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November 02, 2006

Comments

Inkstained Wretch

Hmmmm ...

"I believe a more secular America would be less likely to interfere with the free choices of its citizens ... [such as] to more fully research the potential of embryonic stem cell lines."

By "more fully research," I presume you're referring to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research here, since there is no ban on private funding for that research. The ongoing debate in Washington is solely over whether Joe Taxpayer should have to foot the bill.

Can you explain then Ray how advocating for federal funding -- and it's not chump change; we're talking billions here -- can be squared with your libertarianism? Why shouldn't we leave this to the private sector?

How exactly does this jibe with the philosophy of small government? You may think federal funding for stem cell research is a good idea on the merits, but surely it cannot be described as a libertarian stance. Isn't the Christian fundamentalist position of no federal funding more libertarian and more small government?

Seriously, Ray, I'm curious as to your thoughts on this.

R.J. Lehmann

"since there is no ban on private funding for that research. The ongoing debate in Washington is solely over whether Joe Taxpayer should have to foot the bill."

It is true that there is no current ban on such funding. It is not true that that is the whole of the debate. There are any number of politicans who quite aggressively advocate banning the use of embryonic stem cells whatsoever. One of them is Lt. Gov. Steele, the man who'd like to be the next senator from Maryland.

And on the other hand, there are related bans on things like cloning that I see as similarly wrong-headed.

As to the funding question, as you rightly surmise, I'm not a great fan of using government funds to accomplish what private funds could, but neither am I particularly doctrinaire on the subject. Perfectly rational public goods arguments can be made for government sponsorship of many forms of R&D, and in my libertarian fantasy of programs I'd like to kill, these are not particularly high on the list.

But the bottom line remains -- if you're going to have government funding science at all, then those funds should be directed where the potential for valuable knowledge is the greatest.

Kevin B. O'Reilly

I knew I was opening myself up for the "we're closeted" response, but I don't find your response very convincing. Five percent isn't really going to blow anyone's socks off.

It's like the "libertarian vote" meme going around -- we are a small, fringe group. Both atheists and libertarians have the truth on their side and can help win some important debates, but our numbers are too small to sway any political contests.

To win the political debates about religious freedom, we need to target as broad an audience as possible and of necessity that isn't done by highlighting our atheism. Just as one doesn't need to an anarchist to favor shutting down the Department of Education, one needn't be an atheist to oppose having the Ten Commandments on public property. So why bring it up?

As for widespread dislike of atheists, do we know what causes it? It seems to me that there is widespread tolerance in the country when it comes to matters of racial, ethnic and religious identity. Thankfully, most Americans have little trouble imagining that their neighbor who holds a different faith simply is own a different "path to God." But atheists deny that such a path even exists. And in most cases, our views can't merely be written off as ignorance or "the way we were raised." We represent a direct and conscientious affront to most people's cherished beliefs.

Who are we? We're the uncle who tells Johnny he'll find daddy underneath Santa Claus's beard. We're the kid who reminds the teacher about the homework she meant to assign just as Friday class is about to let out. We are absolutely right, but we're also a bunch of party poopers.

These are the brute facts: Truth-telling is never popular, and it's especially despised when you're dispelling the most popular myth of all times. How do we get around that?

R.J. Lehmann

"Both atheists and libertarians have the truth on their side and can help win some important debates, but our numbers are too small to sway any political contests."

Let me go back to the example I used to start this. If you define Jews as those who belong to Jewish congregations, they represent just 0.5% of the U.S. population. If you define them the way the Jewish faith does -- those of Jewish matrilineal descent -- they are 1%. Defined as anyone who self-identifies as a Jew, they are 2%.

However you want to define it, though, there are several times more atheists in America than there are Jews in America. And yet that hasn't stopped them from asserting themselves and making their voices heard. The ADL would never stand for the sort of blatant attacks that atheists just absorb as a matter of course, and American culture in general has progressed to the point where such attacks on the Jewish faith or Jewish people are no longer culturally tolerable.

If they can do it, I don't see why we can't.

"Just as one doesn't need to an anarchist to favor shutting down the Department of Education, one needn't be an atheist to oppose having the Ten Commandments on public property. So why bring it up?"

There's nothing wrong with coalitions with similarly inclined believers on specific subjects, but I would still rather see atheists assert their identity within those coalitions.

Why? Because it's relevant. Because we are Americans, too. Because we are every bit as much entitled to representation in public debates as any other group. Because often, the only "compromise" on the table is nonsectarianism, simply because the view that some Americans reject the concept of God altogether is never even considered. And most of all, because the pussy-whipped go-along to get-along approach isn't getting us anywhere. The fundamentalist hordes aren't content with ceasefire -- they're bent on advancing.

"Truth-telling is never popular, and it's especially despised when you're dispelling the most popular myth of all times. How do we get around that?"

The abolitionists weren't popular. Neither were the integrationists a century later. Nonetheless, the culture HAS changed. Anti-miscegenation laws are so recent a memory that Alabama didn't repeal theirs until six years ago. And yet, your junior senator -- a product of a mixed race marriage -- is many people's pick to be the next President of the United States.

Again, I don't necessarily predict that sort of success for our cause in my lifetime, but it does have to start somewhere.

Kevin B. O'Reilly

When I asked, "How do we get around that?" I didn't mean to sound defeatist. I'm asking for your thoughts. Do you see the point I'm making? Merely being black, or Catholic, or a conservative doesn't directly contradict others' identity in the same way that atheism confronts people's faith. They feel as if we are saying not only that they are wrong, but superstitious and dumb. And it's not just about our arguments. The mere mention of "atheism" seems to provoke that reaction in people.

How do we get around that?

R.J. Lehmann

Alas, I don't have an answer to that. But whatever the answer is, I suspect it will involve frequently admitting "I don't have an answer to that."

Kevin B. O'Reilly

Do you agree that it's a problem. Perhaps we should first ask why atheists are so unpopular. Don't we first have to understand why we're disliked in order to change people's minds?

These other groups you mention -- gays, Jews -- not only stood up for themselves but engaged in educational campaigns to explain themselves and dispell myths. I don't think the current atheist M.O. of "this is why you're an idiot to believe in God" is helping us much.

R.J. Lehmann

I would agree wholeheartedly that that particular approach has not worked, and if that weren't apparent in the postings I've put forward thus far, then I suppose I haven't made my intentions here clear at all. The difference between the sort of strident language often used by Dawkins and his ilk, and what I see as a necessary "civil rights" approach to the issues currently facing nonbelievers, is that I don't think our primary concern should be to win new converts to the philosophy of atheism. Don't get me wrong -- I welcome it when I see it, and I welcome any constructive efforts that might serve that cause. But I don't see it as the highest priority.

Rather, the highest priority is first to earn a place at the table of our own culture. And so, yes, absolutely, that involves trying to explain ourselves and dispel myths about our community. It involves responding to slurs and bigotry. It involves demonstrating that atheists are good people, good neighbors, with good intentions, but who have different beliefs about God and religion. And it involves proving that we represent a significant number of Americans -- between 15 and 30 million -- who ought be granted the same respect as any other minority group.

Kevin B. O'Reilly

R.J., thanks for your most recent comment. Why do you think atheists are so unpopular in America?

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