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Still More on Hostility to Atheists:

Quite a few of the comments to my earlier posts suggested that there isn't that much wrong with people saying that they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists, or that they wouldn't consider voting for an atheist candidate. Let's say that the posts were instead about Jews, not about atheists, and the data was:

  1. A poll question asked "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who [was religiously Jewish]?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%. (The real question asked was "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?")

  2. A poll question asked whether "your overall opinion of [people who are Jewish by religion] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" The answer was 7% very favorable, 28% mostly favorable, 22% mostly unfavorable, and 28% very unfavorable. (The real question asked about "your overall opinion of Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God.")

Would people be troubled by such results, results that show that 69% of the public wouldn't even consider voting for a religiously Jewish political candidate, and that 50% of the public had an unfavorable view of people who are Jewish by religion (22% mostly unfavorable, 28% very unfavorable)? If you are, then is there any reason to be less troubled by the same results as to atheists?

UPDATE: I meant to focus this on attitudes towards people who are Jewish by religion, rather than by ethnicity, and made that clear in item 1, but I neglected to make it clear in item 2. I just corrected that, and also for clarity noted that in the paragraph following the list.

Robert Lyman (mail):
You would do better to frame it in terms of evangelical Christians than Jews, since "Jewishness" is partially ethnic rather than strictly religious.

I find it less disturbing to judge a man by what he believes than by what he was born--although still a bit disturbing.
12.12.2005 7:02pm
DNL (mail):
Part of the problem is how atheism is marketed, both by its protagonists and skeptics. It is oftentimes used as an excuse for rejecting not just the belief in a higher power, but also, for rejecting Judeo-Christian morals. Given this, the responses are neither surprising nor shocking.
12.12.2005 7:12pm
A Guest Poster (mail):
I agree with Robert. But, what if instead of using evangelical Christians or Jews, we framed the the statistics in terms Satanists. Would that make a difference? Would it be appropriate to not vote for someone because you find their entire worldview repugnant?
12.12.2005 7:18pm
sbw (mail) (www):
And part of the problem is polling. I don't respond to any polls. My guess is that many sensible people don't. That would skew the results towards people lacking in sense. Why don't you take a poll to see who doesn't respond to polls. ;-)
12.12.2005 7:19pm
QuietLawStudent:
One reason why a particular bias against atheists might be less troubling to some is that atheists' non-belief in God leaves them without any sort of coherent moral grounding (at least in the minds of the religious individuals who are biased against the atheists). A religious believer might well think that a person of another faith is more likely to be trustworthy, or moral, or a better leader, or whatever, because that person at least believes in some higher authority that the atheist does not recognize, an authority that will, presumably, hold the religious believer to account for his actions.
12.12.2005 7:22pm
AF:
What if you substituted "utilitarians" or "existentialists" for "atheists"? I doubt people would be disturbed if the numbers came out the same way. So the question is why atheism, which, presumably, most atheists would not claim to be any more than a secular philosophy, should be considered sacred, as it were.
12.12.2005 7:23pm
dick thompson (mail):
I think you need to read some of the other blogs if you think atheists don't claim to be atheists. On a lot of them they glory in it and do not see how anyone can be a religious believer at all.

I used to read a lot of the AOL comment sections and they were full of atheists who dissed anyone who believed in any sort of God. They took the view that if you believed in a God then you were soft in the head and really had no intelligence. If you were intelligent then of course you knew there was no such thing as a religion that was worth anything.

This is not only on the comments of the AOL or Yahoo type. A lot of the posters on Ann Althouse proclaim that they are atheists for example. You really need to look around before you make those types of statements.
12.12.2005 7:36pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Part of the problem is how atheism is marketed, both by its protagonists and skeptics. It is oftentimes used as an excuse for rejecting not just the belief in a higher power, but also, for rejecting Judeo-Christian morals. Given this, the responses are neither surprising nor shocking.


A fair point. IMO the term "atheist" is to "theist" what "Gentile" is to "Jew" - the term doesn't tell you what a person believes in, only that they aren't part of another (somewhat) definable group. However because we’re talking about religion and a person’s worldview rather than something like race or ethnicity, it leaves many people to conclude that not being part of a religious worldview makes one hostile to it per se.

A situation that isn’t helped when many of the most outspoken and readily self-identified atheists in public life tend be those that are hostile to the JC morals.
12.12.2005 7:38pm
Ken Alfano (mail):
While some quibble about the causal link between religion and politics, the indeniable fact is that there is indeed a significant correlation between the worldview implications of one's theology (which everyone has in some form) and the approach one takes to social issues. It's not an airtight link, but it's not trivial either.

Is it so wrong to care about the core worldviews of those governing us? As an Evangelical Christian, I generally perceive that certain faiths (and especially their "stricter" versions), in addition to my own of course, are substantially more likely than other faiths/beliefs to produce people with similar cultural values to mine.
12.12.2005 7:39pm
Ken Alfano (mail):
Typo: I meant to hit the "u" for undeniable. :)
12.12.2005 7:41pm
Gordon (mail):
I think there is a fundamental difference between one "mainstream" religious person disapproving of another "mainstream" religious person based upon a different set of beliefs (as with Christians and Jews) vs. a religious person disapproving of an atheist, who by definition believes in nothing theological.

As a boy scout leader I wholeheartedly approved of the Scouts' requirement that each scout believe in a "higher spiritual power." (as opposed to the Scouts' ban on gay leaders, which is wrong) What is the source of the moral boundaries that boy scouts (and all of us) should set for ourselves, if it is not from a higher spiritual power?
12.12.2005 7:48pm
Christopher M. (mail):
Of course it would be troubling if it referred to Jews, but the reason is not some generalized principle that religion is an improper factor in forming an opinion of someone (personal or political). The reason is that there's just not much to be troubled about in the actual content of Judaism. One can easily hypothesize some particular strain of Judaism with particular beliefs that would be troubling enough to justify refusing to vote for its adherents (and the same is of course true of any other religion).
12.12.2005 7:54pm
Mike Yeomans (mail):
"One reason why a particular bias against atheists might be less troubling to some is that atheists' non-belief in God leaves them without any sort of coherent moral grounding"

Related to what I said in an earlier post, most athiests (that I know) were brought up in theistic families, and the personal conversion is one that requires much moral consideration, and I think (or at least hope) that most do not reject personal morality along with god. Granted this is not always the case, but considering that we are talking about athiests who would presumeably be presidential material, bringing up militant atheists and amoralists is quite a canard.

And often someone's religious foundation has little to do with how they act in real life, or how they would act as president (compare the " it is easier for a camel...eye of a needle" passage the bank accounts of our more prominent christian politicians). At the very least, it offers an incomplete picture. So it's hard to justify this as a rational evaluation about the presumptive moral strength of a candidate.
12.12.2005 8:02pm
claritas:
I don't find anything remarkable about people of a certain religion having "unfavorable" views of people of another religion. Indeed, HAVING a religion in part means that you think people who adhere to other religions (or no religion at all) are flat wrong. And people have a right not to vote for or interact with a person you think is wrong on account of religion, just as they have a right not to vote for or interact with a person you think is wrong on account of their attitudes about race, or sex, or anything.

I believe Prof. Volokh's ire could legitimately be directed at a GOVERNMENT that said "Jews are unfavorable" or "atheists are unfavorable." But part of the point of having the Religion Clauses is to preserve the freedom religious (or non-religious) people have to think that differently religious (or non-religious) people are wrong, bad, and should not be associated with.

In short, what Prof. Volokh condemns as religious intolerance is, in my view, best characterized as a robust religious culture. A robust culture that has real benefits and whose pernicious effects are minimized by the fact that they can't be incorporated into the public sphere.
12.12.2005 8:14pm
AF:
dick thompson, I suggest you read my post again. I didn't say atheists don't claim to be atheists. I said that atheists can't claim that atheism is anything more than a secular philosophy. On what grounds can an atheist argue that he has more claim on the general public's respect than a utilitarian, an existentialist, a fatalist, a hedonist, or a Marxist?
12.12.2005 8:17pm
Master Shake:

A robust culture that has real benefits and whose pernicious effects are minimized by the fact that they can't be incorporated into the public sphere.

If only that were true.
12.12.2005 8:20pm
juris imprudent (mail):

...that most do not reject personal morality along with god.

