Obama is still an atheist

Last March I did a short post, “Obama is an atheist,” suggesting that perhaps our President was a nonbeliever, and just took on the trappings of a religious person for political reasons.  I took a lot of flak for that, but I stand by my claim.  Of course, there’s no way to adjudicate the issue—how can you look into his heart? And Obama’s nauseatingly conciliatory remarks about faith and prayer at a February 4 White House prayer breakfast will prove to some that he’s at least a theist.

We all share a recognition—one as old as time—that a willingness to believe–an openness, to grace, a commitment to prayer, can bring sustenance to our lives.

Ann Althouse notes (and don’t discount her opinion just because she’s a semi-conservative):

My source is “Dreams from My Father,” chapter 14. While working as a community organizer, Obama was told that it would “help [his] mission if [he] had a church home” and that Jeremiah Wright “might be worth talking to” because “his message seemed to appeal to young people like [him].” Obama wrote that “not all of what these people [who went to Trinity] sought was strictly religious… it wasn’t just Jesus they were coming home to.” He was told that “if you joined the church you could help us start a community program,” and he didn’t want to “confess that [he] could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly.” He was, he writes, “a reluctant skeptic.” Thereafter, he attends a church service and hears Wright give a sermon titled “The Audacity of Hope” (which would, of course, be the title of Obama’s second book). He describes how moved he was by the service, but what moves him is the others around him as they respond to a sermon about black culture and history. He never says he felt the presence of God or accepted Jesus as his savior or anything that suggests he let go of his skepticism. Obama’s own book makes him look like an agnostic (or an atheist). He respects religion because he responds to the people who believe, and he seems oriented toward leveraging the religious beliefs of the people for worldly, political ends.

Bill Maher agrees.

Face it: none of us really knows what the man believes. Consider this, though: what if he really was an atheist, as his earlier history suggests, but also had a burning desire to be President? What would he do?  Pretend that he was religious, of course! Nobody who refuses to pander to the faithful could ever be elected President in this era. This fact immediately makes all the evidence for Obama’s “faith” suspect, like Michael Corleone assuring a Congressional committee that he’s just a simple importer of olive oil.

But unless Obama’s undergone a radical White House conversion to Jebus, I still think the evidence points to godlessness.  Would that make him a liar and a hypocrite on this point? Of course.

114 Comments

  1. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Interesting, the same passage in Dreams From My Father is what makes me think he is at least nominally theist in his own mind. I mentioned it when you first posted about it… the impression I got is that he was indeed an atheist going in, but that he became so enamored with the organizational potential of the church that he stopped really caring whether it was true or false.

    When you spoke to the group of Methodists a while back, you said some seemed to not even want to claim the literal existence of a god. But they were still Methodists, right?! That’s where I think Obama is at. You can’t really call him an agnostic or an atheist, because he choose to worship, and the worship is not a deception, i.e. he is doing it because he wants to do it. But you’re probably right that he doesn’t literally believe in a God (I don’t think he actually chooses to have a position on that)

  2. sherkat
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, so is Dick Cheney.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Of course! Who else but an atheist with no moral sense would decide to resolve issues with acquaintances by shooting them in the face with a shotgun and calling it a “hunting accident”?

      /snark

  3. locutus7
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    People who support Obama should be careful in airing such speculation as it could further damage his image.

    It is unfortunate, but to hold the presidency, one must profess christian faith.

    Idealists could argue that truth is more important that a necessary pretense, but then we will be undermining our most intelligent and progressive leaders. And all because we think we know what is in their mind.

    Do we really want to give the right wing more ammunition?

    • rjw
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Isn’t this precisely what the whole accomodationist fracas is about? That for political expediency, we should throw truth under the bus?

      The problem is that if everyone is making political calculations as to what they should say they believe, then everyone elses calculations become skewed further in the direction of small perturbations. Peoples stated opinions will become more and more volatile and disconnected from reality and what they “really” think, and at some point these calculations start colouring the way we get our information in the first place.

      Even in the most coldly calculating liberal strategists mind, they should still want some (many!) people really really for real saying what they actually think, rather than their umpteenth guess as to what will make an uneducated fool vote in a particular way in 2012.

      • locutus7
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

        The difference is that we don’t know what Obama believes. This is speculation.

        Do you really want to jeopardize the best president we have had in years because of “truth” that is only speculation or wishful thinking?

        And then there is the ethical consideration of “outing” people.

        I’m just saying this is not a black and white issue, and when the future of the country is at stake, we should carefully consider the unitended consequences of pure speculation.

        • rjw
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          Whoosh.

          We are talking about people suppressing “What they really believe”, to wit, Jerry really believes that Obama is likely an atheist. You are suggesting we self censor this kind of speech for tactical reasons. In other words, “Shut up”. I think its fine for some people to tactically lie about what they believe. For some reason, once someone is tactically lying, making every single other person in the world tactically lie in the same way becomes of paramount importance – often more important than the original reason for the lie.

          Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion about Obamas beliefs. To me he comes across as a waverer saying what he feels he has to. Thats fine.

          I do have a strong opinion that tactical considerations should not override free expression of honest opinions on peoples own blogs. If the case for Obama is that weak that talking honestly about him derails it… well there isn’t much hope then is there. Given that a certain percentage of the population already think hes a kenyan fascist muslim communist, what do we gain by throwing away an area of free expression?

          Once you accept that you can’t coerce everyone “on your side” to speak and think the same way you do, you might think twice about the advisability of tactical lying in the first place.

          • locutus7
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

            I’m not suggesting coercion or supressing thoughts. I’m suggesting that Obama is a rorscharch ink blot, with people both well-intentioned or otherwise imposing their own beliefs on him.

            Conservatives secretly believe he is a Muslim, or at least they are claiming that. This has damaged Obama with those who are credulous.

            Do we want to further damage him with the credulous chrisitan populace by now claiming he is (in their minds) worse than a Muslim, he is actually an atheist?

            Especially since there is no solid evidence to support the claim.

            I’m not suggesting people not discuss this speculation, only that they consider what it might lead to.

            Yes, truth is important, but are we sure it is the truth?

            • locutus7
              Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

              Let me further explain my position by analogy.

              Let’s say, hypothetically, a few gay people – progressive gays – believe he is secretly gay. They see certain signs in his dress and behavior that lead them to this conclusion.

              Should they blog about their beliefs, knowing that it could harm a person who could do their cause great good? Without evidence, but only their feelings (and the wish of every minority group that a senior official is actually one of them).

              What is the Truth in this hypothetical?

              Just something to consider.

