Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.” If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?
Truth claims about faith aren’t the only matters dividing religious and nonreligious Americans. Members of these groups often disagree about the meaning of religious freedom and church-state separation, qualifications for public office, modes of civic participation, and a host of others public issues.
The battles over theology will continue, of course, and even an eternal optimist like me doesn’t expect religious and nonreligious people suddenly to appear on the same side of most lawsuits and policy and legal arguments. But I do believe many members of these groups could come to agreement on some important civic issues. To start that conversation, here are a few points for consideration, some of which challenge both sides.
•Candidates for public office should not be rejected simply because of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Moral values, strong character, and solid intellectual abilities matter, of course, but no religious or nonreligious community has a corner on these credentials.
•It is fair, however, to reject political candidates for their positions on legal and policy issues, including religious freedom issues, even if those positions derive from a candidate’s beliefs about religion. For example, if an atheist candidate would institute governmental hostility toward faith, or a Christian candidate would establish Christianity, those are legitimate bases for voting against them. At the same time, no voter should assume that these are the positions of candidates who are atheists or Christian.
•All Americans have the right to try to spread their beliefs about religion (including atheists and people of every faith), but no one should deem others unworthy of civic participation or partnership simply because they won’t accept those beliefs. It’s wrong and counterproductive, for example, for atheists to say they won’t join religious people in policy alliances because these believers won’t renounce their faiths. It’s also wrong and counterproductive for religious people to suggest that nonreligious people are less than worthy partners for the public good because of their lack of religious faith.
•Religious and nonreligious people should engage in joint efforts to serve their communities without seeking to convert one another and while listening to one another.
•Both religious and nonreligious leaders should refrain from promoting falsehoods and over-generalizations about religious and nonreligious communities. Members of their respective communities should hold them accountable for doing so.
•Public officials may recognize the contributions religious individuals and communities make to the common good; many of them need to do more to recognize similar contributions by nonreligious individuals and communities. Further, many more public officials need to follow the examples of our current and most recent former president in terms of validating the presence and equal value of nonreligious Americans in our pluralistic democracy. President Obama has observed that, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus —- and non-believers.” When he was president, George W. Bush said: “You’re equally American if you’re a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You’re equally American if you choose not to have faith.”
I welcome the conversation.
Melissa Rogers | Jul 21, 2011 9:57 PM