Yeah, this seems to be the real canard - that ALL people who reject the JC concept of god reject ALL morality. That's nonsense. It is just as easy to find preachers, priests, etc. who are as immoral as selected noisome atheists. The JC-god adherents are willing to overlook some transgressions, but not others.
12.12.2005 8:23pm
Justin (mail):
I think what we have here is a semantic sting problem combined with a small minority of people whose fanatacism prevents them from seeing whats wrong with actual discrimination based on one's religion (accepting that this is not a First Amendment issue).
12.12.2005 8:31pm
fling93 (www):
I think empathy is far more important to morality than religion anyway. That and societal pressure. Even somebody stuck at Kohlberg's preconventional level will still be pretty functional.
12.12.2005 8:31pm
Tbag (mail) (www):
Yeomans makes a good point that I can relate to as an agnostic who was raised Southern Baptist. Leaving the church difficult decision to make; a decision that was one of life and death according to everything I'd learned as a child and a young adult. It's also a decision of which I am proud.

I'm not an atheist. I'm agnostic. But I'd also like to point out that question (1) in the poll applies to me with as much force as it does the most ardent and outspoken atheist. And it does expose a hostility toward a religious belief. The decision I made was profoundly religious and is something that I defend to this day and will defend going forward. The image of an agnostic as atheist-lite is wrong in many respects. For someone raised agnostic it may not seem like a religious worldview, but for someone who had to denounce a faith into which I was bred, and which condemns my choice as a big step toward damnation and eternal torment, it certainly feels that way. I think it's as profound as a conversion from Catholocism to Judaism and should be protected with as much fervor as those two "mainstream" religions.
12.12.2005 8:34pm
Josh Jasper (mail):

the most outspoken and readily self-identified atheists in public life tend be those that are hostile to the JC morals.


Which morals would those be? I mean, other than the one that requires you to belong to a church and look like you really mean it when you pray?

Killing, stealing, commiting adultery, bearing false witness, coveting, and honoring one's parents. Those are the bits of the 10 commandments I can recall that don't have to do with God, or holy days.

I can't for the life of me think of a mainstream, popular athiest who's hostile to those morals. I can think of a few who make fun of the obsession conservative theists have with things like the levitical laws. But that's about it.

But the argument you're really trying to use is that you'd like the chance to blame athiests for the negative attitudes people have about them. Which is sort of like blaming Malcom X for racists having a bad attitude about blacks.
12.12.2005 8:53pm
Dr. T (mail):
Many of the commenters seem to be missing the point. The point is that the current bias against non-religious (atheist or agnostic) persons is huge and greatly exceeds biases against persons of different religions. This is a big change from the past, when bias against other religions was as strong or stronger than bias against atheists. The current anti-atheist bias extends beyond simple dislike and extends into the political realm.

Here's a possible poll question that might be informative: A company is owned and run by an atheist. The company has a religion-neutral policy and does not favor atheists or discriminate against religious employees. Would you consider working at this company?

If the majority of Americans say yes, then perhaps the anti-atheist bias is not as bad as I suspect. My experience has been that most Americans are strongly biased against atheism. I attribute much of this to cognitive dissonance, since many religious persons subconsciously recognize the lack of basis to their beliefs. The rest is due to the continually reinforced linkage of religion to ethics. Many of the religious persons I talk with cannot believe that an atheist can be ethical and moral. That belief is why no atheist can win a major election in the U. S.
12.12.2005 8:59pm
claritas:
Dr. T, why should we care that an atheist cannot win a major election in the United States? The point of our democratic institutions, such as Congress and the President, is to reflect the will of the majority. Religious belief is not just the will of the majority: it is the will of the absolute supermajority, something like 95% by most polls. If you have a problem with this, you're simply anti-democratic. That's a legitimate political position, but you should acknowledge it.

Meanwhile, our non-democratic public institutions--such as our administrative agencies, bureaucracies, schools, police departments, and so on--cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring decisions. So any worry on your part that atheists might be banished from public life is not as strong as it might at first appear.
12.12.2005 9:07pm
Justin (mail):
Dr. T, why should we care that an atheist cannot win a major election in the United States? The point of our democratic institutions, such as Congress and the President, is to reflect the will of the majority.

Claritas, you're missing the point by assuming the conclusion. By that definition, we shouldn't be concerned (not in a legal sense, but a social one) had David Duke been elected Senator, since he was supported by a majority of Louisianans.
12.12.2005 9:10pm
claritas:
You're right, Justin, that the election of a David Duke or the election of an atheist-bashing candidate might violate your morals or my morals. But those morals are simply not relevant to the democratic part of our political system. Your or I can express our individual morals through (a) our individual vote; and (b) our powers of persuasion and getting others to vote. But if you want your morals or my morals to have a higher status, then you're not talking about a democracy anymore. You're talking about something else that may be a legitimate polity but would, as a factual matter, be different from the United States.

It's true that our Religion Clauses impose substantive limits on democratic majorities in the United States. But not even the most ardent advocates of expansion of the Free Exercise clause argue that it should be used to allow courts to review the results of democratic elections.
12.12.2005 9:29pm
Taeyoung J. (mail):

"The current anti-atheist bias extends beyond simple dislike and extends into the political realm. "

On the contrary, my guess would be that the bias is considerably stronger in the political realm than elsewhere. I mean, I don't go flaunting my atheism, but I've never felt that I'd be ostracised for it particularly, even amongst my religious (occasionally deeply, deeply religious) kinfolk.

I can't for the life of me think of a mainstream, popular athiest who's hostile to those morals.

Well, you're one better than me. I can't think of a mainstream popular atheist at all.

Yeah, this seems to be the real canard - that ALL people who reject the JC concept of god reject ALL morality.

Certainly that's true, and it always bears pointing out that the only thing atheists have in common with each other is that they don't happen to believe in god. But that said, I think it's understandable that we face an uphill struggle to win acceptance as equal moral figures. After all, an atheist morality rests on radically different foundations than a religious morality, and an atheist morality -- especially insofar as it is attained through the workings of finite human reason -- is naturally going to be suspected of being contingent on the situation of the particular atheist, in a way that transcendent religious morality is not supposed to be.

Honestly, though, I think atheists are not well served by complaining that people are prejudiced against them. They are. So? It's a little like Communists (or libertarians) complaining that people are prejudiced against them for their beliefs. The proper response is for us to realise that we have a steep hill to climb until we reach real public acceptance, and start climbing that hill -- by explaining how atheism is not incompatible with morality (whatever our various moralities may be), and arguing (always with humility -- too many atheists puff themselves up with a pointless arrogance) that widespread atheism will not lead to the deterioration of society.

Just on that last note, I mean, take this:

I attribute much of this to cognitive dissonance, since many religious persons subconsciously recognize the lack of basis to their beliefs.

Mm. Oh really? Not hel-ping!

This disrespectful attitude towards the religious -- this sense of anti-religious/anti-clerical oppositionalism -- is part of what impedes every effort to improve civil public discourse on disbelieving in God. Obviously, there's pushback from the "other side," so to speak. But to the extent atheists have any kind of class consciousness (and that is, admittedly, only a limited extent), one would think we'd realise that antagonising the 95% majority is awfully dumb.

I'm sorry, that verged on invective.

Imprudent, let's say.
12.12.2005 9:32pm
tiefel & lester student (mail):
claritas:

I'm rehashing justin's point, but...

Though this is a legal blog, I don't think EV, Justin or any of the other "pro-atheist" commentators are arguing that anti-atheist bias is illegal or should be rectified by the courts. This entire conversation is a moral/political one; what one should do, not what one is legally required to do. It is as immoral (or at the very least, foolish) for a voter to categorically eliminate atheists from the pool of candidates as Jews, blacks, etc.

Politicians make policy. We should vote for politicians who will make the policy we support. Thus, if a conservative, pro-life Christian has to decide between a pro-life, limited government atheist and a pro-choice, socialist Christian, it should not be a difficult decision. Surprisingly, the poll data suggests that it wouldn't be a difficult decision...because the voter would choose the Christian who opposed his policy preferences!
12.12.2005 9:49pm
claritas:
While I personally couldn't care less whether a politician shares my religion, it is perfectly understandable why a religious person might want to vote for a person of the same religion, for that reason and that reason alone. The argument might go like this:
(1) Leaders need to have wisdom.
(2) In my worldview, one can have wisdom if and only if one adheres to my religion. I have found my religion to give a coherent and morally acceptable account of my world, and I want my leaders to share that perspective.
(3) Therefore, I will only vote for people of my religion, regardless of their other policy preferences.

A decision to only vote for religious people, as opposed to atheists, must if anything be even more morally defensible, as it is even more inclusive.

The point is that in a world where reasonable people can differ about whether one needs to be religious to be moral, it certainly can't be immoral to base voting preferences on religious status. The moral judgment underlying such a decision is, at the very least, reasonable, even if it is not ultimately correct.
12.12.2005 9:57pm
Perseus:
Prof. Volokh asks: "If you are [troubled by such poll results], then is there any reason to be less troubled by the same results as to atheists?"

