Susan Jacoby: Are the Religious Discriminated Against?





[Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.]

"Does discrimination against Catholics still exist in this country today?" was a recent question posed in "On Faith," a blog published by the Washington Post and Newsweek. The responses were extraordinarily revealing -- not about anti-Catholic discrimination, but about the profound American confusion between discrimination and disagreement.

Many panelists and readers expressed the opinion that not only Catholics but all people of devout faith -- especially Christians -- suffer from discrimination at the hands of "secular elites."

The Rev. William J. Byron, a former president of the Catholic University of America, described the discrimination he had encountered in academia as "typically grounded in skepticism and an unwillingness to accept the compatibility of faith and reason." Protestant fundamentalists saw discrimination in mockery of biblical literalism.

Skepticism and mockery, although they certainly cause hurt feelings, do not constitute discrimination. Discrimination is the systematic denial of political, economic, and human rights solely on the basis of race, sex, or religion. The Bill of Rights guarantees individual freedom of worship -- not the right to have your sacred beliefs treated as equally sacred by others.

Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, made the absurd argument in his "On Faith" column that Christians are victims of discrimination because they "make a truth claim." Only in America could a convicted felon, who has built a lucrative post-Watergate career on proselytizing for his brand of born-again Christianity, make such an assertion with a straight face.

The question is why so many Americans have the idea that others are bound to respect their "truth claims." On one level, this bogus notion of tolerance is a byproduct of the genuine and welcome diminution of religious prejudice in the United States since World War II and the Holocaust.

The flip side of the diminution of bigotry, however, is the stifling pretense that we are bound not only to respect one another as citizens but to respect one another's beliefs.

Novelist Philip Roth, in a speech delivered at Loyola University in 1962, spoke to this point regarding relations between Jews and Christians. "The fact is that if one is committed to being a Jew," Roth said, "he believes that on the most serious questions pertaining to man's survival -- understanding the past, imagining the future, discovering the relations between God and humanity -- that he is right and the Christians are wrong. As a believing Jew, he must certainly view the breakdown in this century of moral order and the erosion of spiritual values in terms of the inadequacy of Christianity as a sustaining force for the good. However, who would care to say such things to his neighbor?"

As an atheist, I believe that I am right and that those who adhere to a fundamentalist version of Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam are wrong. (I define a fundamentalist as one who believes in the literal truth of a holy book or in the inerrant authority of the book's clerical interpreters.)

I do not respect the belief that the Catholic pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals; that the universe was created in seven days; that homosexuality is sinful; that Mohammad's supposed words are sacred; or that it was a glorious day when Jehovah killed the Egyptian first-born. Insistence on the "truth claim" of such beliefs is dangerous to American democracy.

Americans have a naïve belief in the power of attaining "common ground" simply by "talking things out." If only we all just listened to one another, we would see that all beliefs really deserve the utmost respect. I would be happy that Colson's endeavors are subsidized by my tax dollars and he would be happy to have his tax dollars pay for a teenage pregnancy counseling center run by unapologetic secularists and atheists.

This vision of harmony and respect for conflicting "truth claims" would require all of us to dilute our core beliefs. Even Americans who say that they would never vote for an atheist are not practicing discrimination. If they truly think that morality can only be based on belief in a deity, they could hardly be expected to have confidence in an atheist in the nation's highest office. It is my task, which I take very seriously, to convince them that atheists do not have horns.

I would never vote for a fundamentalist of any faith -- and that does not constitute discrimination either. I believe that faith unleavened by a large dose of doubt and secular knowledge makes for bad public policy. I vote only for candidates rooted in what one of President George W. Bush's advisers once sneeringly called the "reality-based world."

Religious Americans who charge discrimination when confronted by disagreement generally do so because they have no confidence in their ability to persuade others by rational means.

References:

The "On Faith" blog from the Washington Post and Newsweek can be accessed online at: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/.


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Stephen Kislock - 4/3/2007

Faith, Creationism and the on going Crusade to Brainwash the young to doubting Science and take the bible as fact, take your glasses off, forget modern medicine and pray to bones.

