Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When I Teared Up

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."
- President Barack Obama

As an atheistic apatheist (not only do I not believe there's a god but that I honestly don't care), being included in an inaugural address is a pretty big deal for me. I mean, I have had people stop talking to me because of my atheism; I have been mistaken for a Satanist due to my atheism; and more than once people have reacted as if I've betrayed them in some way by being an atheist and not Catholic like they normally assume. To be included in the bigger picture, to have my nonbelief offered up as a strength for our nation, is pretty moving for me. It gives me hope that one day, being an atheist won't be something that elicits a horrified reaction; it gives me hope that one day, being an atheist won't immediately be equated with the opposite of goodness; that being an atheist won't immediately make someone assume that I am not trustworthy, or a liar, or that I am a thing to be pitied; that I am only an atheist because I don't want to own up to my sinful ways, and if I only knew of the glory of God, that I would be saved.

One of the stories on Talk of the Nation on the 15th was about atheism and the advertising of it in a public square, focusing mainly on the bus ads that had been present in D.C. during the Christmas season, proclaiming that we should be good "for goodness' sake". The idea behind this discussion was atheist activism, how others felt about it, and if there were more atheists now than ever before. I don't know if there are; I honestly don't care if there are. It doesn't make any difference to me if we make up 2% of the population or 50% of the population. What I do want is for atheism to be recognized as a perfectly valid belief. I don't know if bus ads or billboards or a mention in an inaugural address is enough to do that, to validate a belief that goes against the core beliefs held by many in the nation. But it is a start, and it does make me feel a bit more accepted.

15 comments:

Emily said...

I completely agree with all of this. At that part of the speech I felt even more goosebumps on my arms. After an administration that has pushed its religious beliefs onto so many people, it was so refreshing and amazing to hear Obama say that.

John said...

Hooray for non-Believers! I find it incredibly strange that Americans can be persecuted for their lack of belief in a religion, considering the amount of freedom and protection given to those who believe devoutly in any recognized religion, no matter how unpopular. Even if those in power could make someone practice a religion, faith isn't something that can be forced (without resorting to cult-like manipulation and indoctrination tactics.) But enough of that. The important thing is that President Obama doesn't care that you don't care whether or not you believe in a giant man with a long, white beard who lives in the sky and makes bad things happen to good people.

MediaMaven said...

When I heard that line I thought of you. Yay for atheists!

petpluto said...

"When I heard that line I thought of you."

Ha! I love it.

"After an administration that has pushed its religious beliefs onto so many people, it was so refreshing and amazing to hear Obama say that."

What I think is so amazing about it is that while yes, Obama was raised mostly secularly, he is also profoundly religious (as one almost has to be in order to be elected). It is one thing for all those crazed secular progressives to acknowledge our existence (and I know some will claim Obama for that category as well), but for someone to deeply believe and be moved by that belief and still be open enough to think "Yeah, that's valid too" is incredibly gratifying.

"I find it incredibly strange that Americans can be persecuted for their lack of belief in a religion, considering the amount of freedom and protection given to those who believe devoutly in any recognized religion, no matter how unpopular."

Don't you know, John, that without religion there can be no morals?! And also, communists were atheists! That means all atheists must be communists!

John said...

"Don't you know, John, that without religion there can be no morals?! And also, communists were atheists! That means all atheists must be communists!"

So that's why I'm inexplicably drawn to the color red, and think that the history of civilization has been one giant battle between the middle and upper classes. It all makes sense now!

mikhailbakunin said...

You're all going to hell.

Seriously, though, Pet -

Without a "higher power," I don't think you can assert objective morality, can you? The argument that "Christianists" make (to borrow a term from Andrew Sullivan) is that there must be a moral arbitrator for there to be objective morality.

And if morality is subjective, doesn't that more or less legitimate the moral/cultural relativist position? You may say, "no, I still think they're wrong," but that doesn't make you RIGHT. No one has the Truth if morality is subjective.

This is something I've been struggling with for years . . .

Of course, the disciples of Ayn Rand would disagree with all of this . . . But that's because Ayn Rand is their moral arbitrator.

petpluto said...

"if morality is subjective, doesn't that more or less legitimate the moral/cultural relativist position? You may say, "no, I still think they're wrong," but that doesn't make you RIGHT. No one has the Truth if morality is subjective."

