Home > religion > a longer response to Robert Benne

a longer response to Robert Benne

I submitted a slightly abridged version of this response for the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech column Rationally Speaking. Here is the full version.

The first great challenge facing any advocate amid the marketplace of ideas is to be seen or heard. The second, and perhaps more daunting, is to be understood.

In his 12 June column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Prof. Robert Benne recognized the voices of atheists and secularists. This trend has accelerated in recent decades: Nonreligious and antireligious advocates became mainstream before many of us knew of them at all, tapping into a pulsing vein coursing throughout the United States. The principle challenge for advocates of nonreligion is undergoing a shift from visibility to clarity. Unfortunately, Prof. Benne appears to be oblivious to our message and has, knowingly or not, contributed to the misinformation campaign that stymies it.

Benne accuses atheist scientists and writers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris of wanting religion “banished legally from public life”. If by “public life” Benne means only taxpayer-funded government agencies like public schools and town halls, and if by “religion” he means “official promotion of explicitly religious ideas”, then he would be correct — but the ACLU, for one, would be on board as well.

That would be the same ACLU that defended the right of Floyd County high schoolers to post copies of the Ten Commandments on their lockers in February after they were mysteriously removed.

But, as Benne goes on to explain, he instead means by “public life” the kind of public discourse seen at town hall meetings and rallies like those of Rev. King, and by “religion” the free expression of religious views by participants. And he is flat wrong. In response to this frequent accusation, all three scientists have affirmed not only the right of people to express religious views and practice religious rituals, but their support of that right.

Illustratively, this 5 June Prof. Dawkins was asserted to the Irish Times that a reformed Irish Constitution should “remove all influence of the Roman Catholic Church . . . incorporating tolerance for all religions”. It is religious favoritism, not religious abstinence, that is at odds with an individual’s right to pray — or to spend their time on other pursuits.

That “militant” secularists — presumably anyone antagonistic toward religion — deserve the same qualifier as those Muslims and Catholics who bomb the homes of their adversaries is indefensible. But among the few atheists promoting military action in the name of secularism is Christopher Hitchens, who has also proven himself a fierce and uncompromising defender of the rights to speech and to privacy, the two rights upon which conservative Christians in the United States most frequently pity themselves infringed. (Examples follow.)

Possibly less irresponsibly, Benne accuses “not so militant” atheists of claiming that legislation limiting abortion violates the establishment clause — the modern interpretation of the First Amendment prohibiting official endorsement of religion — because it is religiously motivated. The atheist literature and blogosphere are certainly awash with diverse opinions, but my fellow Freethinkers at Virginia Tech are tapped into both — i daresay more so than Prof. Benne — and none of us know of any respected voice who has said as much. Should he refer us to them, we shall be glad to argue them into the ground.

It is indeed, as Benne acknowledges, crucial to oppose explicit government endorsement of religion. He also seems oblivious to the fact that, currently, Christians in particular hold an illegitimate charmed status:

  • Churches are classified as tax-exempt charitable organizations even if they do no charity work.
  • While Richard Dawkins was advocating religious freedom to the Irish Times, Catholic Charities was suing the State of Illinois for refusing them public funding if they discriminate against same-sex couples.
  • Taxes still fund explicitly Christian crisis pregnancy centers that use intimidation and misinformation to dissuade pregnant women from having abortions.

CPCs violate not only the establishment clause but the most basic rules of conduct in health care.

Benne claims to object not to the separation of church and state but to the principle of “separationism” — the silencing of religious perspectives from the public discourse. One might describe it as a secular Inquisition, with the Roman Catholic Church facing the same threats that every other religious institution or individual did at the time.

The only popular modern-day advocate for such nonsense appears to have been Elton John, in a candid interview with Music Monthly Magazine. I dare say that William Lane Craig, who has written for his own website a defense of the Canaanite slaughter that would carry over with no adjustments to any modern day genocide, is at least as representative of the modern Christian community as Elton John is of the nonreligious.

That Benne’s straw-separationism runs “counter to the Constitution, American history, and serious Christian conviction” is obvious. But what of public policies that limit Christian influence, thereby “voilat[ing] serious Christian belief”? There are many:

  • Children who attend public school are exposed to astronomy, biology, earth science, U.S. history, and a host of other disciplines that run counter to Christian claims.
  • Christians may not punish other adults for engaging in nonmissionary sex (sodomy).
  • Christians may not forcibly block women’s access to abortion providers, no matter how protective they feel toward “nascent life”.

