Thursday, December 14, 2006

Daniel Dennett "On Faith"

On Faith is a feature in The Washington Post that invites prominent people to write on matters of faith. This week featured scientist and atheist Daniel Dennett writing on faith in government: Protecting Democracy Comes Before Promoting Faith.

Of the big three atheists currently getting so much media attention, I find Dennett much more level-headed and reasonable than Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I enjoy his writing even when I disagree with him -- mostly because I do not feel in him the fundamentalist zeal I see in the other two.

From the article:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This wise maxim, applied to the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state, has permitted the principle to drift into disrepair. People are encouraged to think that while there may be all sorts of borderline cases and vexing conundrums about just where to draw the line, examining them will only arouse anxiety and discord--so let’s just cover everything with a fine fog of pious, presumed consensus. We all honor the First Amendment and that’s that, and that’s fine. So it would be, if it weren’t for the steady pressure of those who would exploit our benign neglect, encroaching gradually on what makes the principle work–to the extent that it does.

For instance, the Christian conservatives in the country who wish to declare that this is a Christian nation are becoming bolder and bolder in their willingness to impose their own viewpoint on those who disagree. Fortunately, there are the beginnings of an organized resistence to this takeover, such as the Interfaith Alliance, chaired by Walter Cronkite. I enthusiastically support this effort, even though I am myself an atheist. Atheism is one of the live rails of American politics-touch it and you're toast. Fair enough. Those are the current facts of life. Not so long ago, you couldn’t be elected if you were Catholic, or Jewish, or African-American. But shouldn't we install another live rail, on the opposite side of the religious spectrum?

It ought to be just as much a fact of life that anybody who declares that their allegiance to their religion comes before their allegiance to democracy is simply unelectable.
I agree completely. Any politician who places their faith in their particular religion before the best interests of the people and the nation should be excluded from politics. Straight up, no exceptions.

It will never happen, much like the revolution from the previous post.

There are far too many people, many of whom are in power, who would never agree to such a test for candidates. They argue that the majority of the people in this country identify as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, making this by default (in their minds) a Christian nation. If you don't like it, they might say, move to France.

Dennett argues:
Consider the situation in Turkey. There are radical Islamic groups intent on using the democratic process to vote in an Islamic state that would then throw away the ladder and abolish democracy, replacing it with theocracy. What should be done about this is not at all obvious. If the people democratically vote to demolish democracy, isn't this just like a club voting itself out of existence? It would be the will of the majority, after all.
How much different is that situation from what the radical religious right wants to do here?

In the United States, the problem is no less real for being less dramatic: There are many deeply religious people who believe that they may democratically impose more and more of their creed on the nation, by simply exercising their First Amendment rights to free expression and creating thereby a climate of opinion that renders opposition by secularists politically ineffective. This is a grave danger to democracy, more subversive, in fact, than anything Al Qaeda threatens.

Many of us believe that American democracy is the best hope of the world, that it provides the most secure and reliable–though hardly foolproof–platform on the planet for improving human welfare. If it tumbles, the whole world is in deep trouble. We therefore put the securing of American democracy–America's secular democracy, with separation of church and state–at the very top of our list of priorities.

I guess I'm working a theme today, because Dennett goes on to say:
That [democracy] is something worth giving our lives for, if it comes to that, but only because, and so long as, we continue to believe that America plays this role of political lifeboat for Planet Earth. Isn't this what America asks of all of us?
He concludes the article by suggesting that because we are asking the Sunnis and Shiites of Iraq to put their nation before their particular form of faith, we owe it to ourselves and the world to do the same thing here.

This article is an example of why I like Dennett. He is a clear thinker who does not resort to ridicule to get his point across. He argues his points with the faith-based as though they are as smart and educated as he is -- the others talk down to those they engage in debate.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Sounds like we're back to "The End of History" but internally in regard to the democracies. The liberal democracy is "unoverthrowable" (what a beautiful word :-0 )but not, as Dennett intimates, untraduceable. Most people are like you and me, comfortable in the stability we inhabit, and with no serious motivation to tip over the cart. Now if I were legally required to wear a scarlet "A" (for atheist) in some form and Jews were required to wear a star, Buddhists "B", etc., that cart would warrant some serious tipping effort.