Beginning on June 4, 2016, a Reason Rally took place in Washington DC, with its major celebration staged at the Lincoln Memorial. (I would think, given the topic, the Jefferson Memorial might have been more appropriate—perhaps the organizers feared a demonstration against the slave-owning Enlightened rationalist?) The event was announced as “a rally for secularism and religious skepticism”, and as “a celebration of fact-driven public policy, the value of critical thinking, and the voting power of secular Americans”. The program was a mix of oratory, family-friendly entertainment, and visits on the Hill. I doubt whether many Senators or Representatives interrupted their busy activities to bring government to a standstill, in order to find time to be terrified by “the voting power of secular Americans”. As usual, the estimate of the number of people attending the event by the DC police was much below that of the organizers. Still, there was a good crowd, and reasonable attention by the media.
The category of celebrated “secular Americans” was broadly defined. “Atheists” and “agnostics” were prominently mentioned, but also included were “humanists”, “freethinkers” and “skeptics”, and even more broadly those believing in a strict separation of church and state. That’s a lot of fish in this net, though certainly excluding Baptists, who for a long time have been among the most ardent defenders of strict separation. It would have confused the public if the important constituency of First Amendment lawyers was included—who gain respectable fees by serving both sides in the endless cases clogging up federal and state courts on this issue. Of course the legal floodgates were opened on June 17, 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that state-mandated prayers and Bible readings in public schools were unconstitutional. The floodgates have not closed since then.
While this gathering was less than the historic moment as which it had been announced, it was certainly unusual in the capital of the most religious Western nation. The truly historic prototype was the Festival of Reason celebrated during the French Revolution, first in the previously desecrated Church of the Madeleine in Paris: It featured the coronation as the goddess of reason of a woman delicately referred to as an actress in some sources, while others identified her less delicately as a fille publique/”public daughter” (as in public utility). More recently there were the public demonstrations of irreligion staged by the League of the Godless in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. In America there were more sedate affirmations of the rejection of organized religion by organizations such as the Society for Ethical Culture (founded in 1877 by Felix Adler, previously a Reform rabbi), the American Humanist Association (1941), and American Atheists (1963).
Not surprisingly (though inaccurately) media commentaries placed the recent Washington event in the context of an alleged new wave of anti-religion expressed in books by the so-called “New Atheists”—Sam Harris (2004), Richard Dawkins (2004), Christopher Hitchens (2007). “Atheist”, yes – “new”, hardly. An American disdain for religion, though it was marginal in a culture still in the long shadow of Puritanism, goes far back into at least the 19th century. It was wittily expressed by H.L. Mencken (1880-l956): “A Puritan is someone worried that someone, somewhere may be happy.” “The universe is a gigantic flywheel. Religion is a fly who lands on it and believes that the whole contraption was built for its benefit.”
There is good reason to be skeptical about survey data on religion. A small change in the phrasing of a question may lead to a very misleading or no response. However, the Pew Research Center, which produces such data on an industrial scale, is very thoughtful in its formulations and therefore more trustworthy than most. It has recently published a useful bulletin titled “10 Facts about Atheists”, summarizing data from a number of its recent studies. It carefully warns that estimating the number of atheists in America is “complicated”: Some people who call themselves atheists also say that they believe in “God or a universal spirit”, and others who identify with a particular faith say that they do not believe in God. The most often cited finding is a big increase in the “nones”—people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation—an increase from 16.1% to 22.8% between 2007 and 2014. This category may include ferociously “godless” old Bolsheviks to fundamentalist Baptists who haven’t found a congenial church in their neighborhood. Even so, it is interesting that people in the U.S. sample self-described as “atheists” have increased from 1.6% to 3.1% in the seven-year period, and “agnostics” from 2.4% to 4.0%. An intriguing factoid: More “atheists” than “Christians” say that they “often feel a sense of wonder” (54% as against 45%). Even more intriguing: When asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 100, different groups other than their own, about whom they have warm feelings, atheists got one of the lowest ratings—41 (about the same as Muslims). Jews got the highest—63. (One may conclude that Muslims fearing “Islamophobia” have a point, while Jews worrying about anti-Semitism should worry less, at least in the U.S.) Most relevant to the topic of this post (and just as intriguing): 53% of Americans say that it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral, while 45% say that it is.
That topic is the one I used to give a title to this post: “Can atheists be good people?”. Or, closer to the question as posed by Pew: Is morality dependent on religion? The “atheists” and their fellow-demonstrators around the Lincoln Memorial the other day are shouting “No!”. It seems that a majority of Americans agrees with them. Yet a sizable minority disagrees—a lot of conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants in the fore. Who is right?
It is important, I think, to distinguish the substantive from the historical question, if one is not to fall into what logicians call the generic fallacy—that is the fallacy that the truth of a statement depends on the process by which the statement was arrived at. This is so regardless of whether the statements are about what is or about what ought to be. Both have a history. If Einstein had been an illiterate medieval peasant, he could never have come up with the theory of relativity, which presupposed a history of mathematical thought going back at least to ancient Greece. Maybe he would have been the fastest person in the village to count the number of sheep to be taken to market. But if Einstein also believed that individuals should be treated with respect regardless of their race or religion, that moral judgment also has a history that goes back, among other roots, to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But it is an empirical fact that one may arrive at the same judgment without being a believing Jew or Christian. Thus the atheists at the recent Washington gathering were factually correct in their insistence that they can be good people.
It is also helpful if one understands that every moral judgment, negative or positive, has cognitive presuppositions. That has always been so. The incest taboo is probably the most ancient moral norm, a negative one: “You must not marry a fourth cousin”. This norm assumes that you know what a fourth cousin is in the first place. Most of us without a degree in anthropology would not recognize a relative thus defined even if he or she climbed into bed with us. A positive norm would command: “You must only marry someone of your class”. This norm assumes knowledge on your part of the frequently subtle indicators of class, in terms of language, demeanor, taste, values. For example, individuals raised in the upper classes of England and America learn from early childhood to recognize who belongs to “our kind of people”. Once learned, the indicators automatically shape perception. This even extends to physical reactions. An upper-class man may be strongly attracted to a woman he just met, but the attraction may disappear instantaneously as she opens her mouth and produces words that point to the lower depths of the class system (unless the man intends to go slumming).
Modern Western societies are characterized by a very dynamic mix of religious and moral pluralism, freedom of conscience, and a social space dominated by a secular discourse. In this country, as in other democracies, the constitution creates such a secular space which allows members of different religious and moral communities to live together in civic peace. Of course the entire society must have some common values or it would disintegrate, such as equality before the law of all individuals regardless of race, color and creed, with the more recent additions of gender and sexual orientation. Public debates must occur within the parameters of these values or be considered illegitimate. Judges must administer the relevant laws regardless of their own religious or moral values. Thus a conservative Catholic judge, who believes that abortion is a mortal sin, must decide a case involving Roe v. Wade without appeal to Catholic beliefs. (Of course, the judge may recuse himself or herself from the case, or may agitate outside the courtroom for a change in the law. But that is a different issue.)
This has an important consequence for a formula of peace in a pluralist society: Individuals may affirm the same common values for different reasons. Religious believers may affirm the value of equality by invoking the image of God in human beings or their being part of the divinity of the cosmos. But these are not just abstract doctrines: They are experiences, perceptions. Atheists can, demonstrably, share these without any religious presuppositions. Very frequently what causes the affirmation of an underlying human dignity is the confrontation with crass violations of this dignity. This is how the Holocaust has become an icon of absolute evil: This may never be again.