              • rjw
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                The problem is that what you are suggesting is that *everybody* does self censor over things that the right wing find disturbing. I don’t think that this is a sensible way to determine the bounds of discussion on any topic like this.

                I fully *understand* your position, and I disagree with it. How about this : if an economist thought that Obama secretly actually did understand economics, and was just posturing about the deficit to appease the right wing/ the publics primitive understanding of same, should that economist self censor about whether what Obama is doing is sensible and *honest* on *economic* grounds, in order to make Obama look good politically?
                And even if you accept the tactical argument, you have to also accept that different people might put different values on outcomes. Jerry might think that it makes no difference who wins the next presidential election, but that it makes a big difference if the perception is that you don’t need to be or pretend to be a theist to be acceptable in public life. Why do you think you can impose both your tactics and your values on every other person that you feel should be “on your side?”

                Anyway, this is probably futile… we should all act like drones, limited by what will shock the right wing. That’ll teach ‘em!

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          The difference is that we don’t know what Obama believes. This is speculation.

          so we aren’t even allowed to speculate in order to serve political expediency?

          uh, no.

          this IS the same issue that tactical accomodationists have.

          they want atheists to shut up for EXACTLY that same reasoning.

          not
          gonna
          happen
          HERE

        • Posted February 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          Do you really want to jeopardize the best president we have had in years[...]?

          I’m sorry, but — as much as it pains me to admit it — Obama has turned out to be the worst president in our country’s history.

          Yes, worst.

          I was furious with Bush the Younger for all sorts of things — illegal foreign wars, torture, espionage, gulags, and more.

          Not only has Obama not done anything to stop the worst crimes of the Bush administration; not only has he “merely” maintained the status quo; he has poured fuel on the flames.

          The war in Afghanistan isn’t just worse than what Bush was doing, it’s worse than what the Soviets did. The Guantanamo Gulag is still going gangbusters. The warrantless wiretaps continue unabated.

          But wait, there’s more! Obama has taken for himself the power to order extrajudicial military executions by remote-controlled weaponry of people merely accused of being enemies of the country. He’s ordered warrantless strip searches of all travelers, including children! He’s –

          Oh, fuck it. The Republic is toast. What’s the point?

          All that happened with Obama is that we traded a tyrant who implemented a popular-but-devastating education reform plan with a despot who’s implementing an unpopular-and-innefective health insurance reform plan. If that’s progress, you can keep it.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • locutus7
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            Let’s agree to disagree. Liberals said the same thing about Clinton when he veered towards the right in his second term.

            Liberals seem to hold this idealized version of the perfect progressive and nothing else will do.

            Well, we are in america, and the “perfect” liberal will NEVER be elected or even nominated. This country will always pick someone close to the center. Shock Doctrine wil enable a conservative to move towards the right temporarily, but the country elects centrists.

            So given above, Obama has made tremendous strides in gay rights and health care and appointment of supreme court justices. And attempting to extricate us from complicated wars.

            Yes, he has much more to do, but his priority has to be re-election. Support him, or support the right wing. That’s the system.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              Support him, or support the right wing. That’s the system.

              but in the same post you also said:

              This country will always pick someone close to the center.

              you seem… confused.

            • Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

              Oh, I’d be satisfied with much less than perfection.

              But you really owe it to yourself to take a critical look at just what he’s done.

              “Tremendous strides” in gay rights? Please. Ending DADT was a good step, but hardly a “tremendous stride.” And the brass pushed him, not the other way ’round.

              Health care? Sorry. All Obama has done is place an unfunded mandate on citizens to buy insurance from the most corrupt insurance racket in all of human history. That’s not reform; that’s bending us over for those who’ve been screwing us so hard for so long.

              But the real story is what you’ve so grossly mischaracterized as “attempting to extricate us from complicated wars.” Obama has more than doubled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since he took office — with plans to increase that number by half again as many over the next couple months. Sure, he has plans to draw down that number in a year or so — ever since he was campaigning, he’s been planning on reducing troop levels in a year or so. First, of course, we have to bring in more troops so we can “stabilize the situation,” but, never fear, it’s only for a year or so.

              Bullshit.

              And, as I hinted at above, only a tyrant could possibly think to approve of strip searches of toddlers, or of torturing American soldiers without a trial, or any of the rest.

              I had high hopes for Obama, I really did.

              It never would have occurred to me that he could possibly be worse than Bush, but he truly is.

              And it’s not that he’s fallen short of my expectations and therefore, comparatively, seems worse. No, by any objective, impartial metric, he really is worse. More troops killing more innocents abroad, more odious restrictions on civil rights at home, and even openly inflicting upon Americans the horrors that Bush only secretly imposed on foreigners.

              Obama isn’t your friend; he just plays it on TV.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

                I actually disagree with you about the DADT repeal. The end of DADT is going to be a tremendous stride for gay rights, not just at the federal level but at the personal level with the elders of our society (some of whom nearly worship the military), and it is something that will reverberate abroad, too, as our out gay/bi soldiers do their jobs in other countries.

                Also, I really can’t agree with you that Obama is worse than W was. On gay rights in particular, W was the president that advocated outlawing my family and his VP’s daughter’s family in the SOTU address. He then won his second term based almost entirely on exploiting people’s homophobia.

                While Obama has not showed the tenacity I wish he would on gay rights, and at times displayed significant ignorance about others (like going to the kill-teh-gayz hate fest, a.k.a. National Prayer Breakfast), he hasn’t pulled a Clinton on us either and signed a DADT or DOMA, and I don’t believe there is any reason to expect he would.

                I guess I would ask you this: What did W do (or even propose) that you consider to have been good? In the amount of time you spend straining your memory to come up with some good that Bush did during his two terms, you could have already listed several things Obama did in his first two years that were good despite all the horrors you listed above and all the capitulation to the right we see from the president.

              • spanner
                Posted February 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                All good examples of how things haven’t changed much, after all.

                And, while American military bases staffed by American civilian employees continue to be closed or downsized, we pour money into superfluous bases on foreign soil. This includes the addition of bases and base capability in Colombia per a deal reached in 2009 that was determined to be unconstitutional by the Colombian court but which is going forward, anyway. Budget problems? Sovereignty of other nations? Pfft, says Obama.

        • MosesZD
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Maybe you should have thought about what Obama was going to do based on his political career. Which was — pretty speeches and capitulate the right — since his days in the Illinois Legislature. A career of being a gutless, pretty-speech wimp…

          Nothing he’s done has been a surprise. Not to me.

          He has no spine, he has no values. He’s worthless.

