This is the text of the talk I gave at the Secular Assembly for the North East on 19 October 2013. There's a video of the talk online as well.
I've been Connecticut State Director of American Atheists for over ten years now, and every spring I go to the national convention and hear about how my fellow state directors in other states are fighting the teaching of Creationism in schools, resisting the incorporation of religious sexual taboos into their laws, and helping Atheists who are being driven from their jobs and homes for their ideas. Meanwhile, I'm protesting the invocation at Hartford City Council meetings.
Many people have asked me, "Don't you have anything better to do?" This is usually my opponents, who can't think of a good reason why I might be wrong, but it's also been asked by fellow Atheists, who think that my time might more usefully be spent elsewhere.
And it's true that there are more serious church/state issues which arise from time to time in Connecticut. The Roman Catholic Church is a powerful political force, which uses that power to persuade the state government to grant it special favors, sometime successfully. Also, Connecticut's tax laws, like every other state's, gives religious organizations many unfair advantages.
I do fight these when I can, but much of my time as an activist is spent protesting public prayers, trying to keep nativity scenes off of public property, and taking my trusty magic marker and crossing out "In God We Trust" from every bill which comes into my possesion.
Why do I bother with these relatively minor issues? Don't I have anything better to do? The short answer is "no, I don't". Seemingly trivial things such as prayers before opening a city council meeting are merely the current battleground in a struggle which has far reaching consequences for the society we live in, and the world at large. Prevailing in those battles will have much greater effects than just eliminating the immediate violations of church/state separation. Eliminating those violations is, for me, a means to an end. Even changing the tax code, while it will have real, significant effects when it's finally achieved, will be, for me, ultimately part of a still larger struggle.
As far fetched as it might sound, I cross "In God We Trust" out on the money because I'm working to bring about a fundamental change in society. I'm fighting not only against the visible manifestations of religiosity, but against the underlying attitudes which allow them. I'm fighting not only against faith based initiatives, but against faith itself.
Faith is a vice. Faith is intellectually dishonest and morally corrupting. Like all vices, it can be overcome, and like all vices those who have yet to overcome it can be good people, often better people than others who have different vices. Unlike other vices, though, faith is usually considered a virtue. And this is what makes it so insidious.
By faith I mean religious faith, the belief in something despite the lack of any good reason to, usually because you want your religion to be true and that something is necessary for your religion's validity. It's really the pretence of belief, for if you really believed in something faith would be irrelevant. Nobody has faith that water runs downhill, because they know that water runs downhill. Mark Twain descibed faith as "believing what you know ain't so", although we might be more charitable and say faith is believing what you don't have any reason to think is so. The Catholic Church has given essentially the same definition. The First Vatican Council declared, "there is a twofold order of knowledge, ... in one we know by natural reason, in the other by Divine faith; the object of the one is truth attainable by natural reason, the object of the other is mysteries hidden in God, but which we have to believe and which can only be known to us by Divine revelation." Well, of course, you don't actually *have* to believe it, but the Catholic Church would really like you to, and it can't think of a good reason for you to do so, so it just says you have to. Other religions are much the same.
Now, I don't expect that many, if any, of you at this conference think that faith is a virtue. But I have met Atheists who treat faith as simply a harmless mistake, and religion as simply a difference of opinion. I have also met Atheists who say that faith can be beneficial when it inspires a believer to do good. Many Christians, for instance, will feed the hungry and comfort the sick and cite their faith as their reason for doing so. Shouldn't faith be at least given credit for inspiring these good works. No, actually, it shouldn't.
Consider the following situation: A man decides he will flip a coin, and if it comes up heads he will feed a hungry man; if it comes up tails he will punch a hungry man in the stomach. He flips the coin. It comes up tails. He then says, "That one didn't count", and flips the coin again. This time it comes up heads, and he says, "The coin has spoken", and goes out to feed the hungry man. Now, in that case, should the coin get credit for the fact that this man is feeding the hungry? After all, he said that a flip of heads would cause him to do good, and right after it came up heads he went out and did just that. Well, obviously the coin is not really the cause. He clearly was going to do good no matter what, and the coin, after he ignored its inconvenient commandment, was just an excuse to do that. That is exactly how faith works. The Christian bible, for example, commands both charity and cruelty, freedom and slavery, love and hate, equality and misogyny. People pick what they want to follow and ignore the rest, just as the man with the coin picked and ignored which flips he followed. And even if someone were to invent a religion which only commanded good things, it still would be an arbitrary choice to have faith in that religion. If it weren't, it wouldn't be faith. It would be no different than the man flipping a two headed coin. In that case the coin is still not the real source of his goodness.
