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“Christmas and the Religion of Atheism”

There is nothing religious Americans hate
Like the phrase “separation of church and state”
Their claim, if they note the construction at all
Is that Jefferson wanted a one-way wall
Now the latest new step in the desperate dance
Is “religion is one ontological stance”
Thus atheists’ faith in material stuff
Is the same as religion—at least, close enough.
(Though he’s wrong, there’s an aspect he’s clearly neglected—
He’s just made the case that our side is protected:
After all, it’s religion, or such is his claim,
So if one is protected, the other’s the same—
A point I’ve been trying to make all along,
So maybe he’s going to be happy he’s wrong.)

A particularly poorly written essay, “Christmas and the Religion of Atheism” at PewSitter.com, misrepresents what atheists want, misrepresents the first amendment, misrepresents both religion and atheism, and ties it all together with a ribbon on top, in a paragraph beginning with “thus…”

He begins (ready your bingo cards):

With the Christmas season approaching, the now predictable protest by atheists against public displays of creches and the like already have begun. The city of Santa Monica (ironically “Saint Monica”) was sued by a Christian group for no longer permitting a nativity display which had been allowed for over sixty years. Elsewhere, in Arkansas, a single parent stopped students from seeing a Charlie Brown Christmas play even though she simply could have opted out her child.

Ah, yes, the “look the other way” argument. Familiar ground. (mark your cards!) Note the “Santa Monica” parenthetic; we’ll revisit it later. Also, note the twist on “public displays”; a church’s yard is a perfect place for a nativity scene, and it is very public. My uncle’s yard is a perfect place for a solemn display of a creche, standing out against his neighbor’s miles of bright lights, illuminated reindeer, and inflatable Santa (Claus, not Monica) displays. A town hall or public school? Not so much; those are owned by all of us, and it is not acceptable for me to put up my display on your property.

Atheists often cite the so-called wall of separation of church and state and the way in which they do so completely turns the idea upon its head. The phrase nowhere appears in the U.S. Constitution, but in a private letter written in 1802 from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

“Separation of church and state does not appear in the constitution” (mark your cards!)… no, it was only the concise way Jefferson described what is in the first amendment.

The problem is that the Danbury Baptists had contacted Jefferson to obtain reassurance that the state of Connecticut, that is the government, could not stop them from worshiping. Thus we have the first point: The primary function of First Amendment of the Constitution (and the “wall of separation”) is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around.

The “one way wall” gambit! (mark your cards!) Oh… readers here will be well aware, that keeping religion out of government is how you protect religion from government. When the power of government is allowed to support one religion, other religions suffer. The first amendment was not designed to protect believers from non-believers; atheists were few, far between, and powerless. No, the first amendment was designed to protect Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Lutherans, etc., from one another.

One might also note that Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. This period believed that reason was a pure thing in itself and it alone could prove moral norms as well as do scientific investigation. However, a number of thinkers have since demonstrated that reason left to itself ineluctably ends up in going in circles, even in scientific theories. This fact has demonstrated itself amply in current debates over morality. Reason needs a ground or a starting point. Therefore whether you believe in God or not, you must make basic unprovable assumptions about how the world works and why.

That’s actually quite an admission in that last sentence. For someone who thinks objective morality can only be grounded in god, admitting that this is an unprovable assumption is big.

Thus atheism is every bit as much founded upon a belief system just like any deistic religion. The difference is that its central doctrine is that matter is the ultimate reality, not a deity. Consider this telling quote from Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewonton, an atheist: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”

Actually, no. I know atheists who are not materialistic monists, but a-materialists. I know others who do not take an ontological stance at all, but pragmatically assume an unspecified monism (dualism being logically incoherent). Atheism simply does not require an ontological commitment to materialism.

As for reason needing a grounding point… there is no need for that grounding point to involve a god. I have also seen the argument that it is less unbelievable for Platonic ideals to exist than for God to exist (they are simpler entities, after all), so even if you need grounding that exists separately from our experienced universe, that does not logically imply a god. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if the Lewonton quote could continue for just a couple more lines? Selective editing? (Mark your cards!)

Atheists often arrogate to themselves titles like “freethinkers” or “brights,” implying that they are smarter those who believe in a deity. But the Lewonton quote hints that there is an “unreasonableness” to denying realities beyond the merely material. This has been amply demonstrated in any number of books such as Robert J. Spitzer’s “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.” Spitzer cites numerous respected cosmologists who point out that the mathematics used to describe the workings of the universe practically demand a Creator. A number of these cosmologists have been converted from atheism to belief in a deity by the force of the evidence. (And a number of biologist have been converted through their study of the human genome.)

“Freethinkers” as a term is roughly 400 years old, so that makes it older than Santa Monica. If you get to appeal to history for that name, so do we. But “freethinker”, of course, does not automatically mean smarter, just not bound to a particular dogma. The author of the essay is a member of the Catholic church, as identified with dogma as McDonald’s is with the Big Mac. His writing is not free from that dogma. (As for “Brights”, I thought that was a bad idea from day one. But of course, disliking the “brights” label does not get me kicked out of atheism. No dogma, see?)

“A number” of cosmologists have been converted, as have “a number” of biologists. (Mark your cards!) Of course, a number of believers have lost their faith over the course of their education. In the US, it is a virtual certainty that the number of scientists who have lost their faith is considerably larger than those who found it (there are simply a much vaster number of former believers to lose faith than former non-believers to find it); I would wager that not just the number, but the percentage, tips my way as well. Yes, some of the names that have migrated (or Flew) to religion are well-known. In part, though, they are memorable because they are so few.

Thus the current efforts by some to push religion completely out of the public sphere are faulty on several counts. Secular viewpoints are not “neutral,” are not necessarily more reasonable than some religious viewpoints and making them the standard of public policy is not in line with the intent of the First Amendment. But in the end it should be patently obvious that the more we have pushed religion out of public culture, the more coarse our society has become.

You can recognize a non-sequitur in religious writing–it begins with “thus”. Note that the author has proved that an ontological stance (which need not be held by atheists) is a religion, and thus cannot be made public policy, because it, as a religious view, is protected from government meddling. While religion (of which the ontological stance of materialism is but one example) is protected from government meddling, and therefore can be made public policy (at least at Christmas, because reasons).

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