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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 3, 2006 at 8:05pm] Trackbacks
Hostility to Atheism II - Are Atheists Themselves Responsible for the Prejudice Against Them?:

In my previous post on hostility to atheism, I did not address the causes of anti-atheist prejudice. Here, I consider the common claim that the hostility is really the fault of atheists themselves.

I. Atheist "Attacks" on Religion.

Backlash against "atheist attacks on religion is perhaps the most common explanation for hostility to atheists offered by many social conservatives. They claim that public hostility to atheists is the product of such atheist actions against religion as lawsuits against religious displays on public property and the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The first major problem with this theory is that widespread hostility to atheism long predates these types of lawsuits. Indeed, surveys show that the public has actually gotten somewhat less hostile to atheists in recent years, even as these types of lawsuits have become more common (see,e.g., here).

A second shortcoming of the argument is that the lawsuits in question are mostly generated not by atheists but by organizations such as the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, both of which are predominantly run by liberal religious believers (the latter is actually headed by Barry Lynn, a Protestant minister). True, many conservative pundits portray these groups as "atheist" and no doubt much of the public believes them. However, the deliberately inaccurate portrayal of these organizations is itself driven by a political calculation to the effect that portraying an adversary as atheist is likely to arouse public hostility against it. Social conservatives would get far less traction by trumpeting a liberal Protestant or Jewish "War on Christmas" than they do by pinning it all on the atheists.

Much more fundamentally, however, there is an anti-atheist double standard built into the claim that these lawsuits are "attacks on religion" in the first place. Whatever their legal merits (in my view some are defensible, while others are not), the cases in question target not religion, but merely government endorsement thereof.

Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. How would religious believers react if local governments routinely displayed atheist parapharnelia on public property, if our coins had inscriptions proclaiming "In Atheism we Trust," and if every Congressional session began with a paean to atheism by a "secular humanist" leader? Surely, believers would not take this lying down. They would use every legal and political lever they could to put an end to it. And they would be right to do so! Atheists cannot be accused of "attacking" religion merely because some of us try to curtail governmental behavior that believers would never tolerate if the same thing was done to them. But if atheists are nonetheless hated by many for doing so, that is more a consequence of anti-atheist bias than a cause.

This is not to deny that there are some atheists who make unjustified or even bigoted criticisms of religion. However, such people are no more common in the atheist community than are religious leaders who make equally or more bigoted statements about atheism. And the latter often have considerably higher public profiles than the former. I highly doubt that very many religious believers have ever so much as seen an atheist spokesman on TV (I don't think I ever have myself!). By contrast, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others appear in the media all the time and what they have to say about atheists is far from complimentary.

II. Communism.

There is no doubt that Communist regimes were atheistic and that they committed horrendous crimes. However, it is difficult to show that reaction to communism accounts for any significant part of the hostility to atheism observed in the US today. As in the case of the ACLU lawsuits, hostility to atheists long predated the rise of communism and has outlasted its fall. Moreover, surveys show that hostility to atheists in the US actually declined somewhat during the years of the Cold War.

Finally, many religious regimes have also been severely oppressive, in some cases almost as much so as communist governments were. Some religious groups, such as the "liberation theologians" actually endorsed communism itself. Yet few claim that liberation theology, the Taliban, Iran, and the Inquisition prove that all religion is by nature oppressive, and those who do are rejected by the vast majority of Americans. Mainstream public opinion readily recognizes that these regimes do not represent religion in general but only a subset thereof. Similarly, communism is just one of many political ideologies compatible with denial of the existence of God. Indeed, atheism is not intrinsically connected to any particular views on moral and political issues other than, perhaps, the separation of church and state.

The double standard in judging oppressive religious regimes as compared to oppressive atheistic ones is - like that regarding atheist "attacks" on religion - is more likely to be a consequence of anti-atheist prejudice than a cause.

NOTE: Some cite Nazi Germany as an atheistic regime (and therefore a possible cause of hostility to atheists). But although Hitler did show contempt for Christianity, he also repeatedly reiterated his belief in God and claimed to be doing His work. The Nazis were anti-Christian and certainly anti-Semitic, but they were not atheists.

UPDATE: A slight variation on the argument that the Establishment Clause cases caused hostility to atheists is the claim that the anger is due to the fact that atheists are supposedly using judicial power to overrule the will of the majority. However, this claim ignores the fact that nearly all the major Establishment and Free Exercise Clause cases were brought not by atheist litigants but by liberal Protestants, Jews, or members of small Christian denominations such as the Amish and the Jehovah's Witnesses. This was true of the school prayer cases, most of the display cases, and others. Moreover, conservative Christians have been no slouches in the field of using religion clause litigation to overturn the policies of elected officials. For example, conservative Christian litigants brought the recent Good News Club (conservative Christian student seeking to overturn a ban on religious meetings on school property), and Locke v. Davey (Christian student studying to be a minister seeking to force the state to let him be eligible for a scholarship competition) Supreme Court cases. I happen to think that the conservative Christian litigants were right both times. But if believers can use judicial review to their advantage without attracting hostility, the same should go for atheists.

Hank:
There is no doubt that Communist regimes were atheistic.


That is true is one views the concept of religion narrowly to mean belief in a supernatural being. But, psychologically speaking, communism may be viewed as a religion. As
4.3.2006 9:28pm
Hank:

There is no doubt that Communist regimes were atheistic.



That is true is one views the concept of religion narrowly to mean belief in a supernatural being. But, psychologically speaking, communism may be viewed as a religion. As Eric Hoffer observed in The True Believer, people who are looking for an escape from themselves -- for something outside themselves to live for -- may find it in religion, drugs, or political systems such as communism. And they frequently switch from one of these means of escape to another.
4.3.2006 9:32pm
Taeyoung J. (mail):

Mainstream public opinion readily recognizes that these regimes do not represent religion in general but only a subset thereof.

Mainstream public opinion, perhaps, but with Islam, at least, I think a significant minority of public opinion think the Taliban, Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, et al. represent the true face of Islam, and hold according opinions of Muslims as a whole.

With Muslims and with Catholics (re: the Inquisition), also, there are many public opportunities to witness that Catholics, for example, no longer endorse burning witches at the stake, and that not all Muslims endorse blowing oneself up in pizzerias to kill Jews. Both Muslims and Catholics are publically associated with charities and other highly positive endeavours, which people (mainline Protestants) notice, and which makes them, I think, more comfortable with them.

This is only helped by, a certain amount of ignorance about other religions, which allows the average casual believer in the US to fill in the blanks in his knowledge of other religions by guessing that they're pretty much like his own. (Sorry if that sounds condescending and bigoted, but frankly, the majority of believers in this country are not exactly fanatical about the question of religion).

Atheists, seeing as we have no organised church, and have no organisations which can pretend to authority to speak for us as a collective group, don't have the charities. We also don't get the benefit of being a "religion" where the casual believer can fill in the blanks with an ecumenical analogue of his own structure of belief. Instead, there's a gaping hole in the atheist worldview, where no god is.

I think one interesting question would be (if we had the data--actually, have we?) what opinions people held of atheists, pagans, heathens, and infidels (that last being, in my limited understanding Jews, Muslims, and people from Christian sects other than your own) back in 1900, or in 1850. Jews, I think, would come out reasonably well, but I suspect the others (pagans, heathens, Muslims) would be down in the range where atheists are.
4.3.2006 9:34pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I daresay the Communists were despised for being atheistic, rather than vice-versa. "Godless Commies!"
4.3.2006 9:34pm
jonathan riley:
hank,

are you hank from "kiss jehovah's hank's ass"?
4.3.2006 9:38pm
Taeyoung (mail):

Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. How would religious believers react if local governments routinely displayed atheist parapharnelia on public property, if our coins had inscriptions proclaiming "In Atheism we Trust," and if every Congressional session began with a paean to atheism by a "secular humanist" leader? Surely, believers would not take this lying down. They would use every legal and political lever they could to put an end to it. And they would be right to do so!

And I daresay they would, in the main, see it as striking a blow for God and Country! That is, as "anti-atheist," just as they see parallel "atheistic" efforts as anti-religious.
4.3.2006 9:39pm
plunge (mail):
Hitler may have developed some pretty bizarre beliefs over time (he eventually saw himself as a sort of white-power prophet/savior, and certainly many of his circle were not orthodox Christians, and grew to see Christianity as an enemy to their power.

But it's simply undeniable that the German people as a whole, and Hitler's appeals to them were based on, and especially effective because of, Christian themes. Martin Luther's "On Jews and their Lies" was a formative document for Hitler anti-Semetism, and a source test for Mein Kampf. Hitler's speeches were peppered with as many Christian themes as many politicians today.

Which is not to say that Hitler was Christianity's fault. But let's not paper over the history either. Modern Christianity is especially laudable precisely BECAUSE it finally overcame in large part its millenia long anti-Semetism and drive for, and association with, political power.

As for blaming athiesm for communists? Well that makes even less sense than blaming Christianity. At least Christianity is some definably ethos. Atheism is simply a negatively defined category, whose members need not have a single thing in common other than they lack one particular thing.
4.3.2006 9:43pm
Traveler:
I cannot agree with the statement that "Much more fundamentally, however, there is an anti-atheist double standard built into the claim that these lawsuits are 'attacks on religion' in the first place."

In a democratic society, there is a special concern invoked when a group seeks to invoke the judiciary to create constitutional prohibitions on governance by the majority. This is particularly true when these efforts overturn longstanding assumptions about the scope of self-government and/or affect issues that people believe are at the moral core of society.

Thus, "if the shoe were on the other foot," and a religious minority sought to invoke the courts to overturn 200+ years of popularly-supported atheism around which the institutions of government and people's conception of our society were built, I would expect to see similar hostility.

