Why Are Atheists So Politically Active?

May 19, 2011 07:03

[T]hey have embraced a new, empty theory of life and society – they have no basis for morality or purpose. The acknowledgement of God or Christian morality is a threat – a threat they want to banish from the culture around them. Unfortunately for him, the atheistic humanist has no clear answers and no foundation for a theory of life, morality, and society.

By David Roemer at Center for a Just Society

Culture in the United States has become increasingly anti-religious in recent decades, but it is not easy to understand the root of this hostility towards religion. The attacks on religion are common, and pop culture and the news media have all but banished religion from our public discourse. But why would anyone who simply “doesn’t believe” work so hard politically to remove religion from the public square?

It is helpful to consider a few specific instances of this hostility. About 10 years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union filed three federal lawsuits against four counties in Kentucky alleging that they had violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause for displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses. The ACLU won all three of the lawsuits in district courts, and the counties appealed to the United States Court of Appeals. The appellate judges reversed two of the cases, but let stand American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County.

Christopher Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager, two law school professors, wrote about this case and proposed a system called “Equal Liberty.” “Equal Liberty” does not absolutely preclude a decision in favor of the displays, but the authors strongly disagree with the Justice Antonin Scalia’s favorable view of religion:

Three of the dissenters—Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas—also defended Kentucky’s display on a more radical ground. They said that the Establishment Clause left the government entirely free to endorse religion over nonreligion and, indeed, to endorse monotheism over other forms of religion. That view, which Scalia tried to defend on historical grounds, is of course at radical odds with the principles of Equal Liberty. (Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager, Religious Freedom and the Constitution, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 144)

Why does their “Equal Liberty” require a banishment of religion in the public square? Such political enthusiasms—like the lawsuits in Kentucky—point to an underlying moral and philosophical motive. When religious people “stop believing in God” they often become politically active atheistic humanists.

Implicit in atheistic humanism is a reliance on human progress for “salvation.” They have abandoned faith, and therefore they place their faith in human science. The trouble with the “scientific” approach to the question of God and morality is that empirical science is not adequate to address the question. The proof of God’s existence comes from a method of inquiry called metaphysics. The idea that humans are finite beings is a metaphysical proposition, not a scientific one. That human beings have free will and conscious knowledge is also not a scientific statement. (Knowing that this page is black and white means more than that light is entering our eyes and going to our brains: it means an awareness of the reality.) We can comprehend free will and conscious knowledge, but we can’t define the concepts. It is a matter of common sense and experience that human beings are embodied spirits or spiritual bodies.

The inherent limitations of the hard science are clearly on display when atheistic humanists attempt to explain the existence of life from the perspective of evolution. Biology is a limited practice – it studies the evolution of life. Body and soul are the metaphysical concepts of matter and form applied to human beings. Form (soul) is the principle or incomplete being that makes humans equal to one another and superior to animals. Matter (body) is the principle that makes humans different from one another. Whether they know it or not, biologists need the concepts of body and soul to begin the study of human beings—embodied spirits—on a rational basis.

The basic evolutionary argument is that the universe began 13 billion years ago (the Big Bang) and our solar system condensed into existence 5 billion years ago. Life began on Earth as bacteria and evolved into the present collection of species over a period of 3.5 billion years. But evolution leaves us with no explanation for the Big Bang and the origin of life. Such ultimate beginning questions cannot be answered by science – here we enter the realm of metaphysics.

Essentially, there are two kinds of knowledge: faith and reason. In reason, we know something is true because we can reason to the truth of it. In faith, we know something is true because we believe God is telling it to us. Faith is a positive response to revelation. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, is an historical event that can’t be explained in terms of any other historical event. The faith response to this event is to believe that Jesus entered into a new life with God or will do so at the end of time like all of God’s prophets. Faith brings us to knowledge that cannot be attained by reason alone, and faith’s ultimate goals rest in belief in the afterlife.

Atheistic humanists think that such religious faith is not only irrational but also bad for humanity. Here is the beginning of their political argument. The following quote is from the American Humanist Association:

Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.

According to the Bible and the Koran, our purpose in life is to serve God in this world and to be with Him in the next. Religion provides a clear purpose and a clear moral standard. If the atheistic humanists are to be believed, then what is the purpose of our lives? They often argue that our purpose in life is to achieve what they call fulfillment, self-actualization, or self-realization. This sounds better than saying our purpose in life is to be happy because everyone knows people who devote themselves to their own happiness tend to be unhappy.

