Is Lip Service to Atheists a Good Thing? November 7, 2008

Is Lip Service to Atheists a Good Thing?

Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, writes a piece for the Washington Post On Faith blog where he talks about politicians paying lip service to various groups.

Candidates always want to court the Religious Right voters, but they don’t always follow their orders. Instead, they just mention the Christian faith in every speech and play up their conservative credentials and talk about how they will be led by the Bible while in office. Thankfully, it’s more words than action.

Would you as an atheist settle for similar lip service from politicians?

Silverman has an answer to that:

When my companions asked if I, an atheist, would settle for so little, I replied without hesitation: “YES! We’ll take lip service!”

I would be thrilled to see politicians court us by accepting invitations to speak at atheist and humanist conferences, as they do at religious events. I would love to hear them say we were founded as a secular nation, with no mention of any gods in our Constitution, and speak about the value of separating religion from government. I’d be delighted to hear them defend atheists and agnostics from our detractors, reminding Americans that freedom of conscience extends to citizens of all faiths and none.

Yes, even if their words changed nothing about public policy, lip service would be a wonderful new dimension in the relationship between politicians and secular Americans — it would mean public acknowledgement that we exist. It might even lead to the occasional political crumb: an elected official hiring advisers who are openly humanist, for example. Just this minimal level of recognition could go a long way toward changing the hearts and minds of people who assume god belief to be a prerequisite for morality and ethical behavior.

Why would secular Americans like me set the bar so low? Because we have no direction to go but up…

Lip service is where it will begin. Perhaps, one day, respect will follow.

Will you be satisfied when Barack Obama mentions gays and atheists in a speech about inclusivity but then doesn’t advocate for any legislation in our favor?

Is that better than a president who ignores us altogether or wants nothing to do with us?

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  • valhar2000

    I have to agree with Herb on this one. The situation of atheists in politics is so very bad that even this would be an enromous achievement. Kind of like the way a person whose entire fortune amounts ot 1$ is infinitely more wealthy than a person who has 0$…

    On other hand, atheism is not yet punishable by death in the USA, so it could indeed be worse.

  • MathMike

    Why should we hold our politicians to a lower standard than other people? I expect the truth from those I interact with, and hold those people who don’t lie to me in higher regard. Lip Service is just a nice way of saying they are lying.

  • Beowulff

    I also have to agree that just the recognition of atheists as a legitimate subgroup of the population whose support would be worth having (instead of shunned) would already be a step forward. So in that sense, lip service is better than nothing.

    However, for your next question: wouldn’t I be disappointed if the lip service wouldn’t result in any actual policy? Of course I would. I think anyone would be disappointed (if not surprised) when promises by politicians turn out to be hollow.

    I also don’t think Herb Silverman was arguing that we shouldn’t demand more than lip service.

    And the difference between a president who wants nothing to do with atheists and a president who says he wants to promote secularism but doesn’t translate that promise into policy is clear: we can at least hold the latter publicly accountable for his words, while the former is beyond reason. That’s not an insignificant difference, IMHO.

  • mikespeir

    Yep. Up to now nobody thought they owed us even lip service. So I agree with the commenters above: it’s a step in the right right direction. But stepping out does imply the beginning of a journey….

  • noodleguy

    I don’t really like lip service to anything, but I suppose it is better than nothing.

  • justin jm

    Lip-service, by its very definition means that no thought is put into the words. A politician can say, “oh, and you guys too” but I want to see evidence of that in his policies.

    I appreciate when Obama mentions us in speeches, but I don’t think it’s going to improve our situation. If he spoke at humanist conventions, that would be a big step in the right direction.

  • Adrian

    Gotta start somewhere.

    Remember that right now, far from getting lip service, “atheist” is an epithet used to smear an opponent. I think that appearing in front of atheistic/humanist groups and treating us as valued members of society would send a very strong message. Sure we want to move past that but it would be a big move on its own.

  • Jesse

    I honestly think lip service is a pretty big deal. If it became normal to hear politicians talking about atheists in a somewhat positive – or at least not negative – sense on tv then I would think that would influence public opinion over time. In a semi-democracyish, public policy follows public opinion.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    What would be “legislation in our favor” exactly? I’m not sure what atheist legislation is, except, of course, for the protection of the separation of church and state, which I absolutely do demand from Obama and everyone else, and I do expect to receive a hell of a lot more than lip service on that.

  • timplausible

    Lip service would be a big help in eliminating the societal bigotry against atheists. It wouldn’t be a desirable end, but it would be a step towards getting our larger concerns heard, by making it clear to society that it’s ok to listen to us. We’ll never get heard if out politicians tell society we’re unworthy to even consider (or worse, if they tell our society that they shouldn’t be listening to us, as they do now).

  • It is better than a President who says that atheists shouldn’t even be considered as citizens. Considerably better.

    It is also worth mentioning that Obama’s step father was an atheist and his mother viewed religion “through an anthropologist’s eyes”. He also attended school in a largely Muslim nation and attended a Roman Catholic school. That must make him sympathetic to all faiths and none and allow him to see past the concerns of any given religious or non-religious faith faction.

    I believe that he will view religion as one factor in how to assess the needs of the people and not the only factor. That’s got to be an improvement.

  • Miko

    Even without policy effect, it has the social effect of influencing how other people treat atheists. I’d most prefer that they just stop mentioning all religious/nonreligious groups, but I’d still take lip service ahead of nothing.

    In fact, the groups you mention (gays and atheists) are easy to please, since unlike most other groups, we don’t actually want the government to do anything special regarding us: we just want it to stop discriminating against us.

  • I’m fine with lip service.

    Remember, presidents don’t make legislation. It isn’t enough for Obama to say “we should have a bill that says x” — a bill won’t just *poof* into existence. People (legislators specifically) need to be convinced that that legislation is worth passing. “Lip service” might not have any action behind it now, but it’s a necessary precursor to future action.

  • DMS

    If Obama were to mention atheists in a speech about inclusive policy or attitudes, that would be a welcome development.
    I’m not sure why gays are included in your question. Isn’t sexual orientation often mentioned? Atheists, on the other hand — it’s like we don’t exist. In that sense, I guess we’re godlike!
    Yes, it’s better that a politician speaks up for tolerance of the godless.
    But it would be only mildly satisfying if that “support” didn’t go beyond mere words in a speech.

  • Yes. One of the few things I like about Bush is that he has consistently included “people of no faith” when listing various religious groups.

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