Indeed, to the extent that some of the hostility towards atheists exists because of their support for anti-religious (or strict-separationist, if you prefer) lawsuits, this hostility merely mirrors a similar hostility towards those who have permanently enshrined abortion policy, expansive protections for criminals/prisoners/terrorists, and (at least in Massachusetts) a novel definition of marriage into the Constitution.

The poll results used to demonstrate hostility towards atheists do not reflect hostility that is as widespread towards the groups I've just described simply because their goals are more widely supported, even if still by a minority.
4.3.2006 9:43pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Hank, thanks for pointing that out - I couldnt agree more. The distinctions we draw between religion and atheism improperly turn whether particular beliefs are held. Communists, especially during the heyday of hte cult of personality, were in every sense religious devotees. Same can be said for many ostensibly atheist left-wing hardliners, whose beliefs border on religious. (We dont need to characterize hardcore right wingers as also religious, because they are religious on their own terms).
4.3.2006 9:45pm
Hank:
Mike BUSLO7: As for atheists whose belief border on religious, I would divide atheists into two types. The religious type asserts that there is no god; he, in effect, has faith that there is no god, and forgets that one cannot prove a negative. The rational type (which I believe constitutes most atheists) does not believe in the existence of anything on the basis of faith and in the absence of empirical evidence. But he does not rule out the possibility that god (or Santa Claus or unicorns) exists, as he is open to the possibility of being presented with empirical evidence. (Just what that could consist of in the case of god is another matter.)
4.3.2006 9:54pm
Perseus:
I think that it is too simplistic to say that Hitler's Nazis were not atheistic given the great influence of post-modernism (which turns man into God) on Nazism. Triumph of the Will is perhaps the best example of Hitler casting himself as a messiah-like Ubermensch.
4.3.2006 10:01pm
plunge (mail):
This is like the fourth time I've had to say this.

The statement "you cannot prove a negative" is a negative. Hence, it's self-contradicting nonsense. And, also, wrong, as even a 101 class in logic would mak obvious.

Furthermore, you cannot legitimately label strong atheists as having faith, because they do not claim to come by their objection to theism by faith: they claim to do it because of _deductive_ arguments (which CAN prove negatives). These arguments may be right, they may be wrong, but the worst they can be is mistaken, not faithful.

The distinctions you are describing are often referred to as "strong" vs. "weak" atheism. Weak atheism is not actually even a belief per se, but rather a category of exclusion rather than an description of characteristics.
4.3.2006 10:05pm
Supermike (mail) (www):
It could be that religious people feel that religious non-coreligionists feel the same way they feel about adherents to other religions as they do: "How sad he's misinformed"; while religious people may generally suspect that atheists see them as easily led suckers. Atheists don't go very far out of their way to prevent the formation this impression.
Alternatively,
Is it possible that athesim is a marker for a bunch of undesirable personality traits? Have you seen opinionjournal.com's "Atheist Jerk Watch"?
4.3.2006 10:06pm
ray_g:
Perseus: I don't consider that behavior atheistic, I consider it the use of religion to sway/control the masses, which was going on long before the Nazis came around.
4.3.2006 10:08pm
RainerK:
Considering that the Romans viewed Christians as atheists, I am inclined to think that prejudice towards atheists in American society is mostly a reflection of tradition taught to the majority of people from early age and the majority sets the tone. The ACLU's lawsuits are merely one kind of anecdotal reinforcement when people's prejudices are challenged and they need reassurance.
I have experienced, purely anecdotally of course, that people are slowly getting more enlightened and tolerant. The civil rights movement and gay people have broken a path fighting prejudice.
4.3.2006 10:08pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
plunge, people here usually try to not be assholes. You should read the "Important Note to Helpful Readers."
4.3.2006 10:10pm
CEB:
Most attacks on atheism that I've read seem to zero in on the communism angle. However, I think that's just a rhetorical tactic than a cause. It usually comes up (in comment thread flamewars, anyway) only after some atheist brings up the atrocities of the crusades, inquisitions, with hunts, terrorist attacks, etc.
As to the real cause, as I see it: Distrust, suspicion, and hatred of those with different religious beliefs has been a fundamental characteristic of humanity for millenia. With the world growing smaller and people of different religions having more contact with each other and having to cooperate, it is difficult to sustain that prejudice. It is slowly going away, and prejudice against atheism is a vestige of that.
4.3.2006 10:12pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I think that it is too simplistic to say that Hitler's Nazis were not atheistic given the great influence of post-modernism (which turns man into God) on Nazism.

Perseus, where do you find this stuff? Pooh.

What on earth does "post-modernism" mean in that sentence? Would you care to give 3 examples of "post-modernism's" influence on Nazism?
4.3.2006 10:13pm
Hank:
plunge: Would you go along if, instead of "you cannot prove a negative," I said what I actually meant, which is that you cannot prove the non-existence of a particular being? And, call if a category of exclusion if you wish, but I believe that there is no god, which is not to say that I assert the non-existence of god. I am using "believe" in a common way, as when someone says, "I believe that she is not in the office today," and says it because he has seen no sign of her, but cannot be sure that she's not in the office but wearing a disguise, for example.
4.3.2006 10:15pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
CEB, I hope you are right that religious prejudice as a world-wide phenomenon is receding. I wonder where that leaves Islam, (and I don't mean that Muslims are victims).
4.3.2006 10:15pm
therut:
For the majority of Amercians the idea of being an athiest is just seen as unimaginable. Athiests are a very small minority. But they want to rule like the majority. As much as I hate to say it the mainstream liberal churches are dying and have been for at least a 100 years. Their theology is incoherent to most as most people can read the Bible and when they do they know that what the mainstream churches teach is getting to be very close and is in some cases not even Christianty. They can not tell people what they read with their eyes is a lie. The idea that one can make Christiantly into strickley a left wing political ideology is blantely silly and gets more so as time goes on. Social Gospel is just socialism and has nothing to do with Christianty. Christianty is not a economic or political theory or system. Gods Kingdom is not some left wing worldly utopia that will come about with the good works of socialists or any human kind. Plus the left wing Christians do not believe in separation of church and state. They believe that it is the State that should do Gods work and feed the poor etc. They think God wants Christians to force people with the power of the State to do charity. They LIE.
4.3.2006 10:18pm
CEB:
Hank-
You seem to conflate belief with absence of proof, with faith. I think they should be kept distinct. I have no proof that there is not a UFO buried in my back yard, but I believe that no UFO exists there. My belief is reasonable, even in the absence of proof. It's misleading to claim that that's "faith," however.
4.3.2006 10:22pm
Hank:
CEB: I agree completely. I was distinguishing belief based on the absence of proof from faith, not conflating them.
4.3.2006 10:25pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Yeah, the way I read Hank was that faith is a belief not dependent on proof/not affected by lack thereof.
4.3.2006 10:27pm
Supermike (mail) (www):
CEB,
I'm inclined to think that more people thought the communists were bad because they were athiests than thought that atheists are bad because communists were also atheist.
I think that the numbers the poster mentioned actually suggest that the dislike of atheists isn't waning; perhaps if one stops to think that atheists in general are (at least thought of as) a special class of apostate, and then again to recognize that people are almost always harder on apostates than they are on people that simply don't agree with them, it starts to make sense why atheists are so poorly regarded in the polls.
4.3.2006 10:28pm
plunge (mail):
Okay, I've been too harsh. But come on. The claim _contradicts itself_. That's just too silly not to rag on. You have to give me that, as a nitpicking pendant, it's the sort of thing I can get upset about too easily. So, sorry, I was over the top.

"Would you go along if, instead of "you cannot prove a negative," I said what I actually meant, which is that you cannot prove the non-existence of a particular being?"

While not as ironically self-contradictory, that statement is still a stretch. In practice, you are unlikely to ever be able to inductively establish the universal non-existance of something. But that doesn't mean that its impossible, (depending on what that something is defined as), and it doesn't cover deductive disproofs either.

"And, call if a category of exclusion if you wish, but I believe that there is no god, which is not to say that I assert the non-existence of god."

Right. The key thing to recognize in this case is that what you are doing is describing your lack of something (a particular belief), which is a very different sort of statement than actually stating A belief. The claim that I lack belief is simply a description of my mental state: it's a fact that's pretty much unarguable, because I'm the only judge of what my mental state is. The claim that there is no god is a claim about external existence: it's an entirely different class of claim. So you are quite right to make a distinction. It's a huge one.
4.3.2006 10:28pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I'm inclined to think that more people thought the communists were bad because they were athiests than thought that atheists are bad because communists were also atheist.

Which I had said upthread, but then, there's also a vicious circle. Excoriating Communists for their atheism makes other atheists seem more obnoxious. It's not logical, but then, we're not talking about logic here.
4.3.2006 10:35pm
Hank:

In practice, you are unlikely to ever be able to inductively establish the universal non-existance of something. But that doesn't mean that its impossible, (depending on what that something is defined as), and it doesn't cover deductive disproofs either.


Let's define "that something" as god, and let's define "god" the way that mainstream religions generally do. Now, please tell us whether you can inductively or deductively prove that god does not exist.
4.3.2006 10:36pm
Perseus:
I believe that I cited the best example of the influence of postmodernism on Nazism, namely, Triumph of the Will, which was a play on Nietzsche's Will to Power (Nietzsche being the father or grandfather of post-modernism).
4.3.2006 10:38pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
I'm not sure if I'm in a minority in this regard, having lived under Communism and all, but I hate (yes, hate) Communists because they are Communists, regardless of whom they deify, or fail to deify.

