You Have to Play the Game April 15, 2008

You Have to Play the Game

In high school, I wanted a high GPA. At first, like everyone else, it was because I wanted to get into a good college. Very quickly, that reason changed… College became a secondary goal. I just wanted a high GPA so I could be ranked higher than my classmates.

At some point during my freshman year, I realized I could manipulate the system to inflate my class ranking.

At my high school, getting an A in “regular” classes earned you a 4.0. Getting an A in an honors or Advanced Placement class earned you a 5.0. Getting an A+ (usually 98% or higher), B+, etc. earned you an additional 0.3.

So after my first year of high school, I dropped band (a “regular” class) — I didn’t care for it much at the time, so it wasn’t a huge loss for me. I requested an “academic gym waiver” so I could take an additional honors/AP class instead of gym (another “regular’ class that was lowering my GPA). If I was ever at the cusp of getting an A+ in a class, I asked the teacher if there was anything I could do to get that last point or two — something that might not have been offered to the other students. And a couple times, I did get that +.

Other kids in my class knew how to play the system, too. Academic gym waivers were all over the place. One friend took an Honors Accounting class instead of an AP class in order to earn an easy A+. It made a difference. The difference in GPAs between the top kids in my class was miniscule.

At some point during my senior year, I realized how crazy this was. The cheating among the smarter kids in my class was rampant. Everyone was playing the game at any cost. We were all accepted into college. It made no real difference anymore whether we got an A or B… except we had all come this far, so we kept pushing ourselves until the GPAs were locked in at the end of first semester that final year.

In a class of over 700 students, I finished in the top 10. I was satisfied.

Why do I say all this (besides to point out how anal I was as a high-schooler)?

Sometimes, you just play the game even if you don’t really care for it. You do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do because there’s some goal you feel you have to reach.

At least, that’s the rationalization I’ve been using when I hear Barack Obama speak about religion.

Deep down, and for no real rational reason, I don’t think he’s all that religious. But he knows he has to put on the facade of Christian faith if he wants to become president.

When he responds to faith-based questions, some might say he’s trying to find a middle ground — his answers appeal to both the deeply religious and the extremely non-religious.

I don’t think he’s just trying to find a middle ground.

When I listen to him, I hear something different.

He says what he must to get elected (i.e. pandering to the religious) and then — sometimes in the same sentence — he lets his rational side kick in.

Take an excerpt from his recent conversation at the Compassion Forum:

CAMPBELL BROWN: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you — and maybe they already have — “Daddy, did God really create the world in six days?” What would you say?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I’m trying to remember if we had this conversation.


OBAMA: You know, what I’ve said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it. It may not be 24-hour days. And that’s what I believe. I know there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t. And, you know, that, I think, is a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I am a part.

You know, my belief is, is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live, that that is — that is essentially true. That is fundamentally true.

Now whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible, that, you know, I don’t presume to know.

BROWN: Let’s go to…

OBAMA: But let me just make one last point on this. I do believe in evolution. I don’t think that is incompatible with Christian faith. Just as I don’t think science generally is incompatible with Christian faith.

And I think that this is something that, you know, we get bogged down in. There are those who suggest that if you have a scientific bent of mind, then somehow you should reject religion. And I fundamentally disagree with that.

In fact, the more I learn about the world, the more I know about science, the more I’m amazed about the mystery of this planet and this universe. And it strengthens my faith as opposed to weakens it.

It’s hard for me to imagine that a Harvard-educated lawyer as intelligent as Obama grapples at all with the “six days” issue. God didn’t create the universe in six days, whether they’re literal or metaphorical days. Obama knows that. He has to know that. He adds in the bit about evolution like someone who chugs down water to get a nasty taste out of his mouth.

And then, every so often, I feel like he says what’s really on his mind when he’s not thinking about how to pander:

[I]t’s not surprising then [that the people in small towns] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

He’s apologized about that, but (I think) only because he had to.

Imagine if he really did feel that way? Doesn’t he speak the truth? When people get upset or depressed, they do turn to God. Not all people, but a hell of a lot of them.

At so many of the churches I visited, people talked about how God “saved” them only when they were at their lowest points. I even wrote in my book: “was being down, or lonely, or desperate a prerequisite to finding God?”

There’s nothing “elitist” in his remarks. It’s just that the atheist side of him accidentally spoke up.

In several months time, Obama may still speak about faith and use religious rhetoric, but I’m hopeful that when he becomes president, he won’t play into the hands of the Religious Right. He will uphold the Separation of Church and State. He won’t have to answer any of these idiotic questions about evolution and Creation in a way that downplays his own intelligence.

