Thursday, June 9, 2011

Atheist Politicians FTW

I think we need more atheist politicians. Not just because atheists and agnostics are the most politically under-represented group in America, either. Though that is certainly an unfortunate reality. The latest US Census reports that 15% of Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, yet we only have one openly atheist politician in the entire legislative branch. Good on you, Rep. Pete Stark of California. That's 0.2% of the legislature representing 15% of Americans. It goes without saying that the executive and judicial branches are 0% atheist. Feels a bit lop-sided, doesn't it?

This speaks to the un-electability of atheists more than anything else, though. This is a documented and frustrating phenomenon, made even more confounding by the fact that atheism isn't what makes us who we are as people. Atheists don't have a unifying philosophy or morality, or a set of rules that govern our behavior. These are things that characterize religions, and atheism is not a religion. So it's not that I feel that atheists and the atheist world view are not being represented well in Congress. I do feel that atheists tend to have some things in common though, and they are the kinds of things that I would like to see more of in politicians.

Allow me to clarify a bit more here. Atheists are an incredibly varied group, coming from every conceivable background. We have different goals and philosophies, and we approach atheism in different ways. The Atheist movement has often been criticized for a lack of unity because of this, but bollocks to that. I like diversity. That said, there are some patterns that I've noticed.

First of all, atheists don't believe in a God. Obvious, right? You know what else we don't believe in, as an extension of that? The Afterlife. Reincarnation. The Rapture. That's right, we only live once and this Earth is all we're going to get. So we'd damn sure better take care of it. The conscious acknowledgement that we (and our descendants) are going to have to deal with the consequences of our actions in regards to the environment makes atheists more likely to give a flying fuck. I would certainly be flabbergasted to see an atheist politician supporting short-sighted environmental legislation. Religious conservatives, though? Not surprised. After all, they're expecting to go party with Jesus or a harem of virgins or whatever after they shuffle off this mortal coil. Life on Earth is transient, and simply not important in the grand scheme of spiritual immortality. But just in case, wouldn't you rather have the people who think this is all we're gonna get making the policy decisions?

Another thing atheists have in common? No religion. Total shocker, I know. The thing is, all of those people shouting about how homosexuality is sinful and gay marriage should be banned? The ones who think that women should be modest and subservient or are attacking female reproductive rights? Yeah, those ideas are based in religion. Muddy the issue all you want with your self-important, privileged whining and misdirection, there is not a single reasonable, factual argument for why gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married and adopt children, or why women shouldn't be able to control when and if they get pregnant. You take away the religious nature of the arguments and they fall apart. Now I'm not saying that there aren't any racist, sexist, or homophobic atheists. But I am saying that leaving religion frees you from the baggage associated with religious doctrine, and I would personally prefer that the people making decisions that affect equality do so with the facts foremost in mind. Not old books that say women should be silent and treated like slaves by virtue of their ovaries, or that contraception is evil, or that LGBT individuals are damned because of their biology.

Phew. Getting a little rant-y in here. So far I've been extrapolating atheist traits based on the lack of belief in God and rejection of religion associated with atheism, but the atheist movement does have its pet causes. Chief among them are separation of church and state and science education. Again, not all atheists care about these causes. They do not represent some unifying philosophy. But chances are that if you're even nominally familiar with the atheist movement you're pretty well informed about them.

To your average atheist, separation of church and state is a given. Why should religion have any influence over politics? Beliefs are personal and subjective, after all. Politics affects everyone. We're frequently dumbfounded by Christians who, accustomed as they are to being in the majority in this country, seem to mistake assuring protection for all for an attack on their beliefs. The government isn't saying that you can't pray. The government is saying that they can't endorse one religion over any other philosophy. They can't tell others to pray. If you really don't understand why this is an important distinction, imagine someone opening a town hall meeting with an invocation to Satan. Or a speaker at a high school graduation asking everyone to kneel with them and bow towards Mecca. Now imagine everyone else going along with it and demonizing you for saying it made you uncomfortable. You could probably stand to read a little more about privilege while you're at it. Again, this is something I want my politicians to care about because it benefits people of all religious philosophies. Not just whoever happens to be in the majority. It is immeasurably better to have a government that protects all religious philosophies without endorsing or being influenced by any. Otherwise you end up with someone else's religion and morality shoved down your throat or determining your rights. Trust me, that sucks.

