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Aug 14 2008
McCain/Obama to appear together with Evangelist

According to this article, both presidential candidates will be appearing with "mega-pastor" Rick Warren this Saturday as he asks them each questions. It is an indication of how important religion is to American politics that the candidates agree to this. I think it will be the first time I see them appearing together. This is not an official "debate", but it seems to be just about as important.

One unfortunate thing is that people who base their decisions on "faith" are easily manipulated by their religious leaders who may not be as "holy" as we'd all like, and I think a lot of that has been going on in America in recent years. Also, I think it is unfortunate that what the candidates think about the supernatural is viewed as being as important (or more important) than what they think about more pressing matters such as war, natural resources, diplomacy, the national debt, etc.

Fortunately, I don't think there is anything unconstitutional about this. (Perhaps others disagree...if you think this is a "religious test for public office" then it is.) Presidential candidates are entitled to their opinions about religion and faith, and people are can ask them questions about it. But, as an atheist, this makes as much sense to me as devoting the candidate's first public appearance together to a discussion of the hobbit Frodo and what we can learn from his misadventures with the ring of power. (Come to think of it, I might prefer that.)

The article ends with the paragraph

The discussion will also no doubt be watched closely by Americans of other faiths such as Catholics, mainstream Protestants and Jews -- all voters whom both candidates will want to woo.

I'll add that, whether they want to woo us or not, non-religious people will be watching the discussion as well, and hoping that none of the candidates crosses the line from having their own strong faith to wanting to impose their religion on others.

Aug 19 2008
Re: McCain/Obama to appear together with Evangelist

Also, check out this article from the Washington Post about how the Evangelical voters are different this time around -- apparently at least partly because of Warren's influence.

Aug 20 2008
Re: McCain/Obama to appear together with Evangelist

Oh, and in this Washington Post piece, Kathleen Parker argues that it is an unconstitutional religious test.

It starts out like this:

At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister -- no matter how beloved -- is supremely wrong.

It is also un-American.

For the past several days, since mega-pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church, most political debate has focused on who won.

Was it the nuanced, thoughtful Obama, who may have convinced a few more skeptics that he isn't a Muslim? Or was it the direct, confident McCain, who breezes through town-hall-style meetings the way Obama sinks three-pointers from the back court?

The candidates' usual supporters felt validated in their choices. McCain convinced and comforted with characteristic certitude those who are most at ease with certitude; Obama convinced and comforted with his characteristic intellectual ambivalence those who are most at ease with ambivalence.

The winner, of course, was Warren, who has managed to position himself as political arbiter in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.

The loser was America.

To see the rest, go to

Aug 21 2008
Warren on Atheists

The Humanist News Network reports:

According to the Los Angeles Times, in a sermon to his church the following morning, Warren said that when someone asked him if there was any kind of president he would not vote for, he said: "I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says 'I don't need God. They're saying: 'I'm totally self-sufficient by (myself).' And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It's too big a job."

I have a few remarks for Warren (and anyone else who agrees with this statement).

First, I don't completely agree with the description that atheists think they "don't need God". It isn't as if we think we have some tremendous powers or strengths that allow us to refuse help from God. We just think there isn't a God to help us, and so whether we need his help or not, we've got to do the best we can on our own and that's all that can be done! But, this sort of conversation between Warren and I would probably not get very far. Theists always seem to think that somehow, atheists are being conceited or arrogant, while we on the other hand think that it is arrogant for someone to think that we humans are so loved by the creator of this huge universe (a universe in which we can survive in only a tiny, tiny fraction of the available space) that the creator would personally act to help us with our problems (but only if we worship him in the right way first).

As I said, I think that conversation would not get us anywhere.

But, there is something else I'd like to ask Warren (or any like-minded people about).

Which would be worse, voting for an atheist (who would try to do the best thing humanly possible without worrying about the supernatural) or voting for someone who believes they will be helped by God but are mistaken?

Now, you don't have to be an atheist to think that someone could be mistaken in believing that God is helping them. I think that is something we could all agree happens at least sometimes.

