What Atheist Should Be on Obama’s Faith Advisory Council? April 4, 2010

What Atheist Should Be on Obama’s Faith Advisory Council?

President Obama has a “President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” consisting of 25 people. They help advise the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Strikingly, there are no atheists on the Council.

There are Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Muslims, Interfaith-supporters… but no non-theists.

When I was at Syracuse University a couple days ago, someone asked me who I thought would make a good representative on that council from the non-theist community.

That somebody would have to be in a position of power, well-respected within our community (and hopefully beyond), not overly-controversial, and able to properly articulate our positions on many issues of faith and government and what policies the government should or should not be making.

I gave an answer. (I’ll keep it to myself for now.) But I’m sure there are better ones that the person I stated.

Not that the Obama administration is asking, but since the council members are elected to one-year terms, maybe we can expect to see a non-theist in that group in the future. (You hear me, Josh DuBois?)

Who do you think would be a good representative for us? Why?

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  • Jenny Kalmanson

    My vote would be for Greg Epstein, since he’s already well respected in the interfaith community.

  • Austin Dacey

  • mkb

    David Niose

  • Duo

    Hemant Mehta


  • NewEnglandBob

    Some suggestions:

    James Randi
    D.J. Grothe
    Hemant Mehta
    Olivia Benson
    Sam Harris
    The author(?) of Jesus and Mo
    Neil DeGrasse Tyson
    Brian Keith Dalton (Mr Deity)

  • Greg Epstein.

  • WetMogwai

    Ideally, nobody. The council should be disbanded. We’re not a theocracy, so we shouldn’t have a council of clergy advising the president.

    Of course, that isn’t going to happen until we get a non-theist president. Until then, I really like the idea of D.J. Grothe or Christopher Hitchens being on the the council.

  • Someone without a strong political leaning.

    I’d probably go with Harris or maybe Dan Barker.

  • Inquisitr

    I would agree that it should be broken up.

    but, since that’s not going to happen, I would say Christopher Hitchens. He has the most idea of how Atheism relates to politics and to world affairs.

    He’s also the one who’s already most involved in that world.

  • Nick

    Keep in mind that this is an advisory council with regard to social services and community development, and not some source of general advice from difference faith perspectives. While there are no out right atheists on the council, there are secular organizations like SeedCo and Big Brothers/Big Sisters which do have representation.

    You can’t just plop any prominent atheist on there, it would have to be someone ties to some sort of non-profit that does social work, and I really can’t think of any large groups that are specifically ‘atheist.’

  • My vote’s for H. Mehta, although many of those who publicise their nontheistic beliefs on the Internet would make fair representatives.

  • Luke

    August Berkshire, he does a great job of keeping an open mind to many things and keeping a level playing field.

  • Ralph

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Calm, level-headed, funny, fair, rational, brilliant.

    Phil Plait. Also all of the above.

  • jemand

    Sikivu Hutchinson

  • Greta Christina.

  • Ulrichomega

    I say we forge Richard Dawkins some papers and elect him, given the chance.

  • My first impulse was Dan Dennett, but now that his name’s out there I like Tyson for it at least as well.

  • Kaylya

    I think it would need to be someone with “religious” experience. Either an ex-religious leader (e.g. Barker) or someone from a “religion without God” type background (e.g. Humanistic Judaism, non-theistic Unitarian), e.g Epstein.

    Tyson is a great science educator, but not exactly a proponent of atheism. He’s come out to some events to accept awards and such, but has generally sought to avoid labeling himself as anything in particular. I don’t think he’d be interested in such a role, nor do I think he would be the best person for it. It definitely needs to be someone with extensive experience with religious studies, philosophy, etc. which I don’t believe Tyson has.

    Harris is too anti-religion for such a role.

  • Charley Sheets

    Hemant Mehta. If asked, would you do it?

  • Gib

    The Hitch.
    Or Dan Barker…

  • Canadiannalberta

    Hemant Mehta! Ignore the fact I’m Canadian 😉

  • fiddler

    To generally be a wrench in the works, Hitchens or Harris. To stand up for reality and scientific literacy in the face of fundies, Tyson would be best.

  • Zerotarian

    How about Susan Jacoby?

