How to Talk Politics with Atheists

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This week, two wholly unrelated events got me thinking about the same thing: why is there so much tension between believers and non-believers in our social and political discourse, between people of faith and secularists? The first event was the genesis of a new and peculiar type of media chatter in reaction to Sen.Obama’s pastor problems. The second was the release of a good book by an atheist author named Austin Dacey.

Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this tension because I feel it every day.

Among the critics of this column are those who say they wish I didn’t exist, or who wish I would just hurry up and become a hermit in a land far, far away. With few exceptions, they express to me their rigid, almost religious belief in the following moral axiom: any public figure who believes in anything that can’t be proven by science should be ignored or silenced if they ever make recourse to that belief when arguing for the public good. After all, that’s the American way — the wall of separation between church and state.

Even among my more civil critics who would never wish harm on me or anyone else, the idea of excluding faith-based thought from public discourse is commonplace. Believers in the supernatural, they would argue, who look to God for answers about society’s common good will always be blinded by faith, and, of course, the blind are never good guides.

While I disagree wholeheartedly with their final conclusion, both groups make a good point or two along the way. First, they are right that it is hubris for a believer to hold a Bible with one hand and wave an accusatory finger at the world with the other, while suggesting God’s will, on every political issue and in every circumstance, is perfectly knowable to us mortals (to prove their point, they need only point to the thousands of distinct Christian denominations that are divided on doctrine). Second, they are right to reject the assumption by some preachers that we believers have a monopoly on morality.

Enter stage, Rev. Wright. The initial reaction to the hate-filled speeches (I refuse to call them sermons) of Senator Obama’s former pastor was outright disgust. So unanimous was the criticism among believers and non-believers alike, I had no interest in wasting readers’ time elaborating on what they already knew: pastors should avoid using crude language in church; no matter the “color” of your church, anger and hatred are always vices and never virtues; a spiritual mentor doesn’t hide his most passionate views from his apprentice; and finally, that it would take a miracle (I believe in miracles) for none of that bigotry and hatred to rub off on a church member and spiritual son of almost twenty years.

But now that the dust has settled, I am noticing Rev. Wright has become for many secularists the perfect example of everything that is wrong with religion in America. Not withstanding the repulsion his antics evoked in the hearts of most believers, the media chatter has already begun to make of him the caricature of religious hypocrisy, political activism wrapped in the sanctimonious veil of faith.

The secularist solution? Raise the holy wall separating church and state!

I’m a sucker for punishment. Even as I cried in my soup over such terrible publicity for the cause of reasonable religion, I picked up Austin Dacey’s new book, Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. Now keep in mind this is a book by a non-believer for other non-believers and I was prepared for more tears. Curiously, despite our diametrically opposed worldviews; I found Dacey’s main thesis to be a cause for joy. He argues that secular humanists have made the great mistake of arguing that “matters of conscience — religion, ethics, and values — are private matters”. He acknowledges they did so with the hope of “preventing believers from introducing sectarian beliefs into politics.” According to Dacey, this strategy has failed because in a free society “freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public.”

Having recognized the failure by secularists to keep belief out of public life (it is arguably more important in American politics now than ever before), Dacey begins to think out of the box of American liberalism. He proposes a refreshing alternative that allows both believers and secularists a place at the table in determining what is good policy for the country.

He writes,

“A policy can be justified when it is favored by a convergence of citizens’ varying reasons, without there being any consensus on those reasons themselves. And there is no reason why the claims of conscience can’t be a part of such convergence. For example, you might favor the creation of a federal wildlife preserve because you believe it will be good for the tourist economy, while I might favor it because I believe God made people stewards of the environment. So long as our reasons converge, the decision is justified to each of us and the ideal of legitimacy is preserved. There is nothing necessarily illegitimate about conscience.”

So these two unrelated events — the euphoric reaction by some secularists to Rev. Wright’s nonsense and the reasonable thesis of Dacey’s new book for atheists — have helped me to re-evaluate the causes of tension between believers and non-believers in social and political discourse.

If, on the one hand, people of faith work to leave spiritual hubris behind us and secularists, on the other hand, begin to recognize faith-based reasoning as a legitimate path to determining good social policy, perhaps then reasonable dialogue will learn to flourish side by side with diversity.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. A special thanks to all of you who have written to me regarding the upcoming release of my new book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for when Life Hurts.” Many of the stories and examples which I sprinkled on every page come from regular readers of this column. You have shared with me your intimacies about facing sickness, loss of faith, the death of a loved one, addiction, loneliness, and so many other obstacles on our path. I hope the book is a little ray of light for you or someone you love. You can find out how to pre-order the book by going to

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