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The Politics of Atheism I

April 18, 2006, 12:46 PM

A reader of Daylight Atheism recently made an excellent suggestion via e-mail:

As several of your recent posts suggest, it is perhaps time for atheists to unite into a force for change. And in America, that means political change. I welcome this prospect, but believe that we should have some agreement on what changes to make and what our common vision of America should be. I think a series of posts on the politics of Atheism would be helpful. Perhaps it should include the beginnings of a platform for our vision of America. But before we can hope to move America in a new and better direction, we should have some idea of what that direction is.

In accordance with this suggestion, this post, and the following ones, will present my vision of the politics of atheism: what our vision for society should consist of, what issues should be part of our common platform, and how we can best work together to achieve these goals.

If you have read my essay "Rule the World" on Ebon Musings, or "An Atheist's Creed" on this site, you probably already have a good idea what form my politics takes and what positions I will advocate, but this series will give me a chance to elaborate on those ideas. In general, my political views could best be described as liberal with libertarian leanings. As members of a minority, we nonbelievers should be especially sensitive to issues of civil rights and freedom of individual conscience. The government should not be in the business of prescribing personal morality or dictating conformity, but rather creating a free and open society where every individual can best pursue his or her own conception of the good life. On the other hand, we should want to live in a well-regulated society that provides order and stability and ensures a basic happiness for everyone. In the web of tradeoffs between these two guiding principles, I believe we can find the blueprint for an ideal society.

Finally, as I have often said in the past, all this is my opinion, and I could be wrong. I am one atheist among many, and I make no claims for my vision being definitive. If you disagree with anything I put forward, and I would be very surprised if no one did, I encourage you to speak out. If being an atheist means anything, it means acknowledging the power of reason and trusting that the truth will emerge from informed debate.

Law & Government

When it comes to the basic question of how society is to be governed, I believe it is self-evident that no atheist can support a theocracy. Building a flourishing society requires informed and wise decision-making, and rulers guided by false or unverifiable religious beliefs rather than reason and evidence can do this only by accident. In addition, theocracies inevitably come to believe that opponents of the state faith are enemies of God who must be punished accordingly. The bloody swathes such beliefs have carved through human history need not be recounted here.

But as religious apologists never tire of reminding us, theocracies are not the only kind of government that can commit atrocities. The avowedly secular Communist nations that arose during the twentieth century engaged in acts just as heinous as the medieval holy wars and inquisitions, or the Christianity-inspired anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. An atheist can and should deplore all these evil acts alike, which is why I propose the more general principle that atheists cannot abide totalitarianism of any kind, including but not limited to theocracy. Any society whose leaders are unaccountable to the people and dogmatically believed to be infallible has the potential to become a horror.

This principle leads to democracy as the only remaining option, but we can derive further consequences from it. Any measure that tends to disenfranchise people or deprive them of their equal stake in the process of governing partakes of the spirit of totalitarianism, and should be opposed by atheists. For example, gerrymandering districts in an attempt to predetermine election results, using phone jamming or other methods to obstruct get-out-the-vote efforts, or selectively destroying voter-registration forms are nothing less than efforts to overturn democracy, and should be punished accordingly. (Perhaps in addition to the recognized crime of obstruction of justice, there should be a crime called obstruction of democracy.) Similarly, atheists should support efforts to ensure that voting machines and the other vital paraphernalia of democracy are fully and equally available in every region of the country, and that the standards for voting are clear, simple and uniform.

On the other side of the coin, I argue that support of democracy entails allegiance to the principles of fully open and transparent government. To this end, I support creating and making publicly available transcripts and video of every speech and debate in legislative chambers; extending the reach of laws like the Freedom of Information Act that grant citizens access to non-classified government documents; and full disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions and the activities of lobbyists.

Finally, atheists know full well the necessity of relying on evidence, rather than trusting on faith. Nowhere can this be more vital when it comes to selecting a new government. To this end, I assert that atheists cannot support or condone the deployment of "black box" voting machines that give no proof that a citizen's vote has been accurately recorded.

