Welcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing exploration of the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the only idea that all atheists share: that life is best lived without gods. Atheism can be a beginning, more than just an end in itself. When they confine their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Standing alone, atheism consists only of refusal. Held along with compatible philosophies, however, atheism allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.
The Foolishness of Faith in Politicians
In one of his first acts as President of the United States, George W. Bush has dedicated this entire week to the creation and promotion of programs designed to donate public money to private religious organizations (or as he prefers to call them "faith-based initiatives"). With the creation of an official federal office of "faith-based action", Bush intends to replace the public social safety net in place since the days of the Depression with governmental funding of churches and other religious organizations that link charity to their missionary work.
As Bush promised during his campaign, "In every instance when my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith based institutions." What's so wrong with Bush's plans to fund religious charities instead of governmental social services?
- Churches and other religious organizations are already eligible to receive governmental funding for their charitable activities, so long as they do not use those funds to support their religious activities. A church is perfectly able to run a charity with government funding, provided that the government's money is kept in a separate account and is used only for the purposes of charity. This present restriction also means government-funded charities are not allowed to use those charities to promote their religious ideas. The upshot is that the changes supported by Bush and his Republican party do nothing but remove these restrictions. With the status quo, there is no discrimination against religious charities, just a system of regulations designed to ensure that government-funded charities cannot use public funds to promote their religious beliefs. In effect, Bush's "faith-based action" makes it more difficult for the needy to get help by allowing religious charities to force the people they serve to listen to sermons or in other ways participate in their particular religious rituals. The White House openly admits that religious coercion of the poor is part of their plan. Recently, Stephen Goldsmith, White House adviser to President Bush and spokesman for the President on the issue of faith-based charities stated, "If, however, you have a choice of a faith-based organization and you, the individual, choose to go
there and you have to pray before your lunch meal, you should be required to pray." Under the Republican plans, a Hindu charity could require Christians to pray to the goddess Kali in order to get assistance, and get governmental funding to do it!
- Bush's plans to deregulate governmental funding of religious charities would also allow charities to engage in religiously discriminatory practices Ý all with the help of your tax money! If Jews applied for a job in a Catholic charity, those Jews could be denied jobs simply because they are Jewish and not Catholic! Republican legislation already introduced in Congress but defeated under the Clinton administration would allow such federally-supported violation of civil rights, and even support it. What's really ironic is that President Bush has also moved to deny government funding to international relief agencies that discuss abortion as an option as a part of their family planning programs. So, it seems that Bush's administration intends to fund only certain kinds of religious charities: those with a conservative, anti-abortion stance.
- Bush's plans show the hypocrisy of his party's antipathy to governmental social services. In the mid-1990s, Bush and his GOP buddies were busy demanding that the government dismantle welfare programs for the poor. They argued that government charity was demeaning and socially destructive, responsible for everything from premarital sex to violent crime and even poverty itself (talk about circular reasoning!) Now, the Republicans argue that government-funded charity is necessary and beneficial. The only difference is that they want churches instead of a governmental agency to be in charge of the welfare money. What's the difference? Bush and his Republicans say that "government bureaucracy" is the problem, but are church bureaucracies any better? Has he forgotten about the infamous church bureaucracy of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, which used church funds to buy extravagances such as golden dog houses and private sex-vacations with the church secretary? What about the Catholic church bureaucracy which has struggled to protect priests who sexually abuse young boys? It seems that every week another church leader is indicted for embezzlement or for fraud of one sort or another. Dropping public money into the hands of such charlatans is not the solution to our country's problems. At least government bureaucracy is under the control of democratically elected officials. Church charities are operated by theocrats who are completely unaccountable to the electorate.
- If the federal government starts financially supporting religious evangelism of church charities, taxpayers will be forced to give their money to religions that they disagree with. Muslims will be forced to help fund Orthodox Jewish groups. Christians will be forced to fork over their tax money to be given to Wiccan charities. African-Americans will be forced to fund the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization so racist that it only admitted that slavery was wrong in the 1990s. Southern Baptists in turn will have no choice but to see their hard-earned tax money go to churches that perform homosexual weddings. Atheists will be forced to support a wide range of religious groups that denounce atheism on a weekly basis. No one's freedoms will be respected when Bush's agenda rips the separation of Church and State to shreds.
- President Bush's "faith-based agenda" is in open and knowing defiance of the American Constitution's First Amendment, which provides the foundation for almost all of the freedoms that Americans enjoy. Though this flagrant disregard for the rights of citizens he has sworn to protect, he engages in an attack on the integrity of our democracy much more serious than the offense for which his predecessor was impeached: getting a blow job and not telling the whole country about it.
What can we atheists do to prevent Bush's butchering of the freedoms we're guaranteed under the Constitution? Well, we can counter his political maneuvers with maneuvers of our own. We can speak out. We can demonstrate. We can write letters. We can support the efforts of organizations such as Americans United For Separation of Church and State.
We also might do well to engage in a little navel-gazing. The ability of George W. Bush to twist public opinion to support the undermining of our most basic freedoms is a testament to the automatic association that Americans make between charity and religion. Whether the perception is accurate or not, most Americans assume that religious people are more charitable than non-religious people.
I'd like to think that the opposite is true. As groups like the secular humanists have shown, compassion is at least as likely to come about through a commitment to irreligious principles as a fervent devotion to supernatural belief. In fact, George W. Bush's attempts to legalize government-funded coercion of the poor into religious practice demonstrate that the charity of religious organizations is often more self-serving than selfless service.
Still, it's up to us to prove the likes of George W. Bush, Trent Lott and Jesse Helms wrong. When it comes down to it, we're going to be judged by what we do, not by what we say. There's a real danger that by restricting ourselves to mere defensiveness, we atheists will appear to be nothing but self-absorbed complainers. If we atheists truly believe that compassion is best found outside of church walls, it's time for us to put up or shut up. It's time we form our own charities and provide more support for the atheist and otherwise secular charities that already exist.
A great starting point is a charity designed with exactly this idea in mind. It's called, very simply, Atheist Charity. Atheist Charity is getting ready for a new round of giving to people in need and other worthy secular causes, so if you're an atheist who likes to talk about the problems of the world as it is, I encourage you to give them a look and help them out if you can.