This is how President Washington (who famously welcomed Jewish congregations to America) answered the question in his Farewell Address:

Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

One may disagree with Washington's (and Hamilton's) view, but I don't think it reflects the kind of bigotry against atheists that many have against Jews.
12.12.2005 10:11pm
Mike Yeomans (mail):
"an atheist morality rests on radically different foundations than a religious morality"

Although I understand your point, in one sense this is untrue: evolutionary psychology tells us that morality stems from the underlying value in cooperation and respect that has allowed human civilization to develop, irrespective of the superficial cosmological explanations we ascribe their validity to.

Granted, this is probably the worst way to make the case to the IDers out there (and there's probably a lot of overlap), but to the extent that we can only hope to convince those anti-atheists who are open to reasoning and evidence anyways, it's a viable position.

You would think the nonexistence of maurauding packs of atheists roaming the countryside would be disproof enough - or do anti-atheists believe that atheists are only restrained by social pressure from theists? If so, then what does it matter whether someone believes in God? If not, then what do they have to worry?

To turn the tables a little: if I were ever given the choice, I would be less likely to vote for a candidate so ignorant of human nature that he believes religion is the only path to morality. I don't see why theists who do not have anti-atheist bias shouldn't also be skeptical of such a narrow view of the world.
12.12.2005 10:13pm
Mr. Jenkins (mail):
Maybe the bias has to do with the hostility that atheists exhibit toward religion in the political sphere. A desire by athiests to bar and extract religion from the cherished place it has always had in this country

(One nation under God, in God we trust, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights)

has inspired a little backlash. I am not particualrly hostile to those who hold the belief that God does not exist. The law applies equally. But when it comes to a President, a muslim, Jew, Christian, hindu could not advance thier religion with placements on the Supreme Court the way an athiest could.
12.12.2005 10:15pm
tiefel & lester student (mail):
The problem is with premise 2:

In my worldview, one can have wisdom if and only if one adheres to my religion.

Still looks like bigotry to me. Also, it's not exactly consistent with the poll findings; it's not that Americans won't consider voting for someone outside their religion, it's that Americans won't consider voting for someone who's an atheist.
12.12.2005 10:35pm
Mike Yeomans (mail):
Mr. Jenkins,

Removing "in God we trust" would not be advancing atheism any more than it would be advancing Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other non-monotheistic religion. Ingoring whether or not these efforts are appropriate or not, they may align with an atheistic cause (to whatever extent that there is one), but they are founded in secularism, which is a wholly different beast. Christians can be secularists, too, you know, and there are many more people who believe in total separation of church and state than there are atheists. Kierkegaard, a fervent protestant, believed in the separation of church and God - imagine what he'd have to say about the honesty of Roy Moore's faith!
12.12.2005 10:35pm
MarkM (mail):
The old argument against voting for Catholics in the U.S. was that once elected, they would move in lock-step with the Pope. Likewise, when Joe Lieberman ran for the Democratic Party nomination, there was a whispering campaign by some that he would reflexively support Israel no matter what or some questioned whether he would step into action if there was an emergency on a Saturday. There aren't too many Muslim politicians in the U.S. but I would not be surprised that when they become more prominent, people will begin wondering whether they will be willing to hire female or gay aides or be dedicated to fighting terrorism.
Most people rightly regard these attitudes as ridiculous. These prejudices come about when people infer too much from someone's self-identified religious beliefs about their ideology or moral beliefs. The same logic applies for atheists as well. The fact that someone does not believe in god tells you next to nothing about whether that person is an effective leader, what policies the candidate would support if elected, or whether the person is of good moral character. Nowadays, almost everything about a person's life is available for public inspection when he or she runs for office. Anything to discredit a candidate ought to be based on what that person has actually done in the past or what policies that person supports rather than whether he or she believes in god or not.
12.12.2005 10:55pm
An atheist (mail):
I find it hard to understand that people who are quite capable of distinguishing differences between Catholics and Baptists can't fathom the fact that there is no single form of atheism. The greatest difference is between atheists who assert that the existence of a god is unprovable and choose not to believe vs. those who assert that the existence of a god is disprovable. Those are two very different positions. Applying reasoning about groups to individuals and about individuals generalized to groups is not logically sound.
12.12.2005 10:59pm
Taeyoung J. (mail):

You would think the nonexistence of maurauding packs of atheists roaming the countryside would be disproof enough - or do anti-atheists believe that atheists are only restrained by social pressure from theists? If so, then what does it matter whether someone believes in God? If not, then what do they have to worry?

I don't think it's that they think social pressure is the only control (though I wouldn't discount it as a powerful force for civilisation -- on everyone, regardless of whether they are atheist or not). It's more that (and here, remember, I'm an atheist trying to imagine a theist worldview; errors are inevitable) theism, more particularly a Christian theism, has established the preliminary parameters of our society, and a Christianity-based morality is part of the fabric of society in which even atheists are raised, so that the unconscious moral impulses -- the moral impulses that aren't the product of higher ratiocination, but merely of long habit -- reflect a long and mostly Christian history.

There may not be packs of atheists roaming the countryside, but I imagine that many theists have some anxiety about the spectre of a godless world in which there are packs of bestial humans roaming the countryside. The nightmare of the godless commies of the Soviet Union, and all that. I confess it weighs on me too, somewhat.

Although I understand your point, in one sense this is untrue: evolutionary psychology tells us that morality stems from the underlying value in cooperation and respect that has allowed human civilization to develop, irrespective of the superficial cosmological explanations we ascribe their validity to.

With all respect to the evolutionary psychologists -- whose researches are quite interesting to me -- I don't think evolutionary psychology is sufficiently well established that it carries all that much weight. There's a strong whiff of post-hoc rationalisation.

More importantly, though, even supposing that morality is derived from evolutionary circumstances (something which, in fact, I do believe in a slightly modified form), such fact does not obviously translate into a universal obedience to such morality. They're two very different things. And this is the problem.

An atheist deriving his moral code from his own reason (or the reason of the evolutionary psychologists, if evolutionary psychologists are so bold as to make normative pronouncements) carries with him, as a public figure, the massive risk that his reason -- finite, limited, and fallible, like all human reason -- is going to get it wrong, even on the most basic questions. For example, why should an atheist think that the "goods" evolution has optimised for (so to speak) are really the proper goods to optimise? Why should he in particular subject himself to the morality that has helped mankind assume dominion over the Earth? What if he thinks he can do Evolution one better -- sort of like the biologists and engineers who disparage the "theory" of Intelligent Design by pointing out how crappy Mother Nature is at designing things?

Atheists have answers for this (I have a kludge of an answer myself), but they rest, ultimately, on a kind of human reason. And I think that's the big risk theists see with us (as public figures, at least). Because few of us are as smart as we like to think we are.
12.12.2005 11:00pm
Reg (mail):
I don't see any moral or ethical problem with viewing atheists as unfavorable. When I say unfavorably, I mean not on a personal level, but in the context of choosing the direction of the country and who should be given positions of authority. A thoughtful religious person has many reasons for viewing atheists unfavorably, and I'll list two.

The argument that atheists have no moral foundation is one. I think an honest student of jurisprudence would see this immediately. Modern theories of jurisprudence ultimately have no basis for what rights individuals have other than what those in authority allow or what the social history of a people suggest. Natural law theories find the basis for human rights in reason aligned with God's revealed truth. I'd certainly rather have individuals in authority that see the Western conception of human rights as an uncompromising command of God backed by right reason rather than an accident of history.

Another criticism I'll raise is that to a religious person, atheists often seem lacking in an essential part of what makes a person human. A person who believes that there is nothing other than what can be seen, experienced, and tested by science, and isn't at least agnostic as to the existence of some transcendent being, lacks the passion, the depth of feeling, the imagination, the appreciation for beauty, the hope for greater purpose, the skepticism as to the limits of human knowledge, and/or whatever quality that leads individuals to make that leap of faith Kierkegaard upheld as the pinnacle of our existence. Missing that element, ideology, fantasy, cynisism, selfishness or some other element takes an unchecked role in the persons decisionmaking process.

Now, I'd expect an atheist to view religious folks unfavorably, negatively viewing the factors I listed in favor of religious individuals.
12.12.2005 11:03pm
tiefel & lester student (mail):
Reg:

As far as atheists not having a moral foundation, it might be helpful to peruse the comments on morality and religion post from a couple weeks ago. While some of them would be unsatisfactory to a theist (biology, conditioning, enlightened selfishness), some make universal claims. And as far as American jurisprudence not reflecting a universal morality, that's because it is premised on the Constitution, not a moral or religious telos.

As for your second point, many politicians seem to be exceedingly self-serving to me, a character flaw which makes them less human.

The bigger problem isn't that religious people view an anonymous atheist from a poll "unfavorably," but that they remove him/her from consideration. It's certainly legitimate that a candidate's religious preferences play some part in judging them, but that it is a dealbreaker seems ridiculous to me.
12.12.2005 11:27pm
Mike Yeomans (mail):
"There's a strong whiff of post-hoc rationalisation."