To eliminate the possibility for fraud or confusion, I suggest that all voting machines should provide a mechanism for making an unambiguous choice, following which the machine will print out a paper ballot that reflects that choice. (Providing paper ballots to be filled out by hand offers far too much potential for ambiguity, as the infamous 2004 American presidential election testifies.) The voter should then deposit that ballot in a locked box that cannot be tampered with or disposed of by workers at a local polling place. All the boxes for a given election should then be brought to a central place where they can be counted, either by hand or by machine. If by machine, the hardware blueprint and software code for that machine must be open-source and rigorously certified by an independent accrediting body. If by hand, I suggest that each ballot be counted by teams of at least two people, who cannot both belong to the same political party.

Civil Liberties

It goes without saying that separation of church and state is one of the civil liberties which atheists hold dear. I anticipate little disagreement when I say that atheists should support a very strong separation of church and state: no religious language in official oaths or affirmations, no public money to be used in support of religion, no law or public policy that supports one religion over others or religion in general over non-religion, and no law or public policy based on religious belief unless it also has a legitimate secular purpose. While some of these principles are already established in American law through Supreme Court decisions, I would recommend that atheists advocate a Constitutional amendment to establish all of them beyond any possibility of doubt.

It should likewise go without saying that proselytizing to captive audiences under a government aegis should be forbidden. This means no teaching of creationism in public schools, regardless of how it is relabeled, and no teaching about religious ideas in general unless it is done in an accurate, objective and non-devotional way. Similarly, no religious group should be allowed to evangelize in prisons or provide social services through public grants unless they are all offered the chance to do so, and participation in such programs can never be coercive; a secular alternative should always be available.

Finally, atheists should support ending the tax exemption on churches. This change would provide the government with some much-needed revenue and put a stop to the egregious practice of subsidizing churches' growth through taxing nonbelievers, which is what this policy does by default. It would also slice the twin Gordian knots of complicated and confusing laws regarding just what churches may say about candidates for political office and how far they may go in buying up land to expand their holdings. In place of that, this change would offer a simple solution: let churches say whatever they want about political candidates, let them buy whatever land they can afford to build on, and let them pay for those privileges just like everyone else.

Another point I consider obvious: Atheists should support strong freedom of speech. Although reasonable time, place and manner restrictions are probably necessary in some cases, we should look skeptically even at those. The only kinds of speech that can be outright forbidden are speech used to harass and speech that directly incites or encourages criminal activity, or that otherwise causes direct and tangible harm. In particular, I strongly believe that atheists must oppose "hate speech" laws, as well as every other attempt to squelch ideas, no matter how well-intentioned. Both world history and current events demonstrate that such laws can easily be used by the majority to stifle criticism of prevailing social mores, something that we as atheists should be especially sensitive to.

Finally, and again for obvious reasons, atheists should support a strong right to privacy. An intrusive state that keeps tabs on its citizens' beliefs, whereabouts and activities is only one small step away from being a totalitarian state, and such measures have historically been used as tools of oppression against atheists and minority faiths. While openness and honesty are virtues, the sharing of personal information should always be voluntary, except where absolutely necessary. Any government inquiry into this information should only be carried out with the oversight and authorization of a third party, which means that atheists should oppose laws such as the Patriot Act that attempt to weaken judicial oversight of surveillance activity. We should also support laws that put strict limits on what businesses can do with collected customer information and on how they must protect that information. All citizens should have a reasonable ability to view data collected about them, to control how it is used, and to correct any errors it may contain. And there should be certain types of information that one always has the right to keep private; for example, no business should be allowed to force employees to submit to a genetic screening as a prerequisite for being hired.

The commitment to privacy rights also means that atheists should wholeheartedly support gay marriage. What consenting adults do together is no concern of the state, so long as it harms no one; and few things could be more personal or more intimate than whom one chooses to love. If there is any area that is none of the government's business, this is it. (As I have said elsewhere, I would support withdrawing the term "marriage" from government definition altogether. Government should grant civil partnership licenses that bring with them the relevant legal benefits, and no more; whether this arrangement is considered marriage or not should be up to the individual and their community.)

Coming up: Part II of the Politics of Atheism will propose an atheist political platform in the areas of social justice, the media, science and education.

Other posts in this series:


The Politics of Atheism I

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