    Also: Hemant Mehta, Dale McGowan, Lori Lipman Brown, D.J. Grothe, the Humanist Network News podcast team past and present (Duncan Crary, Jess Constantine, Jende Huang), Sikivu Hutchinson.

  • cathy

    Maybe someone from Americans United for Seperation of Church and State? Maybe the theism council could take a good lesson from them.

  • Zerotarian

    Also: Massimo Pigliucci.

  • Jessy

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson would be my vote

  • I read a bit of Austin Dacey’s book on the proper place of religion in society, and it was very well thought out but managed to not earn Dacey a reputation as an Evil New Atheist.

    As much as I like Dan Barker, the fact that he leads something called the Freedom From Religion Foundation would make him too controversial.

    Tyson I just have trouble seeing, because I think of him as just a science popularizer. I don’t know what he has to contribute to discussions of religion. But maybe I only say this due to ignorance of Tyson’s work.

  • Steve

    Interfaith relations? gotta be Greg Epstein. It’s his strongest suit, and he does it much better than the big names/ 4 horsemen.

  • Stu

    Hector Avalos

  • They’re not about to ask me, but I appreciate the sentiment.

    Austin Dacey and Daniel Dennett would be great reps, I think.

  • Delphine

    Christopher Hitchens.

    He is not my favorite non-religious person as I find him too apologetic to the religious folks. However, that being said, he’s one of those that know how to relate to the religious people and how not to piss them off and shut them down in a discussion. My fav, Sam Harris, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, are all scientists who tend to be too much on the offense (just like me, lol).

    Hemant will also be a good choice.

  • littlejohn

    I like Tyson as much as anybody – well, not as much as my wife, who calls him Dr. McDreamy – but he’s too nice; almost an accomodationist. He doesn’t like to call himself an atheist.
    Why not Hemant?

  • WetMogwai, I agree that the council should be disbanded, too. As far as I can tell from it’s description in Wikipedia, it seems to me blatantly unconstitutional. (I don’t watch the news much, so I honestly had to look up what the council did/was for.) I also think if there was someone on the board who was an admitted atheist, that would probably just strengthen the misconception that atheism is a religion.

  • Justin

    Michael Shermer, Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina.

  • LKL

    Lori Lipman Brown, Hemant Mehta, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

    Not any of the 4 horsemen; they are too controversial at this point. I think the same goes for Dan Barker and/or Annie Marie Gaylor. D.J. Grothe sort of put me off a little in some of the Point of Inquiry podcasts.

    We wouldn’t want someone who’s going to be an eccumenical ‘party of no,’ so being a little soft on the theists (ie, willing to do pragmatic politics) would actually be not only a strong point but flat out necessary in this case.

  • BH

    People should maybe think about the names being put forth here and what the list might tell us about nonbelievers, our community, and how we view authority. (Read Nick’s comment above, if you haven’t.) Throwing someone without expertise in social services onto a community development panel is no different than letting creationists decide science curricula. The religious think their holy books give them automatic expertise in social projects, but we should know better than to think any random prominent atheist is automatically suited for any job with “faith” in the title.

    Personally, I’d rather see the panel disbanded than amended. But that aside, I think we should be answering that the best candidate is the one most familiar with the literature on the sort of development projects the panel oversees. That’s how secular authority is different from religious authority. We need to be more vigilant for confusion between expertise with prominence within our community.

  • GC1CEO

    I think the most important thing to remember is that what this is attempting to do, not that it is made up of religious advisor. It is hardly an attempt at a theocracy, that generally requires one specific religion. I think Obama has probably the most positive outlook on atheism in America of any US President to date, I’d like to see an atheist or at least an agnostic onboard but I’d like to see the friendly kind instead of the more militant kind. I have no interest in hearing someone talk about the inferiority of any religion or philosophy, why it serves no purposes or has no place in America, etc, etc. Unforunately in my experience the most well known atheists often have those viewpoints and would not be able to work effectively

  • Me! Me! Me!

    Nah, seriously, I think DJ Grothe, Phil Plait, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, etc. all sound nice.

    Oh, and Delphine:

    Christopher Hitchens.

    He is not my favorite non-religious person as I find him too apologetic to the religious folks.

    That’s a first. I’m always hearing about how he’s so “angry” and “intolerant.”