    • roadrider
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Since when is Obama a progressive?

      • Badger3k
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Since about the same time Ann Althouse became a “semi-conservative”.

    • MosesZD
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I will not vote for Obama again. I will not vote for a Quisling. I will vote for a liberal challenger. SHould the challenger fail, I will vote third party.

      And I will laugh at any one who tries those stupid “scare grandma” tactics the right-wing uses to manipulate elections. Until liberals stick up for their values at the ballot box and punish those who take them for granted, they will be taken for granted and ignored as we continue the right-wing creep…

      • Ichthyic
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Until liberals stick up for their values at the ballot box and punish those who take them for granted, they will be taken for granted

        I find no flaw in that logic. I came to the same conclusion many years ago, during the Reagan administration.

        I also reasonably concluded then that real progressive ideology never has had, and never will have, a political power platform in my lifetime.

        Only thing I could think to do was move to a place where it simply didn’t matter as much as it does in the US, and I think I even waited too long to do that for my own comfort.

        Should have moved to NZ 10 years ago.

        Captain Hindsight, where were you when I needed you?
        :P

        • Marella
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          Yep well NZ is about as left wing as you get and still be in an English speaking nation. Also probably the best place to be in case of nuclear war. Not worth a bomb to either side. And if the dullness of it starts to pall there will be an earthquake along shortly to liven things up! Or possibly even a volcano …

          • Ichthyic
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

            earthquakes…

            you mean like this?

            http://www.nzboards.com/news-views-and-issues/christchurch-earthquake-pictures-91511/
            :)

          • PaulM
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            I take it by “as left wing as you can get in an English speaking nation” you still mean “well right of centre”. The current government is run by one of the richest men in the country, a former foreign exchange trader (although he is somewhat more moderate than that might sound).

            But yes, we in NZ are relatively liberal-minded types. Our former prime minister is a female atheist. She copped a lot of criticism, but was elected for 3 consecutive terms.

    • Laura Norder
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Whenever I access the WEIT website through a Google search, the second entry is always the “Obama is an atheist” entry of March 31 last year. Probably no significance to this, but sometimes wonder if there might be…..

  4. Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    My professor in Philosophy of Religion was like that. He’d drop casual hints that he felt this way or that way, but never presented a consistent view of his own beliefs. The class badgered him about it all semester – most of them were devout Christians and it really mattered to them, I guess – but he never let on what he really thought about religion.

    In retrospect, I assume he was an atheist, because now I’ve had a chance to live and learn and I’ve settled on atheism myself. But I can’t know for sure. I feel the same about Obama – it seems to me that I’d be an atheist if I were him, and he’s certainly dropped hints that I might be right, but I’m biased toward atheism and that might be affecting my opinion.

    • Veronica Abbass
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      “but he never let on what he really thought about religion.”

      Is it necessary for a professor to give the class personal details about himself/herself?

      • Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        Ummm… in not divulging his personal beliefs, he left an impression on young college-me that, later in life, Obama reminded me of. That was my point. I suppose it would be interesting to discuss the practicality of a professor of religion holding and mentioning his own beliefs… or not…

        • jay
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

          But that’s NOT what Obama is doing. He sucks up BIG TIME to religion, slathers in it.

          I can’t believe these apologetics and the way they dance around his words (almost like David Miscavige explaining L Ron Hubbard)

          Obama is basically an articulate Bush. Same national security state, illegal wiretaps, Gitmo, war mongering (where are the anti war protesters now??? Other than some libertarians and some die hard lefties, they’ve all gone home), illegal searches, using national security to defend Bush’s torture squad, bailouts, military interventionism and imperialism.

          But that’s what happens in politics. If he were a Republican the Democrats would be screaming and the Republicans would love him.

  5. Lars Karlsson
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    I think many of us have been thinking he might be an atheist. I did especially when I heard him talk at Google and at another talk which I cant remember where it was.

    It’s kind of pointless and a bit ridiculous to speculate about it though. We should celebrate those who take a stand, not those who send little signals now and then of being of similar persuasion.

  6. Jacob
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    On page 208 of The Audacity of Hope, he uses explicitly theological language to describe his spiritual experience: “But kneeling beneath the cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

    I just happen to think that he’s a very liberal Christian. In that case his faith is benign and only one part of his outward identity; however, as most atheists would argue, it’s also a rather inconsequential belief, because liberal orthodoxy is practically an oxymoron. Religion, at least the Christian version, is by its nature a belief of exclusion. Obama’s instinct is to be inclusive. I don’t think that makes him a hypocrite. He’s merely guilty of holding contradictory beliefs.

    • Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      “I just happen to think that he’s a very liberal Christian.”

      Me, too.

      • Veronica Abbass
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        For an example of “very liberal Christians” google “Chretien recalls sharing a laugh with the Pope”:
        “Here in Canada, we make a big distinction between the role as a prime minister and your personal life. Because when you mix too much religion in politics, you’re making the life of a nation more complicated.”

    • Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. In my mind, if Obama is to be considered an atheist, so is heddle, so is Beth Jacobs and that Methodist preacher Professor Coyne talked with, and so is Francis Collins, and Karen Armstrong. They all should know better or do know better, but choose to believe for whatever reason.

      I once explained to a drive-by Christian on my blog long ago that it isn’t like I’m not able to revert to Christian beliefs now that I’m an atheist, it’s just that when I do, I know it is all pretend so there is no point in it. I can pray exactly like I could before, the only difference is that I know now that it does nothing for me or anyone else. I suppose that is where the difference is between me as a gnu atheist and Obama. He saw and continues to see being Christian as important somehow, probably mainly for political reasons. I bet he is the prototypical ex-atheist that we hear so much about.

      I got the feeling after his Tucson speech that he really isn’t all that intellectual about his religious beliefs. Most people don’t think too much about it as far as I can tell, and Obama seems to be one of those people. He was probably an easy catch for Christianity.

  7. Ludo
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I am convinced that throughout history thousands and thousands of intellectuals, artists and politicians pretended to be true believers in order to survive, or to be able to live in peace, or to further their careers. Darwin sometimes claimed to be a theist or an agnostic – but I am convinced that he just said so to please his wife Emma or to avoid unwelcome discussions. He probably was a true atheist (and in fact says so in his autobiography).

    • Erp
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      From what I’ve read he seems to have been quite honest with his wife about his religious beliefs (this was against the advice of his father). His wife wasn’t exactly orthodox herself, according to her children she refused to join in the recitation of the creed in church and was unitarian in belief. However both seemed to be wary about being too public.

