Questioning the Brights and other Atheist Shibboleths

Earlier this summer Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet wrote some editorials praising the idea that atheists should begin to call themselves ‘brights.’ Although I’m an atheist myself I thought the whole renaming idea was rather silly. Chris Mooney has a commentary in the Washington Post and the Skeptical Inquirer detailing some of the same reasons why I think the idea is bad. He also questions some of the reflexive rejections of religion made by many atheist activists.

Still, I’ve come to wonder about some of the confrontational strategies espoused by combative secularist crusaders – strategies that the Pledge of Allegiance case typifies. Sure, the pledge is probably unconstitutional, a violation of the separation of church and state. But I’m not sure it causes anything more than minor coercion to schoolchildren (I recited it countless times myself without lasting damage) or that stripping it of religious language will redound to the benefit of America’s unbelievers in the way they hope. Rather, overturning the pledge seems certain to make atheists even less popular than they already are, while distracting attention from the far more troubling entanglements of church and state that have emerged under the Bush administration.

The uproar created when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the pledge unconstitutional in June 2002 was a scary thing. Suddenly the United States seemed much more like a majoritarian religious state than ever before. President Bush, through his spokesman Ari Fleischer, called the ruling “ridiculous,” when it was thoroughly defensible legally. The Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution supporting the pledge, though I suspect there’s more than one closet atheist in that body. And those were the more temperate responses. William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, went so far as to call for impeaching the judges in the pledge case and encouraged teachers in states affected by the ruling to “break the law.”

Atheists such as Newdow shouldn’t duck controversy if they believe they are right. But at the same time, the anti-atheist/pro-religion backlash they’re courting by seeking to overturn the pledge could make the serious battle against some of the church-state mergers that have taken place under the Bush administration all but impossible. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to combat the doling out of millions of dollars by the Department of Health and Human Services to proselytizing religious social service groups, including organizations affiliated with controversial figures such as Pat Robertson and Chuck Colson? Or here’s another suggestion: Why not worry about the Justice Department’s recently created special counsel for religious discrimination, whose position seems to exist simply to ensure that the religious have extra-special protections in law for their beliefs? The special counsel was recently involved in the investigation of a Texas Tech University biology professor, Michael Dini, who had refused to write medical school recommendation letters for students who believe in Creationism, even though such letter-writing is voluntary.

More background on this issue can be found at Philocrites and Chris Mooney’s own blog.