Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bigot Michael Medved Shows How Weak the Anti-Atheist Case Is

When I saw the title of Bigfoot enthusiast and recent DI Fellow Michael Medved's latest article, "Americans Are Right To Resist An Atheist As President" I must admit to expecting the same old shit: atheists have no morals, can't be a good citizen, yadda yadda. Give Medved credit on surprising me and coming up with some arguments I hadn't heard before. Sadly (for him), the reason I've never heard these arguments before isn't because they are insightful, but rather because they are lame, laughable, absurdly, lame. If this is the best Medved can do, then the case against an atheist president is, well, nonexistent. Here's Medved reason one that atheists shouldn't be president: They wouldn't have anything to say at Thanksgiving:

"Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the 'Church of America' – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones. For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?"

Gee, normally when right wingers equivocate, they are more subtle than this. There may be a church of America in Medved's mind, but that's the only place it exists. Out here in the real world, our national holidays and historic milestones have no inherently religious component whatsoever. That Medved can't think of a single thing to say about Thanksgiving that doesn't involve God only reveals his lack of objectivity and narrowness of vision, if not a grotesque ignorance of history. But then again this is the guy who thinks slavery wasn't so bad.

I was once asked to give the blessing at Thanksgiving dinner, and this atheist had no trouble whatsoever finding things to be thankful for. I was thankful for my loved ones for traveling to be together. I was thankful for my parents who put such an effort into making a wonderful meal, as well as the farmers who grew/raised the food, the truckers who hauled it, the pilots who flew my relations' planes, and had I wished I could have gone on and on with all the people who made that meal possible, right down to the doctor who delivered me. No gods needed.

As an atheist president addressing the nation, yes, I could start by thanking the Indians in Massachusetts for helping the pilgrims survive in the harsh new world. I of course would thank the pilgrims themselves, for having the courage to travel to a wild new land to make a life for themselves, and perhaps even the governments and shipbuilders that made it possible. And this is what Medved finds so difficult to imagine? The mind boggles.

And if you think that objection was petty, you are in for a whole lot of "you ain't seen nothing yet":

"Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words 'under God'? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful. Moreover, what patriotic songs would our non-believer chief executive authorize for major celebrations and observances?

OK, let's get this straight. With our country involved in serious military conflicts around a globally warming world, mired in a collapsing economy, confronted with serious deficiencies in infrastructure, and an ever-mounting debt, and a whole host of other serious issues to be resolved, Michael Medved thinks we should eliminate atheists from consideration of being our leader because he is concerned about what songs they can sing? I suppose he would excuse mutes and the deaf from consideration as well? This is truly a man who knows how to prioritize our problems. A shallower, more transparent cover for bigotry cannot be conceived.

Worse yet, when Medved isn't ignoring reality, his arguments are circular:

Skeptics may suggest that an atheist president would give the nation the long-overdue chance to purge itself of these inappropriate religious trappings in our governmental and public processes, but truly overwhelming majorities cherish such traditions. The notion of dropping or altering all references to God and faith on public occasions to avoid discomfort for a single individual amounts to a formula for a disastrously unpopular presidency.

Reading that one might be forgiven for concluding that the American president pops into existence out of the ether instead of being elected by a majority (mostly) of Americans. Were an atheist so elected, purging our government of those insignificant, but unconstitutional nonetheless, references to gods, would not be for a single individual, nor would it be about discomfort. This is a typically intellectually dishonest framing effort. The issue of atheism in the public sphere has never for even a moment been about feelings or discomfort. It is about equal treatment for all citizens per the 1st amendment. In the case of an elected atheist, it would be for that electoral plurality.

Medved's second objection suffers from similar circularity:

"The most successful presidents sustain an almost mystical connection with the people they serve – as did Ike, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton (for all his faults), and Bush (before his recent troubles). A chief executive who publicly discards the core belief in God that drives the life and work of most of his countrymen can never achieve that sort of connection. A president with a mandate doesn’t have to be a regular church-goer, or even a convinced believer; but he can’t openly reject the religious sensibility of nearly all his predecessors and nearly all his fellow citizens. A leader who touts his non-belief will, even with the best of intentions, give the impression that he looks down on the people who elected him."

Again, Medved writes as if the president were forced upon us from some outside force instead of being elected by the people. Obviously if an atheist runs openly and is elected, his fellow citizens decided that none of Medved's gibber gabber matters.

And if Medved is going to tout belief as some sort of virtue based on the history of our presidents, he has to take into consideration two issues. First, just like quoting Darwin on science risks presenting an opinion 150 years out of date, so too the religious views of past presidents must take into account the era in which they lived. Atheism was almost unheard of over a century ago, and human knowledge has progressed quite a bit in the philosophical realm since then. To assume that all presidents who were Christians in the past would be Christians today is absurd.

