Obama Mentions Non-believers Once Again February 6, 2009

Obama Mentions Non-believers Once Again

It’s strange hearing a politician mention non-religious people in a positive, inclusive way.

I could get used to this.

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, Obama made a couple more mentions of atheists (PDF):

There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next — and some subscribe to no faith at all.

We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

The goal of this office [Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships] will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.

I’m sure many atheists will be mad that Obama is speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast in the first place. They’ll be upset that he used us as an afterthought on lists of religions — so many of which have hurt our friends and family.

But it’s an important step. Let’s get the nation used to hearing atheists (or some variant) included in lists of who Americans are.

Then, let’s back his words up with our own actions. That’s how movements happen.

(via The Economist)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chal

    I like how he said that religious groups would not be preferred over secular groups, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

  • I watched this speech on CNN yesterday morning and was very angry at first just at the idea of a “prayer breakfast”. But as I listened to him talk it became clear that he was asking people to put aside their religious differences and get on with helping people. The overall message of the speech was one of pragmatism.

  • Alex

    I’m starting to suspect that the Prez is really an atheist, given his upbringing, and ahem, intelligence. I’m hoping, really hoping, that he just comes out in 4.1 years. Come on, Barack. Make us proud(er).

  • SarahH

    I honestly don’t care if he’s an atheist or a theist, so long as he keeps this attitude of helping people pragmatically while keeping the boundary between church and state as firm as possible.

    It would have been a warning sign if he’d abandoned his rhetoric about this issue after winning the election, but he seems to be driving the point home by pointedly mentioning non-believers as part of America too. Now it’s time for his record to live up to the rhetoric, and I have fewer doubts that it will happen.

  • I don’t care what he says, as a politician his words are worthless. Actions or nothing.

  • Wasn’t his mother an atheist?

  • hemant, there’s a video! posted on my blog 😛

  • Joanna

    Favoritism is the problem…playing favorites. As long as this Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships remains focussed on real community matters–unemployment, poverty, homelessness, education, public health–I can support its “mission”. I certainly hope there’s a way to measure effectiveness and real results for people needing help in their neighborhoods of a “material” nature. Leave the spiritual matters to Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, etc. And the proselytizing.
    Personally I’m just glad to hear the President speak of the separation of Church and State. Awareness is half the battle.

  • gissence

    Please don’t make the assumption that people of faith want to silence the voice of non-faith, as many within the faith community have assumed about you. DO NOT BECOME WHAT YOU CONDEMN.
    If your voice is in the shadows it is your fault, not the politicians nor the “puritanical extremists”. This is the fact that Jerry Falwell woke up the evangelical community to in the early 80’s.

    “We have seen the enemy and he is us”

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Hey, Cannonball Jones, I see your point, but at the same time, I disagree that the words coming from a politician, especially the president of the United States, are worthless. Remember the ugly tone that we just lived through with eight years of Bush? The hatred and stupidity expressed by George Bush was reflected at all levels of society, from talking heads to ditto heads. Having the president of the United States speak respectfully (and repeatedly) about nonbelievers is a very important step towards wider acceptance by society. It is very significant.

  • PrimeNumbers

    I’m more worried about how in bed he is with the copyright / DRM lobby than with the religions.

  • Luther Weeks

    Its OK except that if they count every non-faith based group as if it was an atheist group and claim fairness if at least 16% of the money does not go to faith-based group.

    If we believe faith can cure alcoholism or criminality, why not cancer? Why not any crack pot witches’ potion?

  • Miko

    This is better than what was Bush was doing (assuming it really works how Obama says it will), but it’s still an inefficient system. Obama rightly points out that local charities with a track record of working with our communities understand their local circumstances better than the Federal government does, but then concludes that the Federal government should be in control of deciding which charities to fund.

    Why not just cut out the opportunities for special interests, bureaucrats, and middlemen to corrupt the process, and simply encourage individuals to directly assist the local charities themselves? If you’re so cynical as to suppose people wouldn’t voluntarily help others, we could even set it up as a tax credit for charitable donations up to a certain level (as opposed to a tax deduction) so that those who choose to donate money where they think it will work best won’t pay taxes for the Faith-Based Initiative and those can’t be bothered to help directly will still have to give (what you consider to be) “their share” via taxation.

  • Miko

    Luther: The problem with “fairness” is that the word is meaningless (or, more precisely, there does not exist a unique Schelling point).

    Wouldn’t it be equally fair to ensure that charities from each group got funding based on their percentage out of all charities? (So that, for example, if 2% of all charities are run by FSMers, then 2% of the funding would go to FSM charities regardless of the percentage of the population that practices FSM).

    Wouldn’t it be equally fair (and much more logical) to ensure that the money goes to the best charities available without considering their religion or lack thereof? This is the option I prefer, and why I’d rather have private individuals do this than have government in charge. With government, we’re either going to see a Christian bias or a plan such as you propose, just like our current “stimulus” bill is full of isolationist “Buy American” provisions. Nothing is made better by the imposition of an arbitrary quota.

  • I think this is brilliant, and I think that although it’s understandable that many atheists in america want faster, more radical change, we should still recognise that Obama’s being extremely smart about this. For all we know he would prefer to completely chuck religion out the window – but he wants a change that will last, and a chance at reelection. If he imposed changes that made him extremely impopular with powerful factions of american society very quickly, chances are there’d be a backlash with someone even worse than W taking the presidency in four years.

    So, he’s sneaking in references to the non-believers, and carefully “elevating” secular organisations to the same level as the faith-based ones, because people would be far more irate if he just stopped referring to religion altogether. It’s easier to let more people share the cake than take all of it off the table!

