A few years ago, I was asked to give the concluding plenary address at a conference celebrating the anniversary of the University of Chicago Divinity School.
After my presentation, a fellow came up and said, “I saw you about a year ago at an atheist conference. I came here today to see if you say the same things to a religious audience.”
Obviously, I had to inquire, “How’d I do?” He replied that indeed I didn’t change my message. I breathed a sigh of relief at my consistency, but then noted, “I hope I at least changed the jokes.”
Last month I spent more than a week on the road, most of the time in California and Texas. Two of the events, one in Los Angeles and one in San Antonio, illustrated how important it actually is to stay “on message.”
In Los Angeles, I spoke as part of a panel at a conference sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. I arrived on Friday night in time for the dinner and presentation of an award to the foundation started by British scientist Richard Dawkins, author of bestsellers like The Ancestor’s Tale and The God Delusion.
Dawkins gave an impassioned acceptance speech on atheism and the dangers of “theistic” thinking. Prior to my panel the next day, Prof. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, gave another articulate defense of secularism as a philosophy and lambasted what he considered misguided religious dogma.
Both Dawkins and Krauss advocate very direct, critical challenges to religious thinkers and reject efforts to “accommodate” religious sensitivities when discussing issues like the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons or claims of supernatural intervention in the world. As a person of faith, I had obvious areas of disagreement but found the talks well within the realm of reasoned discourse.
Tom Flynn, the avuncular executive director of the Council on Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry magazine, had introduced me by saying that the audience would soon see if lightning was going to strike. (It was not immediately clear whether this would signal divine irritation with attendees or a perfectly rational meteorological outcome.)
I began my speech noting that it was nice to be in Los Angeles (the City of Angels), but that even I do not believe in angels. This got a chuckle. I talked about my recent visits to Religious Right conferences in Washington (the subject of last month’s column) and then about how all three branches of government here in Washington seemed to need some lessons on the Constitution.
I gave President Barack Obama good grades for trying to protect stem cell research and opposing school vouchers; bad marks for continued inaction to curtail civil rights violations in his version of the “faith-based” initiative.
I criticized Congress for allowing lobbyists with the Catholic hierarchy to insert anti-choice and “abstinence- only” sex education funding into healthcare and appropriations bills. To the Supreme Court I gave a modest “thumbs up” for its narrow decision not to exempt the Christian Legal Society from accepting gay and non-Christian students at a university that requires that all officially recognized clubs be open to all students. I gave the high court a failing grade for essentially ordering a lower court to find a non-religious meaning for the Latin cross that had been planted in the Mojave National Preserve after a “sweetheart deal” land sale to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Then I thought, how do I address, in a serious way, the concerns some in this crowd might have to working alongside religious people? Here is my response: The principle of separation is on very shaky ground – and if people who care about it for any reason don’t find common strategic ground, it is going to be lost.
Religious zealots will criminalize abortion and birth control; public schools will be replaced by taxpayer-funded religious schools or be infused with fundamentalist doctrine; gay and lesbian Americans will see a steady erosion of their rights.
In summary, let’s give no quarter on the great questions of the universe, but let’s not fail to conduct our Constitution-protecting activism together.
A few days later in San Antonio, the Americans United chapter, with funding from a generous donor to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, sponsored a special program. I participated with my old friend James Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a day-long event on church-state issues.
The audience was primarily religious people. Some of them had real questions about how to understand non-theistic worldviews. I offered the same advice: Learn to seek the common goal of constitutional preservation.
Recently, we’ve been doing some Web casts to Americans United donors and supporters, including Facebook fans. After the last one, a viewer wrote in, “Barry and I think alike… Just ONE god divides us.”
I can work with that amount of solidarity. I hope that whatever side of the divide you’re on, you can do the same.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.