Martha, Martha, Martha (part III)

25 08 2008

This will not be nearly as long as the previous post, I promise.

I mentioned in the last post that I found her discussion of gay marriage offensive. I over-spoke. It’s glib and ill-argued, and she seems to think that as long as gays and lesbians are no longer in danger of criminal indictment, there’s not really any problem. Sure, she notes parenthetically, ‘they continue to suffer many civil disabilities by comparison to heterosexual couples married by the state’ [338], but what are a few ‘civil disabilities’ among a free and equal citizenry?

No, what is offensive is her treatment of the non-religious. Yes, she duly includes us in her laundry list of A to Z minority beliefs which must be respected, but when agnostics and atheists are separated from the rest, our beliefs are apparently downgraded from ‘respectable’ to ‘tolerable.’ We are ‘smug’, ‘arrogant’, ‘condescending’, ‘outspoken’, and ‘contempt[uous]’. Oh, and we’re all ‘leftists’ or ‘liberals’. (I am a leftist, but doubt and skepticism are hardly the sole province of the pink (or blue, if you prefer) side of the political spectrum.) All of this serves to separate us from the rest of the majority of Americans to whom Nussbaum so often alludes, to make us, in some sense, less American.

Some examples:

On evolution: ‘It would also be good if opponents of evolution did not associate it with irreligiosity. Proponents of evolution have a wide range of different views, theistic, nontheistically religious, agnostic, and atheist. [. . .] On the other side, it would be great if scientific people who are themselves atheists would not speak dismissively or condescendingly about religion, suggesting that religion is only for dummies, or even suggesting that religion is basically a source of strife and bad behavior. [. . .] It would be best if all people would focus on combating bad behavior wherever it arises, rather than smugly suggesting that if we were all atheists, the world would be a more peaceful place. The history of Marxism certainly did not support that contention.’ [326-27]

Okay, it’s bad for opponents to paint science as irreligious because. . . it’s not accurate? Hm. Or because irreligion is bad?

And the suggestions the world would be better if we were all the same come only from smug atheists? No Christians or Muslims or thought or think that if we all prayed to the same God everything would be hunky-dory? At least they wouldn’t be smug, I guess.

On the pledge: ‘From the vantage point of these practical concerns, it was extremely unfortunate that the case that went to the Supreme Court was brought by an outspoken atheist who openly scoffs at religious belief.’ She goes on to note that it’s good that Hindus and Buddhists are beginning to push back against the Pledge, and wishes Confucianists, Taoists, Christians and Jews would get more involved in the fight. [314-15]

Again, outspoken atheists are apparently not good enough on their own; they must be hidden behind other believers.

On nonbelievers generally: ‘Many if not most Americans think that religion is enormously important and precious, and they do not like being told by intellectuals that they should not bring their religious commitments into the public square. [. . .] Many people think, then, that defenders of the continued separation of church and state are people who have contempt for religion. These people are right about something: religion is enormously important and precious. Not every American believes this personally, but all ought to be prepared to see, and respect, the importance of religion for many, if not most of their fellow citizens. [. . .] It is supremely annoying when intellectuals talk down to religious people, speaking as if all smart people are atheists.’ [9-10] She then goes on to discuss Daniel Dennett and his advocacy of the term ‘brights’ for nonbelievers, noting that his book Breaking the Spell ‘drips with contempt’ for believers. Newdow (of the Pledge) comes in for it as well, ‘a proud atheist who has evident contempt for religious beliefs and religious people. Many Americans of goodwill associate the very idea of the “separation of church and state” with this sort of smug atheism.’ [9-10]

And: ‘Seen in its right relation to the idea of fairness, the idea of separation of church and state does not express what the left sometimes uses it to express, namely, contempt for, and the desire to marginalize, religion.’ [11]

Finally (really!): ‘It seems to me that there is little point in simply adding to the swelling chorus of alarm over “the religious right.” The helpful thing is to produce a good analysis of religious fairness. But any such good analysis entails, I believe, that there are errors on the left as well, and that we should be, and remain, vigilant about them.’ [11] This, after the comment on p. 4 of ‘An organized, highly funded, and widespread political movement [which] wants the values of a particular brand of conservative evangelical Christianity to define the United States.’

Yeah, I’m beating this into the ground, but I wanted to demonstrate what set me off, namely, the inability to find an individual atheist who is not smug or arrogant or left-wing or (horrors) an intellectual. I’m not much for the polemics of Hitchens, Dawkins, or Dennett, not least because I think they’re wrong: I tend to think that intelligence (and idiocy) are randomly distributed across the population, hitting the religious and not, and all variations of ideology. But then again, I’m not much for the polemics of religious believers who smugly and arrogantly insist I’m going to hell, who condescendingly speak of their love for the sinner even as they hate the sin, who proudly state that all who don’t sign on to their beliefs are fools, and who drip contempt for and desire to marginalize all those who think they can lead a good life outside of religious belief.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive: ‘The presence of agnostics, atheists, and people who are seeking truth for themselves in their own nontraditional way is now acknowledged as a big fact of our political life, and these people too are recognized as equal citizens, nominally at least.’ [358-59] These people. Nominally at least. Thanks for that ringing endorsement of our existence.

At least in the above quote she mentions politics. Most of the book is a mixture of Constitutional and American history, with the exposition of Williams’s ideas anchoring the beginning of the book. Had she stopped there, she would have written an unremarkable and largely unproblemmatic book. It’s when she veers into contemporary political controversies in chapter 8 that she goes off the rails, and it is perhaps her refusal to engage the political dimension of these controversies which so distorts her narrative. As she herself notes in the opening pages of the book, there are organized efforts to impose a particular brand of Christianity on the body politic—efforts which are hardly marginal.  No, I don’t think we’re in danger of a theocratic takeover, but the effects of some politicized religious folk to keep comprehensive sex education out of the schools, to prohibit funds for international contraception programs, to downplay the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, to impose language in international anti-AIDS programs which discourage outreach to sex workers, to continue the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research,  to make it easier for health care practitioners to deny contraception and Plan B to their patients, and, lest we forget, to pass anti-same-sex marriage amendments and fight against domestic partnerships and the extension of civil rights to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered.

And yet all Nussbaum can see fit to discuss is the religious aspect of gay marriage—and declare it not an issue. Perhaps in a world confined solely to the religious, constitutional, and philosophical dimensions, she could get away with such an approach. But we Americans, whether smug or of goodwill, live in the political world as well, one in which power is wielded on behalf of and against others. Religion may be the space in which one’s search for meaning is constituted; it is also a political weapon, and one wielded not just against minority believers, but unbelievers. Thus, it is not unsurprising that some of us would fight back against its use in politics. Had Nussbaum been willing to engage the political uses and abuses of religious belief, perhaps she would have had more sympathy for those of us who live in doubt.

The book is titled Liberty of Conscience. Yet for all her words about preferring ‘respect’ to ‘toleration’ as truly recognizing the integrity of other views and other people, she does not extend this recognition to the consciences of the atheist or agnostic. We remain ‘these people’, tolerated, not respected.