further than atheism - moving beyond rejection to find solid ground of our own

Welcome to the latest installment of Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast territory that lies beyond the mere disavowal of religion. As atheists, we share little but our disbelief. Further Than Atheism explores some of the many possibilities for positive belief that remain when gods are pushed out of the picture.

As election day draws near, folks are getting pretty confused about what they should do with their vote. Atheists are no different. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates have made many statements that indicate their disrespect for the separation of Church and State. Alternative parties such as the Greens and Libertarians have platforms that support the rights of the non-religious, but they don't have much political support.

The position of the Green Party on the protection of the civil liberties of atheists was explored in the article Protecting the Freedom To Disbelieve. The present article explores the promise of libertarianism, promoted both by Libertarians and by Republicans, to protect those same freedoms.

Who Are Libertarians?

As the term implies, libertarianism claims to stand for liberty. Put simply, libertarians believe that individual freedom is paramount, and that government should not be given the power to restrict such freedom in any way. They mistrust government much in the same way that liberals mistrust business, fearing that by its nature government erodes personal freedom. Many atheists embrace libertarianism because they believe that it allows for personal freedom in its purest form, protecting the right of the religious and non-religious alike to do as they see fit.

Libertarian rhetoric comes not only from the Libertarian Party, but is evident in the policies of Republicans as well. Again and again, George W. Bush claims that he stands against "big government", saying that he wants to bring choice down to the local level by cutting taxes and doing away with government spending. Many libertarians argue that Bush and the Republicans merely want to change the sphere of governmental influence from social reform to cultural reform, reducing entitlements while stepping up governmental involvement in issues of media, religion and abortion. Such an analysis has merit, but the fact is that the Republicans stand with the Libertarian Party in their claims to libertarian ideals. An understanding of the relationship between atheism and libertarianism therefore should have an impact on atheists' perceptions of both Libertarian and Republican candidates.

Does Libertarianism Protect Liberty?

In order to evaluate the ability of libertarian policies to protect the liberties of groups such as atheists, it is necessary to critically examine libertarian claims about government. Libertarians focus on the restrictive aspects of government, which are many. It is true that government regulates many aspects of citizens' lives, often keeping us from doing exactly what we want to do. Like anarchists, libertarians believe that in a world without regulation people would use their individual freedoms responsibly and would come together to fight the efforts of those who interfered with the freedoms of others. They look forward to a utopia based upon the simple principle of live-and-let-live.

While these ideas sound nice, they just don't make sense in terms of what we know about human nature. Generation after generation, humanity is shown how eager majorities are to do away with the most basic freedoms of minorities. European-Americans kept African-Americans in slavery and servitude. The Nazis inflicted the "final solution" upon the Jews. Hutus and Tutsis massacre each other in Africa as Serbians and Kosovars do the same in Europe. With or without government, people show a love of brutality and a remarkable lack of respect for freedom. Can we really count on our neighbors to leave us alone without the rule of law?

Although in a literal sense libertarian principles promote individual liberty, in a practical sense they undermine the freedom of cultural minorities such as atheists. The fact is that minorities need government to protect them from the whims of resentful majorities. Even with the protections of the First Amendment, atheists are vulnerable to oppression from the self-righteously religious. The power of a large national government is the only thing that keeps us from losing the freedoms that we have.

Just as the power of a strong national government was necessary to end the segregationist policies popular among the local majorities of the South, so governmental power from Washington D.C. protects atheists from the public establishment of religion in communities all around the country. Eliminate the strength of government and you force isolated atheists to fend for themselves. Given the dominance of religion in American culture, we all know who would win such battles.

Because majorities so often wish to eliminate the freedoms of minorities such as atheists, a society in which freedom is defined as everyone getting to do whatever they want whenever they want will inevitably become a society of terror and repression in which only those people who belong to powerful groups will enjoy true freedom. If removed, the regulations of government will be replaced by the regulations of the mob.

