Can an atheist be a good citizen?


The answer to the headline’s question is no, at least according to the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in a podcast in the Socrates in the City series (Sept. 22, 2004; I came across it as one of the chapters in the 2012 book from the podcast, Life, God, and Other Small Topics. Neuhaus’ talk was actually based on a 1991 piece he wrote.) To which response I must respond: codswallop.

Not that I expect religious employees like Neuhaus to defend atheism, but to suggest people can only be good under the influence of the supernatural — and even then only their particular version of the supernatural — is an arrogant, ideological statement, not one of fact. It’s been debunked by much better minds than mine (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Buckman come to mind). 

Interestingly, the Catholic League weighs in on the debate, Can We Be Good Without God, without entirely refuting Neuhaus, but rather by expanding on several points of the argument. However, the conclusion the author of that piece reaches is that “Ultimately, yes, one individual here, another individual there could be really sweet and fine without God, but a system that obliterates the religious basis of morality will ultimately consume itself.” To which, I again say, codswallop.

Neuhaus’s perspective is regrettably narrow: Christian, Catholic, and American. He takes pot shots at Protestants, especially recent ones, doesn’t comment on other world religions at all (as if they were invisible), ignores non-theistic philosophies, doesn’t talk about levels of governance aside from the US federal, rambles about the American founders, and ignores the experience in other countries. Even in context of his American perspective, he blithely sidesteps the vexing Constitutional separation of church and state by not raising it at all. For such a big issue, his answer is a peashooter response that misses the target entirely.

Yet for all my disagreement, this is the sort of philosophical debate I love to read about and engage in (not that there’s a lot of opportunity to actually debate these days; Facebook is just a noisy echo chamber). So my participation is mostly limited to reading the works of others and blogging about my own perspective. So here goes.

First let’s define the term atheist. As Neuhaus points out, although the word means “without god,” it has taken on a political and social shading since it was first coined, and today carries considerable emotional baggage when used. For many religious people, atheism is equated with evil, with immorality, with the irredeemably lost soul. But Neuhaus seems content to use it in this manner because it is bait on the end of his ideological hook.

By definition, everyone is an atheist. Christians are atheists about Thor, Jews are atheists about Ahura Mazda, Muslims are atheists about Ganesh, Hindus are atheists about Allah, Zoroastrians about Yaweh, and everyone except some devout Pastafarians is atheist about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Every religion has its own god or gods, and believes it/they are the true deity (or deities) and the rest are either false, fake, or pretenders. So people who call themselves atheists simply accept fewer gods than religious people. Maybe even just one fewer. It’s all a matter of degree. Many who are called atheists by others think of themselves in other terms, such as humanist, Stoic, Taoist, or just non-theistic.

(I had the experience recently, when being admitted into the hospital for surgery, of being asked what my religion was. This gave me pause. I don’t like to give pat answers that may be open to interpretation; I prefer to explain my views and my philosophy, but given the immediacy required, I simply replied “nothing.” Had I been prepared for the question, I might have replied “humanist” or something else. I seldom use the term atheist in self-description, and dislike the spineless term agnostic.) 

Neuhaus asks, “…can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self — a truth that is not dependent upon the self — really be trusted?” Trusted to do what? To craft laws? Write a cheque? Dig a ditch? Arrest a criminal? Keep a marriage vow? Not molest children? Fight a war? Neuhaus doesn’t specify: he simply consigns all non-believes into one category: untrustworthy. I read in that the same abhorrent logic the Trump administration sued to put immigrant children into cages: we don’t trust you because you’re not one of our believers.

He then slides the  responsibility for this question onto the shoulders of John Locke, 17th century philosopher, who wrote that, “…promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of god, through but even thought, dissolves all.” More piffle.

Locke was hardly objective or neutral: as a rigid Protestant, he was fervently anti-atheist, but he also deemed Catholic values and morals detrimental to society, supported forms of theocracy, and believed Muslims ridiculous for being Muslim. As much as I appreciate many of Locke’s views and writings in other areas, he is not the model for Enlightenment liberal tolerance he’s sometimes been made out to be. 