  • I’m wondering if other Atheists feel a lot more strongly against the religion they were raised in than other religions.

    My family was Jewish (but non religious) and I feel a very strong dislike for Judaism, a lot less but still very wary of Christianity, and nothing at all against and even a bit of respect for Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

  • Michael

    He spoke of non-believers while speaking at a Prayer Breakfast and expanding the Office of Faith-based Initiatives.

    So whatever…

    I don’t care if he speak of us, I care if he listens to us.

  • brad

    FYI, Bush Jr. made plenty of positive references to non-believers also. See here.

    ” they can choose any religion they want. Or they can choose no religion. You see, you’re just as big a patriot — as good a patriot as the next fellow if you choose not to worship. It’s your choice to make

    We stand for freedom. We stand for people to worship freely. One of the great things about America is, you’re equally American if you’re a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic or an atheist

    In our country, we recognize our fellow citizens are free to profess any faith they choose, or no faith at all. You’re equally American if you’re a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You’re equally American if you choose not to have faith”

  • What impressed me most, as a foreigner, is the mention of your founding fathers as wisely separating religion from government.

    That’s rather unusual… even when it is true!

  • My family was Jewish (but non religious) and I feel a very strong dislike for Judaism

    Why do you dislike Judaism if you were raised non-religious?

  • Siamang

    That’s an interesting observation, Mike.

    I’m kind of the same way, I have a respect for Judaism that I don’t have for Christianity.

  • Siamang

    Why do you dislike Judaism if you were raised non-religious?

    I’m guessing cultural proximity.

  • Tyson

    I don’t really mind at all that he’s speaking at a prayer meeting. Atheists would be asking for too much. For the president to even be saying this in an immense step from the Bush administration.

  • DaveKan

    Social progress is made in small steps and having the President speak about us in positive terms at a prayer breakfast is a very good step. The more people hear it, the more they absorb it into their way of thinking.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    He spoke of people trusting these institutions, I emphatically don’t trust them and resent that people will be forced to find aid at them. Having been mocked for believing in evolution by one of them, and feeling my skin crawl just to have needed to seek them out. He also reduced the wall of separation to a line figuratively while violating it with increased funding instead of abolishing the funding and taxing the church tax loophole. Proper taxing of church assets could fully fund secular aid groups of volunteers, instead of providing free marketing for parasitic pernicious myths.

  • He also says:For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God. You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Obama. You can be publicly secular or publicly religious. Pandering fool.

    The fact remains that money given to religious organizations to facilitate their charitable work frees up other funds for non-secular purposes. It also facilitates their marketing.

    Here’s another question. When a “charitable” organization is using government funding, does it still count as charity? At that point, isn’t it just another poorly managed and unaccountable government entity?

  • For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God. You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Obama. You can be publicly secular or publicly religious. Pandering fool.

    Yes you can. Maybe he believes that we are children of God, but he is realistic in admitting that not everyone agrees, and those people are equal under the US Constitution.

    Personally I don’t think he’s a believer in the way evangelicals and fundamentalists user the term. I think he joined the church as a way into the black community and he uses the language because the majority of Americans understand that type of language. I am not sure that it qualifies as pandering.

    And you certainly can be both privately and publicly religious and still believe in the separation of church and state and the benefits of a secular government and society.

  • Allison

    I’m still a bit wary of him with the whole faith-based initiatives expansion. However, he has added secular groups to the board for the faith-based and neighborhood groups funding, so I’m waiting to see what happens with that. I don’t personally expect him to fund openly atheist groups (I just don’t know of many atheist soup kitchens, for example), but letting secular groups in is a start.

  • cl

    Thank you for this post. President Obama’s last paragraph stands in direct opposition to those who hold the intolerant ‘absolute zero’ position on religious expression in public. I’m speaking in the specific context of those who want to eliminate all occurrences of religious-based iconography in government buildings, on the presumption that someone will always be favored or left out.

  • sandra

    You have to crawl before you can walk and as much as I would prefer no government endorsed prayer breakfasts….at this point it wouldn’t be wise to eliminate them….but to use them (which polically he has to do right now) to start speading a little love to non-believers; to start contradicting the idea that atheists are bad or not real citizens; to combat the nasty evangelical take-over of the word “faith” (and all the baggage that comes with such words).

  • What I have to take note of is that he is mentioning non-believers as a part of America *at a prayer breakfast*. I’m guessing a number of people there are not used to or sympathetic to the idea that secular citizens should be given equal consideration with “people of faith.”

    It’s time for those people to start getting used to the idea.

  • mott

    Gissence writes:
    Please don’t make the assumption that people of faith want to silence the voice of non-faith, as many within the faith community have assumed about you. DO NOT BECOME WHAT YOU CONDEMN.

    I have had my atheism accepted more often than not from Xians, almost never from Jews and never from Muslims. That is actually in proportions to their numbers.
    Perhaps I’m naive about this but I see religious folks having problems with atheist for what they believe and atheists having problems with the actions of the religious and not their belief. In the public forum, when an atheist does not stay quiet there is often harmful discrimination, yet the religious can go on forever about their god, the power of prayer, you name it. Somehow expression of other viewpoints is taken as violating their rights of freedom of religion and free speech.

    This brings me to what Mike said:
    I’m wondering if other Atheists feel a lot more strongly against the religion they were raised in than other religions.

    I was raised without doctrination as a Unitarian so I had no BS to rebel against.
    I would believe the most people would feel the most strongly against whatever it was that gave the most grief. Your Xian friends aren’t going to give you any grief as you rebel against Judaism.

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