When I entered college, my classes were much less rigorous than the ones I took in high school. Yes, I had harder material, but I also had more time to study. As long as my grades were decent, GPA didn’t matter. I had a mix of As and Bs and an occasional C… and I hardly flinched. I could relax because no one cared anymore. I didn’t have to put up the pretense of playing the game and I could concentrate on things that really mattered.

I hope I can say the same for President Obama.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • It’s unfortunate that religion has become so divisive. Political candidates always have to watch what they say, but is there really a ‘right’ thing to say when it comes to religion? You’re always gonna piss off certain groups.

    I hope that Obama, along with the rest of this year’s presidential candidates, stick to what really matters.

  • TXatheist

    I think we atheists have gotten so use to candidates pandering to the religious right that it’s nothing unusual. However, I think BO is smart enough to do that tactfully. After next November I hope he does cherish the separation of church and state and continues to acknowledge evolution as solid science. After that I don’t care if he uses the word god or not. I really don’t think smart people like BO or Francis Collins believe in god but use religion to further their agenda…imo.

  • I suppose you could be on to something; I’ve often wondered about what Obama really believes . . .

    It’s hard for me to imagine that a Harvard-educated lawyer as intelligent as Obama grapples at all with the “six days” issue.

    I totally agree.

    As an Obama supporter, it scares the hell out of me to see a post like this that could be pulled out of context and used as fodder for Fox News to say things like “Obama: An Atheist?” (Man, I’m not sure if I should even type that — I don’t want Google picking it up!)

    As an atheist, it bugs me that Obama has to play the game (if that is, in fact what he’s doing), but it’s the sad reality.

  • I must say, this has been one of your best political comments. Very well written.

    ps – I like seeing the phrase “President Obama”. Makes me feel warm inside.

  • Chris in Columbus

    Hemant, are you on Facebook? I made a satirical Ben Stein page and I welcome you to join 🙂

    As far as Obama goes, I completely agree–he’s only saying the Jesus thing to pander to the 90% of Christians out there.

  • DSimon

    Although I am an Obama supporter, I was really dismayed by the “guns and religion” statement he made. It’s too close to a particularly obnoxious sort of argument made about my atheism: that it stems from some kind of allergic reaction to poor experiences with religion, and is therefore not really my actual belief, but merely an unfortunate product of my environment.

    This is obviously a BS argument to make about my atheism, but it’s also a BS argument to make about religious ideas, or even about ideas as dramatically fucked-up as racial bigotry. Bad ideas should be, and must be, fought with good ideas, not with dismissal of the idea’s supporters. Ridicule the idea if it’s ridiculous, shoot it down if it’s an easy target, but go after the idea itself, not the alleged poor upbringing of those who support it.

    Even if it were due to hardship that I am an atheist, or due to another person’s rearing that they are religious, that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not those beliefs are right or wrong.

  • Billy S

    Kind of funny that Obama’s religion has been seen to be so much of an issue, whether it is the fact that he attends the purportedly radical Christian church of his, to whether he is, as his father was, a Muslim. It’s especially funny because they are neglecting to notice that the parent who did raise Obama was an atheist, who exposed Obama to every religion when he was younger. I think that your perception of Obama being relatively non-religious, and basically only paying only lip-service to the church he goes to (largely involved with it for the sense of community, rather than for Bible-beating opportunities) is dead-on…I’ve had the same hunch for some time now.

    Of course, despite his adherence to the strict “fundamentals” of Christianity probably being weak, at best, I think that he does have some authentic spirituality (either that, or he has been trying to pull the collective leg of the American public for some time now) judging by the contents of his books. He just is, in all likelihood, as liberal with his Christianity as he is with his politics…an obvious breath of fresh air.

  • Maria

    Deep down, and for no real rational reason, I don’t think he’s all that religious. But he knows he has to put on the facade of Christian faith if he wants to become president.

    I agree. I get the same sense from him. and now there’s all these conservatives going on about he’s “faking” his faith

  • Joseph R.

    I support Obama because I like his politics, and I don’t care what faith he claims to be as long as it is kept outside of his future job as the commander-in-chief(hopefully). I don’t think that I am asking for too much; separation of church and state is important to me.(and I like my guns too)

    And on a side note, Hemant, great political post. I like it.

  • “At least, that’s the rationalization I’ve been using when I hear Barack Obama speak about religion.”

    That’s the rationalization I’ve been using too. I sure hope we are right!

    I’m so disappointed that neither of them agreed to participate in the Science Debate though (yet anyway).