Most of my fellow Russkie immigrants, despite Jewish roots are in reality atheist/agnostic. They largely share the view that Communists suck for their politics and their politics reflect in no way on atheism.

Sure, we all remember "Religion is opium for the people," but we all realize that communism merely substituted another sort of opium, to borrow the heavy-handed metaphor.

Atheists on the other hand, come in all sorts of political stripes, ranging from hardcore liberals, to avowed libertarians. It seems silly to lump them all together in political terms, based on an artificial connection to communism.
4.3.2006 10:39pm
Hank:
A small point, but I do not believe that the term "postmodernism" existed prior to considerably after World War II -- my guess is the 1970s at the earliest.
4.3.2006 10:40pm
Perseus:
There was also, of course, the Nazis in-house postmodern philosopher (so to speak): Heidegger.
4.3.2006 10:44pm
Shangui (mail):
given the great influence of post-modernism (which turns man into God) on Nazism.

(Nietzsche being the father or grandfather of post-modernism)


Sorry, but that's just and absurd anachronism. Should we blame the Neo-Cons for Marx because Marx's ideas on history are ultimately based on Hegel and so are those of the Neo-Cons? Nice try.
4.3.2006 10:46pm
Perseus:
I don't deny that the term postmodernism was not in use that early. I use it as a handy term to identify Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others in the nihilist camp (loosely speaking). So if nihilism is less anachronistic, then I'll use that term.
4.3.2006 10:52pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
I think one of the reason many people dislike atheists is from personal experience with a certain highly vocal subset of atheists that tend to treate religious believers in an incredibly condescending and contemptuous matter. They go beyond just not believe in God, they think the non-existance of God is so obviously self-evident that anyone who thinks otherwise must suffer from some kind of retardation or mental disorder and will quite happily tell them this right to their face.

There are no doubt Christians, Jews, etc. that act this way too. The difference is, though, that these groups are much more common, so that someone is likely to have met many Christians in their life and thus realize that this is not typical behavior. On the other hand, people who identify as atheists are pretty rare, so that one bad experience may be taken to be typical of the entire group.
4.3.2006 10:57pm
Perseus:
Speaking of absurdities, the most important influence on "Neo-Cons" is Hegel (or Marx)? Only a handful of Neo-Cons (such as Fukuyama) take historicism seriously.
4.3.2006 10:57pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I believe that I cited the best example of the influence of postmodernism on Nazism, namely, Triumph of the Will, which was a play on Nietzsche's Will to Power (Nietzsche being the father or grandfather of post-modernism).

Again, pooh. Both titles have "will" in them; Nietzsche's "influence" on Hitler, as someone said, never went past the titles of his books; indeed, N's philosophy would have been abhorrent to the Nazis, had any of them read it. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of N. wouldn't repeat such a tired canard. Let alone calling that the "best example"--a movie title??? Sheesh.

Postmodernism, to the extent that term means anything, is skeptical, antifoundational, and pluralist, any of which was enough to win a ticket to Dachau. The world would have been in better shape had the Nazis not trusted and practiced their beliefs so robustly.

For that matter, "man become god" is a description of *any* atheistic philosophy, from a Christian point of view anyway. So it's not a terribly descriptive description.
4.3.2006 10:59pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):

Postmodernism, to the extent that term means anything, is skeptical, antifoundational, and pluralist, any of which was enough to win a ticket to Dachau.

Ka-Zing!! (Sorry)
4.3.2006 11:02pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I use it as a handy term to identify Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others in the nihilist camp (loosely speaking).

It just gets worse. Nihilism was Nietzsche's #1 enemy--what to do about the collapse of values in a post-theist world? Because as he wrote, "man will sooner will nothingness than not will . . ." The *creation* of values, not the nihilistic *abolition* of values, was N.'s would-be project.

Heidegger is a much better candidate for a Nazi than Nietzsche, but again, the Nazis made no use of Heidegger (quite the opposite). Nor was Heidegger a nihilist, unless you mean "person who fails to share Perseus's values."
4.3.2006 11:05pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
(Have I mentioned before my wish that the VC would use some more prominent color for hypertext?)
4.3.2006 11:08pm
Shangui (mail):
Let me just say, go Anderson! It's nice to seem unfounded (and bizarre) assertions taken down by facts and reason. Thanks!
4.3.2006 11:15pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
As long as we've turned this into "embarass Perseus" night, here are my $.02:

"Historicism" is the practice of understanding events through their own historical context, not as Perseus implies, through tracing their historical roots. But hey, a big word is a big word.
4.3.2006 11:19pm
Perseus:
The point is that the core philosophy of Nazism and nihilism coincide in that both maintain that it is the human will that determines all value.

As for postmodernism, its "pluralism" cannot be justified, which is why Heidegger was more authentic than his epigones.
4.3.2006 11:24pm
Randy R. (mail):
Therut:
"They (atheists) cannot tell people what they read with their eyes is a lie"

Well, actually, they can. Have you read the latest NY Times bestseller, "Misquoting Jesus?" The author is a respected biblical scholar and wrote a book basically summarizing for law people what most scholars have learned over the past few decades, that the Bible as we know it contains thousands and thousands of flaws. Most are innocuous, such as spelling errors, but there are whole passages that have been added in, rewritten, expunged and so on over the past 2000 years. We don't have the originals, nor we do have copies of the originals, nor do we have copies of the copies of the originals. the oldest texts of the New Testament that we have were created several centuries after the events occured, and none of them conform with each other.

For instance, that whole parable, one of the most famous in the New Testament, about the adulterous woman who was brought to Jesus. He was asked what they should do with her, like stone her. Jesus replied, He who is without sin may cast the first stone. Remember that one?

It never existed in any of the oldest copies of the New Testament. In fact, it was added by scribes several centuries later. That's just one example of of reading something with your own eyes that is in fact a lie. Yet the New Testament is filled with all sorts of problems. The King James Bible is based on a copy held by Erasmus, whose copy was notorious for being one of the worst copies ever made. So our modern Bible is based on a copy of the NT that scholars agree is a filled with errors!

Basically, the author is saying that anyone who reads the Bible as a the Word of God, or that it has no errors, or that it should be read literally, has no idea what really happened. And yet athiests are condemned as heretics for pointing this out.

And now I suppose someone who post saying that the "Misquoting Jesus" is a fabrication, but won't give us any reasons why....
4.3.2006 11:33pm
Perseus:
Of course Nietzsche was against "nihilism" in that sense, but he could find no rational basis or cosmic support for "values" a la Plato or Aristotle, which is why I refer to him as a nihilist.
4.3.2006 11:36pm
SenatorX (mail):
Anderson, THANK YOU! Glad to see someone else has actually READ Nietzsche.
4.3.2006 11:49pm
plunge (mail):
"Let's define "that something" as god, and let's define "god" the way that mainstream religions generally do. Now, please tell us whether you can inductively or deductively prove that god does not exist."

Personally, I don't think you can inductively based on the common definition (but let's remember what I criticized: someone pushing as a solid principle that idea that you cannot prove a negative, which is a logically incoherent claim). Deductively (i.e. arguing that the given definitions are logically inconsistent) I haven't been so convinced by anything out forward as to be able to announce the issue settled, but there's no reason at all why you couldn't do so, and philosophy has been merily humming away for millenia arguging that very issue.

Which is sort of the point. If you want to claim that even strong atheists hold their beliefs out of "faith," you have to argue upstream, against their claims that they are not simply taking anything on faith, but think they have good arguments. If that's so, then the most they can be is mistaken, not faithful. And that, still, is only the smallest of subset of non-believers.

"but he could find no rational basis or cosmic support for "values" a la Plato or Aristotle, which is why I refer to him as a nihilist."

Then you are simply incorrect. Nietzsche was against nihilism. While his philosophy is cryptic and never really fleshed out, it's pretty near impossible to argue that he advocated or was reduced to nihilism. Thus Spake..., in fact, is basically a long diatribe agianst nihilism and a celebration of the idea of eternal reoccurance: that all acts are eternal and that one should will the highest aesthetic imaginable: living as if they would have to live every moment over and over again.
4.4.2006 12:27am
plunge (mail):
"The point is that the core philosophy of Nazism and nihilism coincide in that both maintain that it is the human will that determines all value."

This is like saying that Chinese and French are all the same cuisine because they both involve food. And you are confusing the active/passive voice here. No one, not Nietzsche and not really even the Nazis argued that one can just run around making up values willy nilly.
4.4.2006 12:29am
John McG (mail) (www):
Most Americans are religious, many strongly so. They have ordered their lives around a belief in God.

Atheists, by definition think that this is a bunch of bunk. Is it any surprise that religious people would have hostility toward people who think their core beliefs are a bunch of bunk? Does it really matter who was behind lawsuits or what was the driving force behind communism?

When you have a large number of people who hold a belief strongly, and a minority that think it's nonsense, there's going to be hostility toward those who think it's nonsense.

I don't see why two conspirators now have found this phenomenon worthy of examination.
4.4.2006 12:38am
Bobbie:
Perseus, in case I'm wrong about your willingness to seriously grapple with what Nietzsche was saying, you might want to take notice of a few things. First, while the Will to Power contains some of Nietzsche's writings, he never published it. Instead, his sister, who was a Nazi, published it under Nietzsche's name after Nietzsche became incapacitated.

Second, it doesn't take much more than a casual familiarity with Nietzsche to know that his philosophy was antithetical to Nazism. Hitler's views on the "perfect German" were exactly the opposite of Nietzsche's philosophy of strong individuality. Nietzsche stressed the importance of personal excellence and resented those (typically Christians) who attempted to suppress individual creativity. That point of view hardly resonated with Hitler's attempt at stomping out those that didn't comply with his view of what a good German should be.

