Robert Benne responds

A few weeks back, long before the events of this last weekend, I posted a response to Dr. Robert Benne’s article in a local paper.  I didn’t hear from him for a while, so i assumed I would not hear from him.  Today, he wrote back.

Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.

He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility.  Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…

I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response.  Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.”  I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian.  I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.

This is a problem that our community (and it is a community) is dealing with.  We argue amongst ourselves more than we argue with the religious world, I’d bet, over issues such as tone, accommodationism, new/gnu atheism, etc.  A recent issue with how to behave towards women has sparked an upsurge in conversations about feminism and the atheist community just in the last week.  We, as a community, only share a lack of belief in any gods.  Outside of that we disagree about any potential subject (including what to call ourselves, in many cases).  But we are a growing community, evidenced by the various groups, umbrella organizations, and online discussions which are interconnected.  We have a while to go before we are more solidified, assuming that will ever happen.


I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed.  When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language  (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.

One of the reasons for this is that for those of us fighting for the separation of church and state, the distinction between that and the separation between religion and politics is nonexistent, or at least insignificant.  And while the strict legal church/state (or religion/politics) fight is a little different than the issue of keeping parochial religious opinions out of public policy, they are part of the same basic concern.  For many of us, church/state and religion/politics (or government, more often) are interchangeable sets of terms.  This is one of the points of disagreement within our community, but many of us view the separation of parochial religious opinions and public policy to be paramount. Many of us,, in fact, are opposed to religious people imposing their religious views on public policy because there simply is no secular reason to support said views.  Where the courts and precedent will end up on this, I cannot say.  However I believe that trying to keep public policy based upon secular reasons as much as possible is the best way to go about this issue for the sake of everyone, including religious people.

I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas.  For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman.  That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc.  The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.

Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes.  You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc.   It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process.  That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.

I don’t want to address the issue of “activist judges” here, because that’s a rabbit hole too deep for this conversation at the moment.  I will ask you to consider this from another point of view; would you be comfortable with Muslim representatives implementing something like sharia law into our policy?  Are you paying attention to what is happening in Europe concerning this issue?  Is it sufficient that the majority may accept something to make it policy that effects the whole, especially when many are discriminated against as a result?



I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds.  It is a question of prudence and effectiveness.  But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”

But if there is no god, then the Norwegian bishops were just saying that they must obey their man-made laws over those of another set of men.  That is part of the problem with this issue from an atheist’s point of view.  There is no reason to appeal to God at all because we do have real reasons to reject such policies.  This leads me to the most important aspect of our disagreement here:

Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything.  Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds.  But postmodernism has pretty much finished that.  Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.

I am not a postmodernist.  I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view.  I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers.  Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect.  Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity).  Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results.  The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth.  Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way.  This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry.  When it is shown to the light, it dies.

Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions.  You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values.  Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.

No.  religion usurps our values and calls them their own, while at the same time adding an other-worldly orientation that not only de-values reality, but poisons our ability to think clearly about this world.  In fact, Eric MacDonald, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote about this subject just today.  Here’s the link:  I encourage you to read it, as it says with more eloquence what I would like to say in response to your above comment.

I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it.  Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this.  Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy.  This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of.  The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity.  In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.

That concludes my reply.  I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it.  I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree.  I hope my civility was sufficient still.


5 thoughts on “Robert Benne responds

  1. Here’s my base view about same-sex and/or non-traditional marriage in America. Michelle Bachmann has signed a pledge for a ban on same-sex marriage and porn. While I could go on about how she scares me worse than Palin, I’ll focus on the issues at hand. How does alienation of both gay/lesbian persons in America and those who enjoy a sexual release without necessarily having sex benefit anyone in politics? much less the alienation in general. Conservatives/uber Christians seem to be bent on wiping out what they feel is fundamentally wrong. That being said, America is supposed to be about freedom.
    Granted, certain social morass’ must be observed (such as not blatantly murdering, killing, raping, etc.), but how can one group going after another group to eradicate what they don’t like without violating what the country was based upon?
    America became an independent nation so its people could live as they chose (once again, within social morass) and practice religion as they chose. Call me crazy, but I feel that a lot of people have lost sight of that.

  2. But, don’t you see…this is a Christian Nation. We have lost our godly ways through the lies of the secular left who will try and destroy our traditions!

    No, you are not the crazy one. OK, maybe a little crazy, but in a good way.


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