Unfortunately for their case, the goal of self-realization ignores the real problems we face in life. Because of our freedom, we have to decide how to fulfill ourselves or realize our potentials. The truth is that we can fulfill ourselves in different ways. Achieving fulfillment or self-realization is an ill-defined goal compared to the well-defined goal of getting to heaven through faith. The famous atheist Sigmund Freud didn’t know why people should be kind and honorable. In a letter to a friend he explained:

When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably, ready to spare others and to be kind whenever possible, and when I did not give up doing so when I observed that in that way one harms oneself and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and untrustworthy, then it is true, I have no answer. [Ernest Jones (1955), The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, New York: Basic Books, Vol. II, p. 418]

Freud ran into the classic problem faced by atheistic humanists: They have no touchstone, no basis for for why they do what they do or what else they should be doing. The following quote from a Muslim who became an atheistic humanist partly explains why many or most atheistic humanists deny the existence of God. If God exists, revelation may be true and we may have to pay for our sins:

One night in that Greek hotel I looked in the mirror and said out loud, “I don’t believe in God.” I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief.

It felt right. There was no pain, but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure and carefully tiptoeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out, piece by piece—that was all over. The angels, watching from my shoulders; the mental tension about having sex without marriage, and drinking alcohol, and not observing any religious obligations—they were gone. The ever-present prospect of hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, New York: Free Press, p. 281)

Many atheistic humanists are not content to stop at banning God from their own inner lives – they then seek to remove his presence from the culture around them. Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) are two classic examples of atheistic humanists with a bent towards political extremism. Marx was obsessed with the unfairness of the interest income earned by capitalists and businessmen, and he advocated for a strong socialism. Herbert Spencer was also obsessed with improving the standard of living of his fellow human beings, but he preferred an extreme form of capitalism.

According to economic theory at the time when Marx wrote Das Kapital, land owners accrue rent, workers earn wages, and the owners of factories (capital goods) get interest. Marx thought that interest income should go to the workers because capital goods are produced by workers. He understood life and security in purely economic terms and believed the government should dictate social balance.

Herbert Spencer, on the other hand, advocated laissez-faire capitalism to the extreme of ignoring people who are down on their luck:

It seems hard that an unskillfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the intemperate and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic. [Herbert Spencer (1903), Social Statics, Abridged and Revised; Together with Man Versus the State, New York: D. Appleton & Company, p. 150]

Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin (1809–1882), coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Spencer was against relief programs financed by taxpayers and private charities. What Spencer and Marx had in common was their feeling that they were intellectually superior to people who have religious faith. Their opposition to faith in God led them to a strong faith in themselves. They believed they could devise systems that would perfect society and leave men free from the “bondage” of charity and humility – the “bondage” of believing in God.

The first atheistic humanist in modern times to address questions of politics and government is Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). Machiavelli said princes and officials in republics should promote the general welfare rather than concern themselves with being just and virtuous. Machiavellian means deceitful and cunning. This is the kind of statement that earned Niccolò such opprobrium:

From this it may be concluded that men should either be caressed or exterminated, because they can avenge light injuries, but not severe ones. The damage done to a man should be such that there is no fear of vengeance. (Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and Other Works, Translation, Introduction and Notes by Allan H. Gilbert, New York: Hendricks House, 1964, p. 99)

Just like Marx, Machiavelli, and Spencer, the ACLU is now fighting through the court system against the appearance of religion in the public square. Atheistic humanists are disadvantaged by the display of the Ten Commandments because they teach their children that God does not exist. Yet, their children see from the words I am the Lord thy God in courthouses that their parents are not mainstream citizens of the United States, but inhabit only the margins of American society.

In truth, atheistic humanists often act out politically because they did not merely “stop believing.” No, they have embraced a new, empty theory of life and society – they have no basis for morality or purpose. The acknowledgement of God or Christian morality is a threat – a threat they want to banish from the culture around them. Unfortunately for him, the atheistic humanist has no clear answers and no foundation for a theory of life, morality, and society.

David Roemer graduated from Fordham College in 1964 with a B. S. in physics and from New York University in 1971 with a Ph. D. in physics. His book reviews have been published in The Church of England Newspaper, Spero News, Sight Magazine, OrthodoxyToday.org, Religion And Spirituality, and the Midwest Book Review.

The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.

Picture licensed from Flickr user Atheist Bus Canada under Attribution 2.0 Creative Commons license.

Article used by permission of Center for a Just Society

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