Saturday, September 09, 2006

You Don’t Have To Believe It But Ridicule Won’t Win Their Support

Posted by olvlzl

You know it is one of the clearest realities of American life, so clear that it is beyond question; for the left’s agenda to be put into effect it will need the support of religious people. Some kind of religious belief is held by a very large majority of Americans, you don’t win elections without the support of the majority of the voters. If the left, by its own actions or by caricature, can be made the enemy of religion in general then the left can forget about holding power in the United States, ever again.

Reading leftist blogs you have certainly seen comments hostile to religion. The sometimes witty slurs against people who believe in one or more gods are certainly well known to you. If not, just wait around, one more is on its way. While sometimes quite funny, they tend to be repetitive. They could be intended as a fairly harmless indulgence for those hostile to religion but it isn’t politically innocuous.

I am bringing this up because I suspect there is an effort to stir up these questions just now. Articles in MSNBC-Newsweek and elsewhere might indicate an attempt to kick up a religious fight before the fall election. My interest in this is entirely in its effect on practical politics, I want the left to win this election, winning is the most important thing for the next two months. We can live with a certain level of atheist-religionist animosity, we cannot win an election with leftists falling for the bait the Republican right puts out for it. Leftists can be counted on to come to the defense of atheists who are targeted for discrimination. If atheists are in danger of life and limb, we must do that. But this all too timely row has nothing to do with life and limb. It is not pressing.

Absurdly, this time the bait seems to feature the question of an atheist not being electable as president. Since it’s proving hard enough to get any moderate-liberal elected you wonder why the left needs to deal with that just now.

Does an atheist have the right to be President? No. Let’s get that straight. No one has a right to be President. Holding an elected office is an assumed responsibility, assumed only with the permission of the voters, not a right. Our democracy would be a lot safer if everyone would remember this. Atheists have a right to run for President but no one has what is constantly mislabeled a right to assume the office except the legitimate winner of the election.

Is it unfair that an atheist who is honest about it has no chance of being elected as President? Yes, unfair. It is as unfair as the fact that a vegetarian, a Buddhist, an Animist or a Zoroastrian has no realistic chance of winning a real party’s nomination or gaining enough votes to win a presidential election. If you point out that the Constitution says there will be no test of faith to hold office, that’s enforceable against the congress, executive or judiciary, how are you going to enforce it against voters?

Will it remain so? Almost certainly it will remain so for the rest of our lives, there’s not much we do about it. Changing that situation cannot be done politically or by court ruling. It is a matter of cultural change, and, ironically, it will be a change that depends entirely on the acceptance of atheists by religious believers. Atheists who would like to change that might profitably ask themselves if insulting religious believers will hasten that day. They might consider if their, at times brilliant, mockery of religion* has perhaps played any role in their present day status with believers. When we talk about religion we are talking about people. Religion doesn’t exist outside of people who have feelings that inform their opinions and votes. Some religious people will never vote for us and we don’t have to worry about them. But there are many, I hope most, who we can convince to vote with the left. Those are the ones we need.

Atheists on the left should cut out the blanket mocking of religious people. What do they hope to gain by it? Nothing that is worth the cost. Interestingly, it almost always lacks the objective observational acuity necessary for realism, usually the pride of atheists. “Religion” takes in an enormous range of beliefs**. It is safe to assume that the range of religious variation is at least as wide as that found in politics. To lump together Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Catholics, Jains, Oomotists, etc. and to ridicule them over their religion as if it was any one thing is the sign of a lazy mind. The variation in these beliefs and the actions that come from them do make a huge difference. Pretending that they are all the same thing is just as unrealistic as conflating all political parties, ideologies, rump caucuses and majorities of one for characterization - based on the worst of the bunch- as “political people”. Attack away, as long as it is religious fascists who are the target, there is nothing to lose by doing so. But ask yourself if you really want to drive away people who might vote the same way you would.

A lot of the most important success of the left was grounded in the religion of the activists who did the necessary work. We have that on the best possible authority, the activists themselves. What good is there in mocking liberal religion? Atheists have also done good work for the left but you don’t usually hear religious leftists slamming them because of their atheism just as a matter of course. That kind of injustice would be remarkably atypical of religious liberals. It is a matter of fact that religious liberals have been outspoken supporters of the rights of atheists and other religious non-adherents.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by phrasing it as a question. This conflict will be promoted by the supporters of the Republican Party during this election season. It is brought up now because they know it could provide them with the margin they need to win this election. Atheists and knee-jerk leftists who ignore that this is a well worn tactic of the Republican right are counted on to do most of their work for them. Remember this, these kinds of wedge issues don’t have to succeed with a majority of the voters to work. They just have to deliver the margin of victory. Leftists who choose to strike a pose should be asked if they really think their ephemeral self-satisfaction is worth remaining out of power. It isn’t a price that is worth it to any rational leftist.

* Some of the mockery, when it has been against criminal behavior and moral hypocrisy by the religious establishment, has been well worth the cost. As the urgency of the problem addressed diminishes the benefit over cost ratio plummets.

** Including non-theistic forms of Buddhism