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.

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Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

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A Suitable Response to Indiana and Arkansas’ Anti-LGBT Maneuvering


Prominent fuckwit and bigot, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

With a new wave of conservative initiatives meant to preserve people’s putatively god-given right to discriminate against people who are different from them cropping up across the United States, it seems time to revisit an issue that is growing exceedingly tiresome. The basic thrust of this recent batch of state-level legislation, enacted in Indiana and Arkansas and under work elsewhere, is that individuals have a right to disobey or ignore laws that would have them violate their religious ethics.The practical, real-world manifestation of these laws is anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Let’s first take a moment to laugh at the very notion that anything like a coherent set of “religious ethics”, as a matter of actual practice, exists, rendering the boundaries of what does and does not count as protected behavior either infinite or sufficiently preferential to mark the legislation a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Now that everyone has had a good chuckle, let’s pretend to take these laws seriously and suggest (as I’ve done elsewhere) that they come with a litmus test. Business owners can refuse to serve or employ any individual on religious grounds if – and only if – their refusal is consistently in strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the laws codified in whatever religious text they point to as a basis for their ethical decision-making.

This mitigates the slippery-slope problem of potentially infinite religious-based exclusions. Further, it would be the best means of proving that the business owner’s discriminatory practices are motivated by piety, rather than bigotry. Perhaps best of all, it would have the effect of driving every single one of these fuckwits – either by virtue of their senseless religious zealotry or savage bigotry – rapidly out of business.

Let’s not mince words here: I’m all for building an inclusive society, but improving that society demands that we brook no obstruction from its most regressive elements. Those among us who support universal equality shouldn’t feel burdened with a need to practice universal tolerance. People have a right to practice religion as they will in private, but when their beliefs trample the rights of others and become a millstone slowing social progress, it becomes practically incumbent upon the rest of us to ridicule, condemn, and ostracize them until they have been driven from our ranks and left to wallow in the shameful recesses of history with communist witch-hunts (and real witch-hunts, for that matter), Jim Crow laws, and slavery.

So, by all means, refuse to serve or employ people on religious grounds. Just be consistent in doing so. Best of luck in finding customers that aren’t in some way in violation of the Bible’s myriad, often nebulous, and occasionally contradictory strictures.

Don’t Look Now, But There’s a Militant Atheist Under Your Bed!


Neal Larson, public intellectual and social philosopher. Slayer of dragons and defender of liberty.

In a recent editorial, Idaho Falls conservative talk show host and thinker of sophisticated thoughts Neal Larson took a moment to stand up to oppression. No, he didn’t argue against exploitative labor practices or in favor of fair wages. No, he didn’t take a stand against police brutality or speak up for marriage equality. Nor did he bother to mention the fact that the United States has become a functional oligarchy. Instead, he targeted something far more insidious: people who don’t share his religious beliefs and dare to express their contrarian opinions in public. Recently, militant atheism has become a blight upon society, as a minority of iron-fisted tyrants have taken it upon themselves to uphold the basic civil liberties expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and publicly express thoughtful opinions concerning the value and veracity of religious belief.

For a number of reasons, I hesitate to draw attention to this sort of whiny, myopic drivel. For one thing, it’s far too easy a target. There’s no challenge in lambasting a blubbering fool for putting his flaccid intellect on public display. It’s like a steroid riddled professional football team trouncing the weakest members of a small-town pee-wee league. It also has the unsavory consequence of giving these types of showboating snake-oil salesmen exactly what they’re after: attention. But at the same time, the ridiculous fantasy that is “militant” atheism seems to be gaining traction among folks whose primary hobby seems to revolve around the invention of repressive bogeymen.

Larson writes:

I have a confession: I’m guilty of discrimination against militant, activist atheists. I simply don’t like them. If there were an epithet to describe them, I’d probably use it regularly. I would refuse to vote for a proud and vocal atheist for high office, regardless of any offsetting credentials.

I’m not talking about those who struggle with faith, or have simply resigned themselves to not knowing, or those who cannot reconcile the horrors and miseries that life offers at times, with the existence of a loving God. Those are examples of unintrusive atheism. I have good friends who are agnostic, and I enjoy their friendship. I do have a problem, however, with those who proselytize and demand that the rest of us cater to their unbelief, as though that unbelief is itself a virtue worthy of our nurture and respect.

Apparently Larson is sympathetic to the view that it is only okay to disagree with the religious majority if you keep quiet about it. This, of course, is both absurd and directly indicative of real intolerance (rather than the imaginary kind he’s so bravely combating in his editorial). For Larson – and countless others like him – doubt is only permissible if you don’t tell anyone about it. Virtuous, on the other hand, are boisterous expressions of credulous faith.

