Atheism – The Last Taboo

Jennifer Michael Hecht,  the poet, historian, philosopher, and author, has written an article in Polotico all about the last Taboo … Atheism.

She sets the stage well like this …

On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “You were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.

Curious to see that? OK, here you go …

She makes a great point, here is a guy who could be openly Gay in politics since 1987 … but also coming out as an Atheist … nope, not until out of office, because while still in office that would have been the end of his career.

Why is it like this?

She then goes on to discuss other rather famous political figures from the past who were in every sense of the word “atheist”, and yet in their time this did not impact their political career …

…we atheists had a kindred spirit in Thomas Jefferson, who was often accused of being one of us. In 1787, Jefferson wrote in a letter to his nephew: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.” Jefferson fought tirelessly for the separation of church and state and created the University of Virginia to be the first secular university. He was not alone: John Adams wrote in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that ours was no more a Christian country than a Jewish or Islamic one. The Senate unanimously approved the treaty.

…James Monroe is not known to have had any religious affiliation or beliefs, nor is Abraham Lincoln. After his death, Lincoln’s wife reported, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope and no faith in the usual acceptance of these words.” His lifelong friend and executor, Judge David Davis, agreed, saying, “He had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.” This was confirmed by another of Lincoln’s closest friends, Ward Hill Lamon, who knew Lincoln in his early years in Illinois, was with him during the whole Washington period and later wrote his biography. As Lamon put it, “Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men.”

William Taft, before becoming president, turned down the post of president of Yale University (then affiliated with the Congregationalist Church), saying, “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ.” According to a 1908 article in the New York Times, “the report is being energetically circulated that Secretary Taft is an atheist.” Taft did not deny it

Wow, that is interesting, I knew about a couple of those, but not all of them. What is also rather interesting is how such individuals could be more outspoken and open in their time.

A big change happened in the 1950s, and it is then that we find the rise of god in politics as a response to the cold war, and hence the birth of the taboo that appears to associate belief with the US and non-belief with “them”.

Today there is a rising tide of non-belief, and so US politics has yet to catch up and reflect that reality, and that fact perhaps reflects the observation that this modern taboo is at its core political in nature.

As for the article itself, it is a good one and so I recommend reading it all. Ms Hecht finishes off with this final observation …

Initially after writing my book Doubt, I avoided the atheist label, saying only that I did not believe in God. After some reflection, I realized I needed to defend what I truly believe. I now call myself an “atheist,” and proudly. That choice has cost a number of brave people dearly, whether in readers or elections or friends, and I think it is both an honest step and a courageous one for those in public life.

Indeed yes, it truly is time to put the 1950s behind us and move on.

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