Moreover, Nietzsche was very critical of Germany and the German culture that led to Nazism. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (as translated by Walter Kaufmann):


No, we do not love humanity; but on the other hand we are not nearly "German" enough, in the sense in which the word "German" is constantly being used nowadays, to advocate nationalism and race hatred and to be able to take pleasure in the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine. For that we are too open-minded, too malicious, too spoiled, also too well informed, too "traveled": we far prefer to live on mountains, apart, "untimely," in past or future centuries, merely in order to keep ourselves from experiencing the silent rage to which we know we should be condemned as eyewitnesses of politics that are desolating the German spirit by making it vain and that is, moreover, petty politics: to keep its own creation from immediately falling apart again, is it not finding it necessary to plant it between two deadly hatreds? must it not desire the eternalization of the European system of a lot of petty states?


Finally, Nietzsche's central project, as others have mentioned, was to replace the nihilism that Christianity had wrought on Europe: European Christians had devalued this world and Nietzsche's purpose was to resurrect long since forgotten values that led to personal excellence.

As an aside, "post-modernism" doesn't turn man into God in any coherent sense. I think you're looking for a different boogeyman.
4.4.2006 12:41am
Ilya Somin:
Most Americans are religious, many strongly so. They have ordered their lives around a belief in God.

Atheists, by definition think that this is a bunch of bunk. Is it any surprise that religious people would have hostility toward people who think their core beliefs are a bunch of bunk?


Well, let's see. Christians have a "core belief" that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Jews believe that this is, well, "a bunch of bunk." I guess that means that Christians are justified in being anti-Semitic.

Catholics, at least conservative ones, have a "core belief" in papal infalliblity. Protestants think that this is - yup - a "bunch of bunk." I suppose those two religious groups have to hate each other too.

I could go on with more fun examples like these, but I think the point has been made.
4.4.2006 1:10am
SLS 1L:
Most Americans are religious, many strongly so. They have ordered their lives around a belief in God.

The first sentence is true, but the second is bunk. Relatively few people, even the strongly religious ones, live their daily lives all that differently than they would if they weren't particularly religious. Maybe they go to church every Sunday, and a few of them even wait until marriage, but what else do they do differently? Not much, I think. Mostly, people order their lives by the (implicit or explicit) norms and expectations of their community.
4.4.2006 1:25am
Fishbane (mail):
Of course Nietzsche was against "nihilism" in that sense, but he could find no rational basis or cosmic support for "values" a la Plato or Aristotle, which is why I refer to him as a nihilist

And similarly, both bombs and volcanoes are the same thing, for failing to be cold. For that matter, Jesus and the Bhudda are preaching the same philosphy, by your standards, for offering a philosophies of life that are in some ways comprable.

I suggest that you read actual nihilists, and actual Nazis. Jacobi, on one hand, is useful, and actually reading Mein Kampf is instructive on the other, to get you started (Other Nazi texts are better for understanding, but that's an academic interest of mine I don't expect others to have). Many have noted references. Understanding the idea, I'd only suggest, will get you a little a little closer than this wild supposition and misapprehending of philosophical history.

That said, I sometimes call myself a political nihilist, mostly in jest.
4.4.2006 1:26am
Medis:
I think Ilya's last post in the comments again crystalizes the issue. Some religious people seem to have more negative views about atheists as opposed to other people who also hold mutually exclusive beliefs on religious matters. So what is important about having religious belief per se, as opposed to actually sharing particular religious beliefs?

I think some of the comments have suggested a possible answer: some religious people seem to assume that atheists typically disdain them for holding their beliefs, and they assume atheists feel this way more so than other non-coreligionists. Perhaps some atheists have encouraged this assumption, but I suspect some of it is actually a projection of an ongoing internal tension. In other words, I think many modern people feel at least somewhat conflicted about their religious beliefs in light of other things they believe, and they project onto atheists these internal criticisms.
4.4.2006 1:40am
Perseus:
As I've said, Nietzsche was against "nihilism"--vehemently so (That "God is dead" was a bad thing)--as he defined it: "according to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos..." (Will to Power, par. 585) But nihilism is simply the flip-side of his belief that positing values is a creative act in which the creator is aware of the groundlessness in God or nature of his creation: "men gave themselves all their good and evil. Verily, they did NOT take it, they did NOT find it, nor did it come from heaven. Only man placed values in things to preserve himself--he alone created a meaning for things, a human meaning." (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). This ultimate groundlessness of meaning is what leads me to refer his philosophy as "nihilist." In other words, both take as their starting point the abyss. Basically, the "nihilist" says, "jump in" while Nietzsche says: "jump over it." And as I said originally, I use the term loosely.



The analogy to food is not quite right since everyone eats food of some sort, but only a particular group of philosophers subscribe to the notion that it is the human will that creates values.
4.4.2006 1:40am
Syme:
Nitpicking a nitpick: while it is no doubt true that "you cannot prove a negative" is incoherent as a matter of logic, one should resist ridiculing this statement, as it is fairly well-understood (though for me dimly remembered) shorthand for a clear logical principle: in order to deny the existence of something in a set, you must be familiar with all members of the set. Thus, in principle you can prove a negative, so long as you have requisite prior knowledge. Obviously, certain negative claims will require for their proof knowledge of a set of which it is either practically or in principle impossible to gain sufficient knowledge. This last obtains for most (all?) non-trivial claims. You cannot prove a negative unless you have sufficient knowledge of the set to which the negative would properly belong.

This point has been more or less addressed upthread, but it seemed important to state it outright.

As for the (marginally related) point referencing Misquoting Jesus, I commend this blog post and and this review as even handed (though not neutral). Shortly, Ehrman's evidence is well-known and has been well known in both explicitly Christian and explicitly 'neutral' scholarship for quite some time. His conclusions are either not necessary from the data points that he provides or are not particularly novel. I hope this passes Randy R's test for a good faith effort at providing more information, though I did not attempt (nor do the two links above) to declare Ehrman's book a fabrication (with the possible exception of the title, as there is no real effort to identify "misquotes" of Jesus).
4.4.2006 1:44am
SLS 1L:
Syme: I can't make heads or tails out of your purported logical principle. Consider a thing T and a set S. Are you saying that in order to say "T is not in S", I must be able to enumerate (or otherwise uniquely describe in some non-circular way) every member of S? If that's what you're saying, then it's plainly false; let T = Bill Clinton and S = {x | x is a cat} I'm not familiar with every cat in the world, but I can confidently say that Bill Clinton is not a cat, and thus not in S.

So if that's not what you mean, then what do you mean?
4.4.2006 2:11am
plunge (mail):
It's so bizarre. Hitler and the Nazis barely read or understood Nietzsche, and he hated them. On the other hand, Hitler constantly cited Martin Luther and Christian hatred of Jews and their supposed terrible effect on Christian society.

And yet, of course, it has to be Nietzsche who is cited as the source of Hitler's views.
4.4.2006 2:41am
Bezuhov (mail):
"Social Gospel is just socialism and has nothing to do with Christianty."

This is, to put it mildly, ahistorical. Not coincidentally, mainline Protestantism flourished in the days of the Social Gospel and following, reaching its zenith in the Greatest Generation. Since then, we've either forgotten the Gospel part (tiresome leftist guilt-wallowing) or the Social part (shiny-happy people) with predictable results. There are still some here who soldier on, however, and we've been through worse.
4.4.2006 4:04am
Bezuhov (mail):
Interesting take on Hitler's beliefs here:

http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/sn-hitler.html
4.4.2006 4:10am
Bezuhov (mail):
To get to the actual crux (literally and figuratively) of the matter - that is why Christians get worked up about the courts ruling against Ten Commandment displays, et. al. I'd say it has less to do with hating atheists (or loving them for that matter) and more to do with the freedom to communicate and live out our values with integrity.

When I, as a Christian, teach my kids that Jesus is Lord (the reasons why I do this are several - one atheists might understand is that communities that agree together to follow a deity are less liable to fight among themselves about which mere mortal to follow), I'm made a hypocrite if I then send them off the rest of the week to a place where his very presence in forbidden. I'm cool with them finding Buddha, Shiva, hell, even a statue of Madalyn Murray O'Hair there. But I cannot in good conscience deny Christ.
4.4.2006 4:34am
Hank:

The statement "you cannot prove a negative" is a negative. Hence, it's self-contradicting nonsense.


Wrong. The statement "you cannot prove a negative" does not purport to prove anything. It merely asserts. It may be false, but it is not self-contradictory.
4.4.2006 5:58am
Perseus:
That Nietzsche did not support the fascists and that Heidegger did support them for a time is secondary to the ideas that they promulgated and that the Nazis "used and abused."

But for those interested in a scholarly treatment of the subject with differing viewpoints, see:

Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?
On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, eds. Golomb and Wistrich
4.4.2006 6:53am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Speaking of double standards there are double standards about the treatment of atheists and the faithful built right into our social standards.

For instance if someone was to imply that they didn't think believers should be allowed in their school or that believers were really stupid/naive they would have committed a major social gaff. Or even just talked about how believers were bad people. Yet it is much more acceptable to openly remark that only by accepting jesus christ as your personal savior will you be saved implying, in virtue of the belief that god is just, that atheists are extremely evil.

Not to mention the unfair bending of the rules and allowances made for people to attend their religious service but not for atheists to do something important to them.