Query: why is it okay for the religious to travel about the world, trumpeting their beliefs door to door, but not okay for an atheist to do likewise?  Proselytizing is a praiseworthy endeavor for the religious, but should an unbeliever even raise concerns that said beliefs – under any basic criteria of rationality or empirical evaluation – are a bit on the dubious side, they are labelled “militant”. Such a dichotomy is patently absurd.

No less so is the very use of the word “militant” to describe a group of people who are nothing of the sort. To quote the esteemed philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” To characterize a person who raises valid concerns over potential violations of the Establishment Cause of the U.S. Constitution as “militant” is to rob militancy of its basic meaning. That a publicly voiced perspective makes people uncomfortable does not make said perspective militant. By contrast, I might point to the minority of Islamic believers justifiably grouped under the moniker “militant Islam”. There are many contrasts one might draw between the purportedly militant atheist and the objectively militant Islamist, but I’ll stick to the most salient: the militant Islamist has a nasty predilection toward killing people who disagree with him. Where is the consistency in grouping atheists, whose crimes might include objecting to the use of public prayer in certain civic arenas, or wishing someone (hold onto your seats here) “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”, under the same label as people who saw people’s heads off and fly airplanes into buildings packed with civilians?

Among Larson’s exceptionally facile examples of religious persecution on behalf of so-called “militant” atheists, he lists the following:

A professor at the College of Coastal Georgia banned students from using the phrase “bless you” in class, threatening to dock points from an offending student’s final grade.

Let us all recall the quiet, glass-eyed anguish of Mr. Kurtz as we collectively gasp: “The horror! The horror!” Never mind the months of counseling it will take that professor’s students to recover from the trauma they experienced under his brutal tutelage. We’ll also, for convenience sake, ignore the fact that Larson’s telling misrepresents the facts of the story so severely that it’s hard to believe he’s not being deliberately disingenuous (not very Christ-like, Mr. Larson). Let’s instead take Larson’s distorted reporting as a hypothetical example and focus on the fact that, far from being militant, such a professor would have made him something much more nefarious: an asshole. This is a soubriquet that should be familiar to professional alarmists like Larson. When the dark clouds roll in and the Day of Judgment finally arrives, I like to think Jesus will separate not only the sheep from the goats, but the petty, thin-skinned weasels and charlatans (read: manipulative assholes) like Larson from the rest of the pack. There was nothing even vaguely militant about what the hypothetical professor was up to. Tactless and pedantic sure, but to cast such behavior as militant, and said militancy as somehow characteristic of entire demographic, is both crude and inane.

In the interest of illustration, let’s turn this cherry-picking game of cavalier generalizations on its head. One might (in a very generous estimation) waste a day listing the people who have done physical harm in the name of atheism. On the other hand, enumerating all the violence and misery that has been wrought in the name of just one religion – let’s say Christianity – would consume a lifetime. Which worldview is the more savage, the more militant? To the rational and fair-minded, the answer is clear.

Of course, not being a slobbering knuckle-dragger possessed of a worldview informed primarily by the fictional works of Ayn Rand and the mystical hokum produced by the inhabitants of the Iron & Bronze Age Levant, I’m reluctant to characterize an entire belief system in this way. Religion has, without a doubt, been the direct cause of absolutely gigantic amounts of human suffering. This point is beyond argument. Atheism, on the other hand, has not (no, the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot were not motivated by atheism). Millions of lives have been sacrificed in the name of piety. Few, if any, have been sacrificed in the name of unbelief. Nevertheless, it would still be unfair for me to paint all of Christianity as militant.

Let’s be clear: religious belief is absolutely untenable for anyone who accepts the proposition that justifiable knowledge is rooted exclusively in the rational analysis of empirical evidence. Faith and reason are mutually exclusive worldviews. One can have one and employ the other (cognitive dissonance, after all, is not a rare phenomenon), but the standards of reason are not commensurable with the standards of faith. The application of one stimulates social, technological, and intellectual progress, the other virtually ensures stagnation. Am I being militant is expressing this opinion? Absolutely not. If you disagree, might I humbly suggest that you take a few days (weeks, months – however long it takes) and grow a fucking backbone.

It shouldn’t escape notice how vastly undemocratic and hypocritical Larson’s ideas of discrimination and persecution are. Larson argues that atheists have “created out of thin air a right to not be offended. If everyone asserts this manufactured right, we have created hell on earth.” This is utter nonsense. His very argument explicitly expresses the notion that religious belief deserves a privileged station in the arena of social discourse. By expressing his offense in the face of atheist criticism, he is implicitly endorsing the position that the religious have their own special right not to be offended, not the other way around. Criticism and debate are hallmarks of a healthy, democratic society. The idea that any belief is sacred is anathema in a free society. By arguing that people who disagree with him are somehow usurping his rights, Larson and like minded individuals beckon ridicule, both of themselves and the beliefs they purport to defend. This, however, is unsurprising. The conservative definition of liberty has always been perilously circumscribed: that everyone, everywhere, has an inalienable right to think and behave in manner corresponding to whatever wobbly and inconsistent interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, Atlas Shrugged, and – to a lesser extent – An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nation is in vogue at the time.

