Dr. Matt McCormick is an associate professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University. This past fall semester, he taught the school's first-ever class on atheism.
How did you decide to teach this class?
A course like this has rarely if ever been offered in the U.S., but there is clearly a demand. There have been a number of bestselling books on atheism recently. My blog’s been getting a lot of interest too: www.atheismblog.blogspot.com
When most reasonable people take a long, hard look at the arguments for atheism and the various difficulties with the grounds for believing in God, they conclude that believing in God just doesn’t make sense. But religious beliefs and institutions have such a powerful grip on us that we don’t feel like we can openly acknowledge any doubts.
My goal was for people to leave with a more reflective, sophisticated and thoughtful set of reasons for what they think is true, and to have a better grasp of the arguments for atheism. They weren’t required to hold a particular view. On many papers, students switched sides for the sake of argument.
My students probably got more friction about the course than I did. Just considering this topic can be scary, and it can jeopardize relationships. I am really proud of how thoughtful, civil and sophisticated they were about it.
What’s the political relevance of atheism?
Religion influences how people vote for president, who they put on school boards, what laws they pass, the school curricula they want, who they marry, who they decide to kill and who to bomb. Yet the widespread view is that faith is the only way to arrive at a belief in God. As far as I can tell, that means believing despite a lack of evidence or despite contrary evidence. I am really surprised that that doesn’t strike people as more dangerous.
Since 9/11, a lot of people’s political views have become more religiously charged. Presidential candidates now all talk openly and proudly about how religious they are. They used to be much more mindful of the importance of the separation of church and state.
How do you think state and national politics would be different if atheism were the norm?
Almost 50 percent of Americans think that the Bible is literally true. The majority of them think that all the wild, fantasy imagery of Revelations is actually going to happen in a huge apocalypse, and very soon. Some Christian groups are actually trying to escalate conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors because they think it will hasten the second coming. When you think the end of the world is coming in your lifetime, that’s going to have a substantial effect on the attitude you take about the state of the planet, global warming, or the national debt.
An AP poll recently reported that 1 in 4 American adults did not read a single book last year. Of the few who did, their primary choices were the Bible and related religious works. Americans are buying tens of millions of copies of the Left Behind books. We’re filling our heads with Iron Age views about morality, human origins, science, reality, magic, ghosts and paranormal phenomena. If we feed our minds and the minds of our children only with the Bible, we are in real danger of turning future generations back to a dark age of theological tyranny. Some regions of the U.S. are already moving that way.
Non-belief is the norm in northern Europe. They’ve got much more progressive ideas about health care, foreign policy, drug laws, and social issues.
What do you think of the Unbeliever’s Bill of Rights?
I’m no Constitutional scholar, but it sure looks like to me like it just affirms that unbelievers have all the rights that the Constitution guarantees for everyone. Some recent polling suggests that atheists are about the most reviled people in the country.
Because they have such an affection for religion, people can’t really fathom why anyone would have a problem with the treatment of nonbelievers. Change the money to read “In Allah we trust” and the pledge to say “One nation under Allah,” and everyone will immediately appreciate the fact that these things are not trivial and not consistent with the separation of church and state.
Do you agree with the argument that atheists can be just as intolerant as the religious?
There’s a lot of confusion about “tolerance” in these contexts. Tolerating someone’s religious views does not mean indulging them to have whatever religious beliefs they want without good reasons and without regard for the truth. To hold people to such a low standard of intellectual responsibility is actually disrespectful. We can have an open, civil dialogue about these issues. It’s just not true that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that we all came from Adam and Eve, or that a magical being with superpowers can read people’s minds and grants them wishes, or that the rapture is coming. And as long as we indulge these kinds of irresponsible and dangerous fantasies, we’re putting everyone on the planet in jeopardy.