Atheists, Public Life, and Condescension

by Neil H. Buchanan

"[I]n some parts of secular, liberal America, there is a skepticism about religion that can veer into disrespect."  I pulled that quote from a short column today by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who was otherwise arguing that atheists are subject to discrimination in American public life.  Why the swipe at liberals?  And no matter the reason, is what he wrote true?

I qualify as a denizen of secular, liberal America, and I certainly am skeptical of religion.  I am more than willing to say that my skepticism -- with very important caveats and in context -- does not merely "veer into disrespect."  I respect people's right to practice religion and to make personal decisions based on religious beliefs, but do I respect the substance of those decisions?  Not inasmuch as they are justified by simple reliance on religion.  Do I disrespect the people who make those arguments?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Let us dive deeper into this question.

To put Leonhardt's comment in perspective, he was writing a very positive reaction to a recent column by the Washington Post's Max Boot, who argued that atheists are discriminated against in public life.  The headline of Boot's piece, "It’s time for us to have an unapologetic atheist in the Oval Office," captured the idea boldly.

Boot offered the provocative observation that Bernie Sanders had recently deflected a question about religion -- Sanders seems pretty obviously to be a standard-issue secular American Jew -- by insisting that he had "very strong religious and spiritual feelings."  Boot's response: "So a candidate who doesn’t mind calling himself a 'socialist' refuses to say that he is a secular humanist — if, in fact, that’s what he is."

How's that for perspective, especially when contrasted with Mike Pence's "warning" to Liberty University's graduates this month that they will be "shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible"?  Bernie Sanders feels the need to claim that he is religious and spiritual, lest he be deemed too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate, but Pence says that "[s]ome of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs."

Pence added: "As you go about your daily life, just be ready because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture."  Who is going to do the asking?  Apparently everyone except Pence's people.  What does it mean to be asked to "endorse" those things, and what will bowing down involve?  No idea.

I certainly can identify with Sanders's urge to equivocate, if only on a much more personal level.  About fifteen years ago, when I was single and decided to take my chances on a dating site, I initially filled out the questionnaire by identifying myself (accurately) as an atheist.  I knew that that was a risky choice and considered replying "agnostic," but honesty seemed important, and splitting hairs by saying that "no one knows for sure, so I guess I'm an agnostic" seemed disingenuous at best.  When I received no interest, however, I decided as an experiment to change my answer to something like "committed to moral principles and open to the notion of spirituality."  Within hours of making that change, I was suddenly no longer being shunned.  Who was bowing down to whose expectations, exactly?

But the point is that Pence is pushing the larger lie that evangelical Christians are subject to oppression by being expected to live in a world in which they must tolerate other people's religious choices and non-choices.  I do not care if he finds it morally objectionable to be in a room alone with a woman other than his wife, and I certainly do not care whether he prays or practices abstinence or uses birth control.  By contrast, he feels that it is an imposition on him for me to expect the same tolerance for my choices.

But was Leonhardt not admitting that Pence is right when he wrote that "in some parts of secular, liberal America, there is a skepticism about religion that can veer into disrespect"?  And did I not just a few paragraphs above tacitly admit that Leonhardt and Pence are right?  Not at all.  It is not disrespectful to be skeptical of those who use religion to discriminate.

Why, then, would Leonhardt bother with the claim that secular liberals can be disrespectful?  This is a particularly pernicious version of both-sidesism that draws from the now-automatic guilt trip that some liberals seem actually to enjoy as they flagellate themselves for not being nice enough to "real America."  Just as we are supposed to think that blue-collar white guys in diners in Pennsylvania are authentic and thus shall not be criticized -- even when they express hateful views and support hateful politicians as they inflict hateful policies on vulnerable people -- we are supposed to say that Pence's "deeply held religious beliefs" somehow justify his insistence on depriving LGBT people of their civil rights.

Pence believes sincerely that he is doing good, and because he claims a religious basis for that hatred and the resulting discriminatory policies, we are not supposed to veer into disrespect.  That is the narrative, in any event, and it is dangerous nonsense.

In Senate confirmation hearings in January 2017, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pressed now-former Attorney General Jefferson Sessions on Sessions' previously expressed hostility to attorneys who are secular.  Sessions's sleazy response was not that he disrespected secular lawyers but merely lawyers who took positions "in which truth is not sufficiently respected."  Whitehouse then sensibly observed that "a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?"  Sessions: "Well, I’m not sure."

Consider the outrage if anyone said anything close to that about religious believers.  Even my relatively bold statements here do not come close to saying that a religious person does not have "just as good a claim to understanding the truth as" an atheist.  There is nothing about organized religion that requires a person to reject the truth, as the existence of millions of religious scientists and objective policy analysts proves.  My father was a Presbyterian minister, and he could certainly tell the difference between fact and faith.

But if I were ever hauled before a congressional committee to testify about any of these issues -- not that anyone would want to do so, given that I have no public role that in any way implicates these questions -- I would surely be branded as at least condescending and most likely even contemptuous of religious people.  I would be deemed to be precisely the kind of liberal secularist about whom Leonhardt tut-tuts with furrowed brow.

Do people like me veer into disrespect when talking about religious people and beliefs?  Only when reacting to how those people rely on their religious beliefs to skew the public debate about issues of policy.  Religion has been used to justify slavery, marital rape, and mass murder.  People like me rightly have zero respect for those claims.

And once people decide that the word "truth" means "what I think my religion has revealed to me" (as in "the truth of God's word"), then in no time flat we are in an evidence-free arena in which climate denialism thrives, white people claim to be the true victims of discrimination, and tax cuts pay for themselves.

That does suggest that non-religious people have reason to wonder about a religious person's commitment to rational discourse, but at most this is taken as a rebuttable presumption.  "You're a fan of Jerry Falwell, Jr.?  I see.  Well, forgive me for asking, but do you believe that we should follow evidence when making public policies?"

Is that condescending?  Maybe, and maybe not, but it is certainly a reasonable question to ask.  Is it disrespectful?  The person to whom that question is asked might think so: "You're calling me stupid!"  But if his honest answer (and note how much work the word honest is doing here) to the question is: "Yes, I believe that Falwell is right about the word of God, but I also believe that there is no conflict between that and following fact-based logic," then he has demonstrated that he is not stupid and deserves respect.  Otherwise, not so much.