Sunday, February 1, 2009

Where's Our Atheist Think Tank?

As I've said many times before, American atheists should be putting more of our efforts into political and organizing efforts, and less into delivering arguments to Christians. If you're here reading this blog, chances are you already agree, though you might not think of it this way, that religion presents a political, and not a philosophical problem. Philosophically speaking, religion is an empty mess of rhetoric - but it does have a real function, often disconnected from its rhetoric, and that function is obtaining political power. At least since the Roman Empire, it has been observed that "the common folk find religion true, the wise find it false and the rulers find it useful" (Seneca).

We freethinkers and secularists are latecomers to this game, and while public discourse is important - for one thing, as long as there's an ongoing and open discussion, religion will lose ground - the Religious Right goes for the political jugular. While you're reading blogs, and I'm writing one, they're knocking doors, and putting people on the major networks' talking head shows, and raising money for "think" tanks that put white papers in front of legislators.

I'm not indicting think tanks in general, or even conservatives, since I consider myself one. But one of my values as an American conservative is the defense of the Enlightenment values the U.S. Constitution (and those of other successful modern nations) is founded on and that have allowed the U.S. to flourish and which modern politicians who brand themselves "conservative" seem to have forgotten all about - like, just for one example, separation of church and state.

To take just one example of a think tank that's eroding that American principle as you read: there is the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which has as its stated goal the protection of Judeo-Christian values in American public life. Their journal, The New Atlantis, takes on issues of ethics and technology with a focus on biomedicine and of course attempts to appear Fair and Balanced; the current issue at this writing contains a lament for the intrusion of secular institutions into the quality of care at Catholic hospitals.

Reason gave EPCC and its rag a bit of a free pass when it started, but that was before they hired Rick Santorum, fresh from his ignominious ouster from the Senate in 2006. That's right. Somebody really looked at Rick Santorum and said, "We gotta have this guy's name on our rolls."

So what can you do? You can donate your money, or perhaps even more valuable, your time, to some of the great pro separation, pro-education, anti-theocracy organizations in your country - in the U.S., three good ones are the National Center for Science Education, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Secular Coalition for America (all in the GET INVOLVED links on the right side of the screen).

As for building an actual atheist think tank that promotes secular values in public policy? The books and blogs and bus campaigns and mainstream press by the heavy-hitters are a good start, but politically effective movements often enucleate around magazines. Which will it be? Reason or Skeptic?