Agreed. however, it's equally pungent in most theists' belief that religion is the basis for morality. Since we can't really experiment either hypothesis, it makes good sense to throw both out the window and agree that, whatever the origins are, an individual's actions speak to his character much more so than his beliefs. That's an existentialist point that we should all be able to agree on. Unfortunately, it's the 69% of people who impose a theistic litmus test on candidates before their actions are even considered, however exemplary they may be, that have me worried.

And Reg, morality as an "accident of history" is precisely the misconception that we athiests are so tied up about! In reality, mutual self-interest is a far stronger pressure on behaviour than future deity retribution. Is that really an "accident of history" that you're worried might get tossed out the window by an atheist president?

As for essential characters of humanity, I believe the ability to doubt, and reason, and take moral responsibility for oneself are also essential characters humanity (or at least, MY humanity), and that those who pass their moral intuitions off as coming from God deny their own responsibility for their moral code. I think "skepticism of the limits of human knowledge" is more compatible with those who do not believe in the divine authority of their belief system, no?

Ultimately, you're relying on your own faith to guide you, which is equally excluding of other religions as it is of atheism.
12.12.2005 11:37pm
Wintermute (www):
Atheists are hated because they challenge Christians' blind faith that they will have eternal life. Without this belief, created by the Pharoahs only for themselves, toyed with by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, and finally massified by Yeshua Ha Notsri, Christianity would not have many adherents, IMNSHO.
12.13.2005 12:05am
Taeyoung J. (mail):

As for essential characters of humanity, I believe the ability to doubt, and reason, and take moral responsibility for oneself are also essential characters humanity (or at least, MY humanity), and that those who pass their moral intuitions off as coming from God deny their own responsibility for their moral code. I think "skepticism of the limits of human knowledge" is more compatible with those who do not believe in the divine authority of their belief system, no?

I feel a powerful desire to agree with you here. Heck, I do, pretty much. But look at it from the perspective of my hypothetical theist, for whom there is a God-given morality, which he may glimpse, as through a glass darkly, etc. etc. There's a knowledge passed down to us in the present, in mostly distorted form, and that moral knowledge is more than merely human. From his perspective, he's not shifting moral responsibility off on someone or something else, because from his perspective, that remote moral truth is an objective fact, inscribed in the very being of the universe.

And if we're looking at the world from the perspective of the 95% who are theist (has that been confirmed in any of these threads? I haven't spent the time looking through them, I must confess -- just pulled it from someone else's post), that's what we come up against, isn't it?

an individual's actions speak to his character much more so than his beliefs.

This probably applies more for high Federal office than, say, your local school board member, but an individual's actions in his everyday life, lived in the shadow of the sword of the state, may not seem, to all people, the best predictor of his behaviour once he's the one writing the rules about where the state's terrible sword is going to be pointing next, or (still more), when he's the one with his hand ultimately on the hilt of that sword. He may be faced with extraordinary questions, in that case -- many of them questions he has not faced in his private life. Most moral issues he has to ponder will be so mundane they hardly even qualify as moral -- they'll be answered out of habit, as much as anything else. But others may be different -- who knows? And my sense is that just as people don't choose their Presidents and Senators for their routine technocratic capabilities, they probably don't choose them for their ability to get the everyday moral questions right (*ahem*) either.

On the other hand, the point about a litmus test is good. The litmus test, though, it must be remembered, represents an expressed preference, here that may or may not correspond well to revealed preference. Just thinking back on the last Presidential election, weren't polls listing Bush as losing to a "generic" alternative, and winning only once an actual, live, breathing Democrat was put up against him. And even today, I think, in general Bush looks pretty poor (in the polls! In the polls!) until he gets compared with his opposition.

I suspect that in an actual electoral contest, while the atheism would be a significant issue, it wouldn't be quite as significant as these polled expressed preferences would suggest. Actual revealed character could quite possibly predominate (or rather, revealed policy preferences). Similarly, I've a sneaking suspicion that the expressed preference with respect to, say, Blacks and Gays, probably underestimates the hurdles specific Black or Gay candidates may face in an actual electoral contest. Not by much, perhaps, but I think there's strong pressure not to seem prejudiced against African-Americans and homosexuals. Not so much for atheists.
12.13.2005 12:06am
anonymous22:
The pious comparison of hatred of atheism to hatred of atheism utterly misses the point about what it means to be Jewish. Judaism is a tribal religion which is based on belonging to the ethnic community, or marrying into the ethnic community. This is clear from the Old Testament. Judaism is not like Christianity: Christianity is not based on any particular ethnic foundation but is rather a mass-based religious creed. Judaism is a tradition that is passed down from your parents to you, and which you then pass on; it is not something you just pick up one day.

I really dislike these types of comparisons because they have this reductivist perspective of, every religion is essentially the same, every ethnic group is essentially the same, both genders are basically the same. We lose the essence of Judaism when we expect Jews to behave essentially like Christians, and atheists essentially like Christians, and Muslims essentially like Christians.
12.13.2005 12:19am
Taeyoung J. (mail):

I really dislike these types of comparisons because they have this reductivist perspective of, every religion is essentially the same, every ethnic group is essentially the same, both genders are basically the same. We lose the essence of Judaism when we expect Jews to behave essentially like Christians, and atheists essentially like Christians, and Muslims essentially like Christians.

Oh, I don't know. For me, it's more that choosing Judaism as the point of reference kind of stacks the deck, seeing as a) Judaism is closely bound to ethnicity, (as you note) and it is awfully difficult to disentangle the two, and b) there's that whole Holocaust thing like a finger on the moral scales.

Be that as it may, though, I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the generally civil tone of these comment thread. Less mutual sneering than I thought there would have been.
12.13.2005 12:32am
Penta:
Mike Yeomans:

I'm forced to agree with Reg on one point.

One reason most people have a negative opinion of atheists in terms of their suitability for office is because, well...

Atheism has no real humility about it.

Belief at least has you below God. There's a massive incentive to humility, because there is something above you no matter HOW big you are. There is a sense of...Well, awe, I guess. A sense of awe that goes with belief in most systems, that sense of "God's really, really big...And I'm really, really small..."

Agnostics aren't as handicapped as atheists here because to be agnostic is to HAVE that humility, at least to an extent. To admit that you don't know. (And are probably confused by what eveidence is out there on either side.) That tends to put you in a certain...perspective.

Meanwhile, atheists don't have that humility, at least not so much. They don't admit that there is something larger than themselves, something larger than mere humanity. The very nature of saying, definitively, that there is nothing larger than ourselves...That's not humble. That's arrogant, to a lot of people.

And if you don't have that sort of basic humility, that humility that reminds you that, in the end, you [i]are[/i] really small, you probably shouldn't hold public office. The absence of such humility is part of what creates dictators and similarly nasty types.

But we can't, really, go deep and peer into someone's thought processes, especially someone running for office. Plenty of atheists may well have the humility needed for public office...But then again, maybe not.

It becomes even more of a crapshoot than normal. In such a situation, I can understand why the majority of people are going to say "No bet. I'll go with the believer, who at least nominally has a chance in hell of having a sense of humility. It's better than the atheist, who says he does...But who, being atheist, did something rather UNhumble..."
12.13.2005 12:34am
Taeyoung J. (mail):
Oh, and a more serious point, inspired again by anonymous22:

I wonder how much of the mutual regard theists evidently hold each other in (in the abstract at least) stems from modern cross-religious oecumenicalism -- that tendency (esp. among Christians) to expect that all religions are basically like one another, even if they really aren't.

I may be veering into patronising atheist territory there, but I do wonder. There is, in America, an awful lot of ignorance about the historical realities of other religions, I find. E.g. a surprising number of people are unaware of the fact that the Buddhist temples in Japan (e.g. Enryakuji) fielded armies and terrorised the capital from time to time. I wonder if that ignorance doesn't feed a mistaken sense of fellowship among religions.

Ah well. Enough patronising for the evening.
12.13.2005 12:38am
Taeyoung J. (mail):

Atheism has no real humility about it.

I think "atheism" by itself refers to nothing more than non-belief in God. For my part, there's nothing grand or philosophic about it. It's just there I don't happen to believe in God. Being an atheist is not so much a matter of philosophical conviction or hubris or what-have-you. It's a matter of fact problem of self-knowledge -- realising that, when I get right down to it I don't believe in God.