  • If i had to pick a name i would choose Dan Dennett as a few others have done already. I would prefer it was the ‘President’s Advisory Council on Neighborhood Partnerships’ with faith not being a factor at all. That being said I would love to see representation on this council (and elsewhere in the government) from the non-theist community, especially after President Obama was kind enough to include non-believers in his inaugural address. I am forced to concede that the President has a lot on his plate already and appeasing a group with such little political clout as Atheists is likely low on his list of priorities.

  • sadpanda

    Dan Barker

  • Luther

    WHY ONE. We deserve a lot more than a token.

    If non-myth-believers make up 15-30% of the population we should have perhaps 3 to 6 members. So there is plenty of room for a wide range of myth-free views to be represented.

  • Dan Barker or Sasha Bartolf

  • Hugh Kramer

    If the job pays well, then me. Otherwise Daniel Dennett or Greg Epstein. They already have incomes.

  • Miko

    No one. The council should be disbanded. Not just because the government shouldn’t be religious in nature or even just because the government shouldn’t exist at all, but because their primary purpose is to discuss poverty. Government has been the primary cause of poverty throughout history (and the sole cause of long-term poverty) and any attempt by the government to “deal with poverty” in any way other than ending the policies that cause it is like a kick in the teeth to the poor and to all those who care about poverty as a social issue.

    Also, Obama is one of the more dishonest presidents in modern history (this isn’t necessarily entirely bad: the fact that Bush was honest about his ill intentions towards us makes me hate him more than Obama, who at least has the courtesy to pretend that he’s on our side). This panel will allow him to pretend that he cares about issues of social justice while he continues to focus on the issues of pleasing his campaign contributors in the FIRE economy. Anything that makes it easier for him to dissemble in this way is bad for us.

    And definitely not Christopher Hitchens. There are already too many neocons in the Obama White House. He has had a few good ideas (I loved his book Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and most of his writings on Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell), but like all too many others, he’s fallen into this apocalyptic view of the war on “terror” and that’s a view so horrible that it more than counterbalances every good idea that he has.

    Mat Wilder: As far as I can tell from it’s description in Wikipedia, it seems to me blatantly unconstitutional

    It isn’t. First off, in the post-Hein v. FRFF era, it looks like the Supreme Court is going to take the “Congress shall” phraseology in the 1st Amendment literally, so I wouldn’t bet that a challenge against any executive branch abuses would succeed, no matter how blatant the abuse. Furthermore, the faith-based initiatives and “economic recovery money” already exist, and it looks like this group won’t have funding of its own, but instead will just give the president advice on how to misallocate the funds. The Constitution doesn’t say too much about those who serve the president in an advisory role, so it’s probably Constitutional.

    But then, public protest means more than what the Constitution says anyway. As Thoreau said, “it is…with men and not with parchment that I quarrel.” At the end of the day, the Constitution is basically a dead letter, useful only when it spurs us to direct action. When we as a society develop the instinct of immediately going to direct action to right any wrong of government, the Constitution will become worthless.

  • Elijah Heartsong

    If i had to elect, the three people i’d think about would be Hitchens, Dawkins and maybe Bill Maher.

  • muggle

    Tyson — because he’s hot!

    No, not really. For that reason, I mean. I just had to get that in there. There’s such a shortage of good-looking leading Atheists.

    Tyson, because he’s got charm, charisma, he makes people listen and his message is so damned positive. Yet he doesn’t back off.

    I’m sure some of the fundies have succeeded in doing so but it’s got to be hard as hell to hate the man. He’s just so happy.

    And that’s another reason. They just can’t point at Tyson and say look how miserable Atheists are.

  • Roy Speckhardt, president of the American Humanist Association

  • allison

    Tyson, Mehta, Epstein, or McGowan would be the best choices if this thing is going to continue at all. There may also be some good choices working from within the American Ethical Union, I just don’t know them as well.

  • Lobar

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson or James Randi.

    McGowan would be good too, but his plate is rather full at the moment.

    Epstein is a faitheist, hells to the no.

  • Cube

    What about Bart D. Ehrman? Technically an agnostic, but he does have a lifetime of “faith experience”, and won’t be too offensive to the Xtians.

  • Helen

    I second Bart D. Ehrman and add Richard Wade.