I really shouldn't have to even address why good science education is important. It should be a given that children should be taught the facts as we know them to the best of our current ability. Unfortunately, that is not the case. School textbooks are constantly under attack by groups who want to re-write history to support their philosophy. Creationism is being pushed into science classrooms as if it were a valid scientific theory. Teachers are afraid to teach sensitive subjects, like evolution, for fear of arousing the wrath of parents. It's detrimental to children's education, and by extension the future of our country. If your ideas of how the Universe came to be or how life developed contradict the facts, then fine. Talk about them in philosophy class. But don't pretend they are irrevocable truths. The very idea of misrepresenting scientific fact, or twisting it to support an agenda, is repugnant to me. Atheists as a whole, having rejected the comforting philosophies of religion in favor of provable facts, tend to feel pretty strongly about this. And I want someone who feels strongly about this making educational policy decisions. The children are our future, after all.

So. Environmentalism. Equality. Separation of church and state. Science Education. Do you have to be an atheist to value all of these things? Of course not. Do I think atheists as a group are more likely to hold these values? Yes. And these are the values that I want to see in my politicians. Not because I think everyone should agree with me (though they absolutely should, seeing as how I'm right all the time), but because they benefit other people and the country as a whole. But atheists have a secret weapon. We are very good at being angry.

That's right, a lot of atheists are angry.  That's an amazing article, by the way. And sure, there are plenty of even-tempered accommodationists out there too...but if you show them something like this? Or this? You'll have them sputtering in a matter of minutes. And that's not a bad thing, damn it! Anger is incredibly powerful. Historically, it is one of the single most significant motivating forces for change.  Atheists in general are vocal, and not just on our own behalf. We don't like seeing any group having their rights abused, be they children or minorities or white, anglo-saxon males. I have more faith, so to speak, that an atheist politician will get outraged at injustices and abusive policies. And I want my politicians to be outraged! Because there are so many outrageous things happening in my country right now, it makes me want to scream!

Ahem. Again, to clarify, I don't think atheists are better by virtue of being atheists. But the qualities I see in the atheist movement? The reliance on reason and fact above all else? The outrage and compassion? The writers and scientists and activists? I respect these people, and I want people like them in charge of my country. They sure can't make things much worse.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Short-Sightedness and the Rapture

I've already ranted about the recent rapture prediction and how ridiculously people behaved because of said predictions. That's right, I was making fun of the Rapture before it was cool. Unfortunately, I couldn't celebrate the rapture as it happened because I was attending a microbiology conference on the Day of Deliverance. How inconsiderate! It's almost as if scientists don't take unfounded predictions based on flawed hypotheses seriously.

My End of the World Barbecue was easily rescheduled though, seeing as how the world didn't end. It was a blast, and I'm looking forward to having another one in October. The fiasco is already fading from the public eye, and I hadn't intended to write much more about.

But since Harold Camping was publicly humiliated and started backpedaling like a bear on a unicycle (after a significant profit and tons of free publicity, the bastard), the way people have been reacting to the Failed Rapture has been making me think.

First, many of Camping's followers remain as devoted to him as ever. This is disappointing, but not really much of a surprise. It's actually a documented aspect of human behavior to believe what we hear first, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. In fact, corrections or conflicting facts are sometimes more likely to affirm our convictions than change our minds. After all, the alternative is admitting that we were wrong. I've also already ranted about how destructive misinformation can be, so I'll simply reiterate here that critical thought and skepticism are crucial weapons in the battle against frauds like Camping.

Second, other fundamentalist Christian groups have been awfully condemning towards Camping and his predictions. I guess they're just excited to have someone who makes them look sane by comparison. 'No man knows the day or hour' is being thrown around with a sickening sense of smugness. Which is insanely frustrating, because the only difference between what they believe and what Camping believes is that he picked a day. That's it! They agree on every other ridiculously implausible aspect of Jesus' return, the Rapture, the Time of Tribulation for us sinners and the eventual destruction of our entire planet/universe because God is feeling verklempt...yet they're the sane ones? It makes me want to tear my hair out.

But what really got me thinking were the stories of Camping's followers. One man in particular took his family on a cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon. Because of the strain of his financial debt, he felt that the Rapture would have been 'a relief'. The End of the World would mean that he didn't have to deal with his problems.

That mentality disturbed me, and I started pervasive is it? One of the things that frustrates me the most about conservative thought is how short-sighted it can be. Little or no value is placed on things that don't benefit you, immediately and directly. If you really believe the world is going to end during your lifetime, why bother taking care of your environment or conserving resources? Why care about policies that benefit the community or further scientific development? The long-term is basically rendered meaningless. It explains so much.

Now I know that conservative politicians aren't all fundamentalist Christians, but there is an awful lot of overlap and the Rapture is a significant aspect of Christian belief in general. Even if an individual thinks the Rapture is unlikely, accepting a divinely-mandated 'End of the World' as a possible future has got to affect your long-term thinking to some degree. Personally, I think this is just more evidence for why atheists make the best politicians. Too bad we're pretty much un-electable.