Sorry the topic came up and I felt like ranting. I don't think we should find this that much of a surprise, churches have been encouraging people to dislike atheists for forever and their just isn't enough incentive for atheists to band together and make a political cause of the issue.
4.4.2006 7:53am
Medis:
Bezuhov,

Of course, if you wish to send your child to a religious school, or to school your child in a religious environment at home, you have a constitutionally-protected right to do so. You can even get government funding and then choose to use that funding to subsidy your child's education in a religious school. But what you cannot do is ask a government-run school to be a religious school. I'm not sure why you think that strikes an inappropriate balance between your freedom of conscience and the freedom of conscience of other members of our society who may not share your religious beliefs.

Incidentally, I'm not sure history--including everything from the history of Europe to current events in Iraq--supports the thesis that belief in a deity leads to less political violence.
4.4.2006 8:38am
Syme:
SLS 1L, this is what I mean:

The primary difficulty with your example is that you do in fact have a way to be familiar with the set in a way that allows you to exclude Bill Clinton. Since you know that every member of the set is a cat, and as a matter of definition, to be a cat something must have certain properties, then if Bill Clinton does not have those properties, he can be rightly, logically excluded. This is something I was trying to get at in rehabilitating the initial statement: "You cannot prove a negative unless you have sufficient knowledge of the set to which the negative would properly belong"

So, if you wanted to assert that there is no person that is a cat, you can hold this true as a definitional rather than empirical matter--the rule I stated ought to ultimately allow either. If you wanted to prove that there is no cat named Bill Clinton, you would have to take a look at all cats that have names since I doubt the property of any name is included in the properties making up what we know as "cat," so empircal work would have to be done. For the current context, you could (analogically) assert the non-existence of God in the set of all things in the universe that have the property of being not-God (Bill Clinton is not in the set of things that are not-Bill Clinton), but that doesn't really do much work, though you don't have to have empirical knowledge of either set to make a provable assertion, which is what I take to be your point.

Fundamentally, though your example is good for making me clarify, the matter in debate tends towards the more empirical sort of question where you don't have a rule by which to define the set which evidently excludes or includes the item asserted to not exist. I don't mean to say that the assertion of the non-existence of God is only considered a matter of trying to get enough knowledge of the proper set; the question of whether including God in any sort of investigation of this nature can even be semantically or logically coherent is somewhat vexed, though I think ultimately resolvable.
4.4.2006 10:04am
Whatever:
I don't want to get attacked for misrepresenting or misinterpreting Nietzsche, so let me preface this with a disclaimer: It has been years upon years since I read Nietzsche, and even then it was compulsory and I was usually drinking when I did it.

That said, I seem to recall that Nietzsche regularly referred to Christianity as "nihlism" in Will to Power because it compelled people to deny that there was any meaning in the world and to accept an alternate measure of significance. Also, in fairness to Nietzsche, and again this comes from the hazy memories of my undergraduate education, I think that Will to Power was pretty unrepresentative of Nietzsche's overall perspective as it was assembeled and edited pretty selectivly after his death by someone else...

Or I could be entirely wrong... But as an Atheist, I have no problem admitting that...
4.4.2006 10:08am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Perseus can use "nihilism" so loosely that it's a synonym for "atheism," but in that case he shouldn't be surprised to be accused of using the word incorrectly.

(His lingusitic relativism is rhetorically at odds with his thesis ....)

Anyway, the gripe seems to be that Nietzsche didn't believe values were "out there" objectively. It won't do to identify this with atheism. Recall that even Plato has Socrates decide that God does what's good because it's good, rather than good's being good because God does it.

If God doesn't decide what's good, but good is "out there," then where is it? "Nature" is the leading candidate. But, as N. tirelessly insisted, humans are part of nature. So if values are "in us," they're also "out there" ... the whole inside/outside bit collapses when we return humankind to nature. ("So you want to live 'according to nature,'" Nietzsche teased the Stoics; "how could you live any other way?")

Other commenters above have nicely pointed out the need for value-creation in the post-theist culture. I went to bed thinking N. was too optimistic about value-creation ... that his wishful emphasis on the individual led him to overlook the workings of markets. Then I remembered that I'd reinvented the Holy Grail of "postmodernism," a synthesis of Nietzsche and Marx.
4.4.2006 10:38am
Pettitt (mail):
Is a atheism a religion or a "spiritual" position. This dicussion certain has the flavor that it is. If you're athiest and you don't have an immortal soul and the extreme responsibility is has at least for practicing Christians, what's to stop you from being a pedophile or terrorist, or a white collar criminal if it furthers your economic interests or your personal well being? Where does moral behaviour, or at least the law that compells or punishes deviations come from? From the evolutionary sucess of cooperation?

If evolution (what nature does, and does by the way against the law of entropy as I understand it) is evoked as the guiding force of your position, then it's ok for me to murder as long as what? it doesn't impact the group? It's survival of the fittest. What do I care if society or my species survives. Why would I be committed to my species, my evolutionary tempory form?
4.4.2006 11:05am
Anderson (mail) (www):
If you're athiest and you don't have an immortal soul and the extreme responsibility is has at least for practicing Christians, what's to stop you from being a pedophile or terrorist, or a white collar criminal if it furthers your economic interests or your personal well being?

Petitt, you do realize that this argument has seen daylight before? On this blog, even.

NOTHING "stops you" from being a terrorist or a pedophile. That's why people are terrorists or pedophiles. There's nothing stopping them.

But an atheist can decide that terrorism and pedophilia are disgusting, or wicked, or (at worst) nonconducive to his personal well-being. He just doesn't make those decisions on the basis that God will punish him if he becomes a terrorist or a pedophile.

The classic rebuttal, of course, is "so ... if it weren't for God, would you want to be a pedophile?" Usually the answer is "no," &I'll do you the credit of assuming that it would be your answer as well.
4.4.2006 11:10am
Whatever:

If you're athiest and you don't have an immortal soul and the extreme responsibility is has at least for practicing Christians, what's to stop you from being a pedophile or terrorist, or a white collar criminal if it furthers your economic interests or your personal well being? Where does moral behaviour, or at least the law that compells or punishes deviations come from?


This is what scares me most about this conversation. It's really terrifying that your only source of morality is fear of damnation. Reframe the question: If it wasn't for Christianity, would you be a pedophile? I certainly hope not.

That said, I will try to answer your question (I hope you recognize that this discussion is beginning to tread the fine line between reasoned discourse and barstool philosophy):

I think that most rational, sane people recognise their own humanity and the humanity of others. We feel empathy before we are capable of logical thought (watch the mood of an infant change with the mood of those around him/her). If I had to sum up in a word the source of my moral compass, that would be it. Empathy. It's innate, we all have it, some are taught to ignore it, others are taught to be sensitive to it and use it as a source of direction and focus.
4.4.2006 11:20am
Taeyoung (mail):

Where does moral behaviour, or at least the law that compells or punishes deviations come from? From the evolutionary sucess of cooperation?

Possibly. I do not think, however, that it is impossible to derive a transcendent morality without reliance on the divine. The fundamental question why you would care about the state of others might be answered as follows: that you care about your own state, and the essential concept of fairness thus demands that you behave in reciprocally fair ways.

Second, we (or most people) do not like to harm other people, to kill, to cause suffering, etc. Rather, to make others happy gives us, as individuals, a measure of happiness and pleasure of our own. To the extent we seek to maximise these hedonic goods, we will avoid harming others. It would be a sad fellow indeed for whom the sole goods were economic or sexual, as you suggest when you propose:

what's to stop you from being a pedophile or terrorist, or a white collar criminal if it furthers your economic interests or your personal well being?


And when you propose--

What do I care if society or my species survives. Why would I be committed to my species, my evolutionary tempory form?

I think you are similarly off the mark. Do you think atheists form no emotional attachments? That they are sociopathic monsters of Will and Power and nothing else? Atheists like their families and love their children, and can have a nostalgic attachment to the land of their birth, to the traditions, rituals, and rites of their particular culture, and to the ordering of society in which they exist. Are these attachments not enough reason for commitment to my species, my society, and my evolutionary form?
4.4.2006 11:22am
Taeyoung (mail):

The classic rebuttal, of course, is "so ... if it weren't for God, would you want to be a pedophile?"

I don't think this is a very good rebuttal, though. I think many people, when conceiving of the divine, also conceive of some divine or divinely-inspired element of the human being (e.g. the soul), and consider it be a part of them which strives continually towards goodness.

To say "if it weren't for God" means what? If "you" were an atheist, i.e. that you rejected God? Clearly their answer would have to be that yes, they think those influences would bubble up with no firm restraint -- that's the gravamen of this particular complaint against atheists. But at the same time, that "you" would not be the same as the person you're asking, because rejecting God is (for many believers) a nontrivial identity issue.

If "if it weren't for God" is meant to suppose "if God did not exist?" then that is, if anything, an even more distant hypothetical. Not only would God be gone, but the divine in human nature would also be missing, and with it, perhaps, much of what drives Man towards goodness. It would be perfectly reasonable, in such circumstances, to conclude that men would be savage in the absence of God.
4.4.2006 11:33am
Medis:
Pettitt,

As the others implied, I think moral behavior is mostly produced by natural sentiments of caring for one's fellow human beings combined with internalized social norms. I think most humans are naturally equipped--at least with proper stimuli during their formative years--to both care about others and to internalize social norms. Insofar as external enforcement of social norms is needed, however, it can be supplied by mechanisms such as social disapproval, the criminal justice system, and so on.

In short, what "stops" most people from committing the crimes you mention is that: (1) they care about others; (2) they have internalized norms against such behavior; and (3) society has provided a ranged of informal and formal external disincentives.
4.4.2006 11:36am
Perseus:
Yes, it was my fault for confusing matters by using the term that way.