  • Christian (My Name Only)

    My mother is a devout born again christian and I mentioned this morning that I thought it was silly that people were complaining that Obama said that people “cling to their faith” in times of economic hardship. She agreed. She said that god is what gets her through the hard times. By the way, she lives in Pennsylvania in a town of 5000. Really, I am not making this up.

    We have to face it, the majority of people do not have the critical reasoning capacity to understand much of what Obama says.

    Also, Obama’s father was an atheist and his mother look at religion “as an anthropologist”. Seems he might at least be looking at the idea of god in a free manner. And isn’t it true that Obama did not even start going to church until he started working with the poor in Illinois?

    By the way, I do not support Obama or any politician. I do not vote.

  • Jen

    You didn’t have to take gym class? That is completely unfair. We had to take our AP classes and still go to gym.

    On topic? I am not sure I buy that Obama is faking his religion. I don’t know; I hope so too, if he becomes our president, but I don’t feel sure of it at all.

  • As a Canadian watching and reading this crap about religion in the States and I have to wonder if your political leaders have all lost their minds. What rights does religion have in politics? What rights does religion have in science?

    What I would like to see next is a debate about Zeus and Oden. Which god had bigger balls?

  • THz

    I wonder what would happen if Fox picked up this post and used it to “out” Obama as not seriously religious. You could be compromising his cover with a posts like this 😉

    Although I agree with rekounas that this is pretty ridiculous (as I can say from Canada).

  • I think Obama has to work harder at the religious angle than Clinton because of all the Muslim accusations, but I don’t think either of them are really very religious. But I think you are right, Obama is probably even less religious than Clinton. That’s not the reason I am planning on voting for Obama, but it doesn’t hurt.

    But what I really want to complain about is the name of that event: The Compassion Forum. So if it’s a forum about religion and faith then it must automatically be compassionate? Why don’t they hold the forum at Liberty University next time? I’d love to get their take on compassion.

    As a Canadian watching and reading this crap about religion in the States and I have to wonder if your political leaders have all lost their minds.

    Well, that goes without saying, but in reality, they wouldn’t have to pander to these people if the people didn’t demand it. Religion has always been used to control the population. The majority of Americans for some reason are easily manipulated by appeals to the flag and god. So you can’t just blame the politicians.

  • It’s hard for me to imagine that a Harvard-educated lawyer as intelligent as Obama grapples at all with the “six days” issue.

    In the context where it appears, I saw is as grappling with how you explain the issue to a child.

    I have the same problem. My four year old niece asked me the other day, “Where did the first person come from?” She’s got no religious hang up or agenda here; it was a straightforward question… a good one. The problem for me is how do you give a good answer for a four year old?

    We did pretty well, in fact. I asked where she came from, and then where Mummy came from. Both questions for which she knows the answer. And then where Nana came from; not a big leap. Then we imagined her, and her mum, and her Nan, and so on in a huge line all holding hands. It never ends, exact that as you go down the line everyones a bit different from each other. And she got it. Go down the line far enough and you don’t really have people, but animals. But everyone still loves their Mum, all the way along the line. No first person.

    But it was still a tricky issue to try and get something that answered the question and made sense for a four year old. Similarly, Obama might have the six days thing figured out to his own satisfaction; and still find it tricky explaining it for a child. This has nothing to do with being in a personal quandry on the issue. I’m guessing it’s a bit like that… with the horrible added complexity of answering in public for an audience where many ARE in a quandry over six days.

  • I really find this post refreshing, especially since I read something over at the American Atheists blog in which the writer said he’s voting for Nader because Clinton and Obama pander to religious interests. It disappointed me, because even though I am Atheist, I believe this country has the right to freedom of religion as much as it has the right to freedom from religion.

    We need to remember that some of our biggest political movements started in churches. Churches fought against slavery, the death penalty, racism. So if he wants to “pander,” I say, pander away.

    About the six-days thing: I will say that when I was a Christian, raised by two ministers with Theology degrees, I was never taught that the world was created in six 24-hour days. If anyone’s seen the George Burns classic “Oh, God!”, there’s a similar explanation in there as well. In the film, God’s concept of a day is much longer than man’s.

    Of all the candidates, I believe Obama is the most open-minded, and it seems what he said about the earth’s creation may, in fact, be what he believes. Nonetheless, I think it was a good answer to a question that really shouldn’t matter one bit in this campaign, but sadly is.

  • the Shaggy

    Man, Ray Comfort tries to write posts like this, but Hemant knows how to work it.

    Also, you Americans and your political preoccupation with the God delusion.

