There was a time when Josh Rosenau was one of the more reasonable of the anti-gnu brigade. He would occasional make a point I felt was worth listening to and contemplating. But some time in the last year or so, he went completely off the deep end. His latest stunt: He has bought into the absurd comparison between New Atheism and the Tea Party. His justification? Tea Partiers (some of them) say that Obama is a secret Muslim; Jerry Coyne says that Obama is a secret atheist.
Where to begin? On a superficial level, this sounds like a convincing analogy, but just the tiniest iota of honest reflection shows it to be a completely ludicrous comparison.
Now, I need to start off by saying I disagree with Coyne on this one. I think the preponderance of evidence suggests that Obama is sincere in his Christianity (though I do think he considers the literal truth or falsity of it to be irrelevant) and in any case, we ought to respect people's self-identification unless it is clearly erroneous. Obama says he's a Christian; that makes him a Christian. If it turned out the Pope didn't believe in God, would that mean bears didn't shit in the woods?
With that out of the way, let's look at a few things here. Let's start with motivation, because that's the easiest one: Coyne is nominally attempting to discern the truth, and if we dig a little deeper we see he is probably being optimistic. He wishes Obama was an atheist, because a) he thinks an atheist president would do a better job, and possibly b) he admires Obama and so wants to view Obama as part of his tribe. Now, I'm speculating about Jerry's internal subconscious motivations here, and I could be way off -- but the point is, we see that at worst Jerry is being irrationally optimistic. There is certainly nothing nefarious in Coyne's intentions, of that we can be sure.
Contrast this with the Tea Party. It is plainly obvious they are painting Obama as a Muslim in an effort to discredit him. Do we really think there are Tea Partiers saying, "Yeah, it doesn't effect Obama's ability to do his job, but I do think he is secretly a Muslim"? Come on... On a side note, if we imagine a hypothetical devotee of Islam who speculates positively that Obama might be a secret Muslim, while that would obviously be pretty irrational, it's not the kind of attempted slander being perpetrated by the Tea Party. There's a big difference between saying, "I bet this guy is secretly on my team," vs. "Look out, that guy is secretly on the other team!"
Next let's look at what is being claimed. It is a feature of Tea Party conspiracy theories about Obama that he is not only secretly a Muslim, but that he is doing so in an attempt to covertly usher in Islamic influences to American politics -- even that he is seeking to "destroy America". In contrast, Coyne is speculating that Obama is a secret atheist who nevertheless approves of faith, and is simply concealing his unbelief in order to avert prejudice against him. Again, if we imagine our hypothetical Muslim who claimed that Obama was secretly a moderate believer in Islam, that he nonetheless approved of Christianity and other faiths, and that he simply had to hide his true faith in order to maintain electability... well, that's a little crazy maybe, but it does not merit comparison with the Tea Party.
Lastly, let's look at plausibility. Now, I am inclined to take any given politician at her word regarding her faith. But does Rosenau really think there are no closet atheists in American politics?!? That we have never had a congressperson (or even a president! It's a virtually certainly we have) who privately found religious belief to be logically untenable, but kept it to himself anyway? I think it's a safe bet that there are a number of secret atheists in Congress, and at all levels of politics. We know there are plenty of ordinary folks, people who aren't even in the public eye, who have to conceal their atheism from their employer. Why would it be remarkable if the president happened to be one of those people?
We also know that plenty of churchgoers are secretly atheists. (Fuck, thanks to Dennett and LaScola, we know that plenty of clergy are secretly atheists) Many of these people aren't even hiding their atheism out of fear or anything: They appreciate the communal and ritual aspects of their chosen church, but find true belief to be a fanciful and unlikely position. These people are all over the place.
Now, I must reiterate here that I think Obama is sincere in his faith; reading Dreams from My Father gave me the impression that while Obama was initially drawn to Christianity for the potential of black churches to organize community activism, that he soon became so enamored with the whole thing that he ceased to care about the validity of the truth claims and was willing to swallow the dogma along with the community whole hog. However, the fact that Obama goes to church is not evidence that he couldn't possibly be an atheist. Quite the contrary, it says very little -- especially for someone who has admitted that he joined initially for political reasons, and especially for someone whose employment, and possibly whose very life, would be in danger if he were to come out as a nonbeliever. While I do not believe it to be the case, it is entirely plausible that Obama might have attended Christian churches for decades and publicly professed Christian faith, while all the time being an atheist.
Is it just possible that Obama did all those things while secretly adhering to Islam? Well, I guess, but it seems far less plausible. For one, it's not hard to imagine an atheist publicly praying to Jesus and not feeling as though she is doing anything wrong. It's more difficult to imagine a devout Muslim doing the same thing and feeling like that was okay, that it was not a betrayal of his values. (And if the Muslim in question is not unflaggingly devout, why would he maintain his faith intact through decades of immersion in a different faith community?) For another, when Obama first became involved with Christian churches in Chicago, if he had really been a Muslim at the time it seems somewhat more likely that he would have sought out members of that faith community for the purpose of grassroots organizing. I suppose it's just possible that this very young and politically raw Obama had the foresight and the cold calculating nature to recognize that black Christian churches were a more fertile field for organization, and so to have hid his Muslim faith in order to mine that community... Yes, this is all possible, but it's far more of a stretch than Coyne's rather modest suggestion that he chose to embrace this community despite a disbelief in their central truth claims and dogmas.
So let's check our scorecard: The Tea Partiers' claims that Obama is a secret Muslim are malicious, conspiratorial, and implausible. Jerry Coyne's claim that Obama is a secret atheist is benign or optimistic, matter-of-fact, and (although unlikely in my opinion) at least baseline plausible. The only thing the two have in common is they probably aren't the most rational position.
Rosenau is engaging in a rather sick, twisted, and frankly obvious bit of false equivalence here. The only question is whether he is doing so intentionally and dishonestly, or if he really is that much of a fucking idiot.
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