Image © Austin Cline
National Library of Medicine
This is rather like trying to shake the perception that the Party is Jewish and so holding a special event where Jews are told to stay away, or trying to shake the perception that the Party is African-American and so holding a special event where blacks are told to stay away. It's as if Democratic leaders like Daughtry are trying to draw more support from conservative Christians by saying "look, we can be bigoted and discriminatory towards atheists, too!" Why do they even want the vote of bigots, though? If you have trouble winning on a message of inclusion, then you work harder to get people to see the wisdom of that message; you do not shift your message to match the ignorance of bigots who aren't voting for you.
Here is the heart of the letter which Ron Millar, Associate Director of the Secular Coalition for America, sent to Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee:
I am very concerned about the Interfaith Gathering at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
This event is described as a "unity" event to stress the "big tent" nature of the Democratic Party; however, I have received complaints by people who identify as atheist and humanist who feel that this event excludes them as full participants in the convention.
Is this event open to Democrats who do not hold a god-belief? I assume your answer is yes, but I would be very interested to know how you plan to make the nontheist community feel welcomed. Without an inclusive plan you will make nontheistic Americans feel like second-class citizens at the convention.
Daughtry, a Pentecostal minister, went to the press to tell them that she was "befuddled" by "an angry letter from a secularist group." I wonder what it was that confused her: that nonbelievers might actually want to be included in rather than excluded from major Party events, that nonbelievers would actually expect her and other Party leaders to not treat them like second-class citizens, or that nonbelievers would have the gall to write a letter and express concern over being excluded.
Either would fit in well with perceiving "anger" in such a calm letter: just about every time members of a privileged class are asked even nicely to give up or stop expecting their privileges, they treat the outsiders as "angry" and "militant." Feminists were "militant" for daring to want the right to vote. Blacks were "angry" for daring to want an end to segregation and the creation of real solutions to racial discrimination. Even today, women and blacks continue to be derided as angry or militant when they speak up to draw attention to ongoing discrimination or unjust privileges.
We should expect the same to happen to atheists, but it's amusing when it's so obvious. Did Daughtry really think the letter wouldn't be released so everyone could see just how low her standards are for seeing "anger" from people who ask nicely and reasonably to be included as equals? Maybe she didn't care; I haven't seen a single mainstream news report on the incident point out how polite this supposedly "angry" letter was. Daughtry did say that nonbelievers should be "treated with respect," but I don't think that she believes what she says. Ronald Aronson explains:
The first sign that treating them with respect was not a priority for Daughtry was her lumping all notheists who include not only agnostics but also humanists, skeptics, and believers in spirit but not a personal god into atheists.
And the second came with the announcement of the lineup for what had once been thought of as a "values" and a "unity" event: no one represents the millions of secularists. Daughtry: "Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith - and this interfaith gathering is proof of that."
But what about those Democrats who are not "people of faith?" Are they not invited? Or invited just to watch others pray? Should their own outlook not even be acknowledged? If the Democrats are trying to strike unifying chords among their entire kaleidoscopic range of liberals, moderates, and progressives, it should be obvious that secularists cannot dare be left out of the "big tent" event, and that it should be about beliefs and values, not solely about religion.
Source: Denver Post
Yes, it sounds strange at first that atheists would want to attend or be concerned at their exclusion from an "interfaith" or "religious" event, but if that's where you stop your analysis it's a sign that your thinking has been limited by religious privilege. You're treating the act of having a "religious" event which is exclusive to religious theists as natural, expected, and beyond question. What you should be asking is why a non-religious organization is holding a special, high-profile religious event that caters to religious theists and religious theists alone.
It's like being befuddled at Jews expressing concern over their exclusion from a "Christian" event when you should be asking why there is an event being held which is defined to cater to just Christians. That would be an example of one's thinking being limited by Christian privilege and is arguably a sign of anti-Semitism to boot. What if there were a "Protestant" religious service and Catholics complained — would people be "befuddled" over why Catholics wanted to attend a Protestant event, or would people wonder why a secular organization was holding an event to cater to just Protestants?
