Sunday, 29 April 2012

The USA Presidential Elections

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.


James said...

Your response to Bob Vander Plaats - that this is an extraordinary thing to say rather surprises me.

The idea that I believe is called American exceptionalism - that the US has a unique world mission to spread liberty and democracy - has at least some of its roots in the religion of the early Puritan settlers, and could therefore be regarded as a constant in US culture. That large numbers of immigrants to the US came seeking freedom from religious oppression would only strengthen that.

Nearer to home, the uglier face of Mr Vander Plaats' view - as espoused by Fred Phelps and the Westborough "Baptist Church" - has been highly visible over the last two decades: the difference being that WBC claims that God already has withdrawn his blessing from the USA because of abortion, gay rights etc.

TonyTheProf said...

On refelection, when I said "that is an extraordinary thing to say", I should have probably phrased it "that is an appalling thing to say", which gets closer to how I view such statements.

Although not an atheist myself, the idea that an atheist is somehow morally inferior to a Christian strikes me as one which would be very difficult to sustain.

Atheists are not paragons of virtue, either, and I think that Richard Dawkin's idea that Stalin or Pol Pot was not really an atheist is special pleading. All human beings can become monsters, especially when in positions of power. But atheists are no more likely than Christians to be prone to this; it's a common failing of humanity, and Christians are not immune either - otherwise the Bible Belt would be a place where statistics on divorce, wife-beating, crime, etc should reflect the greater Christian population and be less than the North.

James said...

I'd say that Dawkins is about as bad an advertisement for the "good atheist" as you can get.

But probably not as bad as this:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.

This (later withdrawn) comes from the preamble to a pledge document created by The Family Leader (CEO Bob Vander Plaats) to uphold marriage. Interestingly enough, one candidate who very publicly refused to sign was Mitt Romney!

TonyTheProf said...

That's almost an endorsement of slavery!

Dawkins is a very fervent atheist, but I've not heard anything to suggest he has ever acted in any manner that has caused actually harm to people (apart from perhaps ruffling some fundamentalist feathers).

George W Bush, on the other hand, headed into Iraq on what comes across as a "god given" mandate, and has left the whole region in a mess. I can't think of anyone in the atheist camp who has done anything like that.