It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.

8 Comments

  1. 20 March 2006 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps if you have little kids it’s different, but I very rarely encounter any issues with my atheism. Of course, I don’t live in Texas, but Ohio? Pretty damned bad.

  2. 20 March 2006 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Snort. All down with you about not wanting to belong to the Anti-Unicorn society. I think both the phenomena of closeted atheists who still want to preach about it AND American religious culture being all ends of extreme can be summed up in a single sentence:

    Their parents were Puritans.

    You’re right that most non-believers were brought up under some variation of lazy agnosticism, barely occasional church-going, and mostly academic interest in religions of all descriptions. (I was brought up that way myself, although I still retain a may-well-be-childish belief in the divine.)

    Most of the Atheists I know, though — the card-carrying, preach-it-brother kind — were brought up by preachers. Evangelical Christian preachers. Puritans. They can’t give their names in the newspaper because their parents will find out. Rebellion against the folks parsimoniously captures the whole movement, I think.

    And America is extreme about religion and politics because we are a nation founded by religious nuts. The waxing and waning of adolescent rebellion versus fealty capture most of our political and religious life from the 18th century onward.

    ‘Course I live in Minnesota. Peopled mostly by eccentric and socialist Norwegian farmers for the last century or so, which means we get feather-boa wearing Libertarian wrestlers and short Jewish political science professors cheerfully (if less and less reliably) populating our local political landscape. This is comforting, especially with all that fiddling and arson going on is Washington these days.

  3. Harry
    21 March 2006 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I did blur the distinction between atheists and agnostics, but in the end, I don’t think there’s that much between someone who doesn’t believe in God and someone who believes there is no God. Most agnostics, I’m sure, are atheists really but don’t want to come across as shrill and hectoring. Personally I call myself an atheist because ‘agnostic’ seems like a cop-out.

    I don’t think American politics is actually extremist by nature – you’ve never had viable communist or fascist movements there, as far as I know, which is unlike almost every country in Europe. What it does seem to be is very divisive and polarising. The US is certainly more religious than most other big democracies at the moment, but even that is relative; compare it to Ireland, for example, which has a ban on abortion amended into the constitution. At least 6000 Irish women a year travel to the UK for abortions.

  4. 21 March 2006 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    It is an alien thought to me too, my mother is jewish and my father agnostic, but I was christianed to allow me entry into ‘christian society’ if I wanted it.
    I became an atheist aged 4 (when I learnt the word).
    I want to go through middle america but I think I’d get lynched: a liberal, atheist, opinionated, Londoner. Not a hope.
    I worry that the world’s greatest super-power is splitting in two, with the liberal coasts and the reactionary conservative, aggressively Christian middle. They may claim that Church and State are seperate, but religion defines their politics. Just look at South Dakota banning abortion, based on moral (read religious) reasons, and Kansas trying to make ‘Intelligent Design’ (read Creationism) part of the syllabus.
    At least in England we can rely on the inherent centerism/moderation of our political system. They may try and lead a crusade, but the media will always pop their bubble (enough mixed metaphors anyone).
    I’d love to live in America, but I’m not sure I could deal with having to speak to people who actually believe this bollocks.
    Eloise

  5. 21 March 2006 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    shadygrove says, “… we are a nation founded by religious nuts.”

    That is one interpretative tradition. Another is that the American republic was founded on Enlightenment values, one of which is religious tolerance (if not skepticism). Hence, as far as I understand it, the separation of church and state. How useful to progressive causes is it to stress the puritan “origin” of the nation, even if the intention is to portray it as the Opponent? The rise of the religious right is of a specific political moment, and we should be careful not to essentialize it as the American character or mythologize it as the American origin. Just some stray thoughts.

  6. Harry
    21 March 2006 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I wish I’d thought to say what Jee Leong just said.

  7. Harry
    22 March 2006 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Hey eloise. I don’t know why my spam-blocker thought your comment was spam.

  8. 22 March 2006 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Heh, of course, Jee Leong, you’re right that the Enlightenment is a big part of our national tradition (as in France, as Harry pointed out), as is the cherished right to engage in smuggling without government oversight, neither of which has much of anything to do with religion. The separation of church and state is an Enlightenment idea, and much of our tradition of states’ and individual rights emanate from those among our founding fathers who were shrewd and slightly paranoid petty criminals. I was being flippant and smart-alecky.

    Still, I think specifically Protestant extremism and fundamentalism is a big part of our national character, including threads of religious and moral absolutism, somewhat shrill reform and rebellion, and a deep suspicion of anything that might be fun, for want of a better word. The American Puritans, in contrast to the Irish Catholics, didn’t (and don’t) really have a system for forgiveness of sin; contrast the Calvinist ideas of predestination and election with the Catholic sacrament of confession. Moral errors therefore are a much bigger problem, and the stakes are higher. I don’t think it’s really too great of a leap to suggest that these doctrinal differences do contribute something to the zeal with which the American Religious Right pursues its present political agenda, and to the entrenched, irresolvable nature of the ensuing conflicts.

    Using religious language and ideas derived out of this tradition shrewdly has been helpful to progressive politicians in recent years; think Clinton and Carter. And the Calvinist aspects of our history seem to be gaining strength and speed these days, perhaps mostly because people turn to religion and traditionalism when their lives are threatened (a psychological feature that Karl Rove might just be savvy enough to have exploited to get his man elected last time ’round). But as Jee Leong suggested, there’s more than one thread to pick up, and the U.S. is a diverse place. Wellstone did well here in flyover land with very little attention to religion by highlighting American traditions of independence and reform, as well as by making political hay out of the specifically Minnesota tradition of Scandinavian-style farmer-and-miner socialism.

    I do worry about people overemphasizing Eloise’s point — that liberals can find like-minded thinkers only on the coasts. Electoral maps by county show that even outside of urban areas, and even in darkest South Dakota or Kansas, people are deeply divided, politically and probably religiously and morally, too. Most of the “red states” were red in the last election only by the thinnest of margins. But by suggesting that there are portions of the nation where progressives “belong” (a lesbian comedienne I heard expressed this as, “Gays! Get to the sides!”) we increase the degree to which we are a politically and geographically divided nation. Well-educated progressive thinkers are frequently mobile, and I think people really are moving to the coasts motivated at least in part by political alienation. The American electoral college being what it is, this has scary implications for a progressive agenda, and it reifies stereotypes about what middle America and coastal America are like and how different or similar they really are.

    At any rate, I think I’ve now written more than Harry has in his journal for today, so I’ll turn the keys back to him and sign off. A fabulous debate; thanks for that! Cheers!

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