Is that really so lacking in humility? I mean, I guess it may be. But it seems to me like a perfectly humdrum thing.
12.13.2005 12:45am
Bob (mail):
Penta

I think there is at least a rational argument that Atheism has as much humility as Christianity. Christians do not just believe that there is a higher power, they also believe that they are the chosen people of that higher power. This seems as likely to invoke arrogance as it is to invoke humility. Atheists however, do not have this idea that God has chosen them. Seeing oneself as a very small part of a large universe seems equally likely to inspire humility as the belief in a higher power.
12.13.2005 1:30am
Harpo:
The political class is, and was, full of atheists.

It's too bad they've had to maintain such tedious charades.
12.13.2005 1:44am
Mike Yeomans (mail):
Penta,

I see your argument, and I agree there is something personally humbling about acknowledging a higher power, but I can think of five ways off the top of my head that religious people can be seen as more arrogant:

1) Related to bob's point, it strikes me as arrogant that people believe the universe was designed for humans and that our creator cares about our day-to-day behaviour. The thought that someone - nay, The One - is watching our every move is a bit self-centered, no?

2) Humility only goes so far. Being humble before God in no way ensures humility in the company of men. It's an unfounded generalization. Consider this: atheism requires doubt, whereas much of religion shuns it. I could just as easily say that cosmological doubt generalizes to personal doubt, and makes an individual that much less likely to overvalue his opinions. It's hearsay, and there's a lot of factual evidence to the contrary. Likewise, your argument.

3) One could also say that insisting that one's politicians also humble themselves before a God is arrogant, even if the requirement doesn't specify one's own God. Who are you to axiomatically declare that athiests can't run the country just as well?

4) Many religions believe that man exists to do God's work. I would much rather have a politician dedicated to serving his people than serving God. Given the infinite variety of religious beliefs, doesn't it take a certain kind of arrogance to ascribe unquestioning authority to one over the other? To say that we are duty-bound to follow our faith in the face of real human need? Often religion guides us to do great things, but there are instances when the demands of God and humanity clash, otherwise this discussion would be moot. Would a politician who puts his personal faith ahead of the public good be a humble man?

5) your use of the word "admit" reeks of condescension. An athiest like myself can just as easily say you're unwilling to admit that your beliefs are a sham to cover some need for a higher power. I don't, though, because it's not a matter of denial but deep-seeded belief. Respect for the beliefs of others is what we are trying to embue when we say it is irrational to diqualify political candidates based on their opinions on the unknowable.
12.13.2005 2:23am
pgepps (www):
I think a couple things are in order, here. One, and probably stronger, for an evangelical Christian theist like myself, there is a sliding scale of "close enough" to "wish it were closer, but" to "too far off" in understanding, trust, and cooperation with other belief systems. Jewish theists are significantly closer to me than Islamic theists or Russell-type atheists, or even Huxleyan "agnostics." Thus, I'm much more likely to feel comfortable in cooperating, even politically, with a Jewish theist or even a Mormon theist than an avowed atheist.

Second, I think that since the introduction of the word "agnostic," there has been a linguistic shift, with pejoration of the word "atheist" to mean "an opponent of theists" instead of, what it used to mean, "an iconoclast, gadfly, or hard agnostic"--and the passing from the scene of "deist," now rarely used, leaves "agnostic" to cover deist, soft agnostic, and hard agnostic, while "atheist" has become mostly identified (certainly among Christians) with the earlier "infidel," a public opponent of theism, often outspoken.

So, if you asked the question with "agnostic" instead of "atheist," I think you would get more useful results and more meaningful comparison with your "atheist" results than "Jewish in religion" gives you.

Cheers,
PGE
12.13.2005 3:45am
DK:
Eugene's question is fundamentally flawed -- even if he says he means "Jewish by religion," his question is still relying on the history of anti-Semitism to make religous distinctions look bad.

There are _definitely_ cases where I would not vote for a candidate due to the candidates' religious beliefs -- and probably where all of you would, too. Voting is not like hiring people for jobs, it allows you to make considerable distinctions based on beliefs and fitness for office.

1. I would not vote for someone truly committed to Jainism or strict Quakerism (which are pacifist).
2. I would not vote for a member of either the Nation of Islam or the all-white Church of the Creator (or whatever the Aryan Nations calls their religious branch now).
3. I would note vote for a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane or of a Jihadist strain of Islam, or Aum Shirikyo, or David Koresh, or even Mel Gibson's dad.
4. I would not vote for a Jesse Ventura or Ted Turner (i.e. an atheist who openly mocks Christianity).
5. I would not vote for a believer in the militaristic divinity of the Japanese emperor, or for a Marxist or a Nazi (which are in many ways secular religions).
6. I would prefer not to vote for a creationist.
7. I would prefer not to vote for someone who doesn't believe in the existence of a transcendent/universal moral law, although I would happily accept atheists and secular humanists who do believe in universal moral law for non-God-based reasons.
12.13.2005 8:33am
Phil (mail):
It could be that many voters use religious devotion as a false target: they want to vote for those who share their moral conclusions and share their view that such conclusions are universal, or nearly so. Determining someone's religious commitments is (perhaps) easier than determining their actual views about moral theory. If I new someone well enough to be fairly certain of their real views on various moral matters, I can imagine bracketing their religion. Absent such personal familairity using religion as a false target may help voters decide. Of course, they (maybe I should say "we")may be wrong about any number of these steps and, to that extent, this may be a poor way of deciding how to vote. False tagrets do, however, appear popular in other contexts, e.g., affirmative action.
12.13.2005 9:13am
Marcus1:
Dr. T,

>My experience has been that most Americans are strongly biased against atheism. I attribute much of this to cognitive dissonance, since many religious persons subconsciously recognize the lack of basis to their beliefs. The rest is due to the continually reinforced linkage of religion to ethics.<

You hit the nail on the head right there. Many people, if not most, would deny that atheists even exist. "There are no atheists in foxholes," they like to say.

The idea that a person can rationally come to the conclusion that there is no god is itself an assault on Christianity, because it forces the Christian to question his entire worldview, including whether such individuals truly deserve eternal punishment. I don't think most people want to consider their friendly neighbor Mr. Johsnson on fire a million years from now.

Really, devout Christians MUST malign atheists. The Bible specifically states that atheists are bad, evil people who never do anything good. In that sense, voting for an atheist is basically like voting for Satan.

The last thing a Christian fundamentalist wants is to find out that atheists can be good people. Thus, they put very little thought into atheists' true nature. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of social hostility, which atheists are then forced to quietly accept, or to attempt to counter in what ways they can.
12.13.2005 9:54am
anony (mail):
This is the ultimate absurdity of the move towards non-discrimination. The general thrust of anti-discrimination is to make traditional preferences suspect.

Of course, everyone draws the line somewhere. No one would object if the question was about people who want to restore the Third Reich or raise up a Communist USA, or possibly Satanism.

But people who believe in drawing the line in their own peculiar place can use this sort of analogy (atheists vs. jews)to delegitimize a common preference and push for their own.

It was only a few years ago when those who were against discriminating against homosexuals claimed that to not discriminate is not the same as to grant homosexuality "legitimacy" or equivalent status as heterosexuality. Now one is more likely to get in trouble for strict adherence to Catholic doctrine than for espousing a radical, gay, anti-hetero agenda.

So argue for atheism if you want, but spare us please the attempt to establish a moral equivalence between atheism and any of the established world religions.

This is exactly the sort of post that reminds me that we're in the midst of a culture war. And this is exactly the sort of post that makes me as a scientist that much more sympathetic to ID (as culture) even if I have contempt for it as science.
12.13.2005 10:14am
Lapsed O. Apsostein:
Can someone explain the need to distinguish religious and cultural "Jewishness"? I was raised a Reform Jew and have no earthly idea what this means.

Do anti-Semites only hate Semitic-looking Jews? Or is Sammy Davis Jr. "worse" than an unchurched (un-synagoged?) son of an Orthodox rabbi?

Is it somehow different than adherent Catholics (religous) v. "cafeteria Catholics" (mostly cultural) v. "last name ends in a vowel" Catholics (cultural) ??
12.13.2005 10:18am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Since someone mentioned it, here is a problem I have w/ Hamburger's overall work.

The bottom line is this:

1) He rejects "Separation of Church and State" as a founding metaphor. And it's too important and central to liberal democracy to do that. He rather seems to argue against a more rigid, ACLU absolutist notion of the doctrine and does not really distinguish between the absolutist notion of separation and what separation might mean in a more general, realistic sense. But a proper understanding of the history and philosophy of not just America's Founding, but of liberal democracy in general, shows that Separation of Church and State is too important to our system to reject as a metaphor.

2) In reading the Constitution, in context, it was revolutionary for its time in the way that it took a "hands off" approach to religion (didn't empower religion in a document that was b/n explicitly enumerated powers), did not covenant with the Christian God or really mention God at all, and protected religious rights in Art. VI and the First Amendment.

3) Thus a "Separation of Church and State" of some important sort, clearly is found in the Constitution, just as a "Separation of Powers" is also clearly found in the Constitution.