I agree that Plato's Socrates was an atheist, but he was not so skeptical as to have such radical doubts about reason/logic as Nietzsche did.
4.4.2006 11:55am
Medis:
Taeyoung,

If I may, I think you are suggesting something similar to what I also suggested elsewhere: that certain religious people believe that human nature would lead us to be chaotic and wicked without divine regulation of some sort.

I sometimes wonder if the subjective experience of atheists and certain theists is really all that different, in the sense that atheists may "sense" in themselves the "presence" of much of what theists attribute to God (eg, such as a "moral compass", or a love for our fellow human beings). I also wonder why it seems important to some theists that atheists attribute the presence of these things to a divine source, as long as those atheists agree that those things are there. But perhaps, as you suggest, there is simply a confusion of terms, with theists assuming that when an atheist says he or she does not believe in God, that must mean that the atheist also does not sense the presence of things that theists attribute to God.

To tie this in with another thought brought up by others in these comments, there is also an implied threat to many religions in the possibility that atheists could subjectively sense these things and yet not attribute them to God. In other words, if atheists could really meditate and find sources of truth, beauty, reason, love, morality, and so on in themselves, and yet not find something in themselves they recognize as divine, it undermines a key premise of certain religions--that God is trying to make himself known to us, and that one must actively turn away from God in order for us to fail to know him.

I should note, however, that I think this concern is somewhat limited to "prostelytizing" religions. In other words, some religions don't operate on the premise that God cares one way or another about what we believe about him, and I don't think those religions are threatened in any notable way by the possibility that atheists could sense these things without recognizing them as having a divine source.
4.4.2006 11:56am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Nietzsche's doubts about reason &logic, while often touted, have never seemed to me to be any greater than Hume's. Though I would be happy to be corrected.

Btw, Perseus, I don't think I said Plato depicted Socrates as an atheist; probably the contrary, though not a believer in any god robust enough to assuage the Athenian jury.
4.4.2006 11:58am
Medis:
Anderson,

Judging from some of these comments, Socrates's notion that the gods love something because it is good, and not that something is good because the gods love it, is still perceived as a threat to organized religion. Which makes sense, because without the notion that we wouldn't know what is good without the gods telling us, there would be a lot less justification for having priests to tell us what the gods want us to do.
4.4.2006 12:03pm
SenatorX (mail):
The "Will to Power" quotes suck. As others have pointed out it's a bullsh*t compilation from N's sister when Hitler had the call out for "German" national art. First off N said MANY times that he expected people to read his books IN ORDER. It's one reason people consistently quote him out of context. "We must rechristen what is Evil in us" for example is tossed out without understanding the context of "Evil" as what is creative and new as opposed to "Good" which is taken in this context as traditional dogma.

I am so very happy to see so many readers of N, even ones that read him long ago (though forced to read him sucks! he, like any philosopher, should be mulled over in idleness or poured over in research, but NEVER crammed down someone's throat). I take it as a sign of great success to the post WW2 re-translators of him that on a website like this so many appear to have gotten past most of the propaganda about him.

I would just add a few extra comments.

One is his interesting core view of SELF overcoming. Basically a form of intellectual discipline that leads to ever increasing joy. He coined the term sublimation that Freud used btw. An internal constant perusal of values. Values from anywhere really (physiological, cultural, national, etc) held up to PERSONALLY developed criterion. In the end that was Zarathustra's message, that You need to get YOUR internal house in order and find your way. Zarathustra's way was for Zarathustra.

The joy is ever increased because the task of self overcoming never ends. An infinite self discovery of values and re-organization of an internal value hierarchy. The key to overcoming is in realizing what he means by sublimation. The CONSCIOUS rechannelling of physiological DRIVES into intellectually decided values. A lot of previous philosophers he was raised on were trying to find proof that God existed in human values that were not self interest driven. Compassion or Duty for example as signs of proof of god. N saw through this and instead saw a "will to power" in all things even the supposed altruistic values.

The sublimation is key though because it is difficult. Endlessly difficult to do consciously (think ascetics) but endlessly rewarding for that reason. To gain power over oneself is the greatest power one can FEEL. One gains this feeling in OVERCOMMING the natural drives(the hardest ones to overcome). This power of self overcoming equates to a feeling of JOY.

The fact that people took this to mean they could do whatever they wanted is kind of a litmus test. Those that are weak (low self esteem, low self control) tend to look for external ways to gain power. They either denigrate others or push power to the props of their own self esteem. This is different than those that are in continual war internally and in an EXCESS in internal power they affect those around them. Of what consequence is that to a person like this?

Last I saw someone mention Eternal Recurrence as a metaphor. Personally I like ER as a metaphor but I believe N actually believed in it NOT as just a metaphor (a place I happen to break with N on).

You know what would be a REALLY good discussion on this site? Nietzsche's real view of Jews. It is impossible to read him and say he is an anti-Semite in the sense that most of us would mean it. However he also cleary goes on quite a bit about Jewish self hatred, revenge morality, etc...
4.4.2006 12:08pm
SLS 1L:
I do not think, however, that it is impossible to derive a transcendent morality without reliance on the divine.
The real question is whether it's possible to derive any coherent morality, "transcendent" or otherwise, with reliance on the divine. Suppose we are convinced that such a thing as God exists. This doesn't get us anywhere until we have some access to some kind of divine revelation. The Protestant answer is to use a text, and their text is so obviously immoral (see the atrocities God commits and orders committed in the OT and Revelation), contradictory, and of dubious historical pedigree, that it doesn't qualify. Other purported revelations suffer from similar problems. The Quakers have their notion of access to God through an "inner light," but that's basically the same thing as relying on moral intuition or conscience.

Even assuming we have a revelation (which we don't) we still need to establish why we should care. Basically, we have to make the inference:

1) God's revelation says that I should do X.
2) Therefore, I should do X.

This is of the same form as:

1) The Church of Scientology says I should become a Scientologist.
2) Therefore, I should become a Scientologist.

which is obviously invalid. A traditional reply is to focus on the fact that God may be able to grant us eternal reward or penalty, but even assuming that's the correct theological interpretation (remember that these days many Christians don't even believe in Hell) it's still basically a morality of self-interest. If self-interest is an acceptable ground for morality, then it is as accessible to the atheist as to the believer.

Another answer is to say that God's will makes/reflects morality because God is "holy," but this is the ultimate in circularity.

Basically, in terms of providing a "transcendent" justification for morality (whatever that means), God is on no better footing than Nature.
4.4.2006 12:12pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"But what you cannot do is ask a government-run school to be a religious school. I'm not sure why you think that strikes an inappropriate balance between your freedom of conscience and the freedom of conscience of other members of our society who may not share your religious beliefs."

Um... Logic? A public institution that does not arbitrarily suppress expression is called "free", not "religious".

You can have this absolute definition of establishment, public schools, or an erosion of public integrity. Choose two.

"Incidentally, I'm not sure history--including everything from the history of Europe to current events in Iraq--supports the thesis that belief in a deity leads to less political violence."

I suspect this is one of those questions that can only truly be resolved by by a few billion minds testing it experimentally over a millenia or ten. We'll see.

I suspect its more effective internally than externally (to the group in question), which is why a secular society made up of several diverse groups is so difficult and requires so much negotiation. I'm with Locke in thinking that freedom is a good starting point for that endeavor, and supression counter-productive.
4.4.2006 12:24pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Bezuhov, there's probably not a picture of Jesus at your Wal-Mart. Why is it a fatal objection to public school that there's no "acknowledgement of Jesus" there, but not a fatal objection to Wal-Mart?

--Or are you one of those "home-shoppers"? ;)
4.4.2006 12:31pm
Bezuhov (mail):
The most common negative emotion I've experienced among the religious for the non, especially the enthusiastic non like SLS is exasperation (with his limited epistemology, although few would use that term), not threat per se.
4.4.2006 12:39pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"Bezuhov, there's probably not a picture of Jesus at your Wal-Mart. Why is it a fatal objection to public school that there's no "acknowledgement of Jesus" there, but not a fatal objection to Wal-Mart?"

Clearly you don't shop at Wal-Mart! If I can live with wall-to-wall Britney Spears, you'd think y'all could live with Jesus, lol!
4.4.2006 12:41pm
Bezuhov (mail):
I just see lots of wheel-reinventing and have chosen to work on the wheel several of the people I care about and respect have been working on for countless generations. But I don't begrudge those starting new ones. We need basic research as well as applied.
4.4.2006 12:52pm
Medis:
Bezuhov,

I think you need to define what you mean by "arbitrarily suppress expression". When a public school is prohibited from displaying the Ten Commandments outside of a historical context, what expression is being "suppressed"? For that matter, whose expression is being "suppressed"?

It seems to me that you are talking about "suppressing" the ability of those in control of the school from communicating their religious beliefs to the students. In that sense, you are in fact asking for the government to be free to promote certain religious beliefs, and I don't see how prohibiting the government from doing that is contrary to individual freedom of conscience.

On history:

Well, we have been running this experiment with religion and politics for several millenia already, and I don't see any signs yet of evidence to support your thesis.

Incidentally, I think part of the problem is your claim that this supposed unifying dynamic is more effective "internally". One thing we have learned from the history of religion is that it appears that "schisms" are an unavoidable part of the lifecycle of religions, and hence groups starting with a common religion tend not to stay that way.

Indeed, I might suggest that your proposition that religions have political influence on their adherents provides a partial explanation for why this is the case. As religions gain political influence, they become a source of political power. Those desiring political power thus have an incentive to seek control of religions. The resulting contests for control of religions can in turn help produce religious schisms. And the nature of religious beliefs is such that this tends to be a one-way process. In other words, once competing religious factions are driven apart, it is very hard for them to reconcile and come back together.

