David Niose is President of the American Humanist Association and vice president of the Secular Coalition for America. He is the author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans (2012), which I reviewed here yesterday. Here I ask Mr. Niose some questions about themes in his book but also about recent events in both America and around the world. I hope that if I, a polytheist who believes all gods exist, can see the truth in the words of a man who believes in no gods, that not only atheists but moderate monotheists, will also embrace that truth and work for a future that will benefit all Americans, wahtever their belief system.
Q: You discuss in your book the difference between types of secularist, from atheist to agnostic to humanist. Obviously, just as there are Christians and there are Christians, there are atheists and there are atheists. What is your opinion of what I like to call fundamentalist atheists? By this I mean those atheists who are eager to evangelize as the most ardent fundamentalist, who instead of criticizing people for not going to church or not having “found” Christ, call people fools for believing in a god.
A: I must first say that I cringe a bit when I see atheists referred to as “fundamentalists.” It’s almost always an inaccurate label, even when pinned on an atheist who is quite vocal and assertive. Keep in mind that zealously advocating for one’s views (or criticizing the views of others) does not make one a “fundamentalist”. The key criterion for “fundamentalism” is an unwillingness to revise one’s views even in the face of evidence disproving them. Thus, one who insists the world is 6000 years old merely based on biblical views, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is probably a fundamentalist. But it is unfair to call someone a “fundamentalist atheist” just because he is ardent in his advocacy for his view. Almost any atheist – even Richard Dawkins – would gladly revise his views if presented with strong evidence rebutting them.
That said, the real emphasis of the modern secular movement is not religion-bashing, but asserting the rights of seculars and raising the profile of nonbelievers so that society recognizes the value of the demographic. There are inevitably going to be some people online who have bad manners, who make statements that amount to little more than religion-bashing, but that’s not what the movement is all about.
Q: Many liberals argue that it is a mistake for the Democratic Party to seem hostile to religion and that the Left must make itself more attractive to “people of faith.” For example, Amy Sullivan (The Party Faithful, 2008) wrote about the importance of the Democrats closing “the God gap.” Yet you argue for the importance of “a movement of unapologetic Secular Americans. Do you think Democrats can do both? You say in your book that the tendency of Democratic politicians in the 1990s to emphasize their faith was troubling. Do you think they should reach out to traditional religion? Is there some safe middle ground that can be found or must the Democratic Party eventually choose a side of the fence and make a stand there?
A: Politicians can surely appeal to “people of faith” without advocating for religion in government. The problem is that too many politicians and voters interpret religious neutrality as hostility toward religion. Many politicians incorrectly feel that if they don’t pander to religion they will be seen as being anti-religion.
All Americans, religious and nonreligious, should expect public policy to be based on reason, facts, and logical thinking. Politicians should not have to “reach out to traditional religion” to get elected, because they should be talking about their views on public policy, not religion. And this does not mean that public policy should be anti-religion or hostile to religion in any way.
Frankly, this is why the emergence of the secular demographic can be such a game-changer in American politics, because the visible presence of seculars reminds everyone that religion is no basis for public policy, that it’s not right to stigmatize secularity, and that politicians should not pander to religion in an effort to get votes.
Q: What is your opinion of the bruhaha over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies?
A: Barton has been shown to be an agenda-driven propagandist for the religious right. He is willing to distort the truth to achieve his ends of spreading fundamentalist Christianity. It is shameful that so many high-profile politicians have supported him.
Q: What is your opinion of books like those by Steven Waldman (Founding Faith, 2009) and John Fea, (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, 2011), which take the position that the question of America’s secular vs. religious nature is more complex than either Right or Left are willing to admit?
A: I am more familiar with Waldman’s book than Flea’s. I think Waldman makes many valid points, but I do think that he shows some mild bias, probably unintentional, toward the pro-religion view. For example, he seems to accept that the framers saw religious liberty as desirable mainly because it was the best formula for promoting faith. I don’t think that’s true. I think most of the framers saw religious liberty as desirable because they believed it would lead to social stability and a lower likelihood of sectarian religious violence. I think we need to realize that the framers were also politicians, and such statements – that religious liberty is great because it promotes religious faith – are obviously politically useful and wise. There’s little reason to believe that Jefferson, for example, saw the ideas underlying the religion clauses of the First Amendment as being desirable because they helped promote faith. It’s much more likely that he saw them as a means of diminishing the political power of churches.
Beyond that, I think most on the secular side would agree that, from a historical standpoint, the question of America’s secular and religious nature is complex. The views of the founders are important, but I think many on both sides of the culture wars place too much emphasis on what the framers would think of religious questions. After all, nobody asks what the framers would think about racial equality, women’s rights, or LGBT rights. Societies evolve and values change. Yet ironically, having said that, I believe a fair analysis of the founder’s views would conclude that they would be sympathetic to the notion of secular government that is promoted by the secular movement today, probably more sympathetic toward it than they would be to racial equality, gender equality, or LGBT equality. After all, they owned slaves, gave women almost no rights, and of course never even discussed the notion of gay rights.