As religious extremists discover ever more inventive ways of disagreeing with important government policies, it will be the government’s responsibility to ignore them. And if Benne’s phantom antireligious oppressors ever materialize, they will deserve no better.

There is also little going for the assertion that religious doctrines can guide meaningful public policy, unless the doctrines are vacuous or universal enough to be essentially secular. Nicole made this point earlier this month with respect to the Ten Commandments. If there are corer so-called Christian principles than these, i would invite Prof. Benne to identify them.

Benne does make the very good point that “fusion” — the fusing of a political agenda to a religious faith — is fallacious and unhelpful. Though he did not say it outright, the attitudes he misattributes to atheists would fall neatly within this characterization — provided one first mistakes atheism for a system of faith. Instead, he correctly identifies Christian churches as the principal culprits of fusion in the United States.

I applaud also his advocacy of “critical engagement”, insofar as it means taking an avenue of careful scrutiny when allowing one’s core values to guide one’s political ideas. Benne thus aligns himself closely with the skeptic’s principle that all ideas withstand careful scrutiny before becoming part of one’s worldview.

Indeed, i on this point i only criticize Prof. Benne for stopping short of applying such critical thinking to the foundations of the values he insists that some Christians would be politically blind without. Many of us would give adults more credit than that. (Though i do see a case to be made that lifelong reliance on such dichromatism may have a debilitating effect even on an intelligent adult’s ability to reason.)

Benne concludes with a capstone error: praise for that church which “really is the church”. A diversity of monotheists think they practice the “correct” version of their religion. (One can easily find Muslims rejecting headscarves despite Qur’an verses 24:31; Catholics defending gay sex despite Catechism #2359; and Jews eschewing circumcision despite Genesis 17:10–14.) Holy texts are rife with ambiguity, and the claim to authoritative knowledge of what interpretation is correct and what establishment embodies divine mandate is no less absurd in an authoritative voice.

In contrast, no respectable atheists lay claim to the “correct” version of atheism because atheism itself is not a worldview. Neither are atheists homogeneous or unprincipled: The principles of secularism and humanism are rich in consensus but do exhibit discord, particularly over what attitudes to take toward religious people and organizations (accommodationism vs. confrontationalism). As in the sciences, though, attitudes generally tend to converge with experience and evidence rather than diverge over semantics.

To understand religion in society requires understanding the consequences of its absence as well as of its presence. Prof. Benne, far from understanding atheism or secularism, is perpetuating its most common misinterpretations, to the just consternation of its advocates and to the deterioration of the public dialogue.

Community groups, including churches, have indeed an obligation to speak and act when necessary. But one reasonable perspective is worth a thousand ideological campaigns.

Thanks to the atheist, polyamorous skeptic for pointing this one out; now i can finally read Shaun’s critique.

Categories: religion Tags: , , ,
    June 25, 2011 at 7:24 pm




    • June 28, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      To address your second point in particular, we must agree on what we mean by such words as “sin”, “god”, “family”, and “church” before we claim them as targets of contemporary society. I claim that the sociological and neuroscientific approaches to values are proving helpful in stabilizing our societal “moral compass” rather than sabotaging it: With an ever more robust body of knowledge in place that helps us understand the motivations for harmful behavior and the most effective ways to prevent and address it, we can (if we choose) design better-functioning educational, legal, and penal systems. (Try the Law and Neuroscience Blog for some examples.) An unchanging moral framework would prevent us from progressing at all, while as arbitrary a framework as a holy text (given how many radically different ways there are to interpret one) provides little guidance in the first place.

  2. June 21, 2011 at 1:36 am

    Well, I hope you enjoy my critique. Well said, on your part. It’s important to respond to academics who perpetuate misinformation, even if the response fails to get through most of the time. Time, and pressure, my friend…time and pressure.

    I’ll let you know that I emailed Dr. Benne with a link to my post, and received no response as of today. I don’t expect a response either. In my many years of responding, publicly, to such articles, I rarely get any response.


    • June 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Your response is admittedly more thoughtful; in others of your posts i’ve also had to pace myself to appreciate the delicate philosophical or logical nuances you raise. Mine was intended as a column, of course, and since i emailed Dr. Benne a few days before submitting it asking for some clarification, i allowed myself to be a bit more abrasive.

      Paying closer attention to New River Valley publications doesn’t seem to be quite enough anymore . . . but i certainly have no problem with greatened accessibility to the marketplace for ideas!

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