further than atheism - a positive philosophy of disbeliefWelcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing attempt to explore the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the single idea that all atheists share: the rejection of gods. Atheism should be a beginning, not an end in itself. When they restrict their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Atheism can consist only of negation, but allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities as well. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.

The Uniter Divides

George W. Bush ran on the promise that he would be "a uniter, not a divider". However, now that he's on his way to becoming our next President, he seems more interested in exploiting cultural divisions than in healing a nation fractured by this year's political battles. Even though he hasn't even finished naming members of his Cabinet, George W. is already making strong calls for a reunion of Church and State through governmental funding for what he calls faith-based charity. In practical terms, he wants the federal government to give money to churches to support their social welfare programs.

What's wrong with faith-based charity? Although it sounds benevolent, faith-based charity is in reality nothing more than a coercive form of missionary work. Many Americans haven't ever been in need of charity, and so they don't understand how churches actually run these operations. People who have actually spent time living on the street know better.

The standard operating procedure is to establish a charity organization but then link its services to participation in religious activities. For example, a church will operate a shelter for the homeless, but demand that the people who spend the night there listen to sermons, take part in prayer groups or attend Bible study groups. In other words, the homeless are welcome to come in from the cold and get a bite to eat, but they are forced to take part in the church's religious practices in order to do so.

In the end, the heavy-handed religious tone of faith-based charity ends up keeping a lot of needy people from getting any charity at all. I know a few people who have spent time living out on the street, and they tell me that most nights they'd rather go hungry and sleep in a subway tunnel than submit themselves to the preaching at the local shelter. Of course, sometimes they have little choice. They can either take part in the religion of the church shelter or freeze to death outside.

Of course, it's perfectly legal for a private organization to provide charity with strings attached. As an individual, I can promise food to poor people on condition that they worship Zeus first, if I want to. The problem with the President-Elect's proposals is that he wants to make it legal for the federal government to fund such proselytizing programs. In effect, he wants to put the power of the U.S. government behind the efforts of unscrupulous churches to put people back into the pews with bribes of food and shelter.

Bush's proposal to fund religious charities is shown in its full ugliness when considered against the steady defunding of governmental welfare programs over the last 10 years. Screaming that "big government" should stop giving assistance to the poor, conservatives like George W. and his daddy enlisted the help of President Clinton to "end welfare as we know it."

Most surprising is that the same conservatives who called for fiscal responsibility through the elimination of welfare are now calling for big spending programs to give money to churches for their private, religiously coercive programs. The true interests of this welfare reform are revealed in the last part of that famous phrase: "as we know it". Churches have long used charity as a means of exerting social power. As long as the goverment was the main source of charity in the United States, the churches were weakened. Now that governmental welfare has practically been eliminated, there's no one left but the churches to pick up the slack. The only real change that welfare reform has made is that it gives more power to the churches, because poor people have nowhere else to turn.

To hear people like George W. tell it, the government has been discriminating against churches by refusing to fund their religious charity programs. Poppycock! The truth is that church-run charity programs have always been eligible for governmental funding, as long as they do not using that funding to support their religious agenda. The only restriction on federal funding of church charities is that the churches who receive such funding are not allowed to force the recipients of their charity to engage in any religious practices. Why, churches that receive federal funding for charity are even allowed to give recipients of their charity the opportunity to engage in religious activities, so long as the choice is made freely, without attachment to the charity.

Uniting the Divided: Standing Up to Bully Churches

To atheists, the problem with government funding of faith-based charity is obvious. What many atheists don't realize is that a sizeable portion of religious folks oppose Bush's proposals as well. The principal of separation of Church and State is defended by religious as well as non-religious groups.

As I mentioned in the previous Further Than Atheism column (The Freedom To Not Celebrate Christmas), the executive director of Americans United For Separation of Church and State is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Intelligent religious leaders like him realize that the separation of Church and State is as important to the vitality of religion as it is to the civil rights of the non-religious. They know that when governments get involved in the sponsorship of religion, such sponsorship always ends up favoring the religious majority to the expense of religious minorities.

George W.'s recent meeting with "religious leaders" to discuss his plans for deregulation of government money for church charities reveals the danger that government involvement in religion poses to religious minorities. Only three of the nation's many religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) were represented in the meeting. No Buddhists, no Hindus, no Taoists were present. Followers of Native American religions were excluded, as were believers in Trancendental Meditation, Shinto and Zoroastrianism. Sufis and Bahai were not given access to the President-Elect, and of course Pagans, New Agers and followers of Voudon were nowhere to be seen. The only religions that were allowed to take place in the summit between religion and government were those religions based upon the Hebrew Old Testament, just one of many of the world's traditions followed by American citizens. The message was clear: the new Bush administration wants to use the power of the federal government to support religion, but only big, organized, Judeo-Christian-Muslim religion.

Responsible churches don't have a problem with the current restrictions on federal funding of religious charities because they don't feel the need to bribe the poor into going to church. The only churches that complain about restrictions are those that seek the raw power of life and death over the most vulnerable members of our society. The same goes for government involvement with religion in general. Thoughtful religious people remember that much of the exodus from Europe to the Americas took place because of the persecution of religious governments. They realize that when religion and government mix, both Church and State lose credibility.

Our exposure as atheists to the bigotry of certain religious groups makes it easy for us to believe that all religion is alike and to assume that all religious people are interested in the persecution of the non-religious. The plain fact is that it isn't so - just as there is a diversity of ideas among atheists, so too is there a diversity among the religious. There are many religious groups that take a principled stand against the breakdown of separation of Church and State. We atheists have a common interest with these groups and it makes sense for us to join in a pragmatic alliance for our common defense against misguided moves such as George W.'s attempt to enable big churches to preach with federal funding.

By refusing to cooperate with the reasonably religious, we endanger the future of both atheism and reasonable religion. By standing together in support for the First Amendment to the Constitution, we help to preserve a nation in which differences of opinion can still be expressed. By recognizing and helping to preserve the diversity of religion that exists, we atheists also help to preserve the freedoms which enable us to live openly without religion. On the other hand, by refusing to even acknowledge the existence of tolerant religions we contribute to the power of the large religious organizations that are interested in taking over the government and converting it into a single legal church.

We atheists stand apart. We do not stand alone.



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