To all those that believe in a Superior being and think us Atheists are Not Member of mankind, I have but one Question: Why isn't dog feces International Orange in Color?

We have Evolved despite Religion and the High Priests of FEAR!

War, Jesus I was taught was a Peacenik! Why do the Religious think Killing is Good? Racism, must be the only Answer?

A Fallen Catholic and Proud!


Rob Willis - 4/1/2007

"I think further communication with you on this topic might constitute "feeding the trolls". I hope I'm wrong about that, but I'll take the risk."

"J.", forgive me for not knowing your secret handshake, but I assure you, no troll am I. Your elitism is showing.

The main thesis for my response to Jacoby is very simple. That she and other atheists discriminate against (in the case of the most common American faith) Christians. This is fine as far as it goes - discrimination as a concept is not always a bad thing. But discrimination, when it seeks to deny a member of a group from service in our political system is quite another thing. I certainly agree that there are those who should not be allowed to make public policy, but that is a topic for later.

Every semester I ask my Modern U.S. History students to write their term paper on the topic "What is the American Way?". It is a good tool, designed to make them confront their own perceptions and values. I am sometimes disappointed, sometimes not. The point of the exercise is, however, to determine what values are synonomous with America throughout our history, and how the values inform our daily lives. Always, my students are able to catalogue a reasonable list of values, morals, and taboos that they consider part of the bedrock of this country.

Those who hold a belief in God (I will speak only about the Christian faith here) are generally able to refer to several codes of conduct, a system of values, which are critcal building blocks of their inner selves. These "core values" help determine how they interact with the rest of the human race, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes wonderfully. But these codes (the Ten Commandments, the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount, or any number of other Bible lessons). Which brings me to your point below:


"Your comment #10970: You suggest that a list of acceptable beliefs has been "prescribed". No, sir, you err."

Jacoby says the following in her article:

"This vision of harmony and respect for conflicting "truth claims" would require all of us to dilute our core beliefs."

She suggests here that atheists indeed have core beliefs. My constant question has been throughout this ordeal, just what are they? What is the atheist "Ten Commandments"? You say what is the use of "lists"; I say, that is the most critical point of all. I, as a non-atheist, want to know what sort of behavior to expect from those who are in matters of human relations. Give me a bone here. Until you can, then I stand by my suggestion that atheists do not have a precise moral foundation; Christians, whether they are always able to sustain them, do.

"Let the individual decide and do not legislate that which can't be proven, and opined further that a precise moral foundation that wouldn't upset liberals/atheists/leftists could be constructed by avoiding making law on the basis of religious beliefs and not evidence."

And...

"Fundamentalists are considered dangerous when they act to impose their beliefs on others, even when the evidence contradicts thir belief."

Sorry to say, but most of Western law is based on the the same moral code as championed by F.s Christians. Having said that, atheists/leftists have pushed for legislation that removes Christian ethics from the public sqaure, and it is an ongoing effort (see "deconstruction"; again, not always a bad thing, but there are principles worth preserving in Western culture...). Need an example? Again, the abortion question. You seem to be perfectly fine with assuming that a baby in the womb has no human quality, worth, being, etc., WITHOUT proof. You assume. You support legislation to that effect. Who is the cultural tyrannt? Remove the Ten Commandments. Sue the Boy Scouts. Remove God from school. Who, sir, is legislating the agendas here?

"I gave you a possible atheist moral code. I don't believe a catalogue exists. Life is not so cut and dried and that is why fundamentalism is opposed."

Life certainly isn't cut and dried when you you have no core sense of right and wrong. Wrong of me to say, I know, but I am still waiting for the Atheist Bible to hit the shelves so I can better understand. I know where to look for inspriration in my personal and public behavior; does Jacoby?

Finally, I stand with one of my original questions: What parts of the Bible does someone have to believe in order to be labeled a fundamentalist unworthy to hold public office? And I mean, exactly what parts?

My best,
RW


J. Michael Bergstrom - 3/31/2007

Rob, what is the need for lists? I did not prescribe a list of acceptable beliefs. Further, it's actions I am concerned with.

