MCNELLIS: Not a Christian nation

As a former Catholic turned atheist, I have come to reject many of the positions of the Catholic Church: its oppressive stance toward gay rights, its bizarre and unfounded opposition to contraception and of course, essentially all of its teachings about Jesus, God and the Bible. But one issue where I stand at least partially on the side of the Catholic Church is the ever-inflammatory issue of abortion.

I am certainly in the minority among atheists on the abortion question, but I would like to think that it’s a somewhat more nuanced position than the typical pro-life stance. Essentially, while I do not personally support abortion in normal circumstances, I recognize that it is a complex, emotional and uncertain issue whose resolution is best left to individuals; it is not for the government to decide. That seems like a fairly conservative, if moderate, position to me.

Some Catholics, however, would disagree, especially those among the Church’s leadership. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, effectively the head of the Catholic Church in the United States, has used his uncanny publicity skills to rile up conservatives around the country, often sounding more like an evangelical preacher than the typical Catholic priest. Similarly, in the Republican primaries, the candidate who was most successful in drawing the (typically Evangelical) social-conservative vote was Rick Santorum, a Catholic.

There’s no doubt that Catholics are hugely influential in the United States. One-quarter of Americans are Catholic, including the two vice-presidential candidates, and no presidential candidate since 1972 has won the popular vote without winning the Catholic vote. There are some (even at Yale) who suggest that Catholics should bully politicians into making the Church’s regressive social doctrine the law of the land under the guise of religious liberty. The right has, in recent years, been quite susceptible to attempts at this sort of domination of the majority by a political minority, most recently seen in the startling rise of the Tea Party. Fortunately, conservative Catholics and the Christian Right in general tend to forget one important detail about our country:

The United States of America is not a Christian nation.

Regardless of the religious beliefs of the Founders, they very clearly embedded separation of church and state in the Constitution. Given the diversity of religious beliefs now found in the United States, it is more important than ever that public policy be justified by the facts, not religious beliefs. A book about an Iron Age god of war is never proper justification for public policy in a modern, secular nation.

The Founders were well aware of the threats of extreme factionalism. A republic like ours is well suited to dealing with factions, as James Madison explained in “Federalist No. 10″: “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”

Those of us, religious or not, who do care about true religious liberty must still oppose the religious right. However, history does seem to be on secularism’s side. Our generation is the least religious yet, with one-third of Americans ages 18–29 belonging to no religion at all, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among the population as a whole, atheists and agnostics (at about 6 percent of the population) outnumber Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus combined. In the past, politicians have pandered to the religious while routinely ignoring the non-religious. In the future, politicians would be wise to recognize America’s changing demographics.

Because of this, I am not terribly worried that the Catholic Outrage Brigade will actually be able to impose their will on the country as a whole. Let them rant and rave, let them lobby, let them fight the separation of church and state in a battle they know they’re losing. They will have their minor victories, and their rights should certainly not be ignored. But they will never be able to take their beliefs and put dogma above the Constitution. They are still on the wrong side of history.

Brian McNellis is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at brian.mcnellis@yale.edu .

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    > As a former Catholic turned atheist

    I’ll bet you’re really an angnostic, someone who “doubts” there is a Beyond or a Benevolent Organizer of the Beyond (BOOB)

    An atheist, paradoxically, is quite religious: They have “FAITH” (which they constantly reinforce) that there is no Beyond and no BOOB.

    PK

    • btmcnellis

      I don’t want to get involved in a debate over who’s right about God or who’s not. But I am most certainly an atheist, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t condescend to me about it. I went through an agnostic phase, yes, where I wasn’t sure about my faith either way, but at this point I find the evidence (and lack thereof) overwhelming enough to give me very high certainty that no God that is anything like a God that we would recognize exists. Obviously, I’m not 100% certain, and if someone were to show me proper proof that God exists, then I would have no choice but to believe. But I am as certain that the evidence is inadequate as most Christians are that their beliefs are correct. An atheist is not religious. I approach God the same way I approach Zeus, Bigfoot, and alien abductions: they could be real, but almost certainly aren’t.

      Again, I don’t want to get involved in a debate about whether God exists, but I did want to reiterate that I am, by any reasonable definition, an atheist.

      • River_Tam

        > Obviously, I’m not 100% certain, and if someone were to show me proper proof that God exists, then I would have no choice but to believe.

        Give me an example of what this ‘proper proof’ would entail and I will believe you.

        • xfxjuice

          Religion is simply geographic.

        • 1215

          As an atheist myself, I’d be forced to conclude that I was incorrect if a randomized controlled trial were able to provide evidence on a consistent, systematic level for the existence of miracles–that is, an utter violation of the laws of physics, at the behest of God.