Incidentally, a similar dynamic is driven by economics. In short, as religions come to possess property and otherwise control economic resources, an economic incentive is created for people to contest for control of religions, which in turn can help produce schisms which are very hard to reverse.
4.4.2006 1:02pm
Colin (mail):
Pettitt,

If evolution (what nature does, and does by the way against the law of entropy as I understand it) ...

Several other comments have already admirably addressed your question. I'd simply like to point out that you are suffering under an egregiously erroneous understanding of entropy which is unfortunately very common among creationists. There is an explanation of the matter here, if you're interested.
4.4.2006 1:14pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I just see lots of wheel-reinventing and have chosen to work on the wheel several of the people I care about and respect have been working on for countless generations.

FWIW, I should mention that despite the Nietzsche hat I've been wearing polemically, I'm not an atheist. I'm a self-identified bad Christian, for reasons not totally dissimilar from Bezuhov's; having been raised a Protestant and living in that culture, it's the religious vocabulary that's readily available to me.

(Nietzsche was an excellent observer of some common Mistakes Christians Make, but I ultimately part company with him on compassion and "the herd"; as readers of N. know, his sharp rhetoric against those was not least because of the difficulty he had resisting his own pity and "love of man.")

But I guess I'm too secular-friendly to care whether the schools have Jesus in them. Or rather, given the atrocious mess they would make of him, I'd just as soon the kids hear about Jesus at church and at home.
4.4.2006 1:19pm
Bezuhov (mail):
Your analysis of the political and economic effects of religion-induced unity are spot on, which is why that's not the only reason for me to teach my children about Christ. I would contend, however, that some social cohesion is preferable to none, so that which is conducive to its encouragement has some value.

"Well, we have been running this experiment with religion and politics for several millenia already, and I don't see any signs yet of evidence to support your thesis."

I'd tell you to keep searching under that streetlamp, but you don't seem the sort to limit yourself to that. There's all sorts of signs, just depends which ones you consider significant.
4.4.2006 1:26pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"I think you need to define what you mean by "arbitrarily suppress expression". When a public school is prohibited from displaying the Ten Commandments outside of a historical context, what expression is being "suppressed"? For that matter, whose expression is being "suppressed"?"

I should hope that the burden of proof in a free society would be on the one advocating the suppression. What purpose is served by doing so? By what authority?
4.4.2006 1:38pm
Patrick:
Anderson: I'll bet that there is a picture of Jesus at his, and most, Wal-Marts. And He's on sale at an Everyday Low Price!
4.4.2006 2:05pm
SenatorX (mail):
"I should hope that the burden of proof in a free society would be on the one advocating the suppression. What purpose is served by doing so? By what authority?"

I am a weak atheist who is highly offended that my tax money (and I pay a lot) would go to indoctrinating children into death focusing cults. From my perspective religious institutions ARE SUPPRESIVE. What is your authority? The fact that you want to fill infinity with a simplistic (and vengeful) god that makes the apparent world a testing ground for a REAL world that is AFTER YOU DIE is very suppressive to me.

Now if you are suggesting COMPARATIVE religion courses in public school that would be different. The tyranny of the majority is hardly a valid authority either. One of the BEST parts of this country is the protection of the minority from the majority. That means protecting us atheists (and our children) from the suppresive fantasies of the majority. The so called attack of atheists is a lifelong burn against double standards.

I just had to go to my father's funeral a few months ago and sit there listening to a hospice preacher talk about how my father had left his "dirty tent" behind. It was a very hard decision for me to go there and give support by example to that stuff but in the end I did it out of respect for the living. I ATE IT so as not to let MY lack of belief interfere with others closure. It sucked though, I wish the religious would come close to showing us atheists the same respect.
4.4.2006 2:05pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Right, Wal-Mart sells Jesus pix, you comedians. I meant displayed in a respectful manner, like next to but slightly beneath a pic of Sam Walton.

But in that sense, Jesus isn't "excluded" from public schools either. Kids can have pictures of him, they can read about him during their free time, they can chat about him at recess.
4.4.2006 2:14pm
John McG (mail) (www):
I didn't say that Christians need to "hate" atheists, and that's not what the conspirators asserted -- they asserted "hostility," which is what I was addressing.

My point was that "hostility" from a group that largely strongly believes something to the point of ordering their lives around it toward a group self-defined as holding that this belief is false is not surprising and in my opinion unremarkable.
4.4.2006 2:21pm
Medis:
Bezuhov,

On "suppression": I'm happy with having the plaintiff having the burden of showing that it is the government which is engaged in promoting religious beliefs, and I think that burden is satisfied when a government-run school displays religious texts outside of certain contexts (eg, outside of a historical context). Once the plaintiff has met that burden, the authority for "suppressing" those expressions is the Constitution of the United States, specifically the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit the government from promoting religious beliefs. The purpose of this prohibition is to ensure that religious beliefs remain a matter of individual conscience, which actually protects religion--even those religions that the government might seek to promote.

In that sense, I think your choice of verbs--"suppression"--is a bit misleading. The idea of the government constraining itself in this way--the supreme law of the land, as enforced by the courts, prohibiting the government from promoting religious beliefs--is not designed to "suppress" religious beliefs. Rather, the purpose of this prohibition is actually to protect legitimate religious beliefs--meaning religious beliefs arrive at through individual conscience--from governmental interference.

On history:

I think it is at least an open question whether religion is a net aid or hinderance to "social cohesion". As I implied above, one issue is that religious conflicts tend to be "sticky", meaning that there seems to be something about religious beliefs that makes it difficult for adherents to reconcile schisms once they have occurred. That creates the potential for the following dynamic: a political, economic, or other nonreligious incentive helps create a religious schism. The religious schism then perpetuates this conflict long after the original cause of the conflict has been mooted. The net effect could be that the echoes of old conflicts are repeating through history via the medium of religion.

Still, I agree that it is very difficult to reach some definitive conclusion about what net effect religion has had on human societies. What is clear, however, is that if religion is having the net effect of promoting social cohesion, it isn't doing so very quickly. But I take you to have conceded as much.
4.4.2006 2:26pm
Aultimer:

SLS 1L wrote;
The Quakers have their notion of access to God through an "inner light," but that's basically the same thing as relying on moral intuition or conscience.


You demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of Quakers (and Mormons and every other group that does direct revelation). The Quakers who taught me were quite clear that the Light came from outside the mind. It might seem like personal intuition to you, but the Transfiguration probably seems like bad stagecraft to them.
4.4.2006 3:06pm
SLS 1L:
But in that sense, Jesus isn't "excluded" from public schools either. Kids can have pictures of him, they can read about him during their free time, they can chat about him at recess.
Correct, and I would add that they are also free to pray to him before, during, or after class. The restrictions are that (a) they have to pray silently during class if they're not free to talk otherwise and (b) the prayers cannot be lead by a teacher or other school official, except in the context of a voluntary club that meets outside class.
4.4.2006 3:17pm
SpoVegas (mail) (www):
Great post, great discussions, and in the spirit of the discussion I'd like to add a couple cents.

My basic problem is that hostility towards atheists isn't a prejudice, as prejudice is defined (generally) by Merriam-Webster as "an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge". Prejudice isn't hostility. Certainly all religions belive themselves to be the truth, but this doesn't mean that they necessarily 'prejudge' or show 'prejudice' toward others, it merely shows they support themselves above others, which isn't prejudice at all, but a very natural extension of personal/group dynamics.

So from whence does the alleged "hostility" toward atheists come? It arises from the fact that while the data shows nearly everyone tolerant of other 'beliefs' they are not quite so accepting of a 'lack of belief'. In this sense, you've got to stand for something in order to earn the respect, support, and active tolerance of your fellow citizens. If you believe in something (Islam, Christianity in it's various forms, Bhudda, or even various other religious beliefs) you enjoy the support or gruding tolerance of nearly all Americans.

But if you profess and active disbelief in the fundamental quality of belief then nobody likes you.

Is this too harsh? Certainly not. People have great swings of taste and belief in art, what is aestetically pleasing what isn't and what's truly valuable. But if someone enters a discussion on art and says 'art is worthless, it is a waste of your time, and I believe in the value of other things' that person will surely earn the contempt of all involved. This is a fair parallel with this discussion.

The Jew and Christian and Muslim (and Wiccian and Mormon and Bhuddist if you will) are standing on a corner arguing. The have differences and issues, but when the atheist comes up and essentially tells them they are all wrong, the entire group will certainly agree that while they have their disagreemens and differences, surely this newcomer isn't really worthy of respect in the discussion. This isn't prejudice, it's simply the fact that differing religious beliefs presuppose the value of the belief while atheistic belief undercuts all belief itself.

Believing in a negative (whether you can prove it or not doesn't matter; I am surely not a cat) is not the same and having differnt positive beliefs than others. All theistic religious belief presupposes the value of belief itself: it's very valuable. Whether mono/tri/poly-theistic, the gods or God are important to know, study, get in touch with, live in harmony with, or tell us things about how to live together as humans. All atheistic belief presupposes a general lack of value for all belief. While some atheists say that religions are good for bringing people together or producing art or culture, they essentially say that all religions are false, and being false, not worthy of the value or devotion adherents give to them.

