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By PAUL C. CAMPOS
One of my best friends grew up in the Mormon Church. I asked Steve recently what he thought of Mitt Romney’s statement that. “we need to have a person of faith lead this country.” Steve, unlike Romney, isn’t an orthodox Mormon, but he’s a very thoughtful person, who knows more about religion that just about anyone I know.
Furthermore, Steve takes his own religious beliefs with the utmost seriousness. So his views on this matter were of great interest to me.
Steve’s view is that religious believers of every stripe all have something in common with each other that’s relevant to issues such as who ought to be president. But he’s careful not to overstate the matter: he emphasizes that many Christian churches don’t consider Mormons to be Christians, and that such disagreements aren’t trivial. (A good rule of thumb is that differences of opinion of the sort that have led large numbers of people to kill each other are probably pretty significant).
Still, Steve believes — correctly in my view — that in general the differences between religious believers are less important than the differences between believers and non-believers, and that this distinction is and ought to be relevant to political life.
That belief helps explain why, for example, Americans say they are far less likely to vote for an atheist for president than for members of various groups (women, Jews, ethnic minorities) who have been excluded historically from presidential consideration.
Now among liberals, the knee-jerk reaction to such poll data is to condemn the intolerance it represents. Yet I think there are good reasons for refusing to vote for an atheist for president — subject to the caveat that I also believe genuine atheism, like genuinely orthodox religious belief, is actually quite rare.
Of course there are lots of people who claim to be atheists, just as there are lots of people who claim to be orthodox religious believers. But how many people, at least among the social classes that produce presidential candidates, believe in the orthodox doctrines of Christianity with the same degree of confidence that they believe in, say, the existence of Antarctica?
Naturally it’s considered quite rude to press people on such matters, but in my experience most supposedly orthodox religious belief, on closer examination, melts away into a vague sense of an ultimate moral order, supervised by an even more vaguely conceptualized divinity. Among a lot of liberal Christians, this is asserted openly, to the point where they seem to adhere to a form of Christianity that excludes all specifically Christian beliefs.
Conversely, when one presses a purported atheist, one almost always finds that the person believes in various propositions that simply don’t make sense without a belief in some source of an ultimate moral order, i.e., what most people would call “God.” For instance, almost everyone who claims to be an atheist still makes lots of “ought” statements, as in “we ought to preserve biological diversity,” or what have you.
The latter view is that of the famed biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his new book “The Creation.” Written in the form of a letter to a pastor of the Southern Baptist faith in which Wilson was brought up, Wilson argues that atheists like him and religious believers ought to agree that preserving biological diversity, and therefore in the long run humanity, is a profound moral imperative.
Wilson is a brilliant man, but this kind of thing has always seemed to me nonsensical on its face. After all, the human race has existed for an eye-blink of cosmological time and will certainly cease to exist in another eye-blink or two.
The only response a genuine atheist would have to that fact is, so what? Which helps explain why there are almost no genuine atheists.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)