Good Government is NOT the Absence of Government

Libertarians are quite right to point out that government as it exists does not always do a good job at protecting individual liberty. Their solution is to eliminate government altogether, believing that the problems it fails to solve will be eliminated as well. What libertarian theory fails to understand is that failures to protect freedom are not the fault of the government directly, but are due to problems in the culture that the government represents. Do away with government and the cultural problems will remain, finally able to find expression without interference.

The best solution to the failure of government to protect the liberties of atheists and other minorities is not the destruction of government, but the rejuvenation of government. It is essential to remember that, in a democracy such as our own, government is nothing but the collective will of the nation. It is the responsibility of each individual in a democracy to participate in government to the fullest extent possible. Freedom is protected by such participation and is eroded by apathy and inaction. If a minority feels that its rights are not being respected by government, their best hope is to get organized and take advantage of all means executive, legislative and judicial to remedy the injustice.

Churches don't vote. People do. Corporations don't vote. People do. Religious bigots and big money cannot buy the government off so long as the entire electorate remains informed and politically active. Citizens who don't vote and don't keep themselves informed of the activities of politicians in between elections only have themselves to blame when they find that their freedoms are disrespected by the government. The many political parties (countless more than just the Republicans and Democrats) are open to us all. By joining them or by joining to create new political parties, we can change what the government does. We can change nothing by staying at home and refusing to participate.

When George W. Bush and other libertarian candidates insult the activities of government, they insult us all. Government is us, and the degree to which it does its job properly is due to the extent to which we participate in it. When libertarians such as Bush say that government cannot solve our problems, they are in effect saying that democracy cannot work.

Call me naive if you like, but I don't think that it's time yet to give up on democracy. For atheists, the choice between government and no government is a choice between imperfect protection and no protection at all. We can try to stand together as a society which acts to protect the liberties of the individual, or we can abandon our efforts at cooperation and let everyone be completely responsible for the integrity of their own freedoms. As an atheist, I know better than to have faith in unfettered human nature. In a world in which the individual stands alone, the atheist fortress is sure to fall.

Does Libertarianism Advocate An End To Government?

A few libertarians have responded to this article by claiming that I do not understand the libertarian position. They claim that libertarians support a reduced government that serves only to protect the individual freedoms of citizens.

Logically speaking, such claims make no sense. A well-known libertarian position advocates an end to all taxation. Don't believe it? Item #4 under the Libertarian Party's platform on Trade and the Economy calls for "the eventual repeal of all taxation." The fact is that only the weakest, most ineffective of governments can exist without the money brought in with taxes. No taxes means no government employees: no judges to preside over the trials of those who interfere with the freedom of others, no legislators to pass laws that protect freedom and no executives to enforce the laws designed to protect individual freedom.

A page from the web site of the Libertarian Party reads: "Before 1913, federal income taxes were rare and short-lived. America became the most prosperous nation on earth. The U.S. Government did not try to police the world or play "nanny" to everyone from cradle to grave. People took responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities. That is how the founders of America thought it should be. And it worked. It can again!"

Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, the fact is that in this apparently idyllic era before 1913, child labor was common, public health was practically non-existent, and civil rights were non-existent for ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. Without a big government to protect the little guy, big business and big churches ran roughshod over those who stood in their way. Private organizations of this sort don't do government's job more effectively. In fact, they don't do the government's job at all. They just do what they want and let others pick up the mess. If the Libertarians come to power, this dangerous game of everyone for themselves would come into play again.

As atheists, we ought to know better when organizations such as the Libertarian Party ask us to put faith in the good intentions of big business and big religion as they dismantle the big government that gives us big protection from big attacks on our civil liberties. In the separation of Church and State, if you take away the State, there's only Church.

Libertarians, please read the entire platform of the organization that claims to stand for your principles. The difference between a government that has no income and no government at all is no difference. Play coy with labels if you like, but there can be no doubt that libertarianism aims to destroy the greatest protection that atheists have ever enjoyed: government of, by and for the people.

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