  8. Julian
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    While I agree with Ludo’s point, I’m not going to speculate on someone’s private life. The man says he’s a believer, attends church and holds religion in a way consistent with what I have seen in other believers. No reason to doubt his word about his personal beliefs nd no reason to try and pry them from him when he doesn’t seem to giving them to much weight in deciding what to do. If President Obama turned out to be atheist/agnostic great. Maybe more blacks will realize you don’t need religion. If not meh.

  9. gk4ca
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “Would that make him a liar and a hypocrite on this point? Of course.”

    This last paragraph is tad too harsh. A man have to do what a man have to do.

    A lot of people are not very keen on religiousity, both ways. It is just not very important whether you believe (or not believe) jebus or mo. There are more interesting things in life than debating jebus …

    I would say O’s position on religiousity is just right. Nobody really know what Ken Ham actually believe (he needs what he says to keep productive.. in many ways).

    Yes, indeed it is a politico-sociological fact that being a public leader nowadays still require ‘a man of faith’, the good news is that is a really easy requirement compared to other facts (such as being supported by a major party, and winning elections).

    Not everybody is fighting the A-war (accomo-war :D ).. and we should leave it as it is.

  10. SWH
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t really care what he believes as long as he doesn’t spend my taxes supporting “faith based” over “reality based” initiatives. I think Jerry is probably right and that he’s one of an apparently large group of church attendees (and it would seem even ministers) who essentially don’t believe any of it. Hypocritical – yes, realistic – ditto. Comes down to the old adage about how ugly making sausages can be.

    As an aside I’m also deeply skeptical that W was as fundamentalist as he liked to make out (not that I think he was atheist). However, I think he was playing the fundigelical cretards for fools. They got a few crumbs but never really saw most of the things that they wanted or would think that they votes they brought with them should purchase.

  11. daveau
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    The man claims to be a xian, and I as much as I might wish otherwise, I take him at his word. He still quacks like a duck.

  12. Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It depends on your definition of “Christian”. I took the and was labeled a “liberal Christian”. Why? I saw many of the New Testament stories as secular events that people made into miracle stories.

    As far as Obama’s reaction in Rev. Wright’s church: Marcus Borg (a Karen Armstrong type Christian) described his “spiritual experience” in much the same way.

    I see Obama as a Christian albeit of the “word salad/Holy Rabbit” variety; he isn’t going to count on, say, a deity from stopping a storm.

  13. stvs
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    “the evidence points to godlessness. Would that make him a liar and a hypocrite on this point? Of course. “

    A liar, certainly. A hypocrite? Atheism frees one from the fear of God and eternal punishment for one’s actions, including lying about faith. In one very important sense, an atheist lying about religion is an act of the utmost integrity, not hypocrisy. This is an important theme of Machiavelli:

    the knowledge of religion and the fear of God seem to be alike extinct, oaths and promises have lost their validity, and are kept as long as it is found expedient; they are adopted only as a means of deception, and he is most applauded and respected whose cunning is most efficient and secure. On this account bad men are received with the approbation due to virtue, and good ones are regarded only in the light of fools. —Machiavelli, Florentine Histories

    • Theron
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Umm, politely, go jump. This is the usual canard, that atheists don’t have morals because they don’t fear punishment. Are you telling me that you only avoid evil acts because you think you’ll be caught and punished? That’s a pretty primitive understanding of morality. I don’t need an imaginary magic man in the sky to tell me it’s a bad thing to harm another, to steal, to be dishonest, because I am not a sociopath. I understand that others have an internal life, that they are capable of the same joy and pain that I am, and can extrapolate that they would be hurt by the same things that hurt me — and I find their pain as abhorrent as mine.

      Plus, aware of the status of humans as a social animal, I inherently recognize the centrality of cooperation in our lives. Thus I need to be honest and generous with my fellow humans — alturism and all that.

      Really, it ain’t rocket science. No magic sky beings, no eternal fire, just an internalization of what it means to be human.

  14. Gayle Stone
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Please, not Theist, at least put him in the Deist camp with Tom Paine, the Adams’es and with his intelligence let him lean towards Jefferson. We all know he has to be very careful on this subject with over 60 per cent of this backward, Fundamentalist, Creationist, Young World, US population (I was about to write “Nation”)wanting to kill Atheists, Homosexuals, Advocates of birth control, Evolutionists et al. (Most of them don’t know what you or I mean be these labels anyhow.) So please let’s lay low for now and let him handle this in his own manner.

  15. Matt
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    if a politician’s faith is in doubt because of the necessity of appearing faithful doesn’t that make all politician’s faith questionable? I’m skeptical of everything politicians say about their personal lives.

  16. Joe Bleau
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    First of all, I don’t discount Ann Althouse because “she’s a semi-conservative” – I dismiss her because she is a blithering idiot, with a long and storied history of upchucking poorly reasoned and indefensible tripe on her blog.

    Secondly, “one must profess religiosity to be president, therefore the religiosity of anyone who desires to be president is suspect” is a logical abomination that is way, way below your normal standards of argumentation. I mean, really!

    Thirdly, I find myself increasingly wishing to push back against this implicit notion that somehow people in general, and religious people in particular, have inside of some some internal set of reified, non-abstract things called “beliefs” that can be measured or otherwise quantitatively assessed in order to label them or place them in a nice clean taxonomy. I think that this really misrepresents the fact that for many, many folks, religion is not really predominantly something that you “believe”, but something that you do. Their “beliefs” are really secondary to the actions and affirmations that make up their daily lives.

    In any event, there is a huge spectrum of attitudes and behaviors that can fairly fit between “fervent believer” and “liar/hypocrite”. Perhaps we would do well to focus less on what people believe, and more on matters such as why religious people act as they do, and the nature of the societal feedback loop that encourages so many to prefer the fantasy of being able to apprehend the ineffable and know the unknowable, rather than enjoy our big, fascinating, chaotic reality on its own terms.

  17. locutus7
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Here’s a question for progressives:

    Would we rather have as president a right-wing Atheist or a liberal cristian?

    I know, you are thinking, an atheist would likely be a rationalist, and thus place reason above emotion. But I suspect we could have an atheist who adheres to the Republican platform of anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-healthcare. Much like gay Republicans.

    Personally, I would support the president or presidential candidate who advanced universal civil rights, regardless of his own personal beliefs.

    • Julian
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      That seems a little simple. Any political decision we make is going to be about who’s going to advance our ideals. In the conservative atheist vs liberal christian scenario you give my answer would be i’d rather have the theist. But what if the theist also favored rewording the constitution to make it more bible frieendly or what if his decisions were made only after consulting a cabinet filled with ministers and priests?