This is going to be my short answer, because I'm planning (though you know about the best laid plans) to address the actual questions of God and a higher moral plane in another post. But my short answer is that it doesn't matter, that questions relating to moral relativism's legitimacy don't change whether or not there is a god or objective Truths; because even if there is a god from on high who has a list of rules we are supposed to be following, we still have to recognize the fact that we're human, we're flawed, we've got biases, and that the simple task of everyone seeing the same hue of blue is impossible. Even with gender privilege or racial privilege or cis privilege or any other societal prism we see the world through or interpret actions through, we still cannot interpret anything clearly as objective Truths.

Every book of a god was at the very least filtered through human hands and the brain, divinely inspired or not. Therefore, every book is 'tainted' with these biases and this lack of ability to actually get to that reasoned and whole Truth. Religious folks will point to their god and say, "He's the arbitrator of all moral authority" - but even if He were to come from on high tomorrow and come out with some Truth for us all to live by and follow, we would all interpret it differently and therefore follow it differently.

At that point, the question remains the same. If there is an objective Truth but we don't know which Truth it is or if it is even completely free from perversion, then the same thing applies. We still don't know something is Right or Wrong; we still only think it is so. And while we've been socially conditioned to think being in possession of a book delivered from on-high is the key to moralized legitimacy, the fact remains that we can't "know" which book is the right book or which Moral Truths are the truly Objective Truths. Which again lends to this question of legitimacy for the moral relativist position. Believing is not the end for that particular problem.

mikhailbakunin said...

Well, the Christian response would be that God is righteous and omnipotent. He delivered his law to humanity (even people who have never been exposed to the Ten Commandments are said to have them “written in their hearts”), but then he gave humanity the choice (free will) to follow His law or not. From what I understand, there is some debate among theologians as to whether people can actually be ignorant of God’s law.

Questions like this are really central to the dual theological problems of “theodicy” and “immanence.”

But, putting Christianity aside, even international law assumes that there are overarching moral truths of which all people are innately aware (unless they’re legally insane).

petpluto said...

"But, putting Christianity aside, even international law assumes that there are overarching moral truths of which all people are innately aware (unless they’re legally insane)."

Well, I never did say that I don't think that there aren't any moral Truths. I'm not a moral or cultural relativist by any means, though some of that is rooted in the practicality of disliking people using that as a defense of some destructive cultural practice. My real point in my response is that even believing in a higher power does not circumvent the quandary that is whether or not to accept the morally relativistic viewpoint.

"He delivered his law to humanity (even people who have never been exposed to the Ten Commandments are said to have them “written in their hearts”), but then he gave humanity the choice (free will) to follow His law or not."

I know all about that "written on your heart" argument, and I gotta tell you that it is less than convincing.

mikhailbakunin said...

hahahaha

I agree. My uncle makes it all the time.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Is there a way for any atheist besides Stephen Jay Gould to have respect for religious belief? (asking philosophically, not picking on you in particular) I think lots of believers feel atheists are disrespectful of our intelligence... for instance, since a bunch of em told me that I was only fit to scrub their toilets (at Pharyngula), I found myself wondering if there was hope for us all to get along, since I am as "fair" and liberal a believer as they are likely to find.

But yes, I was thrilled to hear it too--another step for tolerance, diversity and acceptance for everyone.

petpluto said...

"Is there a way for any atheist besides Stephen Jay Gould to have respect for religious belief? (asking philosophically, not picking on you in particular)"

Yes. I think that there are three basic types of athiest, and only one of them is occupied by the Bill Maher types (though he does claim to believe in a God). These are the atheist-religious, who are like the most hardline God-religious in that anyone who does not accept their truths as the only truth is obviously an idiot to be pitied (I've gotten my fair share of "You poor thing" over the years by genuinely sweet Christians - who then tried desperately to convert me). These are the people who write the books the most often and garner the most controversy.

Then there are the reactionary atheists, who at times say disparaging things against the majority (and in many cases oppressive) religion. I'm not going to compare the struggle for atheistic acceptance with any other civil rights struggle, but I will say that I do think there is a tendency to become prejudicial toward a group the marginalized group sees as their oppressors, or even just people benefiting from the system. I know a couple of atheists who have drifted into this camp over the years, who used to be more accepting but became more and more embittered by the religious' grip on outward expression and testimonies to faith. A lot of this group, I think, used to belong to the third group.

