further than atheism - beyond rejection of religion to our own ideology

Welcome to Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast landscape of ideas that lies beyond mere disbelief.  Further Than Atheism is intended to serve as a challenge to non-believers of all stripes to go beyond mere rejection of gods to an articulation of what ideas are worthy of consideration.  Although each column presents one particular version of atheist thought, the validity of other possibilities is recognized.  It is not the job of any atheist to decide for others what to think.  Rather, it is the responsibility of every atheist to come up with an individual system of thought arrived at through rigorous consideration.

Because atheism is by definition nothing more than a denial of the theistic model of existence, atheists have little reason to agree upon other matters.  We drive different cars, prefer different foods and listen to different music.  Because of our experience with the orthodoxies of religion, most of us would prefer not to establish any shared atheist ideologies.  Although many atheists are liberal, a significant proportion are libertarian, and a few would even call themselves conservatives.

On certain political issues, however, atheists tend to come together.  For the most part, these issues have to do with the protection of our rights as atheists to avoid the coercive power of religious institutions.  For the most part, we respect the rights of the religious to follow their beliefs in the private sector.  Almost every atheist can agree, however, that it is essential to preserve the separation of Church and State.  Whenever religious ideas and institutions gain power over governmental bodies, our individual rights our weakened.

A Time of Crisis for the First Amendment Freedoms

Historically, atheists have been able to count on a balance of power between the Religious Right, represented by the Republican Party and the Secular Left, served by the Democratic Party.  Although the Republicans have always rattled their sabres in threats to do away with the separation of Church and State, we have not needed to take such threats seriously because the Democrats have opposed their efforts.

Recently, however, the historical balance of power has gone out of alignment.  With the rise of the centrist New Democrats, led by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, power has shifted dramatically toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Where once the Democratic Party stood as a staunch defender of the separation of Church and State, the Democrats now refuse to stand up for the rights of religious minorities.  Nowhere is this shift more visible than in this year's presidential elections.

Everyone knows about George W. Bush's support for the Christianization of the United States government.  After all, it was his father who came into the Presidency vowing to make the Pledge of Allegiance, with its phrase "one nation under God", a mandatory part of public life.  Bush Jr. promises to follow in his father's footsteps,  supporting efforts to strengthen the religious stranglehold on American politics through such measures as the legalization of governmental funding of religious schools and the creation of "character education" in the public schools.  Not content to leave to Caesar what is Caesar's, he is infamous for his selection of Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher.

What is less known to many atheist voters is the similar disregard for First Amendment rights of freedom of religion on the part of the Gore/Lieberman ticket.  Al Gore has consistently stood for an erosion of First Amendment rights.  He and his wife Tipper have steadfastly supported government censorship of materials they term "indecent".  Early in his current presidential campaign, Al Gore stated that he supports the idea of officially organized prayer in public schools.

With his selection of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, Gore has set his advocacy for governmental support for religion in stone.  Lieberman has a history of attacking the separation of Church and State, and has continued such attacks as vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.  Almost as soon as he was selected by Al Gore, Lieberman restated his commitment to the official enstatement of Judeo/Christian religion, saying that "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."  He has also recently stated that he believes the First Amendment "guarantees a freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."  Furthermore, he has suggested that atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are inherently immoral by declaring that morality is possible only through religion.

Clearly, Joe Lieberman and Al Gore cannot be trusted to protect our rights as atheists.  Together, they support the coercion of our children into prayer in public schools, the dedication of our nation to a Judeo/Christian God and the theory that our Constitution allows non-religious people to be forced into political practice.  With Gore and Lieberman in the Oval Office, atheists (and religious minorities as well) can expect to enjoy increased persecution and diminished protection from the government.

A Time of Crisis is the Time for Change

What's the alternative?  Many atheists throw their hands up in the air, choosing Gore and Lieberman because their plans to dismantle the separation of Church and State are slightly less ambitious than those of the Bush/Cheney ticket.  Others decide not to vote at all, believing that there is no one running for President who is willing to support the rights of every citizen to make decisions about belief in freedom.  They're wrong.

Ralph Nader, running with Winona LaDuke as the Green Party candidate for President of the United States, is the clear choice for atheists who are concerned about attempts to put the power of the government in the hands of religion.  The Green Party has always stood firmly in favor of a strict interpretation of the First Amendment, including the clause against government establishment of religion.  The Green Party platform reads,

We affirm the right to worship or not  to worship as each one chooses.

We believe it is important to value cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity, and to promote the development of respectful relationships across these lines.  We believe that the many diverse elements of society should be reflected in our organizations and decision-making bodies, and we support the leadership of people who have been traditionally closed out of leadership roles.

Social diversity is the well-spring of community life, where old and young, rich and poor, people of all races and beliefs can interact individually and learn to care for each other, to understand and cooperate.

The foundation of any democratic society is the guarantee that each member of society has equal rights. Respect for our constitutionally protected rights is our best defense against discrimination and the abuse of power. We should treasure and celebrate our people’s differences and diversity.

Could it be written any more plainly?  The Democratic and even the Republican Party pay lip service to freedom, but would either party have the courage to declare that it is willing to defend the rights of American citizens not to worship if they so choose?

So strong is the Green Party's support for freedom of religion that one of the three final candidates for the party's nomination for President this year was a freethinker!  What other party would allow that to happen?

Unfortunately, it's obvious that Ralph Nader is not going to win the election in November.  Nonetheless, an atheist's vote for Nader can make huge difference by supporting the growth of the Green Party, the only political party that is willing to protect the Constitutional freedom of atheists to be atheists.  If Ralph Nader receives just 5 percent of the popular vote, the Green Party will become a federally recognized political party eligible for public funding in the 2004 elections.  Furthermore, if Ralph Nader can receive a respectable percentage of the popular vote, the Democrats will be forced to re-evaluate their move toward the Religious Right.  A vote for Nader, and for local Green Party candidates, helps to establish a genuine multiple party system in which the separation of Church and State has a real champion.

For those of you who worry that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, I encourage you to think about it in a different way: a vote for Gore and Lieberman is a vote against Nader.  A vote for Gore and Lieberman is a vote against the basic right of atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers to live in freedom. A vote for either Gore or Bush is a vote for religious bigotry. Even worse, the refusal to participate in the election at all is a vote for unconditional surrender.


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