Monday, December 12, 2005

Atheist Politics

I am Jewish. And, after a brief period in my teens where I wrestled with the question, I do (passively, at least), believe in God. Nevertheless, I bear no malice or ill-will or feeling of superiority toward my atheist friends. They have their beliefs, I have mine, and unlike issues of political substance, their private faith (or lack thereof) has no impact on my life. As such, I support wholeheartedly atheists' rights as American citizens under the First Amendment, and oppose their stigmatization and the constant barrage of attacks that rain down against them from the public sphere. It's wrong, anti-democratic, and reminiscent of our nation's worst prejudicial instincts. I condemn it whole-heartedly.

So I was sickened to read this account of a man Eugene Volokh calls a "leading atheist legal activist" and, as it happens, a man running for the Democratic nomination in the Alabama gubernatorial race. Larry Darby has expressed sympathy for David Duke, organized speeches for Holocaust deniers, says we live under a "Zionist-Occupied Government," and in general has a long history of anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic comments. Volokh's words, I believe, ring true:
It seems to me very important that irreligious people participate in public debate, to defend the legitimacy of their views, and to protect themselves against religious discrimination and hostility. I don't agree with everything that all atheist activists urge; for instance, I don't think that the Establishment Clause is properly interpreted as banning religious speech by the government. Nonetheless, there are indeed some egregious forms of discrimination against the irreligious (or the less religious), for instance in child custody cases - these should be assiduously fought.
I therefore have nothing at all against atheist political movements in general, nor do I have any reason to believe that atheists generally have any hostility towards Jews, or affection for David Duke. Yet this makes it all the more important, it seems to me, for atheists who are deciding whom to ally themselves with - or for that matter, for members of other groups, such as Scouting for All or any marijuana decriminalization groups - to know Mr. Darby's views that I describe above, views with which I hope most atheists much disagree. Likewise, Alabama Democrats should know who's running in their primary, and should keep in mind the views I note above, even if some of them are tempted to agree with him on marijuana decriminalization, juvenile justice, or even religion in public life. (I doubt there are that many Alabama Democrats who do agree with him on those latter issues, but I imagine there are some.)

And it's also important for Jews - even in America, the place in the world in which it is probably safest to be a Jew - to be reminded that these sorts of views do exist in America, and in what might to many seem like quite unlikely circles.

He's dead on. But what really impresses me is how, responding some of the comments to his post, Professor Volokh immediately began an impassioned defense of atheists as a class, arguing that they do face significant prejudice in America today and that we have, as moral human beings, an obligation to oppose that prejudice. A recent poll indicates that fully 50% of people hold an unfavorable opinion of Atheists--compared to 25% for Muslims, 19% for Evangelicals, 14% for Catholics, and 7% for Jews. Worse, a 1999 poll by Fox reported that a stunning 69% of Americans would refuse to vote for an Atheist presidential candidate (again, this dwarfs the number for other religions). Remember, 1999 predates such negative PR events like the "under God" case and the absurd "war on Christmas." As (again) Volokh notes, if Jews had these numbers in X country, nobody would be defending them. There is no reason why atheists should--as a class--be afforded any less respect.

It is often quite difficult, in the heat of political passion, to distinguish between a representative of a group and the group itself. Lord knows many partisans have fallen into this trap, quoting some random Democrat or Republican and showcasing it as proof positive that the whole movement is an evil plague. This is one of the reasons why Professor Volokh is one of my favorite bloggers. I may not agree with everything he writes, but he is always fair, and always respectful.


Pooh said...

And it's amazing how often such fairness and willingness to discuss a wide range of topics and viewpoints get's him accused of some form of bigotry or another

Anonymous said...

...69% of Americans would refuse to vote for an Atheist presidential candidate (again, this dwarfs the number for other religions)

OK, I'm probably being pedantic, but I don't consider atheism a religion, so referring to belief systems other than atheism as "other religions" doesn't sit well.

I liked the rest of the post, though, and enjoy your blog.

Ben said...

Darby surprised a lot of observers when he received 43% of the vote in Alabama's Attorney General race in 2006. Soon afterwards, he disavowed atheism (you'll never guess which religious group he said was the evil force behind the atheist movement) and demanded that the Alabama Democratic Party choose him to replace one of several Democrats running for state offices; the party responded by publicly calling him disgusting and declaring him persona non grata, and Darby whined about being censored. Soon after, his neo-Nazi allies abandoned him when they found out he was married to a Chinese woman and had two biracial kids. He's now fully disappeared into obscurity. Good.