Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Right Not to Believe

“Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for.” So says Slavoj Zizek in Defenders of the Faith, an editorial in today’s New York Times.

What, however, about the American atheists on the other side of the Atlantic? Zizek notes that “what makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.”

And in America? Not only is atheism an obstacle to public office – quick, name one prominent politician who is openly agnostic, let alone an atheist – it is becoming an increasingly marginalized belief. With both democrats and republicans attempting to appeal to voters of faith there is little welcome for the confirmed atheist.
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These days discussions begin and end with ideas for bringing together people of different faiths, or appealing to faith-based values that cut across political lines. There is hardly any room for those of us who would like to join the discussion from a firmly non-religious point of view.

I am an atheist. An atheist, not an agnostic. For many years I was uncertain about the existence of a higher being, an organizing force in the universe. In the absence of any affirmative evidence that I found credible I was skeptical that such a “god” existed, but as a skeptic I wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility.

It was only recently, after reading the essay “A Will to Believe” by William James, that I became convinced that hedging my bets as an agnostic was not a tenable philosophical or intellectual position. Believe or disbelieve – there is no maybe. Further convinced that Pascal’s Wager was nothing more than a Hobson’s Choice – you cannot simply choose to truly believe in something that you don’t truly believe in – I became a confirmed atheist.

And I know that I’m not alone.

And so I bristle, ever so slightly, when I hear politicians include people of all different faiths in their political discussions: where “faith” is taken to mean “religious affiliation.” The belief in a god is common ground to which politicians on both sides of the aisle appeal. And the atheists are seen as trouble-makers – calling into question even this seemingly basic proposition. Atheists are silenced because they don’t believe in a god, they’re just asked to keep that fact to themselves, and out of the political discourse.

Atheism has always been a barrier to political office in this country, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. My fear is that it is increasingly becoming a barrier to political participation as well.


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