So, if faith is irrelevant to how people act, how can I call it a vice? The problem is that faith is irrelevant only when the person of faith's inherent moral sense gives her a clear choice to be justified by faith in the first place. There are borderline cases and unusual cases where you have to, or at least should, think things through in order to decide what's right. Faith, unfortunately, takes the place of thinking things through. We've all seen too many cases where an otherwise good person follows the effectively arbitrary teachings of his church leaders or a bronze age writer instead of actually figuring things out, because they have faith. The treatment of homosexuality is a prime example. For centuries people who thought they didn't know any homosexuals didn't think through whether discrimination against them had any moral basis, and just followed the dictates of their faith. It is only in recent years, and in certain places, when the coming out of so many of their gay friends prompted many heterosexuals to actually think about the issues and realize that homophobia made no moral sense that they started going against the teachings of their churches. Not surprisingly, many of them do so by again picking and choosing biblical passages, in spite of fact that the bible's few teachings on homosexuality are all condemnations. There are many who still haven't reached this point, though, on this and many other moral issues, and will continue to do so until they are finally able to overcome the vice of faith.
You have probably heard multiple times that faith provides absolute moral standards and that for Atheists morality is relative. You may even have heard Atheists defending the relativity of morality. If you know me personally you probably also know that hearing this gets me almost as upset as hearing someone say you can't prove a negative. It gets me upset because it's completely reversed. There are no more absolute principles to base morality on than empathy and fairness, which is what Atheists will do. To base morality on what is essentially an arbitrary set of rules is to remove any sanity check, and results in a situation where eating lobster or having sex with the wrong person is considered just as bad as murder. Of course, as I've been pointing out, most religious people pick and choose, and they often pick and choose according to absolute principles, but they're doing that just to the extent that they're bypassing any reliance on faith.
All of this hopefully explains why faith is a vice and not a virtue, but still does not explain why I consider it uniquely insidious, why I think that fighting to eradicate faith is more important than eradicating laziness, or gluttony, or any other vice which is often more debilitating to its practitioner than faith. The answer is that faith is unique, because, unlike these other vices, it is almost universally regarded as a virtue. This extends its influence well beyond the person holding it, and enables it to reach out and corrupt society as a whole.
As an example, in the state of Connecticut, the only reason a parent can legally refuse his duty to vaccinate their child is when they can claim a religious motivation. Would the state allow them to endanger their and other children's health by refusing what the state has determined is a necessary and justified public health measure for any other reason besides religion? No, of course not. But this is not because our public health officials think that religious faith somehow negates the risks; it's because faith is held in so high a regard that it trumps that risk. Our state government a few years back came close to allowing Catholic hospitals to refuse emergency contraception for rape victims. That measure was eventually defeated, but it took an intense political struggle to do so. If some hospitals tried to make such a refusal for any other reason than faith they never would have been able to even get a bill introduced in the assembly. The legislators did not seriously consider that bill because they thought that rape victims didn't deserve emergency contraception; they did so because the respect the faith of the people who run the hospitals.
In 1993 the federal government passed what is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This act was passed with purpose of giving faith a privileged position when deciding the legality of government regulations. It explicitly denies that being neutral with respect to religion is suffiently fair, and requires that the government bend over backwards to accommodate religion. When the Supreme Court ruled that this act doesn't apply to the states, many states, including Connecticut, passed their own versions.
In 2007 presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich received a lot of criticism because he's once seen a UFO, because people wondered if anyone so naive as to believe in such outlandish ideas unsupported by real evidence can be trusted in a leadership role. And yet this same politician also believed that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead, which is all far more outlandish than alien spacecraft, and his critics were silent on these beliefs. That's not because his critics believed that lake water's surface tension being strong enough to hold a human body is less implausible than ships crossing interstellar space, it's because those beliefs were based on Kucinich's faith.
Respect for faith is so ingrained that when an undisputably evil act is done in its name the reponse is to deny that it's really faith. So we had the bizarre situation after 9/11 when the president of the United Stated declared that Al Qaeda's beliefs were not true Islam, as if George W. Bush had built a reputation as an expert on Islamic theology. His correct reponse should have been, "We couldn't care less whether Al Qaeda's beliefs are true Islam or not. We will fight with all our resouces any belief system which justifies the murder of American citizens, and the fact that it's a deeply held faith doesn't matter to us one bit."
We also see the effect of faith's free pass in our day to day lives. There are a lot of people, who if a friend of theirs said something nonreligious which didn't make any sense would say, "That doesn't make any sense", but who if that same friend spouted some some religous nonsense would hold their tongue. There are people who support and expect equal treatment between genders in their lives who will give a free pass to a man who expects his wife to be subservient if that man and his wife belong to a religion which teaches that wives should be subservient. People who would never support the teaching of Creationism in school and who would be appalled if a parent seriously led his child to believe that the Earth is flat will not be upset if a parent teaches a child that Adam and Eve were real.
