Thursday, November 12, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, November 12, 2020.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why Is It So Hard for Atheists to Get Voted in to Congress? A Good Question That Deserves a Good Answer
Philip Zuckerman asked a very interesting question at Religion News Service. "Why is it so hard for atheists to get elected to Congress?"
Now, Phil Zuckerman has been studying this kind of issue for a long time. He is Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College in California. He has been looking at the science and sociology of atheism for a very long time. He is after all the establishment of the first major program in secular studies in any American college or university. He asks a question, it's a good question. "Why is it so hard for atheists to get elected to Congress?"
He begins by writing this, "This year, the selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden's running mate presented the US with its first politician of Indian heritage and its first black woman to be on a major party ticket." Now, of course, that followed by four years, Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, he writes, "Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential primary. Ted Cruz became the first Latino to win a presidential primary. And of course you've had the first Jewish American winner primary that is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders." And then Zuckerman goes on to say that, "At least two women have been elected as the first Muslim women elected to Congress."
He then writes this, quote, "But in this era of increasing diversity in the breaking of long rigid political demographic barriers, there is no self-identifying atheist in national politics." "Indeed," he writes, "throughout history, only one self-identified atheists in the US Congress comes to mind, the late California Democrat, Peter Stark." It's also notable that Pete stark identified as an atheist only toward the end of his congressional career.
Phil's Zuckerman's asking a very interesting question. Why is it that it is so hard for atheists to get voted into Congress? Evidently there are those elected to Congress who are Muslims and of course even winning presidential primaries who are Latino and Buddhist and even openly gay. But Zuckerman's asking this specific question about atheists, where are the atheists and why is it that there is no openly identified atheist in the United States Congress?
Now that's a very interesting question for a number of reasons. One of them is that asking about members of Congress means people who got elected. They were successful in running political campaigns. They were elected by the people of the district. That's different than being selected by a committee or appointed by a president. That means this question really does point to the worldview of voters. Why is it the voters, even in very secular, very liberal portions of the United States don't or at least haven't elected atheists? There's not a single atheist lined to be a member of the 117th Congress.
Later in the article, he writes, "This puts the country at odds with democracies the world over that have elected openly godless or at least openly skeptical leaders who went on to become revered national figures." He then goes on to identify nations such as India, Sweden, Uruguay, Israel, and New Zealand as indicative of democracies that have elected to very high office those who are publicly identified as either agnostics or atheists. In some case, outright atheists.
He then goes on, "But in the United States, self-identified non-believers are at a distinct disadvantage. A 2019 poll asking Americans who they were willing to vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96% would vote for a candidate who is black, 94% for a woman, 95% for an Hispanic candidate, 93% for a Jewish candidate, 76% said they would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. Even 66% said they would vote for a Muslim candidate. But at the very bottom of the list is an atheist candidate down to 60%." That is a sizeable chunk who would not vote for a candidate simply on the basis of the candidates non-religion.
So as a scholar and researcher working on this kind of question for a long time, Phil Zuckerman then says, "There appears to be two primary reasons atheism remains," what he calls, "the kiss of death for aspiring politicians." "One," he says, "is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in baseless bigotry."
Very interesting. He has a hypothesis. The hypothesis has two parts. He says, "The first reason why it is unlikely that atheists would get elected in the United States to this kind of office is because," he says, "atheism has a branding problem." And there's some intellectual honesty here. He says, "The branding problem has a great deal to do with regimes such as Stalin's Soviet Union and Pol Pot's Cambodia." Both of which he acknowledges were explicitly atheistic. He goes on to say that, "Fundamental to their oppressive agendas was bulldozing humans and persecuting religious believers."
Talk about a branding problem for atheists, but he basically wants to argue that in the past. It really isn't all that relevant, but it still remains a branding problem. But then he goes on to explain what he sees as the second reason, and in worldview analysis, this one's a lot more interesting to us. He writes, "The second reason atheists find it hard to get elected in America is the result of an irrational linkage in many people's minds between atheism and immorality."
He goes on, "Some assume that because atheists don't believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat. One recent study," he says, "for example, found that Americans even intuitively link atheism with necro-beastiality and cannibalism," end quote. He presses his case, "Such bigoted associations between atheism and immorality do not align with reality. There is," he argues, "simply no empirical evidence that most people who lack a belief in God are immoral. If anything," he says, "the evidence points in the other direction."
He does see some hope out there for non-believers however. He says, "Although the rivers of anti-atheism run deep throughout the American political landscape, they are starting to thin. More and more non-believers are openly expressing their godlessness and swelling numbers of Americans are becoming secular."
