Treasonous Atheism

In Shakespearean Negotiations, the well-known Shakespeare critic Stephen Greennblatt touches upon the subject of atheism in late 16th century England. Sir Walter Raleigh was at one point accused of atheism in an attempt to undermine his character, something Greenblatt says was fairly common at the time. (Raleigh’s contemporary, Thomas Harriot, was accused of arguing against the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and of making fun of Moses.) Another common charge to lay against an enemy was, of course, treason. Although there is no particular connection between the two – atheism does not logically follow from treason, and treason is not necessarily instigated by atheism, although resentment towards a supposedly ‘anointed’ monarch might be – but according to Greenblatt, it was believed at the time that atheists were of such low moral character that no crime would be beneath them. Religious doubt can very easily lay the foundation for any moral transgression at all, even if the resulting amalgam is purely fictitious.

Replace ‘treason’ with ‘being anti-American’, and this kind of rhetoric suddenly seems uncomfortably familiar. Atheists today are frequently accused of being unpatriotic or of undermining the values that their country was founded on, and it is occasionally implied that they do this intentionally – that they are knowing, gleeful agents of destruction rather than simply misguided but, in their own minds, well-meaning. This is probably why so much weight is placed on determining the religious affiliations of the founding fathers of the USA. If they were pious Christians, atheists can (the reasoning goes) be condemned with no further evidence, while atheists imagine that asserting their Deism immediately lends weight to the separation of church and state.

I’m not going to get into another tedious argument about what the founding fathers believed, because frankly, I don’t care. What the founding fathers believed is entirely incidental to whether God exists, and it is entirely incidental to the question of whether there should be a wall mantained between church and state. The founding fathers could have advocated such a separation and been completely wrong as to whether it was a good idea, or they could have rejected such an idea and been equally mistaken. The only real reason to bring them up at all is if one is interested in using a blatant argument from authority.

But I don’t think most conservative Christians explicitly have centuries-dead men in mind when they condemn atheists for being ‘anti-American’. Atheism is not explicitly established as being ‘treasonous’ – instead, ‘atheist’ is the word a certain kind of person attaches to anyone who they feel should be rejected and marginalized. ‘Atheist’ means roughly the same thing as ‘evil’.

Whenever we are confronted with this thoughtlessly applied label, we need to confront it with a demand for justification. Why are atheists evil or degenerate or dangerous or treasonous? Saying that our beliefs and political activities are at odds with those of the founding father is, as I have said, irrelevant. Saying that we’re wrong might be more productive, but than theists have historically had a rather difficult time in backing that assertion up. When it comes to actual moral behaviour the statistics are, by and large, on our side.

Most discussions of atheism and morality are focused on attempting to convince theists that we lead perfectly ordinary, moral lives, but the theoretical underpinnings of the problem need to be attacked as well.


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