I was listening to a discussion on "Beyond Belief", the Radio 4 programme. Despite the avowed separation of Church and State, it appears people's religious beliefs do play a large part in determining whether they stand a chance of standing for President of the USA.
Alongside presenter Ernie Rea were Bob Vander Plaats, head of "The Family Leader" pressure group, Boo Tyson from "Coalition Mainstream" and Dr Alexander Smith from Huddersfield University.
Lecturer Dr Alexander Smith noted how strong fundamentalist beliefs didn't always work to the advantage of the candidates: ""To a man and a woman, every moderate Republican I interviewed as part of my research in Kansas said that they now felt liberated to be able to vote for Obama, because they felt that the choice of Sarah Palin was such a disastrous decision, an effort to placate the religious right within the Republican ranks "
Surprisingly, in the Southern States, the slander that Barak Obama is really a closet Muslim is still being made, according to Boo Tyson.
Mr Platts also came out with the argument that given the choice between a Marxist and and Mormon, the American people will elect the Mormon. However by "Marxist", it turned out he meant Barack Obama!
Asked at the end by presenter Ernie Rea whether an atheist could stand a chance, extreme skepticism was on offer from all the panelists:
ERNIE RAE: Do you think that a publicly declared atheist could win the presidency at this point in time?
BOO TYSON: No. No I don't, and I think you would be hard pressed to win "dog-catcher" for County Commissioner, much less be the president of the United States, who takes an oath with "under God" in it, and on a Bible.
ALEXANDER SMITH: I suspect not. No. And in fact interestingly, I mean, Ron Paul, who we haven't talked about in this discussion, is probably the closest candidate you could come to who might be described as something of an agnostic. But you know, he's trailing well behind, and obviously isn't much of a prospect.
BOB VANDER PLAATS: I certainly hope not. For us to say that an atheist could lead this country, I sure hope we're not at that point. If we are, I believe God would have every right to remove his blessing from this country.
That is an extraordinary thing to say, and I find it alarming that there is that presupposition that an atheist would somehow be morally flawed because they didn't believe in a God. In fact, the philosopher Bayle argued that this notion was completely false. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) argued in what he called "paradoxes" for toleration. He was a Calvinist in a France - a country dominated by Catholics, and yet he specifically addressed the idea of a society that was largely composed of atheists.
One of these "paradoxes" is the assertion "that atheists are not a social menace, and that a society composed only of atheists would be perfectly viable." Here, an atheist refers to a person who holds that religious beliefs of any kind are false, and therefore the moral values related to those beliefs can have no validity, so it "would seem that such atheists would undermine society". Against this, Bayle argues that people are, in general, motivated in their conduct by "self-love", by behaving out of concern for reputation and out of fear of punishment; they only pay "lip service" to their beliefs. The result is that people are kept in check by moral principles regardless of their motivation, which may be devoid of moral and religious significance. The idea that good actions must be motivated by underlying moral values is, therefore, false. Moreover, even where such moral values exist, they are no guarantee of virtuous behaviour, as can readily be confirmed by observation. As Bayle comments: "It is no more strange that an atheist should lead a virtuous life, than a Christian should commit any kind of crime."
In his paradox about a society of atheists, Bayle is also arguing for toleration. He cleverly defends toleration for his beliefs with a more general argument, for if atheists are not to be feared by the state, then still less are Calvinists to be seen heretics. It is clear that his thinking on this matter arose out of his historical situation. It is clear that everything Bayle wrote can be seen as a response to the religious intolerance of his times. And yet his arguments should also be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their genesis.
And I would like to hope that an atheist would one day be President of the United States, if he or she was a just and compassionate individual, with the ability needed to lead the government of that nation. That, after all, is what really matters, not lip service to a deity that can just as easily be used to justify atrocities.
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