Stigmatizing Religious Wing-nuttery in the Public Square: Why Atheists Are Better Suited to the Task Than Either Moderate or Liberal Christians

Rick Perry for President

Many of the leading voices in the free-thought movement have opined that atheists would do well to model their political strategies on those of the gay movement since Stonewall. The overall trend among GLBTs has been to seek integration into mainstream society, and our successes have been pretty impressive, considering the strength of the resistance we’ve encountered. How did we do this? The answer is that nearly every one of us who is now “out” went through what can best be described as a conversion experience. The scales fell from our eyes, so to speak, and we understood how shame, fear, and self-loathing had conspired to keep us closeted. Once we began to respect ourselves, we were at last able to command respect from others. Slowly but surely, public opinion changed. People everywhere realized they had known gays and lesbians all along, that many of us were family, and that there was, after all, nothing to fear. The majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage.

Atheists have so far done pretty poorly as a political movement. Polls show that American voters are even less likely to cast their ballot for one of us than for a gay man or a lesbian. Could this be, in part, because so many of us atheists are closeted? Most people don’t even realize that they know atheists—even in their own families. Only by becoming visible can we ever become an effective force in shaping both political policy and social mores.

Anyone who doubts the urgency of the challenges has only to read the daily newspapers. On April 11, 2011, in response to a prolonged drought that has caused historic wildfires all across Texas, the state’s governor, Rick Perry, declared three days of prayer for rain. That was three months ago, and the drought has intensified, with conditions in about 80% of the state rated as “exceptional”—two notches up from “severe.”

If Governor Perry had taken the trouble to consult a meteorologist, he would have learned that, barring a tropical storm, hot and dry weather is likely to continue at least into early September. I can think of three possible reasons why he didn’t do so: (1) He actually believed that prayer could produce rain; (2) he was pandering to his Christian constituency; and/or (3) he had a vested interest in deflecting the public’s attention from scientific explanations that might mention climate change. Any one of these possibilities is frightening, not only because Perry is governor of one of our nation’s largest and most populous states, but additionally because he is considering a run for the U.S. presidency. A Perry presidency is an appalling prospect, and every American with a scintilla of sense should be alarmed about it.

There is one very good reason why Perry cannot address the drought issue in a truthful and rational way, and it is spelled O-I-L. Let’s not forget that Perry came to the defense of British Petroleum after the April, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But if BP was not responsible, then who was? Here’s is Perry’s assessment, from a speech he gave at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. shortly after the explosion:

From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented.

The BP oil spill was an act of God? Meaning, it was His will that nearly five million barrels of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, spoiling beaches, wetlands, and estuaries from Louisiana to Florida and creating an 80-square-mile “dead zone” around the drilling platform? BP was only the “instrument” of His divine will? Should we then “thank” BP for its instrumentality in the disaster?

This nonsense is so heavy, thick, and pervasive that it threatens to drag us under, but few moderate or even progressive Christians seem willing or able to challenge it. On what basis would they do so? Would they answer that God neither causes disasters nor allows them to happen? This is obviously untrue of the God “character” in the Bible and of the putative God who intervenes throughout history in the affairs of humankind. So moderate Christians can only say, “Well, maybe so. Who knows?”

Or they will go all “tolerant” and refrain from criticizing Perry, or Michelle Bachmann, or Rick Santorum, because, after all, everyone has a right to their opinion and, as good Christians, we mustn’t judge them. In particular, we mustn’t judge other Christians. Aside from some points of doctrine, they’re like us, and we all believe in the same God. Et cetera ad nauseum.

The “tolerance” stance  gives a free pass to almost any kind of craziness that is framed in religious terms. When applied globally, it comes up as multiculturalism: religious traditions, beliefs, and practices are not to be questioned. Genital mutilation and infibulation in the Islamic world are “okay” because “it’s just their tradition.” Stoning adulteresses is just a part of our wonderful multicultural rainbow.

What would a rational response to the Texas drought and the BP oil spill look like? For starters, it would have to be a completely naturalistic response, without any mention of supernatural agents. For any half-way sane person with eyes to see, the causes of these disasters are obvious: The proximate cause for the Deepwater Horizon explosion is that BP screwed up. The ultimate cause of the disaster is that there were drilling rigs there in the first place, and they were there because we have become too dependent on fossil fuels. The cause of the drought is global warming, which in turn has been caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the last couple of centuries. The solution to both these crises? Easy! Burn less fossil fuel. Develop alternative sources of energy.

That Governor Perry was unwilling or unable to think in this way about these disasters is evidence that he is an archaic man in a suit. He hasn’t earned his creds for 21st-century leadership. And yet he was elected governor of Texas and may be in line for the presidency. It isn’t just that Perry proposes fantastical solutions to problems; he also obstructs those who would like to find real solutions. And meanwhile, our planet is becoming hotter, 100-year climate events are happening every ten years or so, and the oceans are rising.

Atheists would be uniquely positioned to undercut Perry’s presidential aspirations if we were more mainstream. Unlike moderate and liberal Christians, we could declare Perry delusional and lay out our reasons in clear and cogent terms. No equivocations. No hedging. No contortionist theologies that aim to reconcile archaic craziness with its contemporary counterparts. Unlike the ultimate progressive religionists (Unitarians), we could cut the “tolerance” crap and judge these candidates on their merits, just as we would judge any candidate for a job that we’re hiring him or her to do.

For atheists to effectively call out Perry and others of his ilk, we need to be strong in numbers, sure of our arguments, vocal in our rebuttals, highly visible, and capable of using ridicule and satire in a strategic way. In other words, we need to get our crap together, recognize the perils of inaction and apathy, and get creative.

This week in San Angelo, Texas, Warren Jeffs, the leader of a Mormon polygamist sect, was on trial for having sexually assaulted two under-age girls. At one point, he interrupted the proceedings to announce that he had to read a statement from God. The judge allowed him to read it. It said,

I, the Lord God of heaven, call upon the court to cease this open prosecution… If the trial continues, I will send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to make [them] humbled by sickness and death.

I think we all recognize that the defendant was delusional. It is significant that virtually everyone recognizes this, even fundamentalist Christians and most other Mormons. Atheists have very clear reasons for claiming that he is delusional. But what reasons can Christians offer? Jeff’s claim is no different in quality from that of Rick Perry or Pat Robertson or any number of other public figures who claim to have a hot line to God. Who’s to say they are not right?

Atheists are.

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