My oldest brother once described the Unitarian Church as a church for atheists who were hedging their bets. I don't know if he holds religion in contempt, but I doubt it. I have the feeling that if he thinks about religion at all it is with a kind of shrugging dismissal of the basic tenets of faith. He is what I imagine, or at least hope, most atheists and agnostics to be: namely, casually indifferent and tolerant of other's beliefs but vociferous in their defense of their right to believe not. His quip about the Unitarian Church always stuck me as funny because there is this assumption among religious people that atheists and agnostics don't really question the existence of God; they are actually just playing around until the last day comes. This is what we could call the "no atheists in foxholes" syndrome.
The corollary of the "naif" syndrome (like the turn of phrase here? no? uh, okay) is that atheists don't always believe that other atheists are really non-believers. This is the "my no god is better than your no god" corollary. On the other hand, agnostics like to argue amongst themselves about who is the more confused one and are fond of making statements like "I honestly wish there was a God. My life would be so much easier." Or, when talking to religious folk: "I truly envy those who have that kind of belief." Meaning: "I wish I was a gullible as you." Atheists and agnostics also like to fight it out about who's right about no god. Atheists think they're just so much better and smarter than us agnostics, dontcha know. And agnostics think that atheists are arrogant show-offs who can't even allow for the tiniest possibility that they might just be wrong.
The old spat between religious and non-religious people has revived itself in this country since the election of George Bush and is at times getting pretty nasty. The debate often comes down to questions of tolerance. Religious conservatives and liberal atheists tend ( I said tend) to be less tolerant than religious liberals and centrists and atheist conservatives and centrists. There is an inherent tension between the Religious Right and the Non-religious Left. Each views the other as wishing to impose their beliefs on them. For instance, as a centrist agnostic, I have no beef with religious symbols on public grounds. I have no problem with "God save this honorable court." But I have big problems with faith-based initiatives and I would just as soon not be proselytized to. And I think that the president has given tacit approval for many evangelical groups to push their religion a little too much. This is not always so. The right-left divide only takes us so far. Often, the conflict is between atheists and religious of all political ilk while the agnostics are trying to get everybody to calm down.
But this is an old argument and not likely to go away. What is becoming an interesting feature about the current debate is that atheists and agnostics (I'm going to use shorthand and just say A-As from here on out) are starting to bicker among themselves. Yesterday, the Commissar was having a tiff with Brent Rasmussen about California Supreme Court Janice Rogers Brown. The Commissar took issue with Rasmussen's contention that the removal of religion form "the public square" was a strawman argument.
That is not to say that government employees, judges, or politicians cannot be religious, or that all religious symbols must be eradicated from the "public square", or any other strawman argument that is made by political religious conservatives. But when they are acting in the name of our government they must remain scrupulously neutral on religious matters. Individual American citizens have the freedom of religion. Our government does not have that right. And by extension, when someone is speaking on behalf of our government, they must take pains to be completely neutral.
To which the Commissar responds:
So, removal of religious symbols, the secularization of Christmas, and all the other mandatory & obsessively atheistic rules of our public institutions are merely a "strawman." In other words, all these developments are incidental, unimportant, and irrelevant. I chose my preceding words carefully, including the phrase "mandatory & obsessively atheistic rules."
The back-and-forth in the comments is quite lively and goes to the argument of what we mean by the "public square." Rasmussen contends that Justice Brown, who indeed said that Christians are at "war" with secularists, is making bogey-man arguments where there are none. The Commissar points to an anecdote about a teacher in his child's school to make the case that yes, A-As are indeed waging a fight to remove all religion from the public eye. (By the way, Rasmussen and the Commissar are both conservatives, so there goes my left-right dictum).
For me the argument came down to Rasmussen arguing that Brown and people like her wants to turn this country into a theocracy while the Commissar is pointing to evidence that America is pushing an atheist agenda.
So far, I don't really buy either argument.
Yes, Brown's words are over the top and I would not like to see her on the Supreme Court. But we have had our share of religious nuts who self-anoint themselves with God's own seal of approval. When faced with people like Brown, level-headed religious folk will understand that the danger she represents is a danger not only to those who have no belief, but also to those who believe differently than she does.
And yes, from time to time the ACLU goes overboard, especially around Christmas when every other story seems to be how Johnny's sixth grade Christmas Pageant was turned into the Winter Solstice Holiday Singalong and Potluck all because of the big bad ACLU. But I suspect that what we are seeing is a function of organization. Or rather, the lack of organization. A-As don't go to church, no matter what my brother says. There are atheist organizations, but there is very little fervor to keep the numbers up.
Movements that are successful spring organically from a commonly perceived need. These types of movements tend to disappear just as ephemerally as they form. Religions rely on fidelity and crisis much the same way movements that have become institutionalized and co-opted must constantly remind their constituents that the fight is not yet won. So far as I can tell, there is no great secular cause but there is--rightly in my opinion--a secular movement in this country. This is not an atheist movement with its incumbent proscription of religious belief anywhere in public.This movement is not anti-religion per se but does not want government endorsing belief as being superior to non-belief. It is, by and large a measured secularization that honors both individual choice and tradition.
Measured secularization now has enemies both in the religious communities, which see it as openly hostile to any "public" display of belief, and in the much smaller A-A community (if there really is such a thing) which suspects that any tolerance of religious display and tradition is only encouraging the theocrats. For every Justice Brown, there is someone else who feels violated at having to pass a Christmas tree for a month and a half every year. I am not so surprised at the enmity from the religious side; it's the internecine battle that concerns me.
Take Dean Esmay's post on the use of crosses in national flags. Here he was pointing out that a great many nations have on their flags crosses of one type or another. Most of the countries have established or tax-advantaged status. The countries listed range from Great Britain to Jamaica. He's poking the dog here by illustrating that government sanctioned religion is not automatically synonymous with Taliban-style theocracy. Which of course, sets off a bevy of comments including this illustration of a cross on a not-so-innocuous flag. Fine, the Confederate Flag does indeed sport a cross. And Christianity was used as a (weak) rationalization for slavery. And this group that Tim highlights is despicable, but somehow, I bring myself to can't blame their pathology on the cross. The Black Republican seems to have the right perspective.
Now to be fair, both the UK and Switzerland have a history of religious strife and have come to terms with what they see as the rightful place of religion in their countries. But Dean was just pointing out, with a nice does of tweak, that a display of a cross today does not ipso facto translate to theocracy. I believe that Dean, by the way, is an agnostic.
So are we as a nation headed straight to a theocracy or straight to hell? I would say neither. For a point of view that says we already are a theocracy--and not like you think--check this out. Here, the Queen contends that the theocracy we live under is one of Secular Humanism. I have heard the argment before but I just don't buy it.
For all of the rambling about religion encroaching on civil rights there is little evidence that there is even a seed of a movement to compel belief. The same is true for the horrors that supposedly are waiting to be unleashed by millions of heretics. Nobody's church is under siege and nobody is enforcing mandatory Sunday Morning. But that wouldn't make for a good story, would it? The battle here is much like political gamesmanship. Each side believes it has to whip up the "faithful" in order to stay in the fight. But if one stops for a minute and looks at the details of the evidence, neither side is in much danger from the other.