Why Atheists Have No Rights - Part II Date: October 14, 2007 | Author: Steven Novella
Last week I discussed the (charitably characterized) arguments of John Martignoni by which he concludes that atheists have no basis for morality. This week, as promised, I will deal with the second half of his conclusions - that atheists should have no rights under our legal system. He writes:
So, I advocate that those who wish to take God out of our school's, out of our legal system, out of the public square, should be given their wish. After all, if choice is one of their gods, and it is, then let's give them their choice. When it comes to atheists, every one needs to act as if God doesn't exist. As a result, they should have no rights under our system of law, after all, there is no Creator to endow them with those rights. So, I say we should throw them all in jail (without a trial, of course); or perhaps make them work for the public good at minimum wage for their entire lives; or maybe make them work as pooper scoopers in the public parks where folks walk their dogs; or some such thing.
And, furthermore, I say they should have no access to legal counsel nor to our court system nor to any other means of legal redress. After all, the legal system is founded on the belief in a Creator who endows us with our unalienable rights. They don't believe in that Creator, so why should they be upset to not have access to a legal system founded on such a belief?
I acknowledge that Martignoni's views represent an extreme end of the spectrum, but they do contain the poor logic that is common to such beliefs. In a riveting debate between Alan Keyes and Alan Dershowitz, Keyes (a former presidential candidate who is running again this year) echoes many of the arguments of Martignoni, although more eloquently and carefully. But the essence is the same. He said:
But I warn you . . . I warn you . . . . deliver yourself again into the bondage that comes from allowing human power to lay claim to you in the absence of a divine power, and no argument by clever lawyers will get you out of that.
Keyes also argued that the rights given to us by the laws of the US originate from the Christian God and are unalienable. He stopped short of the ludicrous extremes to which Martignoni goes, but I think that has more to do with his presidential aspirations than his logic. Keyes advocates for, in essence, a Christian theocracy in America.
When asked by Dershowitz if he, as president, would appoint an atheist to the supreme court, Keyes (after desperately trying to wiggle out of the question) gives this artful answer:
I would only appoint to the Supreme Court, I would appoint to any position of responsibility in the United States Government where it was in my responsibility to do so, individuals who believed in and accepted the principles of the Declaration of Independence on which this nation was founded. And I find it difficult to believe that you will that accept the principle that the Creator gave us rights when you deny the principle that the Creator exists.
That's a fancy way of saying, "no." His point is that the Declaration of Independence mentions God, and therefore the rights of US citizens stem from God.
Dershowitz deftly responded:
The Declaration of Independence is not the law. It is rhetoric. The Preamble to the Constitution is not the law; it is rhetoric. The law is that no religious test shall be required and you have told us in vague terms, but I think I understand you correctly, that if you were president you would violate the explicit terms of the Constitution by refusing to appoint to the Supreme Court somebody who didn't believe in God's law, namely an atheist.
And that is the essence of my answer to Martignoni. The body of the Constitution is the law of the land, and our founding fathers had the wisdom and insight (being mostly children of the Age of Enlightenment) to use the opportunity of revolution to lock in place a very enlightened set of laws. These laws specifically grant to all citizens the right of freedom of religion, which by necessity means that there is no religious test for citizenship. What Martignoni is proposing is a religious test not only for citizenship but as a prerequisite to being granted basic human rights.
It is a demonstrable fact of history and law that atheists (and all citizens, regardless of their religion or lack thereof) do have rights under the Constitution. Of course the deeper philosophical question is should everyone have equal rights regardless of their personal faith. This is an easy one - we don't need self-appointed gurus to tell us their interpretation of God's will in order to work out by reason alone that, based upon principles of justice, a free and benevolent society should respect individual freedom with regard to things such as personal faith.
Martignoni and those like him would deprive those who disagree with their faith of basic human rights and freedoms. He would round up atheists and put them into forced labor camps. I suppose this would require a special police force to hunt down atheists, drag them from their homes, and then ship them to prison or forced labor. Identifying atheists would be difficult, however, since atheism can occur in people of any race, nationality, sex, or age. There is no outward sign of atheism, so an inquisition will have to work hand-in-hand with the special police force to interrogate all citizens as to their religious faith. First the inquisition will have to define atheism - should it also include agnosticism, secular humanism, and all forms of non-belief? Perhaps this will lead to those of faith displaying their faith more prominently, on their homes and on their selves, so as to avoid the attention of this inquisition.
Of course, atheists could simply deny their lack of faith to the inquisitor, even though they have atheism in their heart and do not practice any faith. So perhaps citizens will have to be secretly monitored to see what they really believe. Their fellow citizens could be encouraged to be alert to any signs of atheism and to notify the proper authorities if they suspect someone of being an atheist. Once identified atheists could be marked in some indelible manner so that they cannot just slip back into hiding.
And why should just professing faith be enough? It is too easy to just say that one believes in God. Perhaps everyone should be required to demonstrate regular religious observance, or knowledge of theology. And once the atheists and other non-believers are dealt with it is a short trip to argue that our laws are not just based upon God but the Christian God - so those of all other faiths don't really have rights under our laws either.
I suspect that Martignoni lacks the intellectual fortitude to see the supreme irony of his self-righteous position, and saying that atheism (rather than his own beliefs) are akin to Hitler.