Thu May 17th, 2007 at 03:35:18 PM EST
Recent surveys in the US have found that 40% of voters (63% of Evangelicals) would have reservations in voting for an atheist. I think part of this stems from a feeling that atheists can't be trusted.
[This diary may make no sense to those in Europe, but I figured I'd toss it out anyway...]
Let's start with a common occurrence - swearing to "tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth" in a court proceeding. Such testimony is said to be given "under oath". Until fairly recently people would swear on a Bible. This makes little sense on the face of it since the US is supposed to be a secular society. In fact when a newly elected official chose to take his oath on a Koran instead it produced criticism. (I should point out that such ceremonies are only symbolic, the actual pledge is to uphold the constitution.)
The thing that must motivate such attitudes is that swearing falsely in the view of God leaves one open to divine retribution. In other words, one is promising to tell the truth out of fear. Since an atheist has no such fear, there is no assurance that they will actually tell the truth.
We, of course, know that such affirmations have little effect in the real world. The crime of perjury wouldn't exist if the possibility of lying under oath weren't common. So, apparently, the argument from fear carries little weight in many cases, even among the nominally religious. Perhaps those breaking their pledge think they will be able to compensate for their misdeed later by repenting or some other action. This may be so, but what we are concerned with here is the reliability of the testimony.
From this point of view those taking the vow are no more reliable than those who just make a simple affirmation. This leaves the question of why should an atheist tell the truth, especially if lying would benefit their cause? Well, it would seem that the motivation is the same as for any one else, some people have a strong sense of fairness or justice and believe in "doing the right thing". Others fear that their lies may be uncovered and then they will prosecuted for perjury. So is the worry of temporal punishment less of an inhibition to lying than that of divine punishment? This seems unlikely. If most people really thought this than we wouldn't need perjury laws, we would just assume that the God would meet out justice eventually.
Aside from truthfulness the religious are skeptical about atheist's moral compass. If God doesn't supply the rules of right and wrong than where do they come from? This type of belief system is rooted in those religions which have a codified set of commandments. This is primarily those stemming from Judaism and the ten commandments. In other cultures such a formal set of precepts is not as common, yet these societies have managed to come up with almost the same sets of moral underpinnings. Those that deal with interactions between people (as opposed to those which specify one's relationship with God) involve protection of one's person and property. When reduced to their basics they are restatements of the golden rule: don't do unto others what you wouldn't wish done to you. This leads directly to prohibitions against murder and theft. Atheists have the same concerns for their wealth and safety as anyone else and so can be expected to support the same general restraints on behavior. There is no need for an externally supplied set of rules.
Trustworthiness seems not to depend upon the belief in the supernatural, yet bias against atheists persists. I find the explanation elsewhere, in the wish of a small group to control the behavior of the majority. If this small group can persuade others that only they can be trusted then they have a free hand to run things as they wish. If it is admitted that others can live moral lives without acknowledging the privileged status of this small group then the leader's claims become undermined. Whether these leaders really feel that they are special or whether they are just power hungry and hypocritical is sometimes hard to determine. It is also irrelevant. The fundamental issue is one of the type of society one wishes to live in. A truly democratic society has to allow for varieties of opinion. When any group is criticized for its beliefs, rather than for any anti-social overt actions, this is a sign that democratic ideals have already been compromised.
We live in an era where the number of nominally democratic societies is greater than ever before, but in too many cases only the mechanism of democracy is observed, not the fundamental rights. Many countries are willing to hold elections and thus proclaim they are democratic, but frequently the process is flawed, not only by outright corruption, but by institutional structures which prevent all from participating freely. Several of the most common techniques include limitations on voter eligibility, suppression of political parties which are in opposition to those in power, and gerrymandering and other apportionment tricks.
The rise of the mass media and the expense of reaching the public via this avenue has also made it difficult for the non-wealthy to seek office. Discrediting of atheists or other out groups can be seen as part of this money-based propaganda effort. Those who developed the ideas of democracy during the Enlightenment didn't anticipate the degree to which public opinion could be influenced by big money and the ruling elite. We have yet to develop ways to deal with this new landscape and to maintain the rights of everyone to equal participation. We are all aware of the number of genocidal programs which occurred in the 20th Century and thus the need to protect society against such massive propaganda efforts should be high on the list of issues social philosophers should address.