The fundamental point is that no belief system should be sheltered from the scrutiny – however harsh – of competing perspectives. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Larson is wrong on nearly every point he makes, and comes off as petty and ignorant in the process. But he has a right to express his stupid opinions, just as much as I have a right to eviscerate them. John Stuart Mills’ metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” is widely held as a core principle in judging the success or failure of the American Experiment. When organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation issue a challenge, it is in service of protecting – not subverting – that ideal. Prayer and religious doctrine have no place at a public high school football game or in the classroom of public schools, not because they bother atheists, but because they serve to silence inquiry and debate and implicitly reference the sort of exclusionary worldview many conservatives champion. A Christian Nation for a Christian People. Atheists have a right to challenge Christianity’s political hegemony in the United States. Exercising that right isn’t any more militant than the behavior of a Christian evangelist who tells people that disagreeing with their beliefs will buy you a one way ticket to eternal suffering. Both behaviors are defined and protected as rights in the United States. This is a point I can’t stress enough. Those who feel offended when someone takes them to task on the absurdity of their beliefs might do well to find less absurd beliefs. Barring that, they might take the time to cultivate a less childish perspective on civil discourse in the marketplace of ideas.

Discriminating Against the Disciminators: Striking a Compromise Between Liberal Hedonism and Religious Zealotry


Last year in the city of Pocatello (where I live) the city council passed a non-discrimination ordnance, prohibiting businesses from discriminating against members of LGBTQ community. Shortly thereafter, local bigots (excuse me – passionate religionists) were able to collect enough signatures to put the measure up for repeal in 2014. Fortunately, more reasonable minds prevailed and the referendum to repeal the ordinance failed to pass – if only marginally. Unsurprisingly, those who voted for the repeal were upset. Why is it when something like this occurs the religious fundamentalists cry foul, arguing that their rights are being trampled? Does preventing someone from discriminating against others, if said discrimination is dictated by the doctrines of their religion, count as its own form of discrimination?

The short answer is I think not. But I’d be willing to give some ground and consider the perspective of the opposition here. According to Christian theology, homosexual behavior is forbidden, a prohibition leveled in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Fair enough, I suppose. The Bible does say that, and, if you truly believe the Bible provides divine proscriptions concerning moral behavior, you should probably be going out of your way to adhere to its strictures.

But consider the wording of the passages from Leviticus. Depending on the translation, chapter 18, verse 22 reads:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

King James Version

Chapter 20, verse 13 expands upon this, arguing:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

King James Version

No where does it actually prohibit serving homosexual customers or employing homosexual workers, something Luis Granados made note of in his recent article over at the Humanist. It simply directs people – rather stridently – to avoid engaging in those behaviors themselves. Already the notion that non-discrimination ordinances represent an infringement on the rights of the faithful is on shoddy footing. Demanding that they treat their fellow humans with something that might be described as “basic human dignity” is not an affront to their beliefs. Rather, it is simply a plea to not act like an asshole (albeit supplemented by the threat of legal recourse against defectors).

Still, the faithful might argue that even supporting sinful behavior, however indirectly, represents a violation of their god-given morality. Here I would propose a litmus test, whereby faithful adherence to religious canon can be distinguished from outright bigotry. It would be simple enough. Those who refuse service to LGBTQ folks because said lifestyle deviates from that outlined in the BIble should be forced, by law, to demonstrate their strict obedience to Biblical ethics by refusing to serve or employ anyone whose lifestyle exceeds the rather torturous boundaries of Biblical ethics.

Fundamentalists Christians (or fundamentalist members of any Abrahamic sect) would demonstrate the equanimity of their moral selectivity – as opposed to their stubborn bigotry – by refusing service to anyone who violates any law of Leviticus. For instance, they would not only refuse service/employment to members of LGBTQ communities, but to anyone who breaks (or has broken) the Sabbath, sells (or has sold) their land, done or said anything blasphemous, cut their beard or trimmed their hair at the sides, has a tattoo, or wears cotton-polyester blend shirts. A more complete list of behaviors that might render an individual unsuitable for Christian commerce or employment can be found here.

Others might disagree, but I think this is more than fair. It provides a mechanism by which the truly faithful can be distinguished from the unjustifiably bigoted. The Christian right to discriminate against others based on the fidelity with which they follow Christian beliefs is preserved while simultaneously upholding the right of LGBTQ individuals to participate in the economy absent bigotry.