But Neuhaus’ vague statement about a “higher truth” is itself subject to debate. Science provides many truths that are above the self: gravity, evolution, the speed of light, thermodynamics, entropy… these are not subject to human choice or interpretation, They simply are fact. Scientific fact isn’t an opinion. personally I think gravity is a higher truth that transcends opinion. But how does a “higher truth” apply to, say, justice? Isn’t justice dependent on the laws, and aren’t the laws a truth independent of the self?

Is a worker who repairs the sewers or ensures clean safe water is pumped through your pipes not a good citizen for doing so regardless of his or her religious beliefs? Then what does religion have to do with it?

The 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, offered a non-theistic option: his categorical imperative. His was a moral philosophy that posited an “…objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary. All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the Categorical Imperative.” In other words, rational people when they asked themselves “What ought I to do?” would behave morally because not to do so was irrational. There was no god in Kant’s philosophy.

More recently, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argued in his book Morality Without God? that “our moral behavior should be utterly independent of religion.” His argument for morality is based on the concept of harm: Anyone who harms another, or who fails to prevent a harm when possible, commits a moral wrong. Morality is a question of current reality, of social interaction, essentially a covenant for people to behave themselves. Again, no god or supernatural involved.

The basic humanist philosophy revolves around the core principle of not doing harm to others, expanded by some thinkers along subset eight principles, all shorn of theist oversight:

  • Beneficence: Help yourself and other people.
  • Autonomy: Allow rational individuals to make free and informed choices.
  • Justice: Treat people fairly: treat equals equally, unequals unequally.
  • Utility: Maximize the ratio of benefits to harms for all people.
  • Fidelity: Keep your promises and agreements.
  • Honesty: Do not lie, defraud, deceive or mislead.
  • Privacy: Respect personal privacy and confidentiality.

Can science offer a guide to moral certainties? Maybe. Sam Harris certainly argues the point in his 2010 book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Harris believes that increases in the “well-being of conscious creatures” can be quantified and pursued using scientific methods.

Personally, I believe science needs to go hand-in-hand with an appropriate non-theistic moral philosophy to determine appropriate values or ethical guidelines. For me, that would be partly the Stoic philosophy,  melded with some of the wisdom from Epicureanism, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Sufism. And I would add in  wisdom from Jewish and Christian books and scriptures, too. Wisdom and morality, as I see them, are not exclusive properties of any philosophy or faith. We should take the best from all sources.

“Those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus turn out to be the best citizens,” says Neuhaus, although without citing any actual examples. I can find numerous examples of self-professed, believing American Christians who went armed with assault weapons into churches, nightclubs, and schools to shoot people, including children, just because they felt that was their right. Good citizens? Perhaps by Neuhaus’ criteria because for him faith is more important than deed.

This is just more piffle (and note his exclusion of Muslims who worship the same deity). “The ultimate  allegiance of the faithful,” he adds, “is not to the regime or to its constituent texts, but to the City of God and the sacred texts that guide our path toward that end for which we were created.”

So much to debunk. Not least of all the parochial nature of his views. City of God is Augustine’s great work, written in the early 5th century about faith, by the way. Augustine argues that the fall of Rome (the sack of the city in 410 CE) was caused by the collapse in human morality, not the result of his god’s displeasure or its neglect to defend the holy city against the barbarians. Augustine also believed in predestination (fate). It’s interesting but not relevant to modern arguments.

Neuhaus shrugs off allegiance to a nation’s “constituent texts” which would include laws as being inconsequential. This is, of course, a popular Talibangelist view; that the laws of the land must be subservient to their particular, selective interpretation of a translation of the Bible (with emphasis on the New Testament, of course). It also opens the door to the armed right wing militia who want to impose a theocratic state on America because, as Neuhaus sees it, their self-selected biblical “laws” supersede national or state laws.

