Atheists and Public Office

Rob Boston reports the story of a North Carolina councilman, Cecil Bothwell, who some local politicians would like to remove.  He’s an atheist.  There is also a legal reason to do so.  Being an atheist, and a public servant, is against the law.

This law should also be offensive to believers.

I understand the argument:  there is a generally held belief about believers that atheism cannot provide a general account of the common good.  I don’t think it is a bad argument, but it is empirically wrong, if deductively plausible.  Religious people should be wary of such requirements for the simple reason is that it makes politicians hypocrites and liars.

Most politicians are opportunistic in their belief.  There are plenty of ultra right wing conservative Christian politicians who have no faith, but find it useful to proclaim it.  Announcing one’s faith says “I’m on your team.”    S/he may say they don’t believe in evolution but insist on requiring their own kids take science classes.  They still want their children to go to a secular, private, ivy schools.

Religious requirements make politicians liars.

Religious affiliation is, after all, a low cost marker.  It doesn’t require commitment; it doesn’t require sacrifice.  Just parrot the right things, and the credulous will believe you.

So when an atheist runs for office we should commend them for their honesty, and evaluate them on their politics.

And that’s actually the real issue.

The issue is not, in my view, about his beliefs.  If he had been an atheist who believed in conservative politics, would there have been such an outrage?  Chances are he would have been a bit quieter, perhaps, but I doubt politicians would be aggressively challenging him.  What has happened, alas, is that non-belief becomes an identifier for progressive politics.  It need not be that way, of course.  There are lots of libertarians and conservatives who have no truck with religious institutions, traditions or thought.

The mistake that we make is to assume that this issue is primarily about belief.  It is more about how progressive politics will get framed, challenging the standard narratives of political discourse.  If this creates more honesty, then we should welcome it.  But it’s not first about religion; its about politics.  We need more truthfulness in institutions, and should commend those who can speak about their religious allegiances, or non-allegiances, without fear of judgment.

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One comment on “Atheists and Public Office

  1. D. C. Toedt says:

    > Being an atheist, and a public servant, is against the law.

    And that law is unconstitutional – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torcaso_v._Watkins.

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