I came across an unfortunately clear example of this last winter. The Christians and Atheists were putting up their holiday displays on the Vernon Green at the same time, and I got into a conversation with a Christian guy there with five girls, presumably his daughters. He seemed to be one of those Protestants who worship the Bible. The conversation worked its way to the subject of morality in the Bible, and I pointed out the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. In it God orders Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Abraham obeys, but at the last minute, as he's about to kill his son, an angel tells him it's only a test. However, contrary to what you might think, he wasn't told that he failed the test, but rather that he passed it. The Bible here is teaching the importance of faith. It's teaching that faith is more important than other virtues you might be inclined to value. Like not killing your kid. Seriously. He had his son tied up, and was about to plunge a knife into him. Who can possibly be so sick and depraved that they think that Abraham did the right thing? The guy I was talking to, that's who. What really got me, though, is that one of his daughters started telling me how Abraham passed the test and did the right thing. This guy has taught his children that religion makes all absolute moral standards irrelevant, to the point where it can be not only acceptable, but good, for a parent to murder his children. I was disgusted. My point here, though, is that most people, including many Atheists, would not be disgusted. They would just say that the guy was mistaken, but that's what his faith has taught him. If that guy had told his kids, "I'd tie you up and slice your throats if my best friend told me to", people would be outraged. There would be a chance that DCF would come and take his kids away. But I can guarantee you that if I'd gone to DCF and told them that this guy is telling his kids that the bible was right about Abraham they'd think I was crazy. Because that's his faith, and there's this widespread feeling that faith should be respected. Well, I don't respect it. I disrespect it. I know a lot of Atheists wish I wouldn't say things like that, because it can hurt achieving our short term goals, but, as I said, I'm in this for the long run. I'm working for a society where respect for faith is not only not widespread, but is rare. I'm working for a society where it's considered obvious that truth is attained by natural reason, and where faith is an odd custom our ancestors used to practice.
So, how do we get from here to there? Slowly. When someone has accepted a principle all their life and internalized it to the extent that it seems like it's the natural order of things, then there's nothing we can do to change that in a single conversation. We have to first get them to a point where the rightness of faith is even a question they'll consider. We have to create an atmosphere were the virtuousness of faith is not assumed. We have to create a society where someone who thinks that faith should be accommodated feels the need to explain why. Only then will people start truly wondering whether relying on faith even makes sense. They will start figuring things out, and that's the key. When people try to figure things out they sometimes make mistakes, but the overall tendency to to go with what actually makes sense.
But they're not going to get to that point if they're immersed in a culture where faith is assumed to be a virtue, where someone can say, "he's a man of deep faith" and take it for granted that everyone will understand that as a compliment.
Being out as an Atheist, and being out in a matter-of-fact way, is the single best thing we can do to counteract this.
You don't need to go out of your way to let people know you don't respect their faith, but you shouldn't be hiding it either. I think a good rule of thumb is that it's appropriate to challenge someone's religion wherever it's appropriate to challenge someone's politics. When I'm at a family dinner with my brother we don't talk about politics, and when I'm at a family dinner with my daughter we don't talk about religion. But if you would tell a coworker he's wrong when he tells you that the political party you hate is going to save the country, then you should also tell him he's wrong when he tells you that Jesus loves you and you should tell him he's wrong.
And yes, I mean tell him he's wrong, and not just that you don't share his faith. That is not enough. Because the virtuousness of faith is so ingrained in society there's a feeling that Atheists are to be pitied because they don't share in this great gift. There's a feeling that Atheists wish they could have faith and that we oppose public religiousity because we don't want to be remined of our disadvantage. Knowing that some people don't share a virtue does not by itself make someone question whether or not it's really a virtue. That will only happen from knowing that some people don't consider it a virtue. Even then it will, for most people, be a very gradual process, but this is a fundamental attitude we're trying to change.
This is where political action against religious ceremonies becomes so important. Our goverments don't just rule us, they represent us, and when a goverment endorses some principle, especially in a way that just assumes everyone agrees with it, it gives a powerful message that that principle is woven into fabric of our society. That's what we're trying to stop when we protest these things. And if we can't stop it we can hopefully at least make the mayor or whomever defend it, which will drive home the point that this is a controversial idea that not everyone in society upholds.
