Friday, April 06, 2007


War and peace: the godless and the faithful

Don't try to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.

As I read the commentary on Representative Pete Stark (Atheist-CA), I'm surprised by the vehemence on both sides. I shouldn't be, I know, and perhaps that's what's most disturbing: that one shouldn't be surprised by how horridly polarized we are. It is remarkable, not that Rep. Stark is atheist, but that he's the only politician who admits to being atheist, so I guess one can see why the ranks of the godless are jumping up and down about it. But, honestly, these days a politician makes fewer waves by “outing” himself as gay — a revelation that used to end careers. (OK, well, James McGreevey did resign coincident with his declaration, though that wasn't entirely for that reason.)

But why are the faithful worried by the atheism of one politician, a representative from San Francisco's East Bay area? And why, in general, do some seem like Chicken Little whenever anyone suggests that references to God don't belong on the side of every bus — and in front of every classroom?

Religious Persecution.

Yes, the phrase is almost hackneyed. We Americans learned that our continent was colonized by Europeans escaping Religious Persecution. And, indeed, human history is full of examples of the faithful being persecuted... and of their doing the persecuting. In fact, in most cases it was not persecution of the religious by atheists, but of the religious by those of a different religion. When we look at divisiveness, issues of language, customs, social class, and skin colour pale (pardon me) in comparison to issues of faith.

But persecution of the religious by atheists is prominent in recent history. Communism, the bête noire of the enlightened world of the 20th century, vigorously opposed and suppressed religion. It's easy to see why some would fear a resurgence of oppression and suppression when they see religious symbols being challenged and removed, religious phrases, added during our struggle against that communism, being questioned, and prominent people declaring their atheism.

Those same people must look, though, at the intrusion of their religious beliefs and symbols into the lives of those who believe differently. Political careers are being made and unmade along religious lines. Policy and law are being written based on religious belief. As frightening as is the thought of having to take worship into basements with blackened windows is the idea of living in a Taliban-like world, where law comes not from modern consideration of pros and cons, but from scripture written millennia ago by zealots.

And the problem here is that as long as we think in these polarizing terms, we cannot reach a compromise. It doesn't help for the faithful to call the godless evil. It does no good for the godless to deride the faithful as deluded. The image in the “quote” at the beginning of this essay comes back to us here: the two sides will not convince each other. It's a waste of time to try, and it gets everyone's hackles up. The two sides will not agree. Not ever.

The thing is, though, that we don't have to agree. We just have to get along. Like we used to do. Before.

Update, 2 p.m.: On an interestingly related note, Natasha, at Pacific Views, quotes Mr. Shakes, at Shakesville, as he says this:

The internecine warfare that occurs between women and men, people of color and white people, straights and gays, as they all squabble like schoolchildren in an attempt to gain or deny rights, is exactly what those in power want.
Because, points out Mr. Shakes, that warfare, that bickering, that division is what allows those in power to remain there.

Yes, exactly.

1 comment:

Dr. Momentum said...

I agree with the implication that internecine bickering is (when it turns to warfare) counterproductive, a distraction and wasteful.

I think I also agree that it allows those in power to stay in power, but I'm not quite as certain. I do know that certain wedge issues are used to fire up the populace and distract from issues where we could make progress. And since progress is risky, and threatens the status quo, the current government is usually opposed to change that might upturn the current order.

We have a chance to change out the government (somewhat) with every election. But we should be aware of whatever it is that stays behind when the government changes (lobbyists, and any other structures and systems that remain in place). These factors stabilize the government but also act as a drag to change that might be good.

It's odd: money represents power, partly because it represents the ability to effect change. So it seems like money should be a progressive force. But like gravity, it warps the space around it; groups and individuals with money want to retain the systems that allowed them to amass their money. Thus there is a conservative force surrounding money.

Please excuse the metaphors. I'm just rambling.