  • Cathy

    I’m not generally an Obama supporter (come on, the man said he was against gay marriage because churches get to define marriage), but as someone from a rural, poor PA town, I definitly understood his point. Scapegoating of immigrants, nonwhites, nontraditional women, queer people, and many other groups is very common so is clinging to any remains of power they can (being Christian and being violent are applauded in American society).

  • I am generally skeptical when atheists hypothesize that people “don’t really believe” in their religion. Yes, people really do believe in religion. Even educated people. If the presence of smart, charismatic Christians threatens your worldview, you ought to think it over some more.

    I know you’ve got more of a case here, Hemant, since he is a politician, but be careful. He strikes me as a liberal believer who is simply “pandering” (though not necessarily in a negative way) to more conservative believers who have been alienated by the Republicans, not as an atheist pandering to all religious. Oh, yes, liberal believers count as believers too.

    Furthermore, merely talking about religion doesn’t constitute a violation of the separation and state.

  • Good post-I’ve had the same thoughts myself, although I wondered if it wasn’t like my gay friend who thought that every good looking guy he saw was also gay…in other words, wishful thinking!

  • Darryl

    It seems that this stupid religious pandering will continue. All I hear this week on conservative talk radio (yes, I keep tabs on the wackos) is how people of faith are being ostracized by the science-minded concensus on evolution or global warming (see Ben Stein’s new film), and how the Democrats are godless, blah, blah. What does Obama believe? I don’t care. I doubt that he’s a fundamentalist, and that’s all that matters to me. If Huckabee had a shot at the Oval Office, then I care.

    Concerning his comments about rural Pennsylvanians, I don’t know these folks, I’ve never been to that state but once, and then only to Philadelphia. You can’t stereotype any bunch of people with any accuracy, but I think I know what he was trying to say. I do know that there are a great many Americans that doubt their government–doubt its effectiveness, its goodness, and whether it cares about them. They pay their taxes, and obey their laws, and try to do what they think is right, but they don’t feel like they can depend upon government. They see big problems go unsolved, year after year. What they know they can depend upon are the values they hold dear, and their traditional way of life, which includes religion and the ownership and use of guns. A man’s government may lie to him, but his shotgun never does. He can’t control what Washington does, but he can control his own life. As to the scapegoating, of course it goes on–some of these folks are so out of touch that they really believe that illegals are the problem!

    I still am amazed at how people can continue to vote against there own interests. Average Americans are getting marginalized year after year, and yet they fall for the ploys of blaming illegals, or liberals, or gays, or abortionists, or atheists. Obama should have kept his mouth shut, but you can’t be too hard on a guy who is trying to understand how this state of affairs can persist.

  • Bellesouth said,

    We need to remember that some of our biggest political movements started in churches. Churches fought against slavery, the death penalty, racism.

    I think it is more accurate to say that some churches fought to end slavery, the death penalty and racism, while others fought to maintain it.

  • I liked this comment in the onion about Obama’s controversial “bitter” remark:

    “Hillary knew a young, inexperienced Obama would slip up sooner or later and be honest with people.”

  • Karen

    “Hillary knew a young, inexperienced Obama would slip up sooner or later and be honest with people.”


    The interesting thing I’m noticing today is that new polls show people weighing in and damn it, a lot of them appreciate his honesty. Even the rural PA folks agree with him – they’ve seen the bitterness and how the GOP exploits it with the god, guns, gay agenda for years.

  • JoshH

    I agree with what “miller” said, pretty much. I think Obama is in fact a believer, but one who shares a faith that’s more along the lines of Andrew Sullivan’s.

  • Deep down, and for no real rational reason, I don’t think he’s all that religious.

    How is that any different than a large percentage of “Christians” out there?

    There’s nothing “elitist” in his remarks. It’s just that the atheist side of him accidentally spoke up.

    The atheist side? 🙂 I believe even most of the true believers have “the atheist side,” however small, that pokes through now and again when they’re not paying attention. It really gets annoying, sometimes. 😉

    I also agree with what Miller said.

  • Josh

    While I agree in principle with your article, I don’t follow your assertion that Obama has atheistic tendencies. I think Obama is certainly more rational than any politician running for president has been since the founding days, but from statements he has given and from his history it appears to me that he is perhaps more of a deist than even an agnostic or atheist. Regardless, I think he is probably a spiritual guy in the sense that he actually tries to seek truth rather than believing literally in what some book tells him – despite what he may tell this congregation or that congregation. It is this quality that will make him a good president for not only America, but for the world at large – atheist or not.

  • You articulated beautifully my own feelings on him.

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