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Austin Cline

Defending Freedom of Religion? Defending Deceit...

By November 28, 2005

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It's always interesting to read the screeds of those who claim to be defending freedom of religion when real freedom - especially freedom for adherents of other religions - seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. It boggles the mind to ponder how their reasoning process must work.

A press release for Defending Freedom of Religion explains that they want to get atheism recognized as a religion and “nothing” recognized as the symbol of atheism:

When judges remove Ten Commandments plaques, they think they are removing something, leaving nothing. But if DFOR gets its way they will realize that leaving nothing is actually leaving something else. Removing a plaque is removing a traditional religious symbol and replacing it with Atheism’s religious symbol.

“The separation of church and state is an impossible ideal,” says Ken Whitaker, founder of DFOR. “If you remove all religious symbols, and replace them all with Atheism’s symbol, you are establishing Atheism as our official state religion.”

Make sense to you? No, I didn’t think so either. It’s impossible to get atheism declared a religion because the mere absence of belief in gods can’t possibly qualify as a “religion” under even the loosest definitions. I suspect that his group is just one guy working out of his house and I doubt that he has much understanding of either religion or atheism.

According to his web site:

It’s good that we don’t have an official religion. But taking the separation of church and state to extremes has left us with a government that can’t even acknowledge the existence of God.

Notice that he doesn’t say something like “any gods” — he says God, by which he means a particular deity with particular characteristics. If the government officially “acknowledges” the existence of a particular deity, then it will be favoring some religions over all others — and, most likely, certain denominations of that religion over all others. This guy claims to think that it is good for America not to have an official religion, but then he endorses policies which would have many of the same effects as an official religion.

Why does he want one religion (presumably his own) favored over others? Why does he assume the authority to decide what the symbol of atheism should be? Atheists have been debating what, if anything, atheists should use as a symbol. The “suggestion” here has nothing to do with an understanding of atheism and everything to do with making a political statement. It’s arrogant — nothing more, nothing less.

He actually wants to form an organization, call it a “denomination” of atheism, and get it recognized as a religion with the IRS. I suspect he thinks this is clever, insisting that an empty place be set to “represent” atheists. The truth is that atheists do try to get displays erected, like for example at Christmas time, and these displays are often vandalized or stolen.

Somehow I can’t see him helping these groups or publicly supporting their efforts — that wouldn’t serve his political agenda. Imagine that, sincerity and compassion are likely incompatible with his agenda. Surprising?

Removing the Ten Commandments interferes with the free exercise of religion.

Here this person makes the common error of assuming that constitutional protections of the free exercise of religion somehow protect state actions. The truth is that the First Amendment protects private actions against state interference. Removing a government monument to the Ten Commandments no more infringes on any individual’s free exercise of religion than it infringes upon any individual’s right to free speech.

Atheism is a system of beliefs. It professes beliefs regarding the nature of God, what to expect after death, and how one should live one’s life assuming these beliefs are correct. [...]

So, even though reasonable people will come up with other reasons to remove all public references to God, the fact remains that removing all references to God favors Atheism.

I suspect that this person doesn’t recognize how he’s contradicting himself. First he claims that atheism is a system of beliefs and doctrines. This is incorrect, but that's less interesting than the fact that he then claims that the absence of theistic doctrines is, necessarily, the promotion of atheism. But how is the absence of theistic doctrines the same as the presence of atheistic doctrines?

The presence of an atheistic doctrine would be something like a sign saying “There is no God, get over it.” How is the absence of any signs, whether promoting or rejecting gods, the same as an endorsement of just the rejection of gods? I could claim that if the government removes the Ten Commandments but then fails to erect a sign saying “There is no God, get over it,” then they are actually still promoting theism. True, that’s a stupid and illogical argument, but it’s essentially the same as what the above person is arguing. If the absence of theistic displays is the same as promoting atheism, then the absence of atheist displays is the same as promoting theism.

You’ll notice that no atheists actually make such an argument — you won’t find any atheists insisting that the absence of any displays, theist or atheist, is a problem. They are quite content with the absence of such displays because they don’t think that the government has the authority to promote either atheism or theism. Strange that the above author can’t recognize this simple principle.


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