Atheism and the Public Sphere

Religious liberals and conservative moderates often recoil in the face of hard atheism. To them, atheism represents a sort callous disdain for an inoffensive source of succor and support. Why, they wonder, are people subjected to such rancorous ridicule for believing in something that brings them comfort?

Doubtless this reaction springs from a place of authenticity. There are plenty of atheists who scorn religion wholesale and excoriate its practitioners as frail imbeciles. And there are plenty of others who take no real offense at private religiosity but opportunistically assail believers with similar barbs. Why not? It’s good fun at the expense of an easy target. A bit of lazy recreation can go a long way. It’s shooting tin cans in the desert.

Because of this confusion, it’s worth making efforts to advance a more nuanced position. Naturally, I can’t speak for the entire population of atheists. The atheist community is diverse. Some, like me, disavow religious belief because it is contrary to a worldview built around reason and evidence. Faith is a childish epistemology. It can’t be reconciled with science and careful reasoning. Others disdain religion for emotional reasons.

My sense of thing – and I think this is the correct stance – is that religious belief as a source of comfort or as a framework for personal conduct is not offensive in the slightest. Sure, I think it is misplaced, misguided, and ultimately unsupportable. The idea that the most important thing to concern yourself with while you’re alive is what happens after you’re dead is pretty silly. But that’s not really any of my business. Curing the world of false beliefs isn’t a task I’d set for myself at my most masochistic.

Issues only arise where matters of religious belief bleed into the public sphere. In a democratic society, this intrusion is inevitable, and this is the line where my war on false beliefs begins. If a person holds a false belief that gives them a sense of comfort or clarity, I feel no need disabuse them of their mystification. But if false beliefs are motivating policy preferences and voting habits – as they did in 2016 when millions of believers voted for an ethically hideous buffoon – that is absolutely matter of public concern.

The moralistic crusades of religious believers are too frequently an obstacle to progress. People die needlessly agonizing deaths because religious fanatics believe doctor-assisted euthanasia violates the will of god. Enormous ecological devastation is justified in the name of dominion theology. The harmful effects of human behavior on the environment are ignored because only supernatural beings can work changes of that magnitude. Besides, if those changes occur, isn’t that His will? Otherwise senseless foreign policy positions flow from the ravings of apocalyptic scripture. The punitive impulses that stifle criminal justice reform have their roots in religious tradition. The bloody, expensive, inhumane, and unwinnable “war on drugs” – a campaign whose chiefs consequences of have been to make murderous criminals rich, criminals murderous, and turn many of their most vulnerable victims into criminals – is a product of religious moralism.

From the lunacy of the gibbering mongrels who seized a bird refuge to the vile legacy of institutionalized racism, slavery, homophobia, and anti-science quackery, a huge swath of the problems we face in the public domain have roots in the strain of wishful, slobbering, objectively false romanticism we call religion.

To the extent that religion is a source of warmth and support for individuals and families, I take no issue with it. If the idea that their lives will carry on after they die or that a god/his son/a god who is his own son died to lift the burden of some of their worst mistakes brings them a sense of comfort in an often cruel and indifferent world, more power to them. But when they take those beliefs to the ballot box and attempt to inject mythology into public science curricula or vote for war-mongering politicians in the hopes of ushering in armageddon, enact campaigns to restrict the rights of people who don’t share their beliefs, or try to teach lies to children, we have a serious problem.  

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Featured image: A shirtless hippy sleeps on a golden plate.

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