          But (in)conveniently enough, God apparently doesn’t work that way. Modern-day miracles occur only where there is a lack of witnesses or an alternate, more plausible explanation.

          • River_Tam

            > I’d be forced to conclude that I was incorrect if a randomized controlled trial were able to provide evidence on a consistent, systematic level for the existence of miracles

            … if something ‘consistently violated the rules of physics’, wouldn’t it just be… part of physics?

          • RexMottram08

            See: the French government doctors posted at Lourdes.

          • CrazyBus

            Link please

    • liche

      “An atheist, paradoxically, is quite religious: They have “FAITH” (which they constantly reinforce) that there is no Beyond and no BOOB.”

      Complete and utter nonsense. An atheist does not believe in any gods, that is all. It takes zero faith to not believe in something. Furthermore, atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. I am both an atheist (I do not believe in any gods) and an agnostic (I do not claim to know if any gods exist). Essentially, they are answers to two different questions:

      Q: Do you believe in any gods?
      A: Yes (theist/deist/etc)
      A: No (atheist)

      Q: Is there a god or gods?
      A: Yes (gnostic)
      A: No (gnostic)
      A: I don’t know (agnostic)

      Most atheists are agnostic atheists.

      Great job on the article!

      • LtwLimulus90

        So then everybody in the Catholic Church is agnostic? Most people of faith would tell you that there is no way to “know” whether God exists, hence the reason the word “faith” is employed so often: “faith” in his existence in the face of tremendous opposition and a lack of first-hand experience. “Gnostics” as you define them, are thus incredibly rare.

  • The Anti-Yale

    agnostic [not angnostic]

    (darn these fat fingers on tiny keyboard!)

  • The Anti-Yale

    > Complete and utter nonsense. An atheist does not believe in any gods, that is all.

    Not so.

    An atheist BELIEVES (i.e. has FAITH) that there is no Beyond and no Benevolent Organizer of Beyond. (BOOB)

    An agnostic merely DOUBTS. (agnosis –not KNOWing)

    • liche

      Examine the prefix “a” and the word “theism.” You are wrong.

    • pli6744

      You seem to think that not believing something is the same as believing the opposite is true. If I ask if your favorite color is red, and you say no, I’m not going to assume your favorite color must be green. I understand that it just isn’t red.

      • CrazyBus

        PK has brilliantly demonstrated the fundamental misunderstanding of atheism by theists.

        • LtwLimulus90

          Funny, because all the “logic” the atheistic commenters on this article have exhibited isn’t so convincing! These words, taken literally, aren’t all mutually exclusive, as Liche pointed out. “Theism” necessitates a belief, which is not the same thing as knowledge. The argument is over semantics, but the meanings of the words in speech and in the context of this article are such that “agnostics” choose not to “believe” either way, despite the literal interpretation of the word being that agnostics are all that don’t “know”. Very, very few claim to “know” whether God exists or not, and yet “agnostics”, “atheists”, and “theists” are terms that are clearly not meant or used to overlap.

          • CrazyBus

            As you say, it is merely a semantic quibble. The greater point is this: to a skeptic, you never prove the negative; you prove the positive. And just to make sure I am semantically clear about this, the atheist is skeptical of the existence of God; therefore, to convince him otherwise, positive proof of existence is needed (which excludes anecdotal evidence).

            Here’s my stance (partially). Let’s assume God exists. If God wanted me to believe in him, he would do something to convince me of that. Since he is omniscient and omnipotent, then he knows exactly what it would take and he would be able to do it. If he doesn’t think it’s important for me to believe, then I shouldn’t worry about it either.

            Personally, I couldn’t care less about what anyone believes. I only have a problem when they try to impose their beliefs on others, via either private (on an individual basis) or public (inserting into government) routes.

  • River_Tam

    > I am certainly in the minority among atheists on the abortion question, but I would like to think that it’s a somewhat more nuanced position than the typical pro-life stance. Essentially, while I do not personally support abortion in normal circumstances, I recognize that it is a complex, emotional and uncertain issue whose resolution is best left to individuals; it is not for the government to decide.

    How is this distinct from a run-of-the-mill Democratic-Party-plank “pro-choice” position? Every pro-choice politician likes to dress up their position in vestments, but it comes down to “uphold Roe v Wade and don’t stop people from having abortions on demand.”

    But again, every pro-choice Catholic consoles themselves with the fact that they would personally never kill an unborn baby – they’re just okay with others doing it.

    • AtticusFinch

      The author is advocating that government stay out of the affairs of people’s lives–in this case, abortion. Isn’t that a traditionally conservative stance on the rights of individuals to make their own decisions?

