The Los Angeles Times --December 20, 2009
I discovered that I had tucked this article away for a future blog entry. The article reports that Cecil Bothwell became a city councilman in North Carolina. Because he is an atheist, conservative groups describe him as "satan's helper", and a"radical extremist" who is "bashing religion". In fact, none of these apply. He simply does not believe in God.
An individual named H. K. Edgerton and individual known for wearing a confederate army uniform weaving a confederate flag and other actions would most would regard as unusual, except down South, has threatened to sue to prevent an Bothwell from serving. He states that he has a problem with a atheist serving in public office, which is banned by the North Carolina constitution. Since six other states also have provisions outlawing atheists in public office the matter is one of concern throughout the nation. Of course, the constitution forbids there being a religious test for holding office. Those who advocate States' rights might very well claim that this is a matter to be settled out of Federal Court. But since this is a matter of fundamental rights, the constitutional issue is one which should be decided at the Federal level.
What most interests me about this affair is the fact that atheists are considered to be one of the worst possible groups to which one may be a member in the United States. Numerous polls in recent years have indicated that an atheist is regarded as unacceptable as a candidate for public office by a majority of Americans. This is regardless of the persons positions, moral character, or other attributes. Simply because the individual is an atheist a large number of Americans would refuse to vote for him.
Of course, there are always groups with whom we have problems as a people. I certainly would understand, indeed would agree, that a neo Nazi is automatically disqualified as a reasonable candidate for any public office. However, that is due to the inherent racism and violence in the neo nazi movement. Atheists, on the other hand, are not inherently violent, racist, or immoral in any way. Many make the rather odd assumption that only those who believe in God can possibly have any morals. They assume that this is so because God is the single and sole source of all morality. But this cannot be true. If morality is moral only because God says so, then if God changes his mind, morality immediately changes.
This would mean that if tomorrow got decided that cannibalism was worth a try, it would immediately become moral and just to eat other! If God decided that Saint Augustine was correct and that sex was inherently evil, indeed, that the sex act itself is the disease vector through which original scene is passed from generation to generation, and that sex should be forbidden, then even married couples would be unable to be considered moral if they consummated their marriage.
Morality, therefore, must come from some other source than God. Surely, if God were to suddenly declare that rape and mass murder were good, we would not then begin to perform these acts. One of the reasons we so justly condemn cults is that the cult leader often performs brutal and cruel sexual acts upon its members, claiming that God has told him that this is the correct thing to do. The cult members may be deceived, but the rest of us see that these acts are immoral and just plain wrong. Of course, we do not assume that the cult leader is actually receiving these instructions from God. Instead we assume that He is either lying or is mentally ill. But even if god were to make such declarations, I am confident that the majority of us would not begin engaging in what we currently regard as depraved and reprehensible behavior.
God, too, must behave in a moral manner. One of the ways we differentiate Satan from God is in their conduct and the demands they make upon us. Another time I will discuss the issue of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and of Jephtha's sacrifice of his daughter. For now I simply wish to note that while the God of the old testament is an angry and a jealous god, He is, nevertheless, a just God.
It certainly cannot be denied that very religious people sometimes commit very horrible acts. It is not commonly acknowledged that Hitler was a very religious man. It is true he was not a churchgoing man, but it is very clear that he believed that he was doing God's work in cleansing the world of what he regarded as the Jewish infection. On the other hand, there are historical cases of atheists taking moral positions and even of suffering harm for doing so.
I believe that the fear of atheists grows out not simply of ignorance, but of an even deeper fear on the part of the religious that the atheist might just be right. In other words, I believe that the religious who fear the nonreligious have a very weak faith. If your faith a strong, there is no way an atheist can threaten it. If your faith is weak, than the mere fact that someone else expresses doubts becomes a very serious threat.
Consider the demands of the Religious Right for a return to prayer in public schools. They suggest that this is the only way to keep children and our nation moral. Which suggests that as parents they have no faith in their own ability to influence their own children. One of the reasons Christianity took root in the Roman world was because of the obvious faith which strengthened questions facing martyrdom. Those early Christians had no doubt that their faith was stronger than the Roman Empire. Today's American Christians of the Religious Right and have a different view. It is clear that they feel that without the government teaching their religion to their children for them, their faith will fade and die. One of the saddest things about this situation is how little faith the Religious Right has in the power of God.