He goes on to cite that in 2018, a new group emerged in Washington own as the Congressional Freethought Caucus. He goes on to say, "Although it has only 13 members, it portends a significant shift in which some elected members of Congress are no longer afraid of being identified as at the very least agnostic."
Well, whether or not that group portends anything of the like remains to be seen. But the most interesting part of this article is the question that professors are coming to asks. Why is it indeed that it is so hard for atheists to get elected to Congress?
He goes on, remember those two reasons he put forward? Number one, the branding problem of atheism with repressive regimes, murderous regime, such as Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalin's Soviet Union. But as I said, it's the second of his reasons that turns out to be far more interesting. He says that, "Americans are making a category error. They're exercising a certain kind of bigotry and making the judgment that if one is an atheist, one has no substantial morality, and thus one is not to be trusted with high office."
Now let's just think about this for a moment. Is it possible that one could know an atheist or indeed many atheists who actually do live very moral lives? Is it possible as a matter of fact, and Christians should ask this question openly, is it possible that we would have say in our own city some atheists who would live lives of greater nobility than some who would identify as religious believers? And here's where we have to answer yes, it is quite possible.
As a matter of fact, even the early church dealt with the fact that there were many Romans, those who were based in a classical pagan culture who lived what would be recognized as noble lives. But the problem is even the early Christians understood is that that nobility would crack apart once it was no longer a part of the reinforced culture, and that is exactly what happened.
But coming back to our own time and our own hypothetical city where there could be some noble atheists living amongst some fairly scandalous religious believers. The fact is that that is not the major issue. The Christian worldview tells us that the major issue here is understanding that if indeed one is a consistent atheist, then one has no objective morality at all, or at least no basis or foundation for objective moral judgment. Because if you are an atheist, you deny that the creation has any order or any particular meaning and certainly isn't embedded with any moral laws. Instead, all you have is a naturalistic materialistic universe that just happens to work this way.
There are some very brave atheists or non-believing thinkers who've been honest enough to say that the best that can be said about morality from a consistently atheistic viewpoint is that we should live as if there is a greater substance to moral principles than the atheist worldview can explain.
As a matter of fact, those same consistently atheistic thinkers demonstrating true intellectual courage have to admit that even ascribing any kind of meaning to life is artificial in a truly atheistic scheme. Instead, one could only say that it's more convenient and palatable to live as if we actually live meaningful lives, even though the worldview of the consistent naturalist materialist atheist is that there can be no ultimate lasting transcendent meaning to anything.
But let's go back to Zuckerman's second point because he actually uses the word bigotry. Indeed, he says, "It is baseless bigotry." But is it? Well, it would be bigotry if we said that it's impossible on an individual basis for a person to live out what we would consider to be the right moral principles, even as undercutting those principles with one's own worldview. That's possible. Actually it is possible to find a noble pagan, and we should be thankful for that.
Here's something else that the Christian worldview helps us to understand, that noble pagan, by that very nobility, that is uprightness of character. Doesn't cheat, doesn't steal, doesn't embezzle, doesn't lie, doesn't cheat on his wife. That's all important. That is noble. But here's where we understand that the very structure of making that moral judgment actually undercuts the atheistic worldview. We're using a very independent, even transcendent judgment, even about what nobility is. And secondly, there's another issue. Why is that noble pagan, noble?
Well, here's where Christians would explain, it is because even as that atheist may deny it, does deny it, that atheist is made in the image of God. There is a conscience, a moral consciousness, an embedded the law that is there, even if its ultimate source is denied by the one who exercises it. But here's another issue. If indeed Americans have demonstrated themselves, ourselves to be quite reluctant to elect atheists to office, even if it is because there is a prejudice or a bigotry against atheists, that just might be based upon a deeper moral instinct than making a judgment about even an individual.
It might well have to do with the fact that Americans, whether they consciously say it out loud, understand that in electing someone to office, we are electing not only a person, but a worldview. And it's the worldview that is more ominous perhaps then even the person. Or you could put it another way, you might be able to absorb a certain handful of unbelievers or atheists in a body like the United States Congress without making a lot of difference. But if that worldview were to predominate, well, you'd be looking at a radically different institution, producing radically different laws for a radically different nation.
Is It Possible for an Atheist to Be Moral? Can Atheism Produce a True Morality? One Good Question Leads to Another
One final thought here, if you are an unbeliever, an atheist in any consistent sense, any sense in which you're actually clearly denying a creator and thus creation, meaning in the cosmos, ultimate transcendent meaning, if you are denying that there truly is any such reality as an objective morality that is based upon moral judgment outside of ourselves.