For instance, sometimes we learn that a murderer really believed that they are being commanded by God to do horrible, horrible things. (Wasn't "Son of Sam" one instance of this?) Again, I think that this is a case in which I would agree with most religious people that these murderers are not actually being commanded by God, but rather are simply mistaken or -- perhaps a better description -- really seriously crazy. And, there have been many wars in which both sides insist that God is on their side. Even if there is a God, and he chooses sides in wars, there have still been lots of people who really believed he was on their side when he wasn't.

The problem is, when someone thinks they are hearing from God, they no longer think they need to evaluate the sensibility or the morality of the actions they are being "commanded" to do. After all, the Bible is quite clear about the fact that when you get a command from God, you should follow it whether you think it makes sense or not. And, if you think God is on your side in battle, then you don't need to worry about whether you actually have planned out the battle and the aftermath carefully. After all, the Bible also contains plenty of stories of divinely achieved victories that go against the odds.

For this reason, I would hope that Warren would agree with me that having someone in the White House who honestly believes they "need God's help" and mistakenly thinks they are in touch with God or receiving God's support when they are not, would be a worse thing than having an atheist President.

This, however, makes the question much harder. It is no longer enough to ask the candidate if they believe in God and feel they need God (as Warren asked McCain and Obama last weekend), but we must determine whether they will be able to tell when they are really receiving advice and assistance from God as opposed to misinterpreting their own thoughts on the subject as having a divine source.

By the way, this is not an idle question. Those of us who are atheists (and probably many who are not) think that G.W. Bush made exactly this mistake when he thought that God had told him to invade Iraq. Looking only at the facts in this world -- without reference to the supernatural -- it seemed to me at the time that invading Iraq was both a bad decision (likely to lead to a long drawn out occupation costing money and lives, likely to strengthen Iran, likely to anger many people and swell the ranks of the terrorist groups we were trying to eliminate) and an unreasonable one (there was no reason to think that Iraq was a threat to the US, and we did not have the support of the rest of the world in our unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation). Bush, on the other hand, has claimed that God told him to invade, which of course means that there is no reason to worry about these things. Unfortunately, it seems as if all of my concerns have been justified by what happened (and what didn't happen) in the years since the invasion. So, here is possible example of a president doing the wrong thing because of their mistaken belief that God was helping them.

There have been many leaders who claimed that God was on their side who nevertheless did things that were either ethically horrible or simply disasterous; Adolf Hitler, for example. Perhaps those people were mistaken about what they thought God wanted (could they have been reading the wrong ancient, vague book?) or perhaps they were lying and using religion intentionally to mislead their followers. Either way, it seems that asking someone if they are following God, if they are going to accept help from God, is not a good guide to whether they will be making the right choices. Perhaps Warren believes that he can ask them this question about God, and then ask them what policies they will support and he'll be able to tell who to choose based on which policies are the ones he believes God would really want. But then, this raises an important question: If he can tell which policies are the right ones, shouldn't that be the focus of the questions instead of all of this focus on the supernatural? If there were two candidates, and one had the policies that Warren believed were the Godly ones and that the policies proposed by the other were not correct...then what does the candidate's personal religious views matter?

That, at least, is my own view of this. I do not think we need to ask candidates about religion, because their answers are not at all useful. They could claim that they believe in God and will accept his help and either be mistaken or dishonest about it and we would have no way to know. On the other hand, if we know what policies they support and have our own opinion about which policies are correct, then it makes sense to vote based on that information regardless of their religious views. That's why I do not insist that a politician have the same religious beliefs as me, and don't even care whether they talk to me about their religion, but desperately wish the US media would spend more time talking about the candidate's views on serious policy issues!

Aug 21 2008
president too big a job?

Another response to the idea that "being president of the US is too big of a job for one person and therefore the president must be a theist" is this:

Yes, the very smart founders of the United States of America knew that running a country was too big of a job for one person. That's why, instead of a monarchy, we have a carefully constructed system of government that takes into account the fact that the president is merely a human. That's why the president has a cabinet. That's why there are checks and balances between the different branches of the government (like the fact that the cabinet members must be confirmed by the Senate). That's why the president has to be elected by voters in the first place, rather than being appointed by God or the clergy.

If we really believed that the leader of this country was being inspired and helped by the omniscient, omnipotent and "always good" creator of the universe, there would be no need for all of these controls. Fortunately, the founders were wise enough to realize that the president (whether a theist or an atheist, whether there are gods out there or not) is after all only a person, and created a form of government that works when run by people.

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