Under threat of court order, today’s “National Day of Prayer” may be the last. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sued to abolish the practice and won its initial court victory. Today’s celebration of the tradition takes place under the President’s order to appeal that decision.
The struggle shows a classic case of a social-political movement that is arguably legally valid but politically toxic. In short, it highlights the reason that atheism continues to struggle for political status to match the growing proportion of religious non-believers in the electorate — a grotesque and vindictive intolerance and hatred towards religious that is vastly disproportionate to the actual issues. The result is that the legal battle is disconnected from the battle for hearts and minds, and even potentially valid complaints from atheists wind up just making them look bad.
The question is one of motive: Who is harmed by a “National Day of Prayer” to a degree justifying the trouble of banning it? Even granting that it is legally inappropriate for the President of the United States to be asking people to pray, it is difficult to identify any concrete damage that results from such an indulgence. The courts have long held that purely “ceremonial” public invocations of religion are essentially harmless. “In God We Trust” on money and the always banal and benign prayer by a chaplain at the opening of Congress have been found to have no effect whatsoever on public policy and, therefore, no cause to enforce a ban. But the particularly militant breed of atheists continue to target them nonetheless. Why? The only possible explanation is that they feel harmed by the mere sight or sound of religious belief that they disagree with. That’s not a request for liberty. It’s a demand to enable bigotry, no different than an anti-Hispanic racist demanding to enjoin his neighbors from displaying a Mexican flag on Cinco de Mayo because he doesn’t want to see it.
If the courts continue to indulge such demands, it is not difficult to see how the end result could be the extinction or at least drastic curtailing of the free-expression rights of all non-atheists. A few militant atheists have already attacked the appointment of chaplains in the military, demanding that deployed soldiers who are religious believers be stripped of religious counsel merely to cater to the vague and amorphous “freedom from religion” of people who are safely sipping their lattes back home. Other aggressive atheists have gone so far as to demand religion be banned, for no other reason than that they find it to be “superstition” and therefore intellectually unacceptable. In doing so, they become the mirror image of the authoritarian religious fundamentalists that they detest — unwilling to tolerate the existence of a creed they do not share.
The consequence is to render atheism — including atheists who are individually innocent of the extremism of the militants — politically toxic. The reason that atheists find themselves on the political fringes is because the intolerance and extremism of a few (and let’s be clear — the vast majority of atheists and agnostics do not endorse the coercive methods and hateful attitudes of such groups as the Freedom From Religion Foundation) stands as the representative of the whole. The problem is again the mirror image of religious fundamentalism — conservative Christianity has struggled in recent years to overcome the taint of its extreme purists and to the extent that extreme atheist purists model those methods they spread the same problem. When even a highly progressive (at least on social issues) and secular figure like President Obama takes a direct stand against the militant atheists, no other conclusion is possible except that the movement is alienating even its natural allies.
To escape this trap, atheism needs to find a way to be for something instead of constantly focusing it’s energy on being against religion. Tentative efforts to claim “reason” as the positive core of atheism have fallen flat in light of the seemingly irresistible desire to immediately follow up with cheap shots about religious “superstition” that expose a continuing hatefulness beneath the shroud. And until more atheists step up to recapture their non-religion from the haters, no amount of court victories will ever win the larger battle for hearts and minds.
The author can be reached by email for sincere discussion. Rants about the evils of religion will be printed out, sold for recycling, and the money donated to the Salvation Army.