If indeed you hold to a morality that isn't just based in something like a Darwinist conception of the survival of the fittest, as Herbert Spencer would say, or you might just say even natural selection as Darwin explained it. Then you're going to be hard pressed to argue why even something like altruism is something that you would endorse or you would advocate.
That is to say, if we do consider the city, this hypothetical city in which there are noble pagans, one of those noble pagans is running for office. That Nobel pagan comes and knocks on our door asking for our vote. It's not just a matter of our asking, "Where would you stand on issue A or B or C?" It would be the further question of, "How in the world do you get there? How can you stand there and what kind of ultimate meaning is there even to your assertion and advocacy of such a position?"
If we are talking about this stereotypical hypothetical noble pagan, and by the way, this doesn't mean a sinless pagan, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It simply means that living within civil society, this person lives a fairly upright life without scandal. You would think that that person would certainly endorse altruism, that is acting on behalf of another for the good of another. You would certainly not want to elect to the United States Congress someone who did not advocate altruism.
But where does altruism come from? Well, if you're a consistent unbeliever and committed to some kind of Darwinist conception of the universe, then all you can say is that a society made up of human beings who behave in ways that are generally altruistic will generally survive longer than a society that does not demonstrate that kind of altruism.
But then in the middle of the 20th century, you would run absolutely into collision with rival worldviews, and we're not only talking about say Naziism and Communism. We're also talking about something like Ayn Rand and objectivism in the United States. The author of the famous novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, also very much an unbeliever, argued that altruism rightly understood was not a moral good, but was a moral evil.
Phil Zuckerman is very interested in this question, and I understand why. As an unbeliever and as a scholar and researcher of unbelief, as the head of the program of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, this is his job. But for Christians, it's our job to think Christianly, and in this we come to understand that what we see in this question, why is it so hard for atheist to get voted into Congress? Is the fact that voters, no matter how confused they may be still have a residual knowledge. A moral consciousness that makes them, especially here in the United States, where it still has at least a residue or a shadow of the Christian conscience and public. It reflects the fact that there is a reluctance to elect stated self-identified unbelievers to public office.
That may change, but it is really interesting that in the year 2020, it hasn't changed yet. By the way, Professor Zuckerman's a very honest man. I enjoyed a conversation with him for my program, Thinking in Public, back in December of 2015. We'll put the link to that program up with today's edition of The Briefing.
An Old and Evil Idea Reappears on a Public University Campus in California: Eugenics Is Alive and Becoming “Newgenics”
But then secondly, having talked about Darwin and Darwinism and unbelief, an unbelievable headline appeared in the LA Times just in recent days. Teresa Watanabe is the reporter, the headline, quote, "UC Berkeley." That's the University of California. "Berkeley is disavowing its eugenic research fund after bioethicist and other faculty call it out."
Wait just a minute. Eugenics is one of the most morally important words to have emerged, especially in the 20th century, what became known as the eugenics movement. How in the world is there right now a eugenic research fund available to faculty members and scholars at one of the most liberal public universities in the United States, the University of California at Berkeley? It turns out that a bioethics professor there found out about this fund when he received a campus email inviting professors to apply for grants from this research fund in the School of Public Health at UCal Berkeley.
Reporter Teresa Watanabe reports, "The Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund supports research and education," said the email, "in eugenics, a field discredited after World War II as a horrifying ideology that sought to use science to improve the human race by promoting traits deemed superior and breeding out those judged undesirable. The judgments aligned strongly with social biases that favored white able-bodied and financially stable people."
Watanabe goes on to explain, "Eugenics was used as a justification for Hitler's Nazi Germany to kill 6 million Jewish people and US authorities to forcibly sterilize more than 60,000 people in California and more than 30 other states, largely in the 20th century. But," she says, "Berkeley's Eugenic Research Fund has been very much active." We're told that the $2.4 million fund was offering an annual payout of about $70,000 as of 2020 to support research and education on policies, practices, and technologies that could, according to the fund, "Affect the distribution of traits in the human race."
Professor Osagie K. Obasogie of the UCal Berkeley faculty went on to say, "I was shocked and dismayed." He along with other faculty indicated that dismay and the university is now reviewing the fund.