      Gun laws are pretty unpopular with conservatives as they claim it impedes upon their 2nd amendment right and right to choose a lifestyle as an individual. Guns kill people, no? “But again, every pro-[gun conservative] consoles themselves with the fact that they would personally never kill [another person]- they’re just okay with others doing it.”

      Merely trying to point out the hypocrisy in your criticism, especially as a ‘traditional’ conservative, whom I assume values the rights of individuals, and the absurdity of the above quoted (and slightly modified) statement.

      • River_Tam

        > Isn’t that a traditionally conservative stance on the rights of individuals to make their own decisions?

        No conservative I know believes the government should butt out of people’s personal affairs when it comes to murder.

        > “But again, every pro-[gun conservative] consoles themselves with the fact that they would personally never kill [another person]- they’re just okay with others doing it.”

        In fact, pro-gun conservatives are overwhelmingly the same ‘tough on crime’, pro-capital punishment, three-strikes-laws people who bleeding heart liberals decry as too harsh on the poor misunderstood criminals. So no, pro-gun conservatives are not “okay with others” committing murder.

        • CrazyBus

          Wouldn’t making it harder to get a gun (which vastly facilitates crimes) be ‘tough on crime’?

          But no, pro-gun people do not believe that easy access to guns facilitates crimes.

  • River_Tam

    oops, replied in the wrong place.

  • The Anti-Yale

    >
    Examine the prefix “a” and the word “theism.” You are wrong.

    Every atheist I have ever encountered advocates his/her position with a zeal equivalent to faith, including Bertrand Russell. They are not simply content to walk away from the conversation, they feel compelled to persuade.

    THEY “believe”.

    I “doubt”.

    PK

    • CrazyBus

      What is it that you doubt?

      Also, you are suffering from the simple fallacy (selective response?) that anyone who declares themselves an atheist upfront is as equivalently zealous as any theist who declares the same. And if you engage an atheist in the topic, then you are inviting a debate about it. When you question someone about their beliefs, they obviously they will endeavor to explain them.

      But okay, now I know, if anyone who disagrees with me wants to have a conversation, instead of talking about it, I will instead ignore them, walk away, and disregard whatever knowledge/reasoning they had to say.

      This is a ridiculous and narrow-minded statement. Discourse is what spreads knowledge and enlightenment. If you don’t want to listen to why someone is atheist, then don’t bring up the subject. I have had no theistic conversations begin without it first being brought up by a theist.

      Atheists as a group only care about religion insofar as people try to insert it into the public sector.

      • btmcnellis

        Exactly. I only wrote this piece in response to the ridiculous one by Dernbach last week about how Catholics should bully politicians into doing what they want. I’m not in the business of evangelizing. I only care when people try to force their religious beliefs on other people. In a secular society, you have to have real, secular evidence that your policies are appropriate for the whole society.

  • Gobias

    > Essentially, while I do not personally support abortion in normal circumstances, I recognize that it is a complex, emotional and uncertain issue whose resolution is best left to individuals; it is not for the government to decide. That seems like a fairly conservative, if moderate, position to me.

    I hear this all the time (see Joe Biden) but I have yet to be convinced this is not a nonsensical position. Slavery was a complex, emotional and uncertain issue. Ergo, let each slaveowner decide for himself? Because that’s what this sounds like to a pro-life person. It’s asking someone who perceives a grave injustice to a defenseless group of people not to be so pushy about it because others disagree that what they’re defending is really on par with the rest of humanity. Given the “it’s a life” premise, not only is a laissez faire unreasonable, it is immoral. The correct action under that premise is to impose, as abolitionists did, against wide opposition, because a greater imposition needs to be fought against, and the rescue of a people demands it.

    By all means object to that premise. I happen to think an ontological conclusion about the unborn doesn’t require an appeal to religion, but that’s a worthy discussion to be had. In “imposing,” though, pro-life supporters are merely carrying their premise through to its moral entailments, so it makes no sense to go after the pro-lifer for being consistent if you don’t have a beef with the starting point. That’s why I don’t understand what the root of a “personal disagreement” is to begin with if it isn’t some affirmation of the life premise. There probably is some nuance if the appeal is one merely to uncertainty (“we don’t know what it is, so we should be careful how we treat it”) but at the very least this rules out the possibility of a private *conviction* that one still refuses to impose on others for concern of intolerance. If you really believe it’s a life, your policy will show it.

    (These are general “yous”; the above is not aimed straight at you, Brian.)

    • CrazyBus

      I agree that pro-choice/pro-life has become too tied to religion. I think the distinction lies with, as you say, the ontological condition of the fetus.
      Pro-life:
      The life of the developing human is as valuable as those already developed and must be protected.