    • Badger3k
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      For starters, I’d have a real progressive rather than a center-right (or far-right) anything.

      Maybe one day we can get a candidate like you suggest, but until then we have to work with what we have.

  18. roadrider
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t really say whether Obama’s stance on religion makes him a liar or a hypocrite but I wouldn’t waste too much time worrying about it.

    He’s already established that he’s a liar and a hypocrite with respect to most other aspects of his job so far.

  19. GregFromCos
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Obama when talking about people from small towns:”And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    I’ve assumed he was a Freethinker after he made this comment during the campaign. Because a true Christian would not think this way. He’s clearly saying these are 3 negative things they cling to.

    However, I don’t have an issue with him making overtures towards Christianity. He could not get re-elected without it.

    And if you notice, many of his statements are not personal statements. They tend to be more about the group than the person. And not generally about himself.

    We as free thinkers have more to do as far as changing minds before I think an open free thinker will be able to win the presidency openly.

  20. SaintStephen
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    He changed his mind on the God question!

    Ergo Jesus? What a maroon.

    ********

    Politically as savvy as they come, President Barack Obama’s team has successfully sold the perception that he is all religious things to all religious — and even non-religious — people. Many see him as a Muslim; others find him to be a Christian, ostensibly a liberal one but with plenty of time for delusional sermons from fire-breather Jeremiah Wright; Bill Maher and his followers perceive him to be carefully agnostic; and now we are here on Jerry’s website discussing the possibility of his atheism.

    Yes, a political marketing campaign so subtle and seamless, that it now occupies space — and ignites passionate discussion — in the online ‘hood’ of an intellectual as accomplished and brilliant (and godless) as Professor Jerry Coyne.

    Rest assured people, none of this is merely by accident. On the positive side, grant someone like Richard Dawkins a private Oval Office meeting with Obama, and he would have our Prez ‘tapping out’ of religion in the very first round.

    Or, in basketball terms, Dawkins would ‘post him up’ and then ‘jam with authority’ in any one-on-one scenario.

    • SaintStephen
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Maybe this discussion of Obama’s religiosity was better suited for the post on winter sculptures, because it is ONE, BIG SNOWJOB.

  21. Posted February 13, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I tend to think he is a Christian Deist. That is, he is a Deist who is comfortable with some of the traditions of Christianity.

  22. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s quite possible to be a nonbelieving Christian without being at all cynical, and this is what I imagine the president to be. He can probably put up a strong argument for harnessing the Christian mission for the betterment of the nation, while recognizing that belief is inessential. And I bet he’d be ammused by accommodationist assumptions that, as a Christian, he must really need his god thingy.

    • SaintStephen
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      A “Christ-ian” who doesn’t believe in Christ?

      Is this like a Platonist who doesn’t believe in Plato? A Marxist who couldn’t be bothered with Karl Marx?

      Or, how about a paleontologist who is amused by assumptions that he really needs his prehistoric bones thingy?

      If only for the sake of clarity and the preservation of the English language, this kind of obscurantist crap simply has to go.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        Marxists believe that Marx will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead? I have much to learn.

        • SaintStephen
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

          May I suggest one or more of the following labels for your “nonbelieving Christians“:

          – Jebusians
          – Agnostics
          – Lonely Momma’s boys
          – Lonely Daddy’s girls
          – Sheep
          – Politicians
          – Pascal’s Wager-ists
          – Clueless Parents
          – Republicans
          – Will-Lose-Their-Job-If-They-Don’t-Attend-Church-ists

          Etc.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

        I was gonna say it’s like Jerry Coyne being a non-believing Jew; but with Jews, there’s a bit more of an ethnic/cultural thing going on than with some other religions…but really, all sects have their atheistic, “cultural” associates. Remember, Dawkins self-identifies as a Protestant atheist…

        • SaintStephen
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

          Point taken.

          Dawkins’ tongue simply must be firmly embedded in his cheek when he identifies with Protestants, however.
          ;)

  23. Josh Slocum
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Locutus7 wrote:

    Let’s say, hypothetically, a few gay people – progressive gays – believe he is secretly gay. They see certain signs in his dress and behavior that lead them to this conclusion.

    Should they blog about their beliefs, knowing that it could harm a person who could do their cause great good?

    Going with your analogy for the sake of discussion, yes. Some of us not only don’t think such discussion is off-limits, but that a good case could be made for considering it more ethical than tacitly accepting the let’s-be-quiet-about-it game that everyone else is playing.

    If you look again at what you wrote, you’ll see it suggests that gay people would be more inclined to play along with the Gay is Bad So Let’s Not Tar Him With It meme in order to “advance” their own interests. Do you see what’s perverse about that?

    Some of us gay people are actually four-square in favor of outing famous or powerful people whose positions make them uniquely influential toward issues of equal rights. I’m one of them. Not only do I not think such outing is ethically troublesome, I think it’s an ethical imperative.

    Politician who preaches anti-gay sentiments? You should be outed.

    Politician who doesn’t make much noise, but who votes against gay rights bills? Outed.

    Politician who says little but sits silently by while bigots dismantle or obstruct equality? Outed.

    You lose the right to claim “that’s my personal business” when you actively or passively use your position of public influence to advance bigotry or to do nothing to stop its advance by playing along for the sake of your own small, personal set of interests.

    I do not know if Obama is a true believer, or is an atheist. Arguments from people whose opinions I respect on both sides of the issue have some compelling aspects. But I most adamantly do not think there’s anything even slightly ethical about hedging one’s bets and refusing to put forth the discussion for fear that the atheist taint will “harm the cause.”

    Just as with the issue of sexuality, “the cause,” for me, includes getting rid of the notion that atheism is a dirty condition which must, sadly, be tactically suppressed for the (um, I’m baffled how this is supposed to work) good of advancing “the atheist cause.”

    I find it disturbing that this didn’t immediately leap out to you when you constructed your gay analogy.

    • locutus7
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      And I find your self-righteousness disturbing. When you out someone you take away their power. You are making decisions for them. I’m not saying it is always wrong, but it is not something to be taken lightly, or dogmatically.

      And what if you are wrong? That is the problem with being ideologically-driven. You don’t consider that in outing someone for sex preference or atheism, you may be wrong. And the consequences can be staggering.

      So my whole point is, take care in this type of action. Not, “don’t do it”, but rather carefully consider the ramifications. That is all.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        And I find your self-righteousness disturbing.

        wha?

