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Copyright: © 2010 Gary Hardaway
CAN ATHEISTS BE GOOD CITIZENS?
By: Gary Hardaway
Several years ago the eminent public intellectual, Richard John Neuhaus, posed the above, rather cheeky question. Simply asking the question seems insulting, implying that atheists might possibly have some character flaw that would make them bad citizens. On its face, this implied insult seems like a kind of bigotry.
Yet Neuhaus was certainly no bigot. He counted several atheists among his close friends, including the influential philosopher Sidney Hook. The two found common cause in opposing communism (Hook had once been a Communist) and in strongly defending academic freedom. Surely no one could question Hook’s exemplary citizenship, especially not his colleague, Richard Neuhaus. So, what kind of game was Neuhaus playing?
Neuhaus cheerfully admitted that most atheists are decent, respectable, law-abiding folks who pay their taxes and are congenial neighbors and friends. Moreover, many do excellent good works in various spheres of endeavor (medicine, science, law, politics, education, etc.) Some give generously of money and time to charity.
Nevertheless, Neuhaus pointed out that John Locke, the highly esteemed, champion of religious toleration, argued that “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God.”
James Madison, regarded as the most imporatant contributor to the Constitution, agreed with Locke. “Before any man can be considered a member of Civil Society he must be considered a subject of the Govenour of the Universe. “ He must show “his allegiance to the universal Sovereign.” To our modern ears, these statements seem quite intolerant. Why would Locke and Madison say such things? Even if they did, why would we pay any attention?
Does Neuhaus agree with Locke and Madison? In fact he does – for a very special reason. The fatal flaw, as we’ve seen, is not lack of commitment to the public good, nor failure to perform community-enhancing good work. By these standards many atheists outdo believers.
The fatal, disqualifying flaw arises when the atheist encounters the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The atheist cannot agree with the Founders. In honesty he has to say, “Men do not have a Creator. Their unalienable rights do not come from a Creator. They come from another source.”
What might this other source be? Government? But government can take away what it has bestowed. In that case, human rights are not inalienable. Can “society” simply agree on a social contract that assures human rights? Perhaps. But contracts can be broken. What societies agree on in one decade may be rescinded in the next.
Atheists have an insoluble problem. If God doesn’t exist, human beings can have no special value. Who’s to say that we are more important than a baboon or a hyena or a one-celled amoeba.? We have no basis for saying that our lives have purpose, meaning, or significance. We have no solid ground for preferring one kind of community or government over another.
The atheist may prefer a system of liberty and justice but he can’t prove that liberty is better than tyranny or that justice is better than cruelty. His preferences are completely personal, like preferring chocolate ice cream more than vanilla. Others could have totally different personal likes and dislikes.
The believer doesn’t have this problem. If our Creator created us “in His own image, after His own likeness” (Genesis 1:26, 27) we do have great value, significance, and purpose. If God gives us life, no mere human can rightly deprive us of life. If we have a purpose for living, we must have the liberty to pursue that purpose. Our government must respect and reflect this inherent moral order of creation.
A good citizen, Neuhaus asserts, must be able to articulate this compelling moral explanation of why our system is best – the most appropriate for beings made in God’s image. Atheists can’t do this. Believers in God have the proper foundation, but, sadly, few can actually present the case for human rights.
How do you rate? Are you a good citizen?
Gary Hardaway, a regular contributor to the Amy Internet Syndicate, directs Summit School of Ministry in Bellingham, WA.
"Real Answers™" furnished courtesy of The Amy Foundation Internet Syndicate. To contact the author or The Amy Foundation, write or E-mail to: P. O. Box 16091, Lansing, MI 48901-6091; email@example.com
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