      Pro-choice:
      The life of the developing human, at certain stages, is not as valuable as that of the currently existing human (e.g. the mother), and that existing human has the right to terminate the development.

      I think in cases like rape, allowing abortions are a foregone conclusion.

    • Gobias

      Except a rape fetus is no ontologically different from any other. So foregone politically, maybe, but in applying moral and metaphysical principle consistently, it requires some creative argumentation not to fall into the conclusion that those kids have less intrinsic worth than the rest (if you accept the grammar of “the sanctity of life” to begin with, that is).

      Also, that dichotomy equivocates on the word “life.” Barring the almost-always-excepted case of mother mortality, the mother’s “life” is meant in the sense of the circumstances attendant upon one’s given and continuing existence: the effect of a decision whether or or not to abort is an altered state of affairs within one’s life. The alternative to a fetus’ being carried to term is being dead.

  • The Anti-Yale

    > Slavery was a complex, emotional and uncertain issue. Ergo, let each slaveowner decide for himself?

    I reallize that the RCC had precious little influence in America of the 1800’s, but I don’t recall their having a anti-slavery position.

    Weren’t slaves human life? Just when exactly did this concern for human life become so important to the RCC? During the Crusades, per chance?

    And lest i seem to be picking on the RCC, let me hasten to add that many of the Protestant churches in America during the1 800’s were actually ACTIVELY EVIL, preaching from their pulpits that the Bible sanctioned slavery.

    My understanding of the RCC’s role is that it at least had the virtue of being PASSIVELY EVIL in the face of slavery,i.e. a sin of OMISSION rather than COMMISSION.

    Shame on all of them, and the hypocrisy of this current debate over the sanctity of life given their attitudes toward human life encased in black skin.

    UGH.

  • SAK7

    The one issue here which always disappoints me is that of the closed mind. Especially when encountering such at an institute which is dedicated to expanding the mind. That Mr. McNellis’ position isn’t unusual does not make it less unfortunate. Observe the comment “bizarre and unfounded opposition to contraception.” The teachings are clear and well documented for anyone wishing to invest the time to study them. You don’t have to believe them, but to revel and celebrate ignorance is, to borrow the term, bizarre. Mr. McNellis, I’d suggest you crack open any number of texts examining the teachings of John Paul II on the Theology of the Body and spend half a day attempting to engage the intellect which places you among the best and the brightest of the world’s youth. Speak from a position of knowledge.

  • The Anti-Yale

    > I’d suggest you crack open any number of texts examining the teachings of John Paul II on the Theology of the Body

    What does a lifelong celibate know about the reproductive hormone explosions in a female body, whether he speaks ex cathedra or not?

    A much more beneficial reading of a book by a celibate would be JUST LOVE: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret Farley, a 40-year faculty member at Yale.

    • RexMottram08

      The materialist fallacy: we are all blood and spit and hormones.

  • SAK7

    Brilliant observation. Inquiry should be quick and what better source than YouTube for this feable generation. Don’t do the hard reading… get the Cliff notes or the video review. Toss the Yale name in for instant credibility.

    Now the sceptic might suggest any number of problems with this quickie approach to enlightenment… might point out that Einstein never traveled the speed of light, or that nietzsche was not, in fact, the Uberman (dispite rumers of some snazzy thermal undies with a big U on the chest)… or that the Wright Brothers had no sound basis to believe in powered flight since it hadn’t been done before…

    But if you have a particularly sound reason to persist that the Catholic Church’s opposition is both bizzare and unfounded as asserted in the article in question… absolutely you shouldn’t go to the primary source on that teaching but rather wander up Science Hill (or click on YouTube) to discover the Truth.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Sr.Margaret is an impeccable scholar . Good enough.

    • RexMottram08

      She is a mediocre thinker and stands in an intellectual dead end.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Impeccable.

    Without her “mediocre” thinking your carnal life as a christian would be riddled with guilt.

    Only a masochist would go back to the 1950’s christian guilt trip mentality.

    You may be too young to understand the world we jettisoned in the 1960’s.

    • RexMottram08

      My world is much more Tridentine.

      Farley’s is more tie-dyed.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I voted for Nixon to my eternal shame but I wore tie dyed shirts .

  • The Anti-Yale

    PS

    The loss of the Latin Mass and the sexual revolution killed the Tridentine world in America.

    • RexMottram08

      We can agree on this!

  • The Anti-Yale

    I am a Protestant, but I thought the Latin Mass was beautiful to listen to. The magic was not in its theology but in its serenity.

    Although Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II council rendered the RCC less aloof and more egalitarian; it also manged to capture the essence of Protestantism: Tedious didacticism.

    Rendering the Confessional a vestigial appendage of the RCC experience, increased guilt and mental illness.

    Best intentions . . . .