Second, even with the handicap above, atheism fares well against Christianity in the historical record. After all, Lincoln and Jefferson were both about as atheistic as people got in their days, as the accusations they received of being atheists attests. By contrast, two of our most religious presidents of late were Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. So it is far from clear that religiosity correlates with excellent presidencies.

For his third point, Medved goes Dinesh D'souza on us and claims we can't have an atheist president because the "Islamo-nazis" would hate us:

"Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism."

Medved simply ignores here that the religious views the Muslims follow are not those that American Christians follow. Osama Bin Laden doesn't give a rats ass about our religious traditions and commitments, because they are inconsistent with his reading of the Koran. He and his followers don't care whether our moderate, tolerant democracy would lead to godless materialism or not. They think we are evil AS WE ARE. Telling them that we believe in their god too wouldn't make them consider us less sinful. Medved's belief that al Quaida is going to stop attacking us once they realize we represent a "free-wheeling, open-minded religiosity" is ignorant in the extreme.

And of course, what would an anti-atheist screed be without some straw men characterizations of it. In Medved's case, he confuses atheism with nihilism:

"On one level, at least, the ongoing war on terror represents a furious battle of ideas and we face devastating handicaps if we attempt to beat something with nothing...President Atheist says he believes in nothing, so it’s easy to assume that he leads a war against belief itself."

Atheists of course believe in a great deal of things, including justice, logic, evidence, and basic human rights, just to name a few. We simply don't believe in Medved's or anyone else's gods. Again, Medved reveals how myopic his view of the world is that he could consider unbelief in gods equivalent to unbelief in anything. Atheism is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for nihilism, just as religion is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for the fanatical behavior of Bin Laden and his followers.

All Medved has demonstrated is that he is so drunk on his religious views that he is simply incapable of understanding how anyone sees the world who doesn't believe as he does. His arguments are either circular, or trivial, or downright dangerously naive in the case of al Quaida.

One of his final comments makes this piercingly clear:

"Dr. Billy Graham has brought tens of millions to Christian commitment, but how could an unabashed atheist honor this achievement? If he avers (like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris) that belief in God makes no more sense than belief in the Tooth Fairy, then how could he honor a great American for a lifetime of work in promulgating a silly and destructive myth?"

See the problem? The idea that the gods might not be any more real than the tooth fairy would mean that Billy Graham's work was not great and therefore not worthy of being honored by President Atheist. But Medved's mind can't get there, just like he can't grasp what an America that would elect an atheist president would be like. That makes his commentary on the subject about as meritorious as a blind man's opinions of the works of Michelangelo.


Anonymous said...

I took a minute to look up Medved on Wikipedia and glance at his site, because to be honest although I had come across his name before I didn't really know his "body of work"... scriptwriter turned film critic turn shrill conservative turned senior DI fellow?

I think that the quote about "...the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism" is perhaps the most wrong-headed thing that he said in this particular screed, but then I am tolerant, modern, feel strongly that real democracy is the best way to run a country, and - drat! I'm also a godless materialist about how the universe works! Granted, it need not have come to that, but everything just made so much more sense that way.

Also seems that the Billy Graham question misses the point: you can say all you like that he "has brought tens of millions to Christian commitment", but what exactly does that mean? Did that make them better human beings? Did they care more for their fellows, and for the weak and the poor and the down-trodden? Did he make them think that they should use whatever power or influence that they might have to make the world a better place? That's an accomplishment that I would gladly honour, even if I felt they sprang from a misguided source, were I the Atheist President.

ScienceAvenger said...

Exactly. An atheist president would have no trouble acknowledging the accomplishments of St. Jude's hospital, or the work of so many religious-based shelters. But as Medved makes clear, he can't seperate the motivation from the accomplishment. In his simplistic world, you have to praise both or condemn both.

All his recent article proved is that Michael Medved shouldn't be president.

Dana Hunter said...

Nice takedown!

ScienceAvenger said...

Thanks. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth going through all those ridiculous arguments one by one. But there are no doubt people who read the likes of Medved and take him seriously, so we should take them seriously.

Anonymous said...

I thought your own comment, "Medved writes as if the president were forced upon us from some outside force instead of being elected by the people" was particularly astute because, let's face it, Medved would like to see this country become a dictatorship--but only so long as it was a dictatorship that favored his beliefs. As his good friend George Bush said, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." Defining the "church of America", Medved calls it "informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion". Notice that he includes the word "tolerant" even though his own attitudes are clearly anything but tolerant. What he expects is tolerance toward his own beliefs; he just doesn't feel compelled to extend tolerance toward anyone else.

Anonymous said...

"As his good friend George Bush said, "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." "

Is it fair to quote this as a statement as opposed to a joke, which is how CNN characterized it?