So hold on just a minute. What is eugenics? What was the eugenics movement? It became very popular, frighteningly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early decades of the 20th century. It was largely discredited, I say largely discredited, in the horrifying Holocaust of Nazi Germany. And by the end of World War II, there were very few who wanted publicly to identify with eugenics, but it didn't go away. What is the word after all? Well, you recognize genes in it, that is genetics. Eugenics means good genes. It's the idea of selective breeding.
Now eugenics would make sense. That is good genes and selective breeding makes sense if you're trying to raise a race horse, but it becomes morally abhorrent when you're talking about human beings. Because what it implies is that you can rank human beings according to certain genetic or physical or intellectual or racial categories. As you can understand, that is an extremely dangerous thought. But it's not only dangerous for Christians, we understand that it flies in the face of a biblical anthropology. That is a biblical understanding of humanity that says that every single human being is equally made in the image of God.
But eugenics was not only on both sides of the Atlantic. Some form of it has been found in almost every major civilization. Plato was advocating it long before Jesus Christ was born. You're talking about a very old, very dangerous, very, very horrifying idea. And it's quite horrifying indeed to think that there is a research fund right now funding eugenic research at the University of California at Berkeley. How did we not know about this before?
Watanabe reports that in June of this year, the University of Southern California stripped the name of a former university president, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, from a prominent campus building for the reason that he was tainted with eugenics. And even more famously in recent days, Stanford University announced that it would remove the name of its founding president, David Starr Jordan, from campus buildings and streets because of his involvement in eugenics.
And by the way, this wasn't limited to one partisan identification. In the United States, eugenicists included, back in the early decades of the 20th century, both Democrats and Republicans. In great Britain, you had members of the Liberal Party, the Labour party, and the Tory Party who held to eugenics. Indeed in the most prestigious academic institutions of the Western world, eugenics became something of an almost official dogma.
This article speaks of eugenics leading to the fact that for a time in the United States, there was a federally sanctioned program of forced sterilization for those who were viewed to be mentally deficient. And even someone considered to be a liberal lion of the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, in a 1927 Supreme Court decision known as Buck versus Bell argued, and I quote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
But the most interesting section of Teresa Watanabe's article is really not retrospective to the horrors of the 20th century, but rather to the potential and actual horrors of a new form of eugenics. It's referred to in this article as newgenics, given the reproductive revolution. If indeed you are now able to use genetic information to decide what kind of offspring you need, you don't need Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. You don't need Margaret Sanger. You don't need David Starr Jordan. All you need is a cooperative laboratory to work with you in genetic manipulation to produce the child you hope for.
Now, this technology is not to the point that Americans can yet access it and use it like consumers. But the reality is we're almost there, and in some ways actually we are. In the pre-genetic sense, we certainly are. We have catalogs of human gametes, so sperm and of eggs ranked by the identification of the donor.
As Watanabe's writes, "The advent of sperm banks allows would be parents to select traits they desire, with the most popular donors being those who are white or Asian, at least six feet tall, athletic, with some college education." But of course at the same time, we're already seeing right now negative eugenics being used with embryos that are identified as substandard simply being eliminated, and sometimes embryos being eliminated before they're transferred into a womb. And in other cases, what is known as selective reduction in which the unborn babies are simply terminated because they are unwanted. They're undesirable. They are substandard.
Watanabe at least recognizes the problem, raising it this way, "But what about those with Down's syndrome who can lead happy and productive lives, or the growing practice of sex selection with boys overwhelmingly favored in places like China and India." Now what's interesting is that this very newspaper, the LA Times has fought against an editorialized against approving laws against that very practice of sex election.
It's also very interesting if troubling to see that at least some authorities at Berkeley have tried to argue that this eugenics fund has not been used for bad eugenics, but for what might be described as good eugenics. But think about this, eugenics means good genes, but it has a very evil rootage and evil effect. And if you try to put good in front of that, you get good, good genes that turns out to be bad, evil science.
But just to bring our discussion today from a Christian worldview perspective clearly into focus, it takes an objective transcendent morality to see eugenics for the evil that it actually is.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I mentioned my other program, Thinking in Public, and a conversation I had with Professor Philip Zuckerman back in the year 2015, but this week we've released a new edition of Thinking in Public. It's a conversation with Professor Wilson Miscamble of the University of Notre Dame. And it's about his really fascinating and important work on Theodore Hesburgh, who for decades was the president to the University of Notre Dame, and it turns out the Theodore Hesburgh becomes a parable of thinking about how a religious institution negotiates a very secular age. It has relevance far beyond the University of Notre Dame.
Again, you'll find that at albertmohler.com under the tab, "Thinking in Public."
For more information, just go to my website, albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce college, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.