4) But wait, neither the terms "Separation of Church and State" or "Separation of Powers" are found in the Constitution.

5) And, just as we clearly don't have an absolute "Separation of Powers" we also don't have an absolute "Separation of Church and State." Think about the many ways in which the Powers of government do and must cooperate together.

6) Finally, just as Separation of Powers, in the real sense that we have it, was a revolutionary enactment of liberal democracy, so too was Separation of Church and State.

Liberal democratic theory, as articulated by Hobbes, Locke and our Founders, draws a clear distinction between duties and proper roles of both the state and religion (thus separates Church and State). Militiant Islam, for instance, draws little or none. And we know what those societies are like.

Before liberal democracy, in the West, it was similar to Islam. Indeed our pre-liberal democratic colonies in America saw fit to write the text of the Bible wholesale into the civil law. And the disastrous results were Biblical codes which among other things had the death penalty on the books for openly worshipping false gods and burning witches at the stake.

Founding natural rights theory holds that all men, including atheists, polytheists, Pagans etc. have full free and equal rights of conscience, as well as "all men are created equal" etc.

This theory, properly understood, meant the end of those biblical civil codes where the Church and the State were one.

It may be true that our original founding didn't fully secure the "rights of conscience" in a constitutional sense (the First Amendment, and much of the Constitution didn't even apply to the states). But neither did it secure full rights for blacks! Slavery, something antithetical to liberal democratic theory, was preserved by the original Constitution.

But just as the liberal democratic theory spelled the eventually end of slavery, it also mandated full disestablishment of all state established Churches (the last of which took place in 1833 and w/o the need for a civil war) and some type of meaningful separation of Church and State as well. See Jefferson's VA Statute on Religious Freedom and Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, for two natural rights documents on how any government should and must treat religion.
12.13.2005 11:24am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Eugene,

As human beings we have to be allowed to have unfavorable views of somebody. That's the way we're wired.

You expressed similar surprise in a prior post over a finding that 55% of Americans considered homosexuality to be wrong.

The homosexual finding is explained by the fact that 57% of Americans belong to religiou groups that consider homosexuality wrong as a matter of doctrine.

In the case of atheists, there is probably a view that those who practice such a major deviation in one area of their life are likely to deviate in others. This causes general public concern.

Based on the non-representative sample of atheists I have known (including occaisionlly myself), I can testify that that general opinion is reasonable. Atheists tend to be strange. According to Pew's Fourth Survey of Religion &Politics, 3.2% of the population is atheist/agnostic (probably mostly agnostic). A small group and one populated with unusual people.

Granted that you [Eugene Volokh] are an exception. Your deviations take socially acceptable routes -- child prodigy -- UCLA professor. But you're reasonable, married, father of two. Also not an "outspoken" atheist.

The image of atheists is dominated by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and now Michael Newdow. Not good advertisments for that faith.
12.13.2005 11:36am
Gordon (mail):

The old argument against voting for Catholics in the U.S. was that once elected, they would move in lock-step with the Pope.


And, thanks to John Paul and Benedict, the argument has been resuscitated.

I personally will not vote for a Catholic politician who marches in lockstep with the Pope. And the Pope now demands it.
12.13.2005 11:51am
Mark F. (mail):
I believe in a higher power: gravity. Try as I might, I can't jump to the moon.

Seriously, atheism is simply lack of belief in any god or gods. And all of the people on this board are atheists with respect to Zeus at least. Is anyone upset that nobody believes in Zeus anymore?

Thsose theists who believe morality comes from God have to ask themselves ~why~ God commands them to observe a certain morality. If God exists, I should think there would be a reason for his morality , and the same reasons ought to be be convincing to atheists if the morality is correct.

Traditional Catholic morality is that God commands something because it is good. Therefore morality, like logic, does exist seperate from God. Just as God can't make a square circle, he can't make something immmoral moral. But nonbelief is considered a big sin, so the atheist is in a pickle, even if he observes all other Christian morality.

And think of this. Would you care to associate with someone who ~only~ refrained from robbing, raping, and murder because he was afraid of eternal damnation? I'd be afraid of such a person, because they would be very dangerous if they ever lost their religious faith.

Re: Jewishness. In my opinion, a "cultural" Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother (and is officially a Jew and can move to Israel), but who rejects Jewish religious beliefs. Do reform Jews accept out and out atheists as religious Jews?
12.13.2005 11:53am
Mark F. (mail):
BTW, the late murdered Mrs. O' Hair ~was~ a poor representative for atheism. Just like Pat Robertson is a poor representative for Christianity.
12.13.2005 11:56am
Marcus1:
Anony,

Actually, disliking someone for not being in a religion is much more bigoted in my view than disliking someone for being in a religion.

Although I tend to like nearly all people, including those who are religious, I could point to many legitimate reasons for not liking Christians, for instance. (A). Their religion says that I am evil and deserve to go to hell for being an atheist. (B). They say the same thing about gays, and oppose certain rights that I think gays should have. (C). They are constantly trying to have the government endorse their religious views and to impose them on me despite my vehement disagreement, and then if I object, they say that I am being annoying and pushy. The list, of course goes on and on.

This has to be better than the reasons for disliking atheists. The nastiest thing atheists say about other people is that they are stupid or wrong. The nastiest thing they do is to object to being made part of religious activities. At the same time, very very few of them object in any way at all. Nothing about "you're evil, you're going to hell." Nothing about "we're going to put you in jail for sodomy." And yet, public resentment of atheists really could not be higher.

So in a way, I think you're right -- bigotry toward atheists is really not so similar to bigotry toward a particular religion. It's much more like a general bigotry towards everyone who believes in a god of any type. I'm not sure that makes it any more defensible, however, nor is it any reason for people not to challenge either type of bigotry.
12.13.2005 1:37pm
Marcus1:
Duncan,

>As human beings we have to be allowed to have unfavorable views of somebody. That's the way we're wired.<

I think part of human progress is finding more rational things to be mad at. Feeling unfavorable towards people simply for not believing in god is completely irrational. Many good and reasonable people do not believe in god; they do not deserve society's hostility. Harboring, or defending, bigotry against these people simply for their religious skepticism does a disservice to our society, both by the harm to atheists themselves, and by the damage it does to the open exchange of ideas.

Denying that the hostility exists, as so many here have, is simply ridiculous. I dare anyone here to go out in public in a shirt emblazoned "ATHEIST" and tell me that there is no social hostility towards atheists. Or, if you prefer, wear a shirt that says "God Is Just Pretend." Then wear a shirt with John 3:16, and mark the difference in reactions.

I think we would be much better off focusing our anger at poverty or inequality or dishonest politicians. There are legitimate focuses for anger. Members of this religion or that, or even people who reject certain religious doctrines, do not fall into this category.
12.13.2005 2:09pm
CTW (mail):
DK: I was with you until no.7, which frankly seems to me unreasonable, unlike the others. could you elaborate just a bit? tnx.
12.13.2005 2:34pm
Josephus The Younger:
Fascinating, that over the course of 60 comments, many of which detect some degree of dissonance between the actual poll questions and EV's hypotheticals, no one has felt inclined to raise the question of Zionism's impact on American perceptions of "Jewishness," or how thoroughly the minor tradition of anti-atheist rhetoric was absorbed into the rubric of anti-communism (which in some extreme permutations also contained a deeply anti-Semitic component) for much of the 20th c. With all due respect to EV, I don't think he could have picked a less appropriate comparison at the present moment.

To put a fine point on it: I don't recall having heard any recent arguments that atheists were either morally responsible for the 9/11 attacks or the secret architects of the Iraq war.
12.13.2005 2:41pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

Granted that you [Eugene Volokh] are an exception. Your deviations take socially acceptable routes -- child prodigy -- UCLA professor. But you're reasonable, married, father of two. Also not an "outspoken" atheist.

The image of atheists is dominated by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and now Michael Newdow. Not good advertisments for that faith.


Michael Newdow is both an attorney and an ER doctor. He may not be as accomplished as Boy Wonder Volokh. But as a matter of accomplishment, I'd say Newdow is doing pretty well for himself. And if you've ever seen him speak, you know he can handle himself quite fine in a debate and is AT LEAST on par with what you would expect from a typical person who argues a case to in front of the Supreme Court.

Perhaps Lindgren can chime in. From the social science data that I have seen athiests tend to be better educated and underrepresented in prisons and in the commission of crimes.