        When you out someone you take away their power.

        uh, THAT WAS THE POINT.

        specific examples were made of people that, in the OP’s mind, were ABUSING their power.

        seems entirely logical to me.

        You don’t consider that in outing someone for sex preference or atheism, you may be wrong.

        wrong about their sexuality, or wrong about the political fallout?

        hat is the problem with being ideologically-driven.

        bullshit.

        show you AREN’T

        • locutus7
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          How is it ideological to not assume what is in a person’s mind (his true beliefs)?

          You are missing my point: if we do not know for certain what a person’s beliefs or preferences are, we should be cautious in making public allegations.

          But politically, yes, I’m progressive. And I think Obama is our best bet for the next few years.

          What’s our other realistic choice? Jeb Bush, Pawlenty, Palin, Huchabee?

          • Ichthyic
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            How is it ideological to not assume what is in a person’s mind (his true beliefs)?

            way to miss the point.

            the point is, YOU would be a unique exception if you NEVER acted based on ideology.

            In fact, your very post decries your ideology.

            nuff said.

            • locutus7
              Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

              Maybe we are missing each other’s points. So, yeah, nuff said.

              I’ll stick to the Scientology thread, which poses fewer communication problems. Regards.

              • Josh Slocum
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                Well, golly, thanks for the good faith effort at conversation.

      • Josh Slocum
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Self-righteousness? I have a strong view on the ethics of this situation, but if you find that reducible to mere self-righteousness, I think you’re selling me short.

        When you out someone you take away their power. You are making decisions for them.

        Yes, that’s right, and that’s the intent, as Ichthyic noted below.

        You don’t consider that in outing someone for sex preference or atheism, you may be wrong. And the consequences can be staggering.

        You’re selling me short again. Why do you think I don’t consider those things? Is it because of something I said, or is it because you’ve got an idea in your head and you’re imputing motives to me that are not in evidence? That’s not fair.

        So my whole point is, take care in this type of action. Not, “don’t do it”, but rather carefully consider the ramifications. That is all.

        If that was your “whole point,” then why didn’t you say so first? Why are you talking at me (and you are talking at me, not conversing with me) as if I’d put forth the devil-may-care, damn-the-consequences attitude you’re projecting at me?

        I really, really, really dislike having someone else’s axe ground on my head without regard to what I actually say or don’t say. Please stop it.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          and you are talking at me, not conversing with me

          yes, that’s what got me irritated as well.

          seemed rather condescending to say the least.

        • locutus7
          Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Boy, thin skins here. Read your post to me and then consider your own.

          We are having a discussion, and exchange of ideas. Your stance struck me as self-righteous, and a misreading of my post. You found my post disturbing, and I responded. If I mis-read you, I apologize, but I am in no way hitting your head with an axe (metaphorically, of course). So I can’t stop what I’m not doing.

          We obviously disagree on this topic. Such is life. Further posts are likely to be counter-productive. So goodbye and good luck.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            Boy, thin skins here.

            Ok, that tears it.

            you’re a moron.

          • Josh Slocum
            Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            Further posts are likely to be counter-productive. So goodbye and good luck.

            That must be the civil way to say “bite my shiny metal ass.” Why even bother?

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

              something tells me he shouldn’t quit his day job to pursue a career in communications.

            • locutus7
              Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              Oh boy, name calling. Not worthy of your abilities.

              • Josh Slocum
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                Oh come on, stop it. Seriously. I didn’t “name-call.” You know it. Why are you saying that? Do you know what name-calling means?

                You don’t have to talk to me, of course, but you are being substantively rude flouncing out of conversation where I’m trying to make an honest effort to communicate with you. It doesn’t matter how nicely you package your phrasing, you’re being rude. And now you’re accusing me of calling you names – which is baffling. What names did I call you?

              • Josh Slocum
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

                Whoops – I see that was meant for Ichthyic, not me. Mea culpa.

              • Josh Slocum
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

                This is another example how bloody impossible these threaded comments are (and I’m not the only one who’s had this trouble).

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                Oh boy, name calling. Not worthy of your abilities.

                Oh boy, MORE condescension.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                Whoops – I see that was meant for Ichthyic, not me. Mea culpa.

                no, actually, NOT your fault, since he responded to your post, not mine.

                yes, it IS the fault of the threaded system, which fubars everyone.

  24. Posted February 13, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I thought I was the only person who had the idea Obama is secretly an atheist. He works hard at pretending to be religious but can a person that intelligent really believe in a magic god fairy?

    While I doubt an honest American atheist could be elected president it is possible for a normal person (AKA atheist) to be elected to Congress. From a recent news article:

    Rep. Pete Stark, who made waves in 2007 by coming out as Congress’ only avowed atheist, delighted secular humanists and took a jab at religious conservatives this week by offering a resolution to proclaim Saturday as “Darwin Day.”

  25. spanner
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The one part of Obama’s speech that I saw included this – “… I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.” which seems pretty unambiguous to me. Later, he calls Tom Coburn “a brother in Christ” and states that, “part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God.”
    I’d really prefer that they both serve humanity, specifically U.S. Citizens, as they were elected to do.
    The text is here:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/03/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast

    Liberals are as capable of self-deception as conservatives when it comes to their leadership.
    Believe what you like, but, Obama does not act like a progressive or an atheist.
    The Spirited Atheist’s take on the speech is less rosy: http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2011/02/several_steps_back_for_secular_government.html

    • spanner
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Okay, I didn’t mean for those urls to be links. I hadn’t posted here before – the other reason it’s in moderation, I suppose. Can I make a url plain text by putting quotes around it? Or some other way?

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know dick about HTTP, but I know how to do this by copying. In your browser, find one of these plain text links and View Source (in Mac Safari, Ctl-click; it’s gotta be easy everywhere). Then search for text around the link to find it. At the link, copy from <A HREF=" to , and paste into a text editor or word processor; save this. Now, when you want to submit a plain text link, replace the link that you have copied between and with the text you want to use.

        Here, I’ll give you my default. Hey, hey, hey, lookee here (that ought to be enough unique text!): Seeing and Believing

        • spanner
          Posted February 14, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Not exactly what I was looking for, but, very useful. Thank you.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        Shit, some of that got clipped out. Just do the View Source thing and you’ll figure it out.

  26. Alex SL
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    JC wrote:

    Face it: none of us really knows what the man believes.

    It would really help your case if you started your argument with that sentence instead of a confident Obama is still an atheist. Contrary to what you imply, you do not have any actual evidence for your claim, at least the “still” part, while those who believe that he is a theist at least have his church-going and praying behaviour and public self-identification. It could be a ruse, yes; but the important thing is: you don’t know.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      It would really help your case if you started your argument with that sentence instead of a confident Obama is still an atheist.

