No Atheists in Fox News

Last week, Senator Barack Obama provided some material for controversy-addicts awaiting their next fix: he suggested that people suffering economic woes for a long period of time become bitter and therefore cling to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant/outsider sentiment. Before long, both Hillary and McCain pounced on these statements as evidencing Obama's elitist and patronizing view of the world. Hillary produced the memorable one-liner, "people embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich." Right-wing columnist William Kristol then published an op/ed in the New York Times on Monday insisting that Obama's statement mattered (and should accordingly be discussed and fretted over some more) because it unmasked him -- he pretends to respect faith, gun rights, and working class concerns about immigration, but when he faces an audience of friendly listeners at a San Francisco fundraiser, he lets his hair down and admits that he holds the Marxist view that religion is the "opium of the people" (as translated from the German by Kristol).

If I were a more cynical person, I would suspect that William Kristol -- like John McCain and Hillary Clinton -- has his own reasons to be eager for a Clinton/McCain race and therefore hopes to persuade people (the superdelegates? the remaining voters?) that Obama could not win in November after having said what he did. Going with this cynicism, I might question the good faith of a right-wing columnist urging Democrats to steer clear of a particular candidate. In any event, I believe that Obama's comments do not "matter" and do not evidence anything but the most unremarkable realism.

There is an expression which says that "there are no atheists in foxholes." Atheists have, in fact, reacted to this expression with offense, indicating that they do not intend to believe in God, even when mortality is around the corner. It is accordingly religious people -- people who believe in God -- that draw the connection between dire circumstances and faith. How many people suffering an illness or the loss of a loved have said, "I don't think I could have gotten through this without my faith." Though it may be "spiritually rich" people who believe in God, as Hillary claims, religious people themselves do not dispute that faith can be very comforting during difficult times. This is presumably why believers prophecy that once in a fox-hole, the atheist tiger will change his stripes.

Like faith, people experiencing economic stress might find a release in "sport." I place "sport" (when referring to hunting) in quotations because I do not consider the use of weapons to kill defenseless animals a sport, any more than I consider robbery or kidnapping a sport, though all three admittedly require skill in selecting victims and carry the excitement inevitably involved in seeking a trophy from those who would prefer not to bestow it. To suggest that those suffering economic hardship might find comfort in "sport" should not be controversial.

And finally, the fear of the outsider is commonly associated with difficult financial times. It is no accident that large-scale economic distress has, in our not-so-recent past, provided fertile soil for the most notorious anti-semitic xenophobia in history. Barack Obama is not telling us anything we do not already know when he suggests that people turn against immigrants and people who are different from themselves when they are feeling frustrated and angry about their own wellbeing.

So why were people offended by his words? It is perhaps the worry that when we attempt to explain behavior we thereby deny that one could have a legitimate basis for engaging in that behavior. If you say that I believe in God out of frustration, then it sounds as though you are denying that I could believe in God because there is in fact a God. If you say that I hunt as an escape, that may suggest that I could not hunt simply because hunting is an inherently satisfying activity. And if you say that I want immigration reform because I feel insecure about my income, then I may understand you to be saying that I do not have a valid basis -- apart from my emotional needs -- for supporting immigration reform. It can be annoying, in other words, to have one's views attributed to one's emotional state rather than to the persuasive force of those views.

Despite this appearance, however, it is actually entirely coherent to say that God is awesome and also to observe that people tend to see how awesome God is when they are economically depressed (and thus need a relationship with someone who is awesome). It is also coherent to believe that hunting (or robbery or kidnapping) is fun and fulfilling while observing as well that a commitment to violent forms of fulfillment tends to rise when people are in financial trouble. And one can acknowledge valid concerns about immigration without negating the reality that anti-immigrant sentiment rises with economic hardship and that such sentiment contributes to the popularity of immigration reform.

Senator Obama has indicated no desire to do anything radical to interfere with religious faith, hunting, or immigration reform. On policy, his views resemble Hillary's, and he has shown an openness and a respect for those on the other side of the aisle that is quite refreshing and unusual. But he is also a thinking person, and when a thinking person ponders the popularity of God, hunting, and anti-immigration sentiment, he is likely to draw conclusions about the social facts that give to such popularity, quite apart from the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the underlying substance. That Barack Obama is a deep thinker is not a weakness but a strength. He should perhaps have phrased his words somewhat differently, but there is nothing disqualifying, alarming, or even especially controversial about anything that he said. To state what may be obvious to many, people who want to see the Democrats defeat the Republicans in November should therefore reject the advice of William Kristol and continue to support the best candidate for President, Senator Barack Obama.

Posted by Sherry Colb