Q: You say the avowed purpose of Secular Americans is to return the influence of the Religious Right to pre-Reagan levels. I can see why you would choose this cut-off point; after all, it was in Dallas on August 21, 1980, that Reagan himself said “Religious America is awakening.” And since from this point on, as Frederick Clarkson from Talk2Ation pointed out in his article, “No Longer Without Sheep,” Pentecostalism began to “adopt aspects of Reconstructionism or dominion theology,” it was a sort of punctuation mark on the previous decade. Do these reasons factor into your thinking? And given the degree of infiltration into the GOP already accomplished by this point, do you think this is a sufficient push-back?
A: Prior to 1980 there were certainly many fundamentalists who were interested in asserting more power in American politics, but 1980 was the first election where we saw them visibly engaging and influencing the process in a major way. That’s why most commentators date the modern phenomenon of the religious right to about that time, and that’s why I suggest that a key goal of the secular movement should be to return the religious right to pre-Reagan levels of potency.
Q: I don’t know if Atheists have this problem but when asked my religious orientation for official purposes, I cannot make my voice heard. There is no option for Heathenism (Asatru). I can be Christian or Protestant or Catholic or what have you, but my voice must remain silent, an eternal member of the category “other” – an option which only serves to cement monotheism’s demonization of the constructed other. Has this dismissive approach to choice been institutionalized in our country?
A: To some degree monotheism has indeed been institutionalized as an officially favored view. Just look to the motto of “In God We Trust” or the statement that the nation is “under God.” Such affirmations obviously promote a view that true patriotism is characterized by a belief in God.
Such thinking has resulted in the marginalization of the secular demographic, and it has cost this country dearly. There is no doubt that seculars have long been dismissed as insignificant in America, and as a result the quality of our public policy has reflected the undue influence of the religious right and the absence of sufficient influence from seculars.
Q: The assaults on American interests in the Middle East on account of a film hostile to Mohommed have given new fuel to the Religious Right’s Islamophobic fire. Do you think there is any remedy to this ongoing cycle of monotheistic mutual hate? I often feel that we are trapped by this ancient animosity. Clearly, we cannot do away with religious fundamentalism but is there some way secular voices can be heard above the rancor as a third alternative to the debate between the world’s number one and number two religions? We are ourselves a disparate collection of voices, not only Atheists but various religious minorities. Do we really have a hope of being heard or are we only deluding ourselves?
A: The ongoing problems in the Middle East are very complex – economic, political, cultural, etc. – and go far beyond mere “monotheistic mutual hate.” That said, I’d like to think that we are not deluding ourselves when we believe that a successful secular emergence in this country will lead to more rational public policy, including more rational approaches to international problems. If seculars could have more influence in America, clearly the general discourse and the resulting policy would reflect more critical thinking, more rationalism, and less rancor. That’s where the center of gravity tends to go when secularity becomes more influential in a free, democratic society.
Q: I addressed Matt Barber’s attacks on Atheism the other day at PoliticusUSA.com with regards to objections to the 9/11 cross at the World Trade Center site (which brought to mind what you had to say about the “victimization” mentality in chapter 8 of your book). Would you prefer to see a memorial that accommodates all religious beliefs (given that not every victim or family was Christian) as well as Atheism (surely some of the victims were Atheists) or would it be better to remove all religious symbols from the site?
A: I would probably prefer the latter, but I think the former would be a reasonable compromise. The idea of having just a Christian symbol, however, is simply wrong, another example of Christianity claiming special status. It’s the classic case of one group of people being more equal than others.
Q: We saw God put back into the Democratic platform amidst a chorus of opposition. I wrote the next day that it was a step backward. Michael Savage said, “This is a big moment. America is disgusted with this party of atheists and America haters,” proving your point of widespread anti-secular bias, and Joseph Farah and Matt Barber tendentiously liken the chorus of boos to Peter rejecting Jesus three times. I’d like to know your thoughts on this development and what it means for Secular Americans.
A: It is a most unfortunate development, a sign that America has not matured enough to appreciate true religious pluralism, which of course would include the nation’s atheists, agnostics, and humanists. There is no reason to believe that a party must include a reference to God in its platform in order to show that it is not hostile to religion. Perhaps worst of all, now that this became an issue in this election, it will be even more difficult to have a religiously neutral, inclusive platform in future years, because reporters and opponents will be looking for the issue in future elections.
Q: In that same vein, and this isn’t so much a question as an observation: I think that I and many other secularists have been wishing Carl Sagan were still with us to provide a voice of reason in this debate. We have been looking for a new voice of reason since Mr. Sagan’s passing and a clear-thinking manifesto like his Demon-Haunted World (1996). The works of tend to be Atheists condemned out of hand simply by fact of the author’s lack of what the Religious Right thinks of as piety, and I often wonder how Sagan’s book would have been received had it been published a decade later; and what Mr. Sagan might have said in defense of it. I think that your book, consciously or otherwise, echoes Mr. Sagan’s call for critical thinking and I hope it is widely read and generates some much-needed debate.
A: Thanks for the positive feedback – much appreciated!
(For those who want to hear more from David Niose: the Washington Times talked to him on August 4, 2012, which you can find here, and the Washington Post had a Q&A with Mr. Niose on September 4, 2012, which you can find here,)