This is why people should be asking why there is an event being held which is defined to cater to just religious theists as if everyone else doesn't count. As Ronald Aronson points out, the Democratic Party could have held a "values" summit which is inclusive to all. I received a public relations email from Jessica Rosenblum outlining the agenda for this interfaith gathering, and it includes meetings on "finding common ground on the moral issues of the day" and a session on "Moral Values Issues Abroad" for addressing moral issues around the world.
The message here is: atheists have nothing to add to such discussions, so they might as well be defined as only concerning "people of faith" — you need to be a religious theist to have any meaningful contribution to moral discussions. That's a lie, yet people are so blind to how bigoted it all is that Jessica Rosenblum never thought twice about sending a positive message about this to an "Atheism Guide."
PZ Myers received the same email and commented:
People of faith are welcome to contribute to politics. In order to do so, however, they will have to get off their knees, unclasp their hands, and do something productive. Enshrining the prating rubbish of the religion racket as an important element of secular administration, as Obama seems to want to do, is a catastrophic betrayal of good government.
This isn't even a question of pushing against "tradition" because this is the first year that anything like this is being done and Daughtry wants it to continue every year from now on. There is no more need to have a "religious believers only" event than there is to have a "Christians Only," "Protestants Only" or "Whites Only" event. They serve no purpose except to fluff the egos of people who need to feel privileged in order to feel like they have any importance at all.
Well, it can also serve the goal of telling everyone else that you, too accept the basic American values of discriminating against atheists, as Alonzo Fyfe explains
This should be expected. Given the fact that so many voters are adverse to anything having to do with atheism, the Democratic Party had to choose between ostracizing atheists to win public office, or accepting atheists and exclude themselves from public office (as atheists themselves are excluded from public office). One of the core principles of marketing is to link that which you want to sell with something that potential customers' desire, and to link what the competitor is selling to something that potential customers hate. For years the Republican Party has sold itself by linking itself to religion and the Democratic Party to hated atheism. The rational response for the Democratic Party to take is to reject the atheists as well.
In following this path, the Democratic Party is simply trying to show that it is faithful to American values. One of those values, as expressed in the National Motto, is, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not want to think of you as being one of us." There is no better way for the Democratic Party to show its support for this principle than to say as loudly and as publicly as possible to atheists, "If you do not trust in God, then you are not invited to be one of us."
The Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has said on multiple occasions that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." This should have put the secular community on alert.
Barack Obama falsely implied that atheists have asked believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square, but here we have an unambiguous case of atheists not even being let in the door of a major Democratic Party event for discussing morals and values. Do you suppose he sees the contradiction here, or is he like so many other Christians who can't recognize the injustice in their own personal privileges?
By saying that "Democrats are...people of faith," the implication is that all Democrats are religious theists. You can't avoid the implication — imagine saying "Democrats are people of faith in Jesus" and then trying to argue that you don't mean to suggest that no Democrats are non-Christian or that the Democratic Party isn't as open and welcoming to Jews or Buddhists as it is to Christians. Would it work? Of course not. You'd be laughed at as either stupid or a liar. How is Daughtry doing anything different? Daughtry is thus explicitly denying that anyone can be a Democrat and a nonbeliever, which is offensive and false.
As if that weren't bad enough, Daughtry pretends to "prove" this through the existence of an "interfaith" meeting she created. So she "proves" that Democrats are all religious theists by setting up an event where atheists are not allowed and, when challenged, "proves" that atheists shouldn't be allowed because all Democrats are religious theists. How utterly convenient.
It would be legitimate to say that there have always been Democrats who are also "people of faith" (which is a silly term anyway), but it is not legitimate to try to stake out the Democratic Party for religious theists alone like a puppy marking the corners of its new yard. Yes, I do mean to use that image because that's precisely what's going on when people try to appropriate cultural and political institutions in such a manner: they are engaging in territoriality by excluding "undesirables" and even defining themselves by the fact that those "undesirables" are not included.
In the end, though, marking territory like this is just an exercise in pissing all over everything... and everyone.