And that's the group I tend to fall into. These atheists may be atheists for scientific reasons or just for theological reasons; they tend to not have as much dislike for the overarching religious narrative, and (perhaps naively) hope that religious tolerance includes nonreligion before they are too tempted to turn into the reactionary atheist.

As sad as it is to say, and as hard as it is to believe sometimes - what with movies like Religulous and books like The God Delusion - the believer is of a privileged class in our society. The believer's views are reinforced by things as simple as "In God We Trust" on the dollar, or "One Nation, Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, making it seem to the atheist like his or her country truly doesn't want or accept them. The believer is granted the ability to extort their faith in places like the office without worrying about being offensive - normally. Meanwhile the atheist often remains closeted; and like how heterosexism manifests itself in believing the world is straight and that one has to "declare" when they are otherwise, the world also assumes that we nonbelievers have belief. And many times (again, speaking anecdotally), it is like we have betrayed someone we were close to with our lack of faith. And I think those sorts of systemic things sometimes make atheists - like other marginalized groups - prejudiced, as well as a bit grumpy. That doesn't excuse what happened to you in any way shape or form. It shouldn't have happened. But I don't think the fact that it did is an indication that there can never be a bridge between the two sides. It's just one that will take a lot of time and hopefully less screaming about the way those "radical secular leftists" have taken over society - because between you and me, it still seems to privilege people like Bill O'Reilly and still sees me as less trustworthy and in some cases like less of a citizen.

DaisyDeadhead said...

As sad as it is to say, and as hard as it is to believe sometimes - what with movies like Religulous and books like The God Delusion - the believer is of a privileged class in our society.

No question; I absolute understand this.

I think this fact finally 'hit me' during all that Rick Warren shit. (And now he just won't go away, will he?)

My mother was atheist, in the sense that she regarded religion as some cool fables and/or fairy tales, but never really argued the point. I think I've always expected atheists to be like her, and just be sort of mellow with it. I now see that she was a product of her time and just never thought to 'argue for her rights' in this regard, although she sure would argue for them in every other respect!

I think she saw her nonbelief as a personal quirk or temperament.

As a result, though, atheism has just never 'alarmed' me. I have tended to see it the same way she did... so that does give me an edge in the tolerance department!

At the informal memorial gathering when I flung my mother's ashes where I thought they should go, I chose the scriptural reading of (warning, Bible link ahead) Romans 8: 33-39, Paul's famous "nor principalities, nor powers" sermon... but I was very clear that the reading was FOR ME, not for her. I had to say it, for myself and survivors. And I am very certain she wouldn't have minded me doing that; death was difficult for her also. (Her big thing was "no funerals" and no bodies in caskets, etc...and I kept that promise.) I also sang her favorite song, which was written by Willie Nelson. But no officialdom and no clergy and none of that.

She would have liked it. :)

DaisyDeadhead said...

PS: I took the link out of the last post, didn't think that would be polite. But gave the verses, for reference.

Another difference between my mother's generation and yours: she always sent me to church, religious education and such. She acted like it was something everyone should know and be exposed to, like geography or something.

I don't think most atheists now feel that way about their kids.

petpluto said...

"I took the link out of the last post, didn't think that would be polite."

Feel free to link to religious verses! Parts of the Bible and other religious texts are profoundly beautiful. For me, though, they are a representation of the abilities of man - how high we can reach - than of the wonderment and majesty of a deity.

"I think I've always expected atheists to be like her, and just be sort of mellow with it."

I think a lot are, and sometimes the bluster is more about a protective bubble - a hit them before they hit you technique - than any real ire or condescension. I can't speak for the (other) atheists you've encountered, but I know I'm more than tempted to do that at certain points in time myself. It just sucks to be on guard a lot of the time and to feel bombarded by faith in almost every moment of your day. Like, I once got into a discussion with a Christian about Joss Whedon, with the Christian saying that she wished Whedon would put more outrightly religious messages into his works. And I got angry, because Christians already have CS Lewis and Madeline L'Engle and 7th Heaven (though that last one...), and I wanted to know why they had to have Whedon too, why there couldn't be that little bit of television haven for us nonbelievers. And I think unfortunately sometimes atheists tend to lash out because they may feel like that little space they've managed to carve out for themselves is being taken away. It isn't always logical, but there it is.