This isn't to say that atheism would be better for the masses as a whole. Perhaps, as George Washington and our other founders believed, atheism and irreligiousity is more suited for certain minds of a peculiar structure, like really smart well-educated folks.
12.13.2005 3:11pm
CTW (mail):
"the only thing atheists have in common ... is that they don't happen to believe in god"
"atheists are not well served by complaining that people are prejudiced against them. ... It's a little like Communists (or libertarians) complaining ..."

given the high quality of your comments, surely you see the logical error here. as you yourself suggest, atheism isn't a multifaceted philosophy, political or otherwise. the others are. clearly, whether to vote for candidates based on overall political philosophy is rational. so is taking into account their religious posture. but excluding candidates solely because of being atheists (substitute black, hispanic, female, deeply religious,) is prejudice pure and simple. not a complaint, just an opinion.
12.13.2005 4:12pm
CTW (mail):
"This disrespectful attitude towards the religious ... is part of what impedes every effort to improve civil public discourse on disbelieving in God."

in a public forum with a wide audience, you are no doubt correct. but this format is relatively private, so standing one's ground seems perfectly acceptable even from a strategic perspective.

so let's see how things are going so far. atheists are unfit for public office, not only reject JC morals but have no moral base at all, are lacking in humility, and have only detestable spokespersons. all in all, I recognize that as just constructive criticism.

on the other side, some religious people may "recognize the lack of basis for their beliefs". ouch - now that's disrespectful. but what can you expect from one with no moral base or humility?
12.13.2005 5:05pm
CJColucci (mail):
Shorter comments: "Damn right we don't like atheists, and we're right not to."
12.13.2005 5:10pm
Nony Mouse:
(This was also posted on a later thread.)

There are two interpretations to this poll:

1) The majority of people don't personally know many proclaimed Atheists..
a) and don't trust a view point they don't understand
b) and don't trust a group they don't think they know
c) and don't like a group whose most vocal members like to call their belief system derisive names
or d) and don't see a large contribution to scociety by Atheists (Newdow is NOT known for is medical skills, Mr Rowe)

2) The majority of people think that the only reason people act morally is a higher power... either as an inspiration, a guide or an enforcer.
(And how many people do you see hit the brakes on the highway when they see a cop car? Even if they're not speeding, but because they might habitually and have to double-check their speed? Conversly, how many times do you sit through a red light, even if you could have gone, simply because you think it's the right thing to do? Even if there's not a soul in sight?)

Any thoughts/polls that might shed some light on this one?
12.13.2005 5:40pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
If the "unfavorable" attitudes in question were based on actual acquaintance with your average atheist or Jew, I wouldn't think there was anything particularly wrong with it.

Be when those attitudes are based on misleading stereotypes and credulously consumed, you've got a problem.

On the common charge that atheists are arrogant, well...
12.13.2005 8:00pm
Taeyoung J. (mail):
Re: CTW
"the only thing atheists have in common ... is that they don't happen to believe in god"
"atheists are not well served by complaining that people are prejudiced against them. ... It's a little like Communists (or libertarians) complaining ..."

given the high quality of your comments, surely you see the logical error here. as you yourself suggest, atheism isn't a multifaceted philosophy, political or otherwise. the others are.

A fair point. However, in the realm of moral theory -- which is, I think, where most theist objections to atheism are centred -- this non-belief in god would appear to have nontrivial theoretical consequences, certainly from the perspective of the theist who grounds his moral theory in his deity. This is not to say that I think theist critiques of atheism are right. I don't (though of course, I'm not entirely unbiased here -- I'm an atheist after all). It is to say, though, that theist suspicion of atheism and especially atheist moral character are not an expression of inexplicable suspicion. It's natural, particularly given the cultural and historical reference frame within whcih American atheists are atheist, and it's up to individual atheists to explain why and how a godless worldview is nevertheless compatible with transcendent morality (or why non-transcendent morality is just as good or better, for those who do not think there is any such transcendent morality).

in a public forum with a wide audience, you are no doubt correct. but this format is relatively private, so standing one's ground seems perfectly acceptable even from a strategic perspective.

so let's see how things are going so far. atheists are unfit for public office, not only reject JC morals but have no moral base at all, are lacking in humility, and have only detestable spokespersons. all in all, I recognize that as just constructive criticism.

I'm not making a pronouncement on the merits of the criticism. I think much of it is wrong, and it's certainly not constructive. But it's also not an expression of mere prejudice -- it relates back to a significant philosophical divergence, which itself traces back to atheists' not actually believing in God.

Further, with the theist criticism that veers into anti-atheist invective, certainly I would say it's wrong. But what reason could I give for them not to engage in it? I'm not one of them. I can enter into their shoes only imaginatively -- I have never had the experience of believing in a god. And they make up the majority by far of the population, so it's essentially costless to them (except to their SOULS!! - sorry).

I can respond to their criticism, I suppose, by dishing it back out. Or I can whine that it's unfair, that they're a bunch of bigots. Or I can respond by explaining why they're wrong.

Now, I've been focussing on why I'm not shocked and appalled that theists aren't chuffed at the thought of an atheist in charge, rather than doing that latter -- I wanted to (indirectly) with the earlier threads on this subject, but I was rather busy. But I think crying "bigotry," or lashing out is not a helpful or a productive response, in this case, when I really don't think the majority of theist suspicion of atheism is the product of bigotry. Some of it is -- likely a nontrivial proportion. But not most of it.

Re: DK:

I would not vote for a believer in the militaristic divinity of the Japanese emperor,

我が大日本帝国万歳! 万歳! 万歳! 君が代は千代に八千代にも~ haha.

I would find that hilarious, in an American candidate. Can you imagine the attack ads? "For this, we crushed Japan in WW2?!"
12.13.2005 8:40pm
Dr. T (mail):
Claritas: "(1) Leaders need to have wisdom.
(2) In my worldview, one can have wisdom if and only if one adheres to my religion. I have found my religion to give a coherent and morally acceptable account of my world, and I want my leaders to share that perspective.
(3) Therefore, I will only vote for people of my religion, regardless of their other policy preferences."

If you look at conclusion 3 for your hypothetical religious person, you can recognize my point. At present, U. S. citizens are more willing to vote for a candidate of almost any religion (not just their own) than for an atheist.

Nowhere in my post did I whine about the fact that an atheist cannot get elected, but I did express concern that bias against atheists is remarkably strong. Is my concern wrong? Reading some of the reader comments, I see significant overgeneralizations and misrepresentations about atheists.

1. "...atheism is oftentimes used as an excuse for rejecting not just the belief in a higher power, but also, for rejecting Judeo-Christian morals." Really? How often is this so? To what extent?

2. "I attribute much of this to cognitive dissonance, since many religious persons subconsciously recognize the lack of basis to their beliefs. --Dr. T

Mm. Oh really? Not hel-ping!

This disrespectful attitude towards the religious -- this sense of anti-religious/anti-clerical oppositionalism -- is part of what impedes every effort to improve civil public discourse on disbelieving in God." Even fellow atheists don't help. What about my statement was disrespectful or anti-religious? Based on my experiences, the statement is factual. Many religious persons harbor doubts, and those would be amplified by frequently encountering persons who disbelieve. Since worsening doubts are uncomfortable and conflict with lifelong religiousity, some religious persons tend to disparage atheism and lessen their cognitive dissonace. That's psychology, not disrespect.

3. "Atheism has no real humility about it." Huh? Because we don't believe in god we cannot be humble? Even if true, humility (especially false humility) is a vastly overrated characteristic.

4. "Maybe the bias has to do with the hostility that atheists exhibit toward religion in the political sphere. A desire by athiests to bar and extract religion from the cherished place it has always had in this country (One nation under God, in God we trust, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights) has inspired a little backlash." The unrecognized irony of this statement is almost amusing. Atheists dislike the fact that a country that supposedly supports religious freedom has a Pledge of Allegiance that states something antithetical to their beliefs (that we live under God), currency that states "In God We Trust", and courts that require swearing on The Bible and stating that we will tell the truth "so help me God." When some atheists try to get these blatantly biased practices and statements changed, it is called hostility toward religion rather than what it really is: a request for religious neutralism.

My conclusion is that atheists are the lowest class of citizens in the U. S. Hypocritical, immoral, criminal but nominally religious persons get more respect than we do. And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at some of the scum who have been elected AND reelected to office.
12.13.2005 8:48pm
Eurythypo:
The various claim made in this thread that atheists cannot support univeral moral claims are ridiculous, and clearly belief by the long history of moral philosophy, much of which consists in the development of universal moral codes which make no reference to a personal (or any) god. Similarly, the idea that the only possible approaches to morality lie at the extremes, i.e., either in God's transcendental commands or in the contingent facts of evolutionary psychology or social conventions, is likewise naive and silly, given the many alternatives present in the philosophical traditions of the world.

