Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A principled postition on an "atheist/agnostic" for the Supreme Court

Note that the following has become moot for the most recent SCotUS vacancy...

On one of my frequent visits to Richard Dawkins' site I came across a discussion in the News section of an LA Times Op/Ed piece by Marc Cooper whose thesis was that Obama should consider nominating a religious non-believer (actually, Cooper used the word “atheist”) to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCotUS). While it would be nice to have a person of no faith as a member of the SCotUS, actively advocating for an atheist/agnostic as a nominee would constitute a transgression of Article VI, § III of the United States Constitution, which clearly says:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

I am fully aware that the religious lobby have been doing a slimy end-run around the “no religious test” clause by using the fears and prejudices of their voting constituencies to subject candidates to de facto (i.e. “unofficial”) religious test for decades. However much fun it would be to turn the tables on believers by having a religious test of our own (by "our own" I mean the skeptical/freethinking/reality-based community, and this includes even the most "wet behind the ears" atheists), in all intellectual honesty, the only correct answer to the question of what sort of "religious test" ought we make up, is “none.” Personally, I would rather stake out the principled Constitutional high ground on this issue. Further, empirical evidence supports the conclusion that religious believers would be utterly blind to the hypocrisy of their own position as any public statement that does not constitute "thunderous applause" for their position is, in fact, in their distorted world view, callous hostility; they seem to not recognize a "yeah, whatever" (insert whiny, nasal sound when you say "whatever") as a dismissal indicating that whatever was said is actually recognized as irrelevant.

I think Richard Dawkins phrase “conscious raising” is particularly applicable in this case. I would like to see voters, candidates, and the media become reflexively suspicious of candidates that trot out their piety in order to win votes. Likewise I would like to see fellow citizens, candidates, and the media heap scorn and derision upon voters (whether singly or in groups) that attempt to ascertain the religious opinions of candidates. I would love to see the day when in reply to a question put to a candidate about their religious sentiments, they answer with something like this: “The Framers of the Constitution knew well what kind of damage could be done to a country by inflaming religious prejudices and hatreds among its citizens. This is why Article VI, § III of the United States Constitution specifically forbids religious tests for any 'office or public trust.' What the framers likely did not anticipate was the extent to which citizens could be manipulated into creating an 'unofficial' test by unprincipled demagogues with an agenda that care not a whit for the Constitution. Merely asking a candidate or nominee for public office 'are you religious?' is a "religious test" and is antithetical to the ideals and values upon which our Constitution is based and is about the most un-patriotic, un-American thing I can imagine.”

I must confess to being less than sanguine about the possibility of such a day coming to pass in my lifetime (one cannot say that until you are over 45 btw). But as Alexander Pope wrote in 1733 in his Essay on Man, indeed, "hope springs eternal."