When I led the protest of the National Day of Prayer ceremony in Middletown Town Hall I issued a statement which contained the sentence, "Encouraging bad habits is a dubious activity for a town government in any circumstance, but when those bad habits are of a religious nature, it's not merely a bad idea, it's an unconstitutional one." There were some Atheists who suggested I change that sentence, that mentioning that prayer is a bad habit would detract from our main message. I understood their point, but I left it in. The violation of the constitution is our legal justification for trying to stop the ceremony, but the fact that it's encouraging bad habits is our motivation for stopping it. It's not just that the government is endorsing something we don't agree with in our name. It's endorsing, in our name, something we know is bad for society, bad for the people in the room, bad for all of the people in Middletown whose respect for prayer is a little bit reenforced by hearing about a prayer ceremony at town hall. Now, I know that reading my statement is not going to make anybody say, "O my God! He's right! Prayer is bad!", but I'm hoping someone will read it and think, "What's he talking about? Of course prayer is good. Isn't it?" And that's the start.
And let me make it clear who the target audience for these protests is. We're not trying to convince the people who came to Middletown Town Hall for the National Day of Prayer. They're the last people who are going to be convinced. Our target audience is the guy who opened the Middletown Press the next day and instead of saying, "Oh, they had a prayer ceremony at town hall, that's nice", said, "Some Atheists protested a prayer ceremony at town hall. What are they so upset about?" I'm not trying to directly convert people to Atheism. Not because I don't think that would be a good thing. I do, and I will take the opportunity to plant seeds of doubt if the opportunity arises, but I'm convinced that that is not how we are going to change society. Society will be changed by changing the terms of debate. Society will be changed when people realize that for religion to be worthy of respect it has to earn it through reasoned argument, and that reliance on faith is an admission that it has failed at that.
And it's up to us to make that happen. And by "us" I mean people in Connecticut and other liberal states. The realignment of society's attitudes about faith is not going to start in Alabama and spread north to New England. Activists in Alabama have their hands full with issues we no longer have to worry about. That does not mean our job is done and we can relax. To the contrary, it means that it's up to us to take the next step. It's up to us to initiate the fundamental shifts in people's thinking which will then spread south to Alabama and make our allies' lives easier down there. That is our task. That is our responsibility. That is our opportunity to play a key role in changing the world.
And I hate to say it, but you're not going to change the world with Atheist Pub Night or Atheist Sushi Dinner. There's nothing wrong with these thing, I participate in them myself. I even throw an Atheist solstice party every June, which all of you are invited to, by the way, but, while that's good for community building, having a community isn't going to do a lot of good unless that community's resources are directed towards real societal change. We, the people at this convention, are the core of the movement for this region. Any change which comes about will be driven by the actions of this group and larger community this group will evolve into. We were very happy to get as many attendees here as we have, but there are hundreds of thousands of Atheists in Connecticut alone, and those of us here are a tiny percentage of that. We are the vanguard, we are the ones who are doing something to effect the next step in transforming society. Or not, depending on how we perceive our mission. If we perceive it as just a way to build an insular community then our community will be an island, with little effect on the world at large. If we want to affect the community at large, we have to be in the community at large, making a nuisance of ourselves.
And in Connecticut being in the community means being visible in your town. Connecticut towns are very independent, and people coming from the outside telling them what they should do are usually dismissed without even paying attention to what they're saying. More people is always better than less people, and it's good to have allies from across the state to back you up, but when someone steps up to the mike to tell the town council why what it's doing is wrong it's much more effective if that someone is a citizen of that town. I've had people come up to me and say, "They're praying at town hall. You should do something about that", and I answer, "*We* should do something about that. You testify to your council and I'll gather my troops to back you up", and they say, "Oh, no, I can't do that." Well, in some cases the person really can't do that, because they might lose their job. That happens, even in Connecticut. But most cases when people say that can't they really can. They just don't want to deal with the hassle; they don't want to deal with the pushback. But, you know, you're never going to change anything like that. If you're not in danger of losing your job or home for being politically active, and you're still not, then you're throwing away the advantage of living in Connecticut, or Massachusetts, or New York. Our advantage is both that we have a head start on creating a faithless society and greater means for doing so. We don't live in a secular paradise, far from it. And to sit back and say, "Thank Madalyn we don't live in Alabama" and use that as an excuse to not improve the place we do live in is, frankly, a waste. We can do so much here. All it takes is years of incremental change over many generations. And I know that makes it sound difficult and frustrating, and at times it will be, but the important thing is, it's possible.
I chose this subject for my talk today because I need your help. You need each other's help. Atheists who are not here need your help. Your grandchildren who might live either in a society ruled by faith or one ruled by reason need your help.
I need you to come to me and say, "Dennis, my town's city council starts each meeting with a prayer. I want you to organize a protest and I will be there with you to testify before the council and tell them why what they're doing is wrong." And I will be there with as many fellow Atheists as I can, and most people at the meeting will say, "What are those crazy Atheists so upset about", but some of them will say, "Maybe they have a point. Let me think about this." When we get people to say "let me think about this" we are changing the world. And no, we don't have anything better to do than that.
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