  • AxeGrrl

    The iconoclast in me wants to say Kathy Griffin 🙂

    but seriously, I think Ann Druyan (author and widow of Carl Sagan) would be an inspired choice. Check out some of her youtube videos (ie her talk at ‘Beyond Belief’) if you’ve never seen/heard her talk before.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’d have to say Dale McGowan. His focus, with the Foundation Beyond Belief, has been very much on how the non-believing community can contribute to the common good in an organized way. That seems a natural fit for Obama’s Council.

    Brother Richard, founder of the Atheist Nexus, would be another good coice.

    As much as I love Tyson, Phil Plait and Randi, their focus is science and rationality, not community activism. I think we need our best community organizers here.

    How about the Great Prophet of Pastafarianism, Bobby Henderson (Pesto be upon him)? So he’s not living in the US right now. A good enough job with the Administration might tempt him back!

  • Heidi

    I’m with Mike on this one:

    Oh, and Delphine:

    Christopher Hitchens.

    He is not my favorite non-religious person as I find him too apologetic to the religious folks.

    That’s a first. I’m always hearing about how he’s so “angry” and “intolerant.”

    Chris “How Religion Poisons Everything” Hitchens apologetic of all things?? Dawkins himself said everybody thought he (Dawkins) was “bad” until Chris came along. Are you not familiar with his book about Mother Teresa, titled The Missionary Position? Apologetic is about the last thing I’d ever call him.

    OT, I’d vote for Hemant or Dr. Tyson. Put an educator on there, and maybe some thinking will happen. I’d love to see PZ in there, too. Wouldn’t that give the entire staff of the Creation Museum a collective heart attack? LOL.

    But I’d also be on board with a representative of any of the major humanist or secularist organizations.

  • dave

    Matt Dillahunty, of the Atheist Community of Austin.

  • I’m Canadian, but I would suggest:
    Dale McGowan, Austin Dacey, DJ Grothe or Dan Dennett.

  • Hybrid

    Dale McGowan, for reasons stated.

  • Alexis

    Some with a southern drawl, so that every time he/she says it, it comes at as ‘faith-biased initiatives”

  • maddogdelta

    The criteria states someone in a position of power.

    That leaves very few atheists available.

  • Infinite Monkey

    I don’t think we should put a “big name” on the counsil. I think a better alternative is a representative from the American Secular Society. First and foremost, I think someone representing “Atheism” would be a bad thing. That would leave out a lot of people who are faithless, but wouldn’t call themselves atheist. Perhaps someone representing “Nontheism” or Secularism”.

    Besides, I think the American Secular Society is a better representative anyway than American Atheists. Like many other movements in society, there have been a “can’t we all just get along” wing, and an in-your-face “we’re here, we’re …, get used to it” wing. They are both nessecary, and serve vital functions, but knowing when to play the soft card and when to play the hard card is very important.

  • Sally

    Greg Epstein, or maybe even Rebecca Goldstein. Dale McGowan or Dan Dennett would be great, too.

  • Ruth

    I find it a little sad that I’m having trouble coming up with atheists well-known in social service. So I guess I’d go with Dale McGowan, or Joe Chuman of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen, though he’s more of a human rights activist. But most of our big names are academics or spokespeople, not social justice workers. Where’s Jane Addams when we need her?

  • Layne S

    I’m curious why you want an atheist appointed to an inter-faith council? Unless you’re admitting that atheism requires faith….

  • Baconsbud

    Layne I don’t think it is saying that atheism requires faith. I think that it is just saying atheist should have a voice in the subject. Myself I don’t want someone who is already known within the atheist community to represent me but someone that is down to earth and concerned with life itself.

  • This one’s easy: Brad Pitt (for his projects in New Orleans) or Angelina Jolie (for her UN work). You can bet the faithheads on the panel will listen when they speak.

  • Richard Wade

    Thanks Helen, you’re sweet.

    To everyone else, this is a good idea, but I’m wondering if it has any more of a chance than a lit match under Niagara Falls. I’ve learned a lot more about these excellent suggested council members, but I’m not going to be holding my breath waiting for it to happen.

  • Davy Jones

    Hemant Mehta

  • I am not an American so my opinion on this does not really count, but should people having a lack of “faith” be represented in a council of “faith”..

    wouldn’t this just provide ammunition to the Theists who keep saying Atheism is also a religion when we(most of us) try to say otherwise?

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