Treating a person who believes your core beliefs are not only different than her own, but also not worth believing, as some deserving of hostility is not prejudice: it is a logical conclusion given the nature of the dynamic. Atheism (except in it's secular humanist variety which might actively seek to combine the group dynamics of religious with godlessness) is an idea undercutting the very nature of belief itself. Believers can be hostile without being labeled 'prejudice' and still be socially acceptable, given the numbers of believers and the general value of belief.
4.4.2006 5:00pm
Traveler:
In response to Ilya's update, I would point out that:
1) atheists have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for litigation brought by members of religious minorities;
2) those arguing these cases - both in court and in public - often use the example of atheists to make their point. In virtually every discussion of school prayer that I have been a part of, for example, someone asks: why can't we have ten minutes each morning designated for individual prayer, where students can lead each other or pray on their own, but without being led by an authority figure. And the answer is always that it would alienate atheists. Many potential compromises on the role of religion in public life are thwarted by the [justifiable, to be fair] unwillingness of atheists to assent to references to God.
3) there often is hostility generated towards the actual litigants - and the groups to whom they belong - in anti-establishment litigation. But there are prominent liberal Protestants, Jews, Amish, etc. who offset this hostility by saying "they don't speak for me." Where are the atheists who support public religious expression?
4) it is true that religious litigants have - especially recently - brought religion clause cases to accomplish religious ends. The reason they have so far escaped resentment for trying "to overturn the policies of elected officials" is that those officials often divorce themselves from accountability for restrictions on public religious expression by pointing to the constitutional limits imposed by earlier litigation and saying "I have no choice." Thus, Mr. Davey is viewed as attempting to set right what liberals and atheists who share their views have made wrong.
4.4.2006 5:03pm
Ilya Somin:
In brief response to Traveler:

1. Yes, most atheists have supported Establishment Clause litigation. But my point was that they get far more opprobrium for it than the other groups who also support it and have played a much greater role in bringing the cases.

2. It is not only atheists but members of polytheistic religions (e.g. - Hindus) and some liberal monotheistic denominations who oppose public references to God (in the singular).

3. The vast majority of Jews and liberal Protestants supported the Establishment Clause cases. And certainly the vast majority of Amish supported Wisconsin v. Yoder. The fact that a few members of these groups disagree (as probably do a few atheists) should not lead to such a major disjunction in the perception of the different groups - at least not in the absence of anti-atheist prejudice. Finally, the policies challenged in Davey and Good News were not defended by reference to prior decisions alone (indeed, it was pretty clear that prior decisions would have allowed the state to adopt a different policy in both cases), but also on policy grounds such as the supposed need to avoid religious divisiveness.
4.4.2006 5:58pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit the government from promoting religious beliefs"

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

I don't see "promoting" anywhere. Am I missing something?

I'm suggesting (and see it emerging in various places)a new consensus where various religious (and non- and anti-) expressions are more welcomed in public, primarily with the view of enhancing the honesty of the culture.
4.4.2006 6:18pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"In that sense, I think your choice of verbs--"suppression"--is a bit misleading. The idea of the government constraining itself in this way--the supreme law of the land, as enforced by the courts, prohibiting the government from promoting religious beliefs--is not designed to "suppress" religious beliefs. Rather, the purpose of this prohibition is actually to protect legitimate religious beliefs--meaning religious beliefs arrive at through individual conscience--from governmental interference."

Another difficulty is equating schools necessarily with government. I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that local control of schools has been maintained largely due to the issues that have come up here, in an effort to preserve some flexibility vis-a-vis varying community values. I'm not sure the separation purists are taking seriously the damage the current regime is doing to the historic consensus on public schools. The government is losing a good deal of consent in this area.

Secondly, religious beliefs are not arrived at exclusively through individual conscience, whether we'd like them to be or not. They are informed by peers, parents, study, examples of character, and many other factors. Many are concerned that consciences are being formed too much via a corrupted wider culture (Britney, Jerry Springer, et. al.) and not enough by those with more benign motivations and want to make sure their voices are clearly understood.

"The religious schism then perpetuates this conflict long after the original cause of the conflict has been mooted. The net effect could be that the echoes of old conflicts are repeating through history via the medium of religion."

Yes, I've seen this happens. I think religion serves a general "perpetuating" function, among other things. Sort of a cultural long-term memory. If a liberal culture is by its nature experimental, as FDR suggested, could be useful to keep backups around.

"Still, I agree that it is very difficult to reach some definitive conclusion about what net effect religion has had on human societies."

I suspect this determination will require a system of n > 1 minds, as somewhat analagously writing this post requires a system of n > 1 neurons.
4.4.2006 6:52pm
Bezuhov (mail):
Apologies for spellcheck withdrawal and wrong button pushing. How embarassing.
4.4.2006 8:12pm
Bill (mail):
Those athiests who are genuinely interested in religion and care about the role of religion in public life have it especially hard. If (on the other hand) you are contemptuous of religion, but take a live-and-let-live attitude, its relatively easy to be diplomatic with believers.

I conclude that reviled athiests must incur so much dislike because they are concerned to help believers get over their beliefs. The problem is compounded by the fact that it is so very hard to address members of a religious tradition that shows interest in, knowledge of, and respect for that tradition -- while simultaneously disowning it. This is especially the case because, as Taeyound sometimes seems to be saying, many believes are long on religious committment and short on actual knowledge of their tradition.
4.4.2006 8:29pm
Bill (mail):
Ah typos!

"... it is so very hard to address members of a religious tradition IN A WAY THAT shows interest in, knowledge of, and respect for that tradition ..."

And I meant to address "Taeyoung J." not "Taeyound".
4.4.2006 8:33pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"many believes are long on religious committment and short on actual knowledge of their tradition."

This is indeed a problem, and not just or even primarily for atheists.
4.4.2006 8:47pm
Bill (mail):
Buzuhov: Oh yes, of course!
4.4.2006 8:53pm
jeff greer (mail):
an aetheist manifesto, by sam harris.

-QED-
4.6.2006 10:26am
Medis:
SpoVegas,

You say: "All atheistic belief presupposes a general lack of value for all belief."

You are confusing atheism with something like "extreme skepticism". Atheists are not necessarily extreme skeptics, nor necessarily skeptics at all. That is because their lack of belief in the existence of God does not imply that they lack belief in other things, nor generally think that having beliefs is valueless. Indeed, they might not have a particularly high standard for belief--all that has necessarily happened is that the proposition that God exists has not met whatever standard of belief they do have.

Again, though, I find your confusion on this issue somewhat understandable, because the word "atheist" is defined solely by the lack of a certain belief, and contains no content about what the "atheist" may actually belief. Accordingly, when people treat "atheism" as if it were a comprehensive worldview, it does imply that the "atheist" must believe in nothing. Again, though, that is not what the term literally means, and the mistake is in thinking that "atheism" actually defines a comprehensive worldview.

Bezuhov,

On "promoting"--In the First Amendment, I think that is straightforwardly implied by "make no law respecting the establishment of religion." If you look at the specific history relating to how the text of the Establishment Clause was arrived at, as well as contemporaneous uses of the verb "to establish", that concept includes any attempt to promulgate religious beliefs. If it helps, think of usages like "to establish a presence", or even more specifically, "to establish a crop". In that sense, "to establish" can mean something like "to introduce", perhaps with the connotation that one is hoping that the thing introduced will continue to grow and spread.

The Fourteenth Amendment part is a little more complicated due to the history of Supreme Court jurisprudence. Personally, I would locate the incorporation of the Establishment Clause in the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, but often it is located in the Due Process Clause instead. In any event, again, if you look at the history of the writing of the 14th Amendment, you will find clear statements of the intent to extend the First Amendment to state governments.

On welcoming religious expressions in public: I don't think it is new, but I also think that there is a broad consensus in the United States that religious expressions should be welcome in public. Indeed, I think the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses give constitutional status to this notion. The only important caveat is that those expressions have to come from private sources, not the government itself.

On public schools and government: I don't understand how you could see a public school as anything but a government-run school. Of course we are usually talking about state or local governments, which is why I referenced the 14th Amendment, but they are certainly government-run. And if your suggestion is that somehow local governments should be able to violate the Constitution, I don't think there is a legal ground for that position. I also think it is obviously unwise, since local governments if anything have greater power and influence, and therefore greater opportunities for abuses of power and influence, within their geographic limits than more distant federal or state governments.

On "individual conscience"--I think that true religious belief, or true belief of any kind, is ultimately arrived at by the individual. But in any event, obviously third parties and institutions can have an influence on individuals. Indeed, the whole point of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from attempting to exert influence over the religious beliefs and practices of individuals. Obviously, private parties and institutions are not subject to this prohibition, and can attempt to influence the religious beliefs of their fellow citizens through any means besides asking the government to do so for them.

Again, the basic idea behind this measure is not to prevent people from having and expressing religious beliefs, or attempting to promote their religious beliefs to others. Rather, the idea behind the measure is to prevent the government from interfering with this process.

Perhaps it is worth saying a little more about why this might be a good idea. As we have both noted, the political influence of religions make them a tempting target for those seeking political power. Consequently, one cannot expect the government to help promote religion in a neutral fashion--rather, one can expect that government will attempt to promote religion in a self-serving fashion, most particularly in a way that will enhance the power of those in government. Accordingly, government efforts to promote religion naturally will lead to distortions of religion, because the government has all sorts of nonreligious incentives to attempt to gain control over religions.

So, it seems obvious to me that those who look to the government for aid in promoting their religion either are overlooking the likelihood that the government will end up distorting their religion, or they are in fact complicit with the idea of using religion to enhance the government's power. In either case, we have an adequate justification for a rule prohibiting the government from attempting to use its power in this way.

In short, this dynamic is often described as pitting the religious beliefs of the majority against the religious beliefs of the minority. But what the Framers understood (and their writings on this subject are quite interesting and insightful) is that even the religion of the majority--indeed, perhaps especially the religion of the majority--should fear the corrupting influence of government. It is therefore all religious beliefs that are protected by this rule, not just minority religious beliefs.
4.6.2006 12:00pm