Now:

Your comment #107642: "Why does she assume ... ignorant of outside thought and doubt?"

She didn't. She is referring to the rejection of facts on the basis of religious beliefs, not ignorance of the facts. And then, there's that "enemy" word.

Your comment #107797: You start by charging that Jacoby is upset by "precise moral foundations" without evidence. Then you offer an example (not a question) of an instance where evidence is not conclusive. You then attack her "argument" as evidence of an agenda to keep "anyone" with a religious faith completely away from positions of power. The accusation is unsupported by any statement in the article under discussion. I did not ignore your abortion "question", I gave you the best answer I could: Let the individual decide and do not legislate that which can't be proven, and opined further that a precise moral foundation that wouldn't upset liberals/atheists/leftists could be constructed by avoiding making law on the basis of religious beliefs and not evidence.

Your comment #107875: You ask for a list in asserting that Jacoby has further reasons (unstated) to exclude persons of faith (she has excluded Fundamentalists from her vote, I didn't see where she excluded them from anything else). You then make an unsupported claim that there is a move on to "criminalize" Christianity, then go on to accuse Jacoby of "raving" and insisting that "everything must be different" since she is now on the scene, again unsupported by article and argument.

Fundamentalism isn't considered dangerous because of what fundamentalists believe. Fundamentalists are considered dangerous when they act to impose their beliefs on others, even when the evidence contradicts thir belief.

Your comment #10970: You suggest that a list of acceptable beliefs has been "prescribed". No, sir, you err.

Interesting question, where do Christ and atheism part company. I'm not at all sure that they do, in terms of ethical behavior. The golden rule (Biblical I'm told, yet not exclusive to Christianity, in fact found in most religious traditions) and Kant's Categorical Imperative are close enough, don't mention God, and are fairly functional. At the risk of speaking for atheists (there are some distinctions I would draw as to how my position should be classified, but functionally, atheism will do), I suppose that is as close to a moral code as you'll find for atheism.

It doesn't matter to me what your beliefs are as long as you can conduct yourself in a manner that doesn't impose them on me or mine. It's the conduct that matters.

I gave you a possible atheist moral code. I don't believe a catalogue exists. Life is not so cut and dried and that is why fundamentalism is opposed.

Jefferson was President before the rise of fundamentalism in America. I'm not so sure that the times weren't safer for him then than they would be for him now. But I don't say a person of faith could not get my vote. Faith isn't my litmus test, and I don't think lack of faith should be a litmus test, either.

At any rate your continued unfounded attacks on Jacoby, your accusations that your "questions" are being ignored as you ignore the questions asked of you, your asserting yourself to be "trying to be objective" even as you make inflammatory statements are classic troll behaviors.

I think further communication with you on this topic might constitute "feeding the trolls". I hope I'm wrong about that, but I'll take the risk.



Rob Willis - 3/30/2007

I never said persecuted, you did. And if an atheist ran for president, my vote would be based on the individual's position on issues, and perhaps some of these may involve moral questions. What is your evidence that an atheist couldn't be elected? According to certain historians, Thomas Jefferson was a bit aloof from the idea of God, yet he did fairly well, and in an age where that could have been a real liability.

Why is it so difficult to get atheists to catalogue their code of behavior? Is it a secret? What are the basic tenants?

I have found several answers through my own research, but I am trying to be objective. What is the moral code of the atheist?


Rob Willis - 3/30/2007

If you can't describe a specific list of unacceptable beliefs among fundamentalists, then how can you prescribe a list of acceptable beliefs? And what is the source of said? What is the Atheist Moral Code? Is there one? Or is the free world bound to simply guess exactly where those boundries are?

I would appreciate an honest discussion, not a handful of boilerplate dodges (such as your ignoring my abortion question). Because you seem to be in touch with Christ's teachings, would you be kind enough to explain where atheism and Christ part company philosophically?

I don't reckon I'm one of those scary "F" people, by the way, not do I need an "enemy". Anyone can claim to be a Christian, just as anyone can claim to be an atheist. It is ignorant to judge on the actions of a few, wouldn't you agree? Oh, and I don't need you to educate me, thanks. I done pretty well without your input.


Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 3/30/2007

Mr Willis, I am just courious..if religious people are persecuted cause Susan Jacoby will never vote for a fundie, I suppose you agree that atheists are persecuted since there is no chance one is elected president based on its religious preferences (or lack of it)..isn´t it?


Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 3/30/2007

Mr Willis, I am just courious..if religious people are persecuted cause Susan Jacoby will never vote for a fundie, I suppose you agree that atheists are persecuted since there is no chance one is elected president based on its religious preferences (or lack of it)..isn´t it?


Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 3/30/2007

Mr Willis, I am just courious..if religious people are persecuted cause Susan Jacoby will never vote for a fundie, I suppose you agree that atheists are persecuted since there is no chance one is elected president based on its religious preferences (or lack of it)..isn´t it?


J. Michael Bergstrom - 3/30/2007

I think you are incorrect in your claim that the core tenets of any particular faith are what is described as "dangerous fundamentalism". I gather, though, that you would hold the virgin birth of Christ as a core tenet. I would not, to me it is just a part of the cultural myth that has become Christianity. Christianity is not such a bad thing, but rigid adherence to the fantastic and contradictory aspects of the doctrines in the Bible I do consider a bad thing. It leads to silly things like Lou Sheldon's "God Hates Fags".

But there is no list of disallowed beliefs, there doesn't need to be one. I live, just as you, informed by that 5000 year old tradition, but I do find it neccesary to treat gays just as any other human, and think it wrong to deny gays in relationships the same rights as heterosexuals in relationships. I hold that my approach fits wonderfully with the spirit of Christ's teachings. Fundamentalists reach back to some pentateuchal old testament texts to support discrimination against gays and behaviour clearly not within the spirit of Christ's teaching. That is the kind of fundamentalism I would oppose. But I'm not trying to eradicate it, I'm trying to educate (as is Jacoby) it's adherents into a more honest and appropriate expression of their faith.

Again your claims exceed the scope of the words written in the article. Why? You seem to be infected by that fundamentalist need to have an enemy. Is that more or less Christlike?


Carl Becker - 3/29/2007

“Many panelists and readers expressed the opinion that not only Catholics but all people of devout faith -- especially Christians -- suffer from discrimination at the hands of "secular elites."

B.S. There’s been more serious discrimination going on by the Christian elite and non-elite against atheists. "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God."- George H.W. Bush, speaking to a reporter in 1988, while serving as Vice President of the United States (translated this means that: millions of Americans should have their citizenships revoked) The Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (copyright 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company) still has an older definition in it’s third meaning, convenient for the fundamentalist hate-mongers: Atheism: (3) Godlessness; immorality. Religionists regularly slander atheists as immoral and it goes far beyond a difference of opinion. Because of their supposed immorality, for which no evidence is ever given, they are barred from admission to organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the VFW and the American Legion. They are insulted publicly by clergy of all faiths, who seem to consider them unworthy to be citizens of the United States. This mentality is also typical of the American Religious Right, the source of morality, who use the "moral arguments" against atheists, liberals, and whoever they don’t like.


Rob Willis - 3/29/2007

The problem is the definition of "fundamentalist". Jacoby gives examples, but I will bet a silver dollar that there are many more traits that would exclude a person of faith beyond those stated. What are they? Where is the magic line? What beliefs are disallowed? I want to see a list. Why? Because what many secularists describe as "dangerous fundamentalism" are simply the core tentants - a moral code - of a faith, which in the case of Christianity, can't be abandoned without abandoning the faith completely. The great concern is the criminalization and complete intolerance of Christianity at all - a movement that is strongly underway as we speak.

As for abortion, you effectively agreed that when "reason" can't prove a solution, all morality reverts to the individual and their own personal code. Fair enough. But this works both ways, as you know. I prefer to consult 5000 years of human tradition and experience to inform my actions, not the ravings of a leftist who believes that everything must be different now that SHE has arrived.


