Religion does not have a monopoly on values

by Beacon Staff • April 12, 2006

Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers and the third president of this country, once insisted that we should "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

Truer words have never been spoken.

However, if a University of Minnesota Department of Sociology survey conducted in March is any indication, most Americans would be inclined to hear the above and conclude that Thomas Jefferson was not a good American and did not share their values.

This poll showed that atheists rate far below all other minorities, including recent immigrants, homosexuals and American Muslims, in terms of acceptance.

Respondents were least likely to conclude that atheists "share their vision of American society" and were also largely unwilling to accept their son or daughter marrying an atheist.

How interesting that the increased tolerance for minority groups this nation has seen in recent decades does not extend to the skeptical, the disbelievers and the antitheists.

And how unfortunate that we continue to live in a society where belief in a supreme being is synonymous with morality and "American values."

Whatever values these survey respondents are referring to, I fail to see how belief in a deity fits in at all.

In fact, considering that the values outlined in the United States Constitution (to me, the holiest of documents) are secular ones, it would seem that this distrust, and even disgust, toward atheists is remarkably un-American.

It is also profoundly troubling.

Imagine if, rather than an atheist, the respondents had said they didn't want their son or daughter marrying a Jew. Such a mindset would not be acceptable.

The same should be true in this case. Hating someone for being a non-believer is no less offensive than hating someone for belonging to a different religion, and it's about time the same level of outrage applied.

What about atheists is so threatening to people of faith?

They merely demand some shred of evidence before basing their lives on the teachings of an invisible creator.

That sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

It could be that atheists are currently associated with far-left liberalism and everything that comes with it-gay marriage, anti-war sentiments, "abortion on demand" and taking "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

As an atheist who favored the intervention in Iraq, I recognize the above as stereotypes. However, the associations are not completely unfounded.

The obnoxious Michael Newdow, the professed atheist who originally filed the lawsuit declaring "Under God" unconstitutional in the Pledge, certainly didn't do the movement any favors with his frequent whiny Fox News appearances and embarrassing public custody battles.

The most important issues raised by the survey, however, are about the nature of faith itself, namely why it seems to have no threshold for criticism.

One global example in which this was seen is in the response to the Danish Mohammad cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten last September. This was satirized this month in an episode of Comedy Central's South Park.

In that episode, the town of South Park decides that the best way to deal with the news of an upcoming television program depicting the prophet is to bury their heads in sand-literally.

This isn't an issue of sensitivity; rather, it's the mindset that religion is simply off limits.

But why should this be?

Faith is the most crucial factor in far too many of the world's conflicts.

It is a hugely influential force in American politics, with elements of it key to the debates over abortion, stem cells, Iraq and international aid.

It is also the source of much good, and quite a bit of horror, on this planet.

Yet it is the people who don't fall into sectarian categories who get the least respect.

Americans should again try to learn from Thomas Jefferson, who once said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Acceptance of our neighbors of all religious backgrounds and philosophies, including those who have none at all-surely that's an "American value" we can all get behind.