Letters From An Apostate: Dear Bill Barr, Atheists Are Equal
A response to US Attorney General Bill Barr regarding his speech to Notre Dame Law School in October 2019
Having talked about morality in my previous letter, I wanted to focus on the rest of your speech in this second letter. I think we may find some common ground, but I feel I first need to address more of the challenges you presented to the secular community.
Returning to your speech, you argued that because people can rationalize anything then something external must restrain the individual. Because you disagreed that it should be government, you advocated that it then falls to the transcendent. You continued by saying that the constitution is only for a moral and religious people, and that our system of government is only “suitable and sustainable” for a religious people.
You reviewed the history of America, and observed how we swing back and forth between moral entrenchment and excess, but then you expressed skepticism that the pendulum will swing back this time. You pointed to the “force, fervor, and comprehensiveness” of the attack on the religious today, declaring that what we are seeing is not decay but instead organized destruction. The secularists have marshalled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an assault on religion and traditional values. Then you laughed at the irony that the secular project has become its own religion, complete with the trappings of inquisition, excommunication, and figurative burnings at the stake.
I have tried to digest this — but you poison the dialog with this language. Victimhood is chased like a first place trophy nowadays, and you make no exception as you frame religious people as under attack, victims of “organized destruction.” What are religious people supposed to infer when you talk like this? And what are you driving them toward? By implicitly excluding atheists from the constitution, suggesting the government is not suitable or sustainable by us, and then portraying the secular as militant guerrillas in your midst, you generate skepticism regarding whether we have the same rights, the same welcome, and the same heritage to be proud of. At best you cast us as an “other” and at worst an enemy.
To your point, there are extreme and vocal factions on both sides of the political aisle, and I hope they grow up and learn some grace. You are right in that some very much resemble religions — attacking heretics while being headstrong in their own beliefs with no kindness toward anyone that would think differently than them. They see the devil in everything, and they shouldn’t be surprised at the attention you and other religious people give them. The way I see it, when people carry themselves with all the grace of someone demon-possessed, they should expect to encounter some priests.
But to offer them some defense, you can’t be quick to mock the opposite side for figurative burnings at the stake when the church has overseen and initiated literal ones. A little humility for your own history (and honestly, your present scandals regarding widespread child molestation) would go a long way toward bridging the chasm between us instead of deepening it. Your church gets away with breaking laws because of its political power, not its moral authority. You carry your philosophy with a swagger that pretends like your shit doesn’t stink — which makes your words about the religious being victims all the more frustrating when the whole world is increasingly seeing who the real victims are.
As you continued speaking to the students of Notre Dame, you returned again to the pendulum, and expressed your concern that it may not swing back this time because the government has alleviated the consequences of people shirking their own personal responsibility. The answer to illegitimacy is increased abortion rates, while drug addicts are given safe injection sites, and the very breakdown of the family is shouldered by state-sponsored social programs.
Then you turned to legislation, which you insisted is being used as a battering ram to force religious people to adopt practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith. You proposed that religion is not forced in this country, instead secularism is, and you reminisced on the history of Rome when emperors would compel Christians to honor them as gods instead of leaving them in peace.
I think these are strange examples to be using — illegitimacy rates, safe injection sites, and the “breakdown of the family” — to prove your points. When they’re not obvious non-sequiturs, they seem like generally shