The Politics of Atheism II

Social Justice

As part of the compassion that we as atheists should have for all living beings, I advocate joining in efforts to end poverty. Wealth honestly earned is a powerful incentive for people to work hard and succeed, and it is not intrinsically unjust for different members of society to enjoy different levels of luxury. However, no one should lack the basic necessities of life - a place to live, food and clothing, education, health care, and work that pays a living wage - and no one should be suffering or in want. I do not know whether government or private efforts to this end are more effective, but I see no reason why we cannot support both. I would not even oppose government funding of church social services such as soup kitchens, so long as grants for this purpose are distributed even-handedly (to atheist charities as well as religious ones), no government money is spent on religious material, and comers are not forced to sit through a sermon. Atheists should, however, oppose all efforts to give public money to any charity that discriminates on the basis of faith, such as the Salvation Army, and should refuse to financially support such charities and should encourage others to do so as well.

As well as fighting poverty at home, we should not forget that there are millions of people worldwide who live in extreme poverty, and commit to helping them as well. There are too many worthy efforts to name here, but in particular, I would suggest supporting efforts to vaccinate children and otherwise treat curable diseases common in the Third World, funding sex education efforts to put women in control of their own destinies, and boycotting companies that employ sweatshop labor. As with anti-poverty efforts on the individual level, in addition to programs that address immediate needs, we should devote at least as much effort to programs that focus on breaking the cycle of poverty and lifting people up through education and job training.

Secondly, atheists should strongly support measures to protect the environment. Unlike religious zealots who expect to be spirited off the planet in the Rapture, we recognize that the Earth is our one and only home, and still the only planet in the cosmos where we can exist. If we make it inhospitable, we and our descendants will pay the consequences. For this reason, we should devote effort to living in a way that enriches, rather than depletes, the planet; to live alongside nature and not at its expense, as we are doing now.

Chief among the environmental problems we face is the problem of global warming. There is no longer any good reason to doubt that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, or that human activities are largely driving it, and while it is too late to avert it entirely, it is still possible to curtail it in time to prevent the worst scenarios from coming true. To achieve this goal, however, requires that the human species switch from a fossil-fuel-based economy to one powered by renewable, zero-carbon energy sources as soon as possible. Likewise, we should support significantly increased fuel-economy standards for all vehicles, improving to a zero-emissions standard as soon as it is technologically feasible. Although it is doubtful that solar and wind power can supply all our energy needs at this point in time, we should use them to the greatest possible extent, and support research to make them more efficient in the meantime. How many barrels of natural gas or tons of coal could be saved each day if every house in the world had a solar panel on its roof?

Environmental protection also promotes public health. By cleaning up pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, and fertilizer runoff, we will prevent a wide variety of health problems, from asthma to birth defects, leading to far greater savings over the long run. Funding remediation efforts, such as the EPA's Superfund, can help undo damage already done, but it is only a start. The root problem is that, in the current system, polluting businesses can export the costs of their pollution, their so-called externalities, to society rather than paying for them themselves. One way to fix this is to extend cap-and-trade systems, both for carbon dioxide and more directly toxic pollutants, that force businesses to shoulder the environmental costs of their own operations and give them an incentive to reduce emissions. (The Kyoto Protocol, for example, is a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. The U.S. is one of only two nations in the world that has rejected it, an inexcusable lapse for which atheists should demand immediate correction.)

Finally, atheists should commit to protecting and conserving endangered species and threatened habitat worldwide. We should work to immediately end the rampant deforestation still occurring worldwide, and support efforts to regulate all harvesting of natural resources to a sustainable level, one that does not destroy them faster than they can be renewed. Unlike supernaturalists who cherish fantasies of a recreated Earth, we atheists know that any branch of evolution's tree, once destroyed, can never be replaced. Even aside from the direct benefits that intact ecosystems provide us, we should do our best to tread lightly on the natural world, on the pragmatic basis that it is better, if possible, not to commit to any decision that cannot later be undone.

The Media

The rise of citizen media, through blogs and the Internet, should be taken by atheists as a very hopeful sign. Though there are some exceptions, to a large extent the traditional media, consisting of television, radio and newspapers, has become ossified. It still panders to the religious right, substitutes shouting and spectacle for informed debate, distracts the public with sensationalism rather than providing deep analysis and context, mindlessly laps up and repeats political talking points as if they were evidence, and shies away from reporting facts that make the powerful look bad under a false pretext of "balance", in addition to a multitude of lesser sins. Some of this craven behavior can be traced to the ceaseless harassment of the right, while some is due to independent media outlets increasingly being swallowed by large corporations that run them as profit-making ventures rather than sources of information.

For the most part there is little that can be done about this (except, as I have previously argued, that TV stations licensed to use public spectrum have a constitutional obligation to treat opposing views fairly) - but atheists can and should opt for alternative sources of information as often as possible, and boycott the organizations (and their corporate sponsors) that engage in especially egregious violations of journalistic integrity. Fox News and the other sources of right-wing sleaze funded by Rupert Murdoch would be a good place to start, as well as the cult-owned Washington Times. (Media Matters is a good place to keep track of right-wing bias throughout the news media.)

Science & Education

Science is the only effective way of gaining knowledge about the world, and atheists should advocate that it be funded generously, both by the government and by private parties, and emphasized in all public and accredited private schools. Any attempt to dilute the teaching of science in schools, or to "balance" it with nonscience, must be opposed. Also, any attempt to stifle science, whether by censoring publications, packing peer-review panels with ideologues, selectively hyping uncertainty for political reasons, or funding contrarians and promoting their opinions as equivalent to the mainstream consensus, must also be brought to light and opposed. (Chris Mooney writes about many such outrages in The Republican War on Science.)

I also recommend that atheists support efforts by groups such as the Public Library of Science to make scientific journals open-access. Knowledge is the lifeblood of humanity, and should be made as widely and freely available as possible, rather than being locked behind electronic firewalls and hidden away in closed-source journals that most people do not have access to.

When it comes to the public school system, one of the more contentious issues relates to voucher plans that allow parents to send their children to private schools at state expense. I believe that atheists should oppose such initiatives, mainly because of valid concerns that it violates the separation of church and state. The vast majority of private schools are explicitly religious, and it is plainly unconstitutional to take public tax money and use it to fund religious institutions where devotional content is inseparable from secular activities. In addition, it is often overlooked that vouchers actually pay for only a small percentage of the average private-school tuition, making the program more of a way to subsidize the rich than to genuinely benefit the poor. Failing public schools should be fixed, not abandoned, and indeed the evidence shows that this usually results in greater actual benefits than voucher programs do.

On another contentious issue, the reliance on standardized testing, the facts are less clear-cut. There is definitely something to be said for accountability and for making sure that all schools competently teach an essential core curriculum. On the other hand, we do not want to encourage "teaching to the test" - rote drilling that is uninteresting and that takes away time from other lessons. I suggest a moderate proposal - we should support a minimal set of standardized tests that check students' competency in only a core set of basic academic skills. Any school whose basic curriculum is up to date should not have to spend any additional time specially preparing students for such a test.

Finally, I argue that atheists should give their strongest support to comprehensive sex education programs, ones which teach that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, but which also present information about contraception in an accurate and objective manner. For obvious reasons, atheists should not advocate keeping people ignorant of relevant information - we should be in the business of putting people in charge of their own destinies. But even more so, the evidence shows that comprehensive programs work and abstinence-only programs do not. Unlike the religious right, which tends to cling to their rigid beliefs regardless of how they play out in practice, we should be pragmatic and achieve our goals by the most effective method.

Coming up: Part III of the Politics of Atheism will propose an atheist political platform in the areas of business, foreign relations, and some miscellaneous important issues.

Other posts in this series:

April 20, 2006, 1:29 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink37 comments
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The Politics of Atheism I

A reader of Daylight Atheism recently made an excellent suggestion via e-mail:

As several of your recent posts suggest, it is perhaps time for atheists to unite into a force for change. And in America, that means political change. I welcome this prospect, but believe that we should have some agreement on what changes to make and what our common vision of America should be. I think a series of posts on the politics of Atheism would be helpful. Perhaps it should include the beginnings of a platform for our vision of America. But before we can hope to move America in a new and better direction, we should have some idea of what that direction is.

In accordance with this suggestion, this post, and the following ones, will present my vision of the politics of atheism: what our vision for society should consist of, what issues should be part of our common platform, and how we can best work together to achieve these goals.

If you have read my essay "Rule the World" on Ebon Musings, or "An Atheist's Creed" on this site, you probably already have a good idea what form my politics takes and what positions I will advocate, but this series will give me a chance to elaborate on those ideas. In general, my political views could best be described as liberal with libertarian leanings. As members of a minority, we nonbelievers should be especially sensitive to issues of civil rights and freedom of individual conscience. The government should not be in the business of prescribing personal morality or dictating conformity, but rather creating a free and open society where every individual can best pursue his or her own conception of the good life. On the other hand, we should want to live in a well-regulated society that provides order and stability and ensures a basic happiness for everyone. In the web of tradeoffs between these two guiding principles, I believe we can find the blueprint for an ideal society.

Finally, as I have often said in the past, all this is my opinion, and I could be wrong. I am one atheist among many, and I make no claims for my vision being definitive. If you disagree with anything I put forward, and I would be very surprised if no one did, I encourage you to speak out. If being an atheist means anything, it means acknowledging the power of reason and trusting that the truth will emerge from informed debate.

Law & Government

When it comes to the basic question of how society is to be governed, I believe it is self-evident that no atheist can support a theocracy. Building a flourishing society requires informed and wise decision-making, and rulers guided by false or unverifiable religious beliefs rather than reason and evidence can do this only by accident. In addition, theocracies inevitably come to believe that opponents of the state faith are enemies of God who must be punished accordingly. The bloody swathes such beliefs have carved through human history need not be recounted here.

But as religious apologists never tire of reminding us, theocracies are not the only kind of government that can commit atrocities. The avowedly secular Communist nations that arose during the twentieth century engaged in acts just as heinous as the medieval holy wars and inquisitions, or the Christianity-inspired anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. An atheist can and should deplore all these evil acts alike, which is why I propose the more general principle that atheists cannot abide totalitarianism of any kind, including but not limited to theocracy. Any society whose leaders are unaccountable to the people and dogmatically believed to be infallible has the potential to become a horror.

This principle leads to democracy as the only remaining option, but we can derive further consequences from it. Any measure that tends to disenfranchise people or deprive them of their equal stake in the process of governing partakes of the spirit of totalitarianism, and should be opposed by atheists. For example, gerrymandering districts in an attempt to predetermine election results, using phone jamming or other methods to obstruct get-out-the-vote efforts, or selectively destroying voter-registration forms are nothing less than efforts to overturn democracy, and should be punished accordingly. (Perhaps in addition to the recognized crime of obstruction of justice, there should be a crime called obstruction of democracy.) Similarly, atheists should support efforts to ensure that voting machines and the other vital paraphernalia of democracy are fully and equally available in every region of the country, and that the standards for voting are clear, simple and uniform.

On the other side of the coin, I argue that support of democracy entails allegiance to the principles of fully open and transparent government. To this end, I support creating and making publicly available transcripts and video of every speech and debate in legislative chambers; extending the reach of laws like the Freedom of Information Act that grant citizens access to non-classified government documents; and full disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions and the activities of lobbyists.

Finally, atheists know full well the necessity of relying on evidence, rather than trusting on faith. Nowhere can this be more vital when it comes to selecting a new government. To this end, I assert that atheists cannot support or condone the deployment of "black box" voting machines that give no proof that a citizen's vote has been accurately recorded.

To eliminate the possibility for fraud or confusion, I suggest that all voting machines should provide a mechanism for making an unambiguous choice, following which the machine will print out a paper ballot that reflects that choice. (Providing paper ballots to be filled out by hand offers far too much potential for ambiguity, as the infamous 2004 American presidential election testifies.) The voter should then deposit that ballot in a locked box that cannot be tampered with or disposed of by workers at a local polling place. All the boxes for a given election should then be brought to a central place where they can be counted, either by hand or by machine. If by machine, the hardware blueprint and software code for that machine must be open-source and rigorously certified by an independent accrediting body. If by hand, I suggest that each ballot be counted by teams of at least two people, who cannot both belong to the same political party.

Civil Liberties

It goes without saying that separation of church and state is one of the civil liberties which atheists hold dear. I anticipate little disagreement when I say that atheists should support a very strong separation of church and state: no religious language in official oaths or affirmations, no public money to be used in support of religion, no law or public policy that supports one religion over others or religion in general over non-religion, and no law or public policy based on religious belief unless it also has a legitimate secular purpose. While some of these principles are already established in American law through Supreme Court decisions, I would recommend that atheists advocate a Constitutional amendment to establish all of them beyond any possibility of doubt.

It should likewise go without saying that proselytizing to captive audiences under a government aegis should be forbidden. This means no teaching of creationism in public schools, regardless of how it is relabeled, and no teaching about religious ideas in general unless it is done in an accurate, objective and non-devotional way. Similarly, no religious group should be allowed to evangelize in prisons or provide social services through public grants unless they are all offered the chance to do so, and participation in such programs can never be coercive; a secular alternative should always be available.

Finally, atheists should support ending the tax exemption on churches. This change would provide the government with some much-needed revenue and put a stop to the egregious practice of subsidizing churches' growth through taxing nonbelievers, which is what this policy does by default. It would also slice the twin Gordian knots of complicated and confusing laws regarding just what churches may say about candidates for political office and how far they may go in buying up land to expand their holdings. In place of that, this change would offer a simple solution: let churches say whatever they want about political candidates, let them buy whatever land they can afford to build on, and let them pay for those privileges just like everyone else.

Another point I consider obvious: Atheists should support strong freedom of speech. Although reasonable time, place and manner restrictions are probably necessary in some cases, we should look skeptically even at those. The only kinds of speech that can be outright forbidden are speech used to harass and speech that directly incites or encourages criminal activity, or that otherwise causes direct and tangible harm. In particular, I strongly believe that atheists must oppose "hate speech" laws, as well as every other attempt to squelch ideas, no matter how well-intentioned. Both world history and current events demonstrate that such laws can easily be used by the majority to stifle criticism of prevailing social mores, something that we as atheists should be especially sensitive to.

Finally, and again for obvious reasons, atheists should support a strong right to privacy. An intrusive state that keeps tabs on its citizens' beliefs, whereabouts and activities is only one small step away from being a totalitarian state, and such measures have historically been used as tools of oppression against atheists and minority faiths. While openness and honesty are virtues, the sharing of personal information should always be voluntary, except where absolutely necessary. Any government inquiry into this information should only be carried out with the oversight and authorization of a third party, which means that atheists should oppose laws such as the Patriot Act that attempt to weaken judicial oversight of surveillance activity. We should also support laws that put strict limits on what businesses can do with collected customer information and on how they must protect that information. All citizens should have a reasonable ability to view data collected about them, to control how it is used, and to correct any errors it may contain. And there should be certain types of information that one always has the right to keep private; for example, no business should be allowed to force employees to submit to a genetic screening as a prerequisite for being hired.

The commitment to privacy rights also means that atheists should wholeheartedly support gay marriage. What consenting adults do together is no concern of the state, so long as it harms no one; and few things could be more personal or more intimate than whom one chooses to love. If there is any area that is none of the government's business, this is it. (As I have said elsewhere, I would support withdrawing the term "marriage" from government definition altogether. Government should grant civil partnership licenses that bring with them the relevant legal benefits, and no more; whether this arrangement is considered marriage or not should be up to the individual and their community.)

Coming up: Part II of the Politics of Atheism will propose an atheist political platform in the areas of social justice, the media, science and education.

Other posts in this series:

April 18, 2006, 11:46 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink39 comments
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