Friday, April 06, 2007

"it's the rhetoric, stupid"

At TPM Café Michael Berube takes up the subject of Democrats and their supposed hostility to religious faith. He discusses the electoral prospects of a generic atheist candidate for POTUS, which polls show are not good. Citing Richard Rorty, he discusses the asymmetrical use of religion as a “conversation-stopper” in political discourse. He acknowledges that snarky liberal bloggers are sometimes inadvertently insulting and that “some atheists can get downright annoying in their insistence that they have objectively demonstrated the nonexistence of God using simple algebra and a household magnifying glass.” Heh.

Then he concludes:

But I see no evidence whatsoever that “persons of faith” are discouraged in any way from testifying to their faith in American political life, which is why complaints about Democrats’ indifference or hostility to religion strike me as so very disingenuous. These complaints can’t possibly be about hostility to religion in American politics, I think. And when they come from the left side of the spectrum, they can’t possibly be about trying to win over voters on the religious right. Nor do they seem to be centrally concerned about issues of war and peace -- or even the minimum wage. Nor do I see religious progressives arguing for greater discrimination against gays and lesbians. So I’m left to wonder: is this conversation-stopping conversation all about abortion, in the end?...

Okay. About the abortion part, I imagine he’s thinking of Amy Sullivan and Mara Vanderslice, party activists for whom having the Democrats moderate their pro-choice stance is a preoccupation. As for me, it was as a 16-year-old youth delegate to a church conference that I became pro-choice. I would like a chance to make a theological argument in favor of reproductive choice. Are religious liberals concerned about peace and a living wage? A lot of us are; who’s to say if we aren’t getting the message across well enough or if Berube isn’t paying close enough attention.

Are we “discouraged from testifying to our faith” in American political life? If you mean fired from jobs, forcibly ejected from places, locked up at Guantanamo Bay, then of course not. The way I would put it is, we are sometimes patronized or belittled in high-level discussions about Democratic strategy. It strikes me as somewhat akin to the “dirty fucking hippie” syndrome that Atrios and others describe--where opponents of the Iraq War, people who simply abhor modern warfare and/or have a non-hubristic view of America’s place in the world, are dismissed as unserious. Atrios isn’t having his livelihood taken away or being thrown in the gulag, he’s just being subtly marginalized in certain elite arenas. Which is not totally insignificant.

Am I disingenuous? I don’t believe so. Overly sensitive, probably, at times. (Are atheists ever disingenuous? Can Berube and Richard Rorty possibly be aggrieved that they can’t get conscientious objector status in the U.S. military?)

Anyway, the main reason for this post is to highlight the wonderful comment left in the Berube-TPMC thread by “Abby Kelleyite.” She (?) starts by quoting Sam Harris, who holds that faith and reason are mutually exclusive and that self-defined religious moderates are simply useful idiots for the fundamentalists.

By construing religious faith as not merely separate from, but also "in conflict" with, reason... Harris demands devaluing faith by anyone who claims to value reason, which, given the poll data you presented, poses a bit of a problem in the electoral arena. Must we really force people to choose between faith, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other? People also do not generally respond well to arguments that they are engaging in "self-deception," and I expect they will not be thrilled to discover that atheists think that moderation in the opposition of fundamentalism is no virtue.

All well and good, so we shouldn't overtly invalidate the role of faith in moral reasoning or liken belief in a particular religion to false consciousness, but how does one respond to the conversation-stopping religious argumentation in your examples? I suggest that we merely and politely acknowledge the incommensurability of our systems of evaluating the validity of faith-based arguments, leave them our literature on why we support, e.g., abortion rights, shake hands and part ways on those issues while still making use of the valuable, religious concepts we can reach via secular reasoning, such as caritas and agape, of which you have written elsewhere.

Is this the respect that adherents of religion themselves want? No. As Stanley Fish has recently written (from behind the NYT subscription wall): "But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims." We cannot give the religious right any respect that it will value. As for our leftward of the religious right friends who want us to grant religious claims more respect in the political marketplace, I suspect that they have little interest in our souls or even the souls of swing voters, unless souls get votes in addition to the ones bodies get. They just want us atheists to stop offending the rather large number of voters who value both faith and reason--ours is not to reason how... For example, if we don't force people to choose between their Catholic faith and supporting access to birth control for all the rational reasons, they might somehow find a way to choose both of the above, and, somehow, they did just that.

I think you may have underestimated the appeal of, and need for repeating, the "usual arguments about competing for swing voters and trying not to piss people off unnecessarily." While trying to gain the votes of the religious right is a hopeless prospect, not losing the votes of the religious middle seems like a valuable goal.

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