathological and death-oriented religious attitudes permeate our world (thus the need for an "a-theology" - to demonstrate the structure, commitments, and suppressed past of religion in its full destructiveness). In the spirit of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, Onfray is determined to reveal how the creation of a world beyond this world leads to "forgetting the real" with disastrous consequences.

• Onfray is arguing, contra McGrath, that religion has always been, and remains, at the core of our civilization. "We speak, think, live, act, we dream, we imagine, we eat, suffer, sleep, and conceive in Judeo-Christian terms, constructed during two thousand years of development from biblical monotheism. Later, secularism struggles to permit everyone to think what he or she wants, to believe in his or her own god, provided that they don't take note of this publicly. But publicly, the secularized religion of Christ leads the way." It is absurd, then, to suggest that there has ever been a genuinely irreligious moment.

• Worse, Onfray argues, planetary colonialism, slavery, twentieth-century fascisms and genocides have all been carried out only with the silent or tacit approval of religion. With a penchant for list making, he details the Bible's calls to slaughter and oppression as well as the Christian history of giving them its blessing. Even today, he argues, France's official secularism remains underpinned by the same Christian values and ethics that have made hell of the world. The alternative would be a truly democratic and post-Christian morality that would fully free people from religion by beginning from the fact that this is our only world. A secular ethics, pragmatic and utilitarian, would truly pursue what he calls the "hedonist contract" - the greatest good of the greatest number.


Sam Harris:


• ... motivated by an urgent effort to avoid the worst: in a post-September 11 world where "our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons" and are motivated by "mad," unverifiable, and exclusivist core beliefs, Harris writes to avert catastrophe.

• Harris has raised eyebrows more than any atheist since Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design - for his fervent belief in progress, hostility to Islam, approval of nuclear war and torture, dismissal of pacifism as "flagrantly immoral," and his slap at the "leftist unreason" of Noam Chomsky. Harris's key political sources and positions clearly lean to the Right. For our purposes, however, what matters most is what the book tells us about some of atheism's continuing problems today. If Onfray has remained true to atheism as an emancipatory project at war with religion, Harris has kept alive its image as dogmatic, fanatically rationalistic, and at war to religion.


Julian Baggini:


• ... intended not as an attack on religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism, that conjures "dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening." His point is that atheism need be neither "happy-clappy" nor "pessimistic or depressive." It is rather a kind of growing up, a turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world."

• ... covers what have become familiar themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned from the history of both religion and atheism.


The others?


Like Baggini, Erik J. Wielenberg in Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and Daniel Harbour in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism respond to the current malaise in atheism by engaging in respectful and serious debate with their opponents. Wielenberg presents an analytical philosopher's argument, beautifully restrained and precise. He is responding to a major theme in contemporary thinking about religion, namely, that in a naturalistic universe - one in which there are "no supernatural beings of any sort" - life would have no meaning and there would be no reason to behave ethically. Indeed, the strong selling point of religion recently has been its utility - in providing individual and collective moral grounding, national purpose, and personal hope. In response, Wielenberg, uninterested in the question of God's actual existence, seeks to show that living without God can be both meaningful and moral. Like McGrath and Onfray, Wielenberg focuses on the idea articulated in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, everything is permissible.


Harbour's recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question "Does God exist?" but rather "the whole worldview to which we subscribe." He chooses cumbersome terms for describing the opposing outlooks (the "Spartan meritocracy" and the "Baroque monarchy"), but his focus on worldviews has the potential for shifting the usual debate over God's existence in an important direction - to the varying ways people live their lives. In practice, however, Harbour limits himself to a rather narrow worldview. Above all, he is concerned with what and how we know questions of truth and understanding. He leaves out a vast array of attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs that fall outside of knowledge - what we live by concerning love, relationships, our connections with the wider universe, death, what is right and wrong. Much of life is not ruled by knowledge, of course, and insofar as our worldview includes all this, Harbour misses it.


See?  Now you don't have to read the whole review, with all its detail, or even order any of the books and put yourself on any government watchlist.

Aronson concludes with this: "If the appeal of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life."

And this: "A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today."

Someone ring up Lori Lipman Brown down in DC and tell her.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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