Whatever philosophical problems these approaches have, there is not any reason to suppose that theistic/divine command accounts of ethics do not face as or more serious problems. Plato identified one 2500 years ago- is right action good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the former, God's command seems arbitrary- but why would an all knowing and omnibenevolent God make arbitrary commands? If the latter, then God's command does not seem to explain morality all, since what is right is good regardless of God's command.
12.13.2005 9:18pm
Taeyoung J. (mail):

Even fellow atheists don't help. What about my statement was disrespectful or anti-religious? Based on my experiences, the statement is factual. Many religious persons harbor doubts, and those would be amplified by frequently encountering persons who disbelieve. Since worsening doubts are uncomfortable and conflict with lifelong religiousity, some religious persons tend to disparage atheism and lessen their cognitive dissonace. That's psychology, not disrespect.

It sounds a bit ad hominem-ey to me. Or rather, it falls in with a class of argument that I've always grouped (perhaps erroneously) with ad hominem. False-consciousness, theories of repression, etc. They all undermine the Other's argument by suggesting external reasons for it, reasons that don't treat the substance that argument (or here, just "that objection") seriously. Cries of racism or bigotry are, in their way, just a more extreme form of this (and mind, I'm not equating your comments with crying "racism"--it's more on the "false consciousness" level), and I think they ought to be a kind of last resort, in discussions with our fellows.

The common thread binding all that together is that they're antagonistic and basically unrebuttable, like if someone's contribution to the discussion were "Atheists are atheists because they want to be free of morality, and play at being a Nietszchean Superman!" In fact, haven't we seen roughly that contribution? Or perhaps, "Atheists are atheists because they're absurdly arrogant and narcissistic, and think their own reason is sufficient to foreclose the existence or relevance of God." All these conclusions could easily be drawn from personal experience of atheists. Heck, I could draw them, from my personal experience. But they're just antagonistic. They're not useful contributions.
12.13.2005 9:18pm
Marcus1:
Taeyoung,

>All these conclusions could easily be drawn from personal experience of atheists. Heck, I could draw them, from my personal experience. But they're just antagonistic. They're not useful contributions.<

I think they're useful, if they represent what people really think. Then the other side can attempt to rebut them. For isntance, I like it when people accuse atheists of being arrogant, so I can point out how silly that idea is.

Motive is important, even if it's impossible to get inside someone's mind. Especially with religion, the arguments that people offer tend to be extremely mutable, so that no matter how many you knock down, they just come up with another one. That's why it's sometimes useful to offer theories on what may be behind it all.
12.14.2005 1:00pm
DK:
To CTW:

Re: #7, what I meant was that I would not want to vote for a nihilist, a moral relativist, or even a results-utilitarian. I agree with Eurythypo above that many atheists believe in some kind of ethical order or moral law for non-religious reasons, and I would be willing to vote for an atheist who is also a rule-utilitarian, a Rawlsian, a Nozick-like libertarian, or a subscriber to some other philosophical school with a rational argument for ethics.
12.14.2005 4:22pm
Karl:
On the topic of morality as it relates to religion:

Some posters have suggested (as devil's advocates or otherwise) that atheists have no morality because they don't have a god. SImilarly, it was said that even if athists are capable of having morals, it is up to them to prove that they have said morals.

On the first point, the notion that all morals come from a god is absurd. Is the reason that most christians do not murder each other because their religion tells them not to, or is it that a combination of societal factors (including their religion), their sense of empathy towards fellow man, and a perhaps an idea that murdering random people is perhaps impractical in a functional society? I would sincerely hope that in most cases it is the latter. As for atheists, a vast majority have a system of morals similarly based around the latter factors listed above.

In other words, who would you trust more? Someone who knows that it is wrong to murder because of his sense of empathy, or simply because he fears punishment (from either an earthly or unearthly authority)? I think the answer is clear.

If you still are not convinced, consider the fact that many, many christians act in ways that are contrary to their religion's rules. For example, a vast majority of american catholics don't consider contraception immoral, even though their church says they should. Clearly they are not simply following the morals of their church, but are obtaining their own set of morals through some other process.

Now, if you agree that most people do not base their system of morals solely on their religion, you can see why it makes no sense for atheists to have to justify their morality. The odds are that an atheist's moral code stems from the same sources as anyone else's.

To me, it makes the most sense to guess that any person you meet, regardless of his religion, has a system of morals that are roughly similar to those of his society until you see reasons to believe otherwise. Jumping to negative conclusions does a disservice to everyone involved.
12.14.2005 5:22pm
CTW (mail):
analogous to democrats who reputedly can't agree on a unified stance vs republicans who (until recently) have been superb at "staying on message", we now have a sub-thread comprising atheists arguing among themselves. how will we ever get elected?

taeyoung:

as I tried to indicate, we are essentially in agreement that mindless vituperation is neither effective nor mature. however, we apparently disagree on where the line is between stating the facts as one sees them and vituperation. I agree with Dr. T that his statement was well on the OK side of that line.

in general, there is always a problem when an adversary's opinion is based on ignorance due to the unfortunate tendency to equate ignorance with stupidity with the consequence that even though we're all ignorant on most subjects, pointing that out on a specific topic isn't considered polite. one-on-one, following your suggestion and patiently explaining why the adversary's position is incorrect makes sense. but in assessing poll results, one is engaged not in polemics but analysis. and if the results suggest ignorance on the part of the respondents (and I infer that you agree this to be the case here, notwithstanding that the ignorance is understandable), then what choice is there other than saying so? or how would you describe respondents to a recent poll who don't know how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun or even that it does? misled by their "cultural and historical reference frame"? I think "ignorant" is quite accurate, but without the judgmental overtones usually attached to the word.
12.14.2005 6:52pm
Karl:
CTW:

A key distinction between ignorance of the Earth's tendency to orbit the Sun and that atheists tend to be otherwise perfectly normal people is that one is harmful (discriminatory, anyway) to a significant segment of the population, whereas another is relatively harmless in and of itself.

Just as ignorance isn't justification for a crime, it shouldn't be a justification for a vice such as bigotry. I would prefer if people knew better than to prejudge others like this, but perhaps I am asking too much.
12.14.2005 8:53pm
Karl:
On humility:

As with morality, I've seen it suggested that since atheists don't recognize a higher power, they are inherently incapable of humility.

Let me first say that it is perfectly easy to make similar blanket statements about many groups. For example, I could say that "Christians are not humble because they believe that God created the universe just for them and that they should have dominion over it." Of course, this is nonsense. A Christian, like any other person, can be proud or humble. I have observed both plenty of times. As with just about any other personal trait, things labels like this shouldn't be blindly attached to a group, but to individuals in whom such traits have been observed.

There are plenty of ways to counter the specific argument against the existence of a humble heathen. For example, one might be humbled by the achievements of his peers or personal heroes. Alternatively, knowledge of the vast size of the universe might make one feel that he does not have a significant role to play. Regardless of whether someone believes in a greater power, he should be perfectly capable of understanding that he is a human, and is subject to the inherent limitations of humans, namely that we are not all-powerful or all-knowing, and that we make mistakes frequently.
12.14.2005 9:09pm
CTW (mail):
"ignorance ... shouldn't be a justification for a vice such as bigotry."

in the previous thread in this series, I combined definitions from webster to come up with:

bigotry - obstinate devotion to adverse opinions based on ignorance

so if one accepts webster, ignorance is a defining component.
as noted in an earlier comment, I try to avoid judgmental overtones when using "ignorant" so that it's just a descriptor. but the addition of "obstinate devotion to adverse opinions" converts ignorance into bigotry. openminded skepticism ala taeyoung's hypothesized rational believer is fine: "hey, I have concerns about your lack of belief in transcendental morality. reassure me." obstinate attachment to ignorance isn't: "I don't really know what your values are or what their based on, so I'll assume the worst but not bother to ask".

with only a couple of exeptions, DK's list of candidates whom he wouldn't support exemplifies this distinction. in each case, the candidate is a member of a group that has a sufficiently well-defined world view to strongly suggest how the candidate would address a variety of important issues. by contrast, the only issue on which a candidate's position might be confidently surmised based on his/her atheism is church-state separation, on which there is plenty of controversy even among the faithful.
12.15.2005 11:10am
Karl:
I agree that ignorance contributes to bigotry, as webster says. I was merely stating that it in and of itself is no excuse to be bigoted.

I think it would be perfectly reasonable for people to vote against an atheist candidate if they disagree with his policy (for example, if he supports a strong separation of church and state), or if his moral character can be called into question based on his actions.

What I can't accept is people jumping to irrational conclusions to an extent that they would categorically oppose any would-be leader based on his religion (or lack thereof). To vote on such a superficial premise is to do a disservice to one's self and one's country, not to mention any otherwise qualified atheist candidates.
12.15.2005 11:38am
CTW (mail):
karl - I was just elaborating on your theme, not disagreeing. we're in accord on almost every issue you've addressed.

cheers.
12.15.2005 11:58am