J. Michael Bergstrom - 3/29/2007

I disagree, though you might be correct regarding fundamentalists. She says, and I share her position, that she would never vote for a fundamentalist. It would be somewhat quixotic to want to exclude any and all believers, a position I do not share, and she does not claim for herself in the article. Fundamentalism excludes itself from consideration because it is by nature totalitarian and unfit to govern a free and secular society.

Regarding abortion, there will perhaps be a time when "ensoulmnent" or "quickening" can be scientifically ascertained, and society may have to rearrange it's handling of abortion. But until then and as long as no-one who wants to bear a child is being forced to abort a pregnancy I think the best of all possible worlds is served in the interim by allowing each to examine her, and his, to the extent he is involved, conscience and make their own decision without state interference. In any case, all risks of pregnancy are borne by the woman and there is no justification for compelling a person to risk death or disfigurement of their person for the benefit of another.

A precise moral foundation can be easily constructed proceeding from the premise that religious views not shared universally and unequivocably by all who would be bound by law should not be used for the establishment of law. I don't think you'll find any liberals, leftists, or atheists that would be scared of that.

I find nothing in her article to support your claims regarding her agenda.


Rob Willis - 3/28/2007

I don't think she is as upset by beliefs as she is precise moral foundations, a concept which seems to scare atheists/liberals/leftists silly.

Should we need to stretch your point, however, abortion is an example where BELIEFS on both sides struggle for dominance and where neither side can "prove" whether a "fetus" has the internal wiring/plumbing/soul/spark of life that makes them human or not.

Her argument is nothing more than a large net camoflauging her real agenda - keeping anyone with religous faith completely away from positions of power. Whether those same people are able to make decisions based on "reason" or not.


J. Michael Bergstrom - 3/28/2007

Not ironic. The Edwords quote at worst supports Jacoby's argument that Americans are confused about the difference between discrimination and disagreement.

I suspect that there was more said than quoted and won't go further on that tack. But lack of representation has been used as a means of identifying discrimination in the past (think "glass ceiling" or "why are there no black head coaches in the NFL?"). Now consider that the whole "godless communists" thing is/was an attempt to bolster discrimination against one with discrimination against the other. Belief in God does not preclude communism, nor does communism preclude belief in God. I hold that much of the current antagonism is rooted in that offense.


J. Michael Bergstrom - 3/28/2007

Perhaps Jacoby's reason is that fundamentalists are willing to put their beliefs ahead of evidence and commit the rest of us to a future of their own fancy. I'm with Jacoby, here - I want my governers to make decisions based on verifiable evidence and not belief. Let your religion serve your individual soul, let our reason serve our collective souls.


Russ Reeves - 3/28/2007

It's ironic that just a couple of weeks before Jacoby wrote this, the Secular Coalition and the American Humanist Association issued public statements complaining of discrimination over the lack of atheists in Congress. Does Jacoby's final statement also apply to Fred Edwards:

"Atheists are the last group that a majority of Americans still think is OK to discriminate against," said Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association.
http://www.beliefnet.com/story/213/story_21388_1.html


Michael J Pearce - 3/27/2007

Her task is the exact task that these religious "fundamentalists" take.

As such, it is about disagreement, but the trouble comes when one side, hers, tries to squalch the debate. And this is evident in so many places that religion is being ripped from debate in the anme of tolerance.

This is much more than disagreement when this occurs. Her claim to truth, whether or not she believes in a truth, is the exact same thing as a beleivers. To deny this is to show elitism, which seems to be the case here.


Rob Willis - 3/26/2007

As the author stated and then tried to defend, she would never vote for a fundamentalist. The question she dosen't answer clearly is, why does she assume that fundamentalists are ignorant of outside thought and doubt? Know thy enemy, Miz Jacoby.


Jeffery Ewener - 3/26/2007

As a believing and practising Christian, I agree completely with Jacoby's main point.

Whatever happened to "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it"?

The real trouble is the growing tendency not to respect other people "as citizens" but only on the basis of their adherence to a set of ideological shibboleths.


John Tarver - 3/26/2007

Jacoby answers her own question.

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