Neuhaus’ exclusion of every other religion aside from a narrow Judeo-Christian segment, while not surprising, makes his statement more like one espousing colonialism (or even racism) than morality. It sounds the sort of argument used by the church to convert conquered and oppress nations and people into Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries — or the more recent arguments of the Talibangelists behind the Trump administration’s prohibition of the immigration from select Muslim countries.

Without any suggestion he appreciates the irony he is making, Neuhaus adds, “The taking away of God dissolves all. Every text is susceptible to become pretext; every interpretation, a strategy; and every oath, a deceit.”

The Bible — the combined Jewish and Christian books called scripture — has ample examples of rape, murder, attempted murder by god (Exodus 4:24), treachery, lying, deceit, violence, homosexual rape, gang rape (Judges 19, Genesis 19), sex, lust, envy, incest, drunkenness, divorce, theft, adultery, war, murdering children (Psalm 137:9: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”), using witchcraft (1 Samuel 28:3-25), offering one’s daughters up for gang rape (Genesis 19), and slavery. It is not the moral compass some claim (or pretend) it to be. Even the Christian portion has questionable parts — Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and cures the sick, but isn’t that undoing his own god’s (father’s) work? And what about Jesus getting pissed off at a tree and killing it just because he’s in a bad mood (Matthew 21.18-19)? Or when he insults a frightened woman and calls her a woman a dog simply because she begs his help to cure her sick daughter (Matthew 15:21-28)? (If you’re unaware of these stories, or just want to know more, you might enjoy reading The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch to learn more. I highly recommend it.)

It is easy to rake up examples from the past two millennia of religious people using religion and the Bible (their cherry-picked interpretation of it) as an excuse for violence, murder, torture, servitude, slavery, and rape (the Inquisition, the Crusades, numerous wars including the Civil War, the  Catholic church’s subservience to the fascists and Nazis before and during WWII, all come to mind). One only needs to look to today’s Talibangelists — the pseudo-Christians who manipulate the US administration — to see the religious Bible-based hypocrisy in action now.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy reading the Bible for its stories, its wisdom, poetry, and its history, but not its theology. It is difficult to worship a deity who sends plagues to kill innocents (Egypt of Moses), who wipes out humanity for some perceived slights (the flood), or destroys an entire city (Sodom) and then lets the survivors engage in incest just because he had a bad day or felt some human slight.  You might fear such an irritable, vindictive, petty entity, but love honour, and respect? Sorry.

And then there’s the internal hypocrisy of the New Testament as its later authors (Paul in particular) sloughed off Christianity’s Jewish origins and requirements. In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus is quoted: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In other words: he is there is fulfill the Jewish laws laid out in the Torah and not one jot or title (in the KJV translation) will be changed. Obey those laws — all of them, even the slightest — or you won’t be exalted in heaven.

But in Romans 6:14 (written a generation after Jesus’ death by a man who never met Jesus or even read his words), Paul says: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” Many Christians (and allTalibangelists) assume this means they can simply ignore what Jesus said about the laws, and cherry-pick from the Old Testament the laws they want to follow or which suit their ideology. It becomes a hedonistic license to do as they please without regard to the corpus of Jewish law, ethics, and morality. This is why Christians refuse to obey the laws of kashrut, don’t get circumcised, wear clothes with mixed fabrics, wont don tefillin, but will happily kill homosexuals and alleged witches, and own slaves.

I think Neuhaus also avoids the iconic parable about the good Samaritan because it makes the point that even those who don’t share your own beliefs can behave morally and ethically, which undermines his arguments And possibly because Augustine watered it down as a weak allegory about Adam, thus stripping it of its power to teach.

The question, “Can an atheist be a good citizen?” is actually misleading because one supposes some sort or rational argument will be opened, but instead we are given an ideological screed. Even asking it that way establishes the negative response behind it. The question he’s really answering is “Can anyone who isn’t an American Catholic be a good American citizen?” or even “Can anyone who doesn’t live up to my standards be a good American citizen?” His answer is still “no.” Which is still codswallop.

Anyone, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof can be a good citizen. To suggest otherwise is arrogant and bigoted.

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