By Charles Dern
December 5, 2012 - With the Christmas season approaching, the now predictable protest by atheists against public displays of creches and the like already have begun. The city of Santa Monica (ironically "Saint Monica") was sued by a Christian group for no longer permitting a nativity display which had been allowed for over sixty years. Elsewhere, in Arkansas, a single parent stopped students from seeing a Charlie Brown Christmas play even though she simply could have opted out her child.
Atheists often cite the so-called wall of separation of church and state and the way in which they do so completely turns the idea upon its head. The phrase nowhere appears in the U.S. Constitution, but in a private letter written in 1802 from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
The problem is that the Danbury Baptists had contacted Jefferson to obtain reassurance that the state of Connecticut, that is the government, could not stop them from worshiping. Thus we have the first point: The primary function of First Amendment of the Constitution (and the "wall of separation") is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around.
One might also note that Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. This period believed that reason was a pure thing in itself and it alone could prove moral norms as well as do scientific investigation. However, a number of thinkers have since demonstrated that reason left to itself ineluctably ends up in going in circles, even in scientific theories. This fact has demonstrated itself amply in current debates over morality. Reason needs a ground or a starting point. Therefore whether you believe in God or not, you must make basic unprovable assumptions about how the world works and why.
Thus atheism is every bit as much founded upon a belief system just like any deistic religion. The difference is that its central doctrine is that matter is the ultimate reality, not a deity. Consider this telling quote from Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewonton, an atheist: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."
Atheists often arrogate to themselves titles like "freethinkers" or "brights," implying that they are smarter those who believe in a deity. But the Lewonton quote hints that there is an "unreasonableness" to denying realities beyond the merely material. This has been amply demonstrated in any number of books such as Robert J. Spitzer's "New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy." Spitzer cites numerous respected cosmologists who point out that the mathematics used to describe the workings of the universe practically demand a Creator. A number of these cosmologists have been converted from atheism to belief in a deity by the force of the evidence. (And a number of biologist have been converted through their study of the human genome.)
Thus the current efforts by some to push religion completely out of the public sphere are faulty on several counts. Secular viewpoints are not "neutral," are not necessarily more reasonable than some religious viewpoints and making them the standard of public policy is not in line with the intent of the First Amendment. But in the end it should be patently obvious that the more we have pushed religion out of public culture, the more coarse our society has become.
Charles D. Dern Ph.D. works full time as an engineer and teaches theology and philosophy at various local universities in the Philadelphia area.