      I don’t think it would actually help with his point at all to do so, actually.

      Are you sure you don’t mean it would help with how the post is viewed?

      It would indeed make it clearer that this is not an attempt to prove he is an atheist, if it was started with the quoted statement.

      In that sense, yeah, I would agree with you.

  27. Observer
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Obama speaks and acts like the liberal Christians I grew up with and still know.

    Btw, I’ll discount Althouse because she’s a moron. That’s reason enough.

  28. Josh Slocum
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    OK, I know it’s not my place, but I can’t help myself:

    Jerry, I’m begging you to unthread the comments. Begging. Will you please consider turning that feature off and letting the comments be flat? It’s so, so hard to follow the conversation here if you’re interested in seeing what’s new since you last posted. It’s almost impossible to correctly refer to another post, because one is always mixing up whether a comment is “above” or “below” where you’re posting.

    If you’re willing to do this but don’t know how, I can help.

    No disrespect intended, and it is your Website (notice how I didn’t say “blog?”:)), but among those on my favorites list, it’s the most frustrating to converse in, and the only one that uses threaded comments.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Will you please consider turning that feature off and letting the comments be flat?

      seconded.

      • Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        I stand with James Sweet and Icotus.Perhaps our greatest president since FDR[Clinton near-great!] is an agnostic Christian- thinks that He exists but has no definite opinion about Him.
        Perhaps, one of us atheists can talk to him to get at his true belief! Christina could.
        Jerry, always the teleonomic and the atelic arguments: no divine intent as science finds no teleology but teleonomy-mechanism.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. I think it’s a good feature. With all respect due the brilliant commenters here, there are some sub-threads I don’t care to follow, and having them set apart makes it easier to scroll past them.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

        Seconded. It used to annoy me but I’ve not only gotten used to it, I like it better than the Pharyngula style, where I find it impossible to figure out what’s new without writing down comment numbers for each thread. And where it’s almost pointless to respond to something way upthread.

        If you choose email notification here, it’s phenomenally easy to follow what’s new, and you can read enough of each post to see if you want to reply without even going online…

        • llewelly
          Posted February 14, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          “I like it better than the Pharyngula style, where I find it impossible to figure out what’s new without writing down comment numbers for each thread.”

          On Pharyngula (and other scienceblogs.com blogs that use comment numbering) , there is little value in writing down comment numbers. From time to time the blogger (in Pharyngula’s case PZ) will need to delete comments. When a comment gets deleted, the following comments are re-numbered, rendering obsolete the comment numbers people have written down, or, more often, used in comments to refer to previous comments.

          • Diane G.
            Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

            I meant that I have trouble remembering where I left off reading when I return to a thread that’s raced on without me…

            The occasional renumbering doesn’t bug me much as any referred-to post will still be somewhere in the near vicinity. I do often wish the subthreads here had some kind of numbering, tho.

  29. jimvj
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    What reason do rightwingers have to believe that the sainted Reagan was a Christian?

    • llewelly
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      The simple fact that his sons Ron Reagan and Mike Reagan are both atheists.

  30. Dan
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    How is claiming that Obama is really an atheist, despite his claims to be a Christian, different than my family members telling me that I really believe in God deep down, despite claiming to be an atheist? Or when Christians claim Hitler was an atheist?

    I think we are getting dangerously close to inane Christian behavior when we claim that we know that deep down they really hold the exact opposite religious belief than they claim.

  31. Fox
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think less of Obama for pretending, or exaggerating whatever vague beliefs he may have. I’m an atheist law student and activist in a state where the constitution still bars me from holding public office unless I acknowledge “the existence of a Supreme being.” It forces an unfair choice on nonbelievers: make a fuss that will surely attract lots of attention in order to challenge the state constitution, forever associating yourself with atheism and allowing your opponents to charge that you had to change the rules in order to play the game, or keep your mouth shut, smile blandly when the issue comes up and, well, lie a little?

    There’s definitely a fight that needs to be fought (and won) here, but I can’t begrudge any one individual for putting their own aspirations or agenda before it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      I’d agree that it would always be best that those with not so much at stake fight the fights. Which makes me think–we’ve always known that lots of whites worked for civil rights, and lots of straights support gay rights…there doesn’t seem to be an equally loud voice from the religious supporting atheists…

  32. Rieux
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I stand by my comment on the previous thread:

    No one (including Jerry) seems to be paying attention to the substantial amount we know about Obama’s background. His two books (Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope) are must reading on this point: both of Obama’s parents were atheists, and his mother (who had vastly more influence on his upbringing than the absent Barack Sr. did) was an atheist anthropologist, of all things.

    Obama also grew up in the veritable Comparative Religion classes of Indonesia and Hawaii, rather than a more conventionally Christian place like (say) Dallas or the South Side of Chicago. Sorry, Jer, but a background like that is precisely what does not make “Apathetic Christians By Default.” Christianity was by no means a “default” anywhere Obama lived until he moved to the aforementioned South Side at age 24.

    Then there’s his academic background–Occidental College, Columbia, Harvard Law School. Not exactly ground zero for Coming to Jesus.

    And he didn’t, of course, until after graduating from HLS and spending more time back in Chicago; his professed religious conversion just happens to have occurred precisely when he was starting to mount a career in politics. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of that coincidence.

    Whatever else it was, Obama’s conversion was thoroughly considered, as opposed to “default.” And it’s odd what effects it hasn’t had; just read the passage about his mother’s irreligiosity in Audacity of Hope. There’s not the slightest concern for Ann Dunham’s eternal soul, worry that she missed out on Jesus’ love, or any such thing–instead, Obama mentions the human community his mother deprived herself of by staying outside of religion. That’s not exactly chapter-and-verse Gospel.

    To use Dennett’s phrase, Obama very clearly “believes in belief,” at least insofar as professed belief is necessary (as Jerry notes) to get American voters to take him seriously. Given his statements in Audacity of Hope, very likely he “believes in belief” somewhat more broadly, in that he thinks religious belief is a helpful element in building communities that can advocate for social change. (He has explained repeatedly that the Christian organizations he worked with in Chicago played a big role in his decision to convert.) But there’s nothing about belief in a personal deity in his narratives at all. The fact that he evidently thinks religion is empirically useful is a far cry from a belief that its notions are true.

    As blueollie hypothesizes, I think there’s a real possibility that Obama has convinced himself that he believes in a Karen Armstrong-ish empty word-game “God.” The eye-rolling disingenuousness that Armstrong-style religion requires doesn’t fit terribly well with the exacting and honest introspection Obama shows in Dreams from My Father, but wishful thinking is a powerful force. Given the obvious advantages to claiming religious belief, it seems to me entirely plausible that Obama has talked himself into a hollow Armstrong-ish theism.

    Still, an extremely intelligent and learned ultra-high-achiever who was brought up by secular parents and only claimed religious belief precisely when it was politically advantageous for him… that does seem awfully suggestive. People with Obama’s characteristics and background do sometimes fall into Armstrong-ish silliness, but they really very rarely decide that there’s an invisible being in the universe that has a hankering to roast us all eternally but decided to torture its own son instead to propitiate its need for bloody vengeance. It’s more than a little difficult to believe that Obama, who was not indoctrinated in his childhood with any such notion, believes it now.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I’m very glad you reposted that, or I’d have missed a very well thought out and supported view. Saved for future use.

  33. Diane G.
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Susan Jacoby disagrees strongly in this article:

    http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2011/02/several_steps_back_for_secular_government.html

    Anyone who ever thought Obama was a secret atheist–a view expressed in comments on this blog on numerous occasions–is as deluded as the birthers who think Obama was sent here by Muslim conspirators to establish sharia in the United States.

    Nor does she care much for the accommo/gnu fracas:

    And as long as skeptics are taking swipes at humanists and atheists are calling one another out for being insufficiently caustic (or too caustic) about religion, we will never be able to mount an effective challenge to “sacred,” historically recent “traditions” like this inane prayer breakfast–or to the damaging proposals that various “brothers in Christ” are formulating to make their religious views the law of the land.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:06 am | Permalink

      to which I would respond…

      as long as Susan Jacoby is spending time whining about how to define how various groups should and shouldn’t be communicating with one another, she isn’t actually doing anything to address to address the inanity of “prayer breakfasts” either.

      *shrug*

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 14, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s a standard gnu position to criticize other atheists for not being harsh enough on religious teachings. Rather, the gnu position is simply that we, the gnu’s have a right to criticize these beliefs as harshly as we so choose. We don’t expect the accomodationist’s to join in with us.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        the gnu position is simply that we, the gnu’s have a right to criticize these beliefs as harshly as we so choose.

        or at least as harshly as the speciousness of current religious arguments warrant.

        er, which does give a rather large range in which to be harsh.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        Sigmund, agreed. But one sometimes does have to worry about what the perception of one’s actions are within a wider context. Not everyone involved in the push for secularism and rationality cares about or is even aware of the big accommo/gnu war…Sometimes I wonder whether simply ignoring the accommos wouldn’t be a better tack. Each side has pretty much said all it can say.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 14, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          Sometimes I wonder whether simply ignoring the accommos wouldn’t be a better tack.

          tactically?

          probably.

          but then, the very POINT of arguing with the accomos is to flesh out the actual issues of rationality and logic involved.

          so, no, their arguments, like the specious religious apologetics themselves, or the egregious flat out lies found in things like “Expelled”, must indeed be addressed.

          It is in not addressing them for short term political gains that we have come to this rhetorical impasse to begin with.

          If we hadn’t inherently given religious ideology undeserved and unwarranted respect for eons, it most likely woulnd’t have become so culturally pervasive to begin with.

          arguing with accomos is like repeatedly pointing out the historical mistake of treating religious ideology with kid gloves.

          It needs to be repeated over and over again, until the message is more than clear.

          I sometimes wonder if certain accomos aren’t actually deliberately playing Devil’s advocate specifically in order to act as whipping posts in this whole debate…

          I could see there being some agreement that there would be strategic advantages in someone “taking the fall” in that way.

          hmm.

  34. Dominic
    Posted February 14, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Tony Blair on the other hand, ‘phony tony’, is messianic in his belief in the power of ‘faiths’.
    huh.

  35. Posted February 15, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Regarding President Obama and every other politician who self-identifies as “Christian,” we really don’t know what they really believe.

    Given the political incentives to say one is “Christian” in the US political culture, I would suggest that there are only two men in Congress that are not lying about their religious views — Keith Ellison and Pete Stark.

    Right now, there is no incentive to say one is an atheist or a Muslim in the US political culture. To claim these unpopular labels, Ellison and Stark are probably telling the truth.

    With the President, VP, and the other members of Congress, the probability that someone is lying about being a Christian is more likely because it would benefit a politician to claim the “Christian” label.

  36. Posted February 16, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Sam Harris made a similar argument, and Penn Jillette challenged him in his Youtube vlog. The skepticism of atheists who believe Obama is a sekrit atheist comes down to this.
    Obama seems to have a cognitive style that’s much more similar to that of atheists than that of the previous president, so we like him and want him to be one of us. Many atheists
    get told by theist friends that “you know what, you’re a good person and I think deep down, you really do believe in God/Xenu/Allah etc.” – and it’s because they’re having the same reaction, even if some atheists
    would find this offensive. (For my part, when I get that, I know that they’re intending to say something nice but I correct them nonetheless.) If you think Obama is an atheist, be skeptical and ask yourself whether you can really tell the difference between “I like Obama and it would please me if he were actually an atheist” cherry-picking/confirmation bias, and the kinds of arguments that have been advanced for his crypto-atheism?

    For my part, I can’t read minds – so if someone publicly declares himself to be of a certain ideology, then to the extent that his actions are not inconsistent with the actions of
    others who adhere to the same label, I’ll categorize him as having that label until I have further data. This also raises the question of what
    “Christian” and “atheist” mean if you can’t tell based on whether the person attends worship services or talks about Christ and prayer. Are both categories really just based on talk then?

    To disclose my own biases, I think it would be better if Obama were not an atheist. If post-presidency he comes out, this will only strongly reinforce conspiracy theories that he’s some kind of an anti-American-values sleeper agent working against American values and that atheists are in general untrustworthy.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Dustcircle and leonel , Jerry Coyne. Jerry Coyne said: Obama is still an atheist http://wp.me/ppUXF-7sb [...]

  2. [...] breakfast.” Over at Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne has a post which characterises President Obama as an atheist. I do not want to judge the issue, but the claim rings true, and the question whether, in fact, a [...]

  3. [...] Jerry Coyne (evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True; excellent book!) also weighs in: Last March I did a short post, “Obama is an atheist,” suggesting that perhaps our President [...]

  4. [...] Jerry Coyne wonders whether the president is an atheist. This in the wake of Bill Maher’s latest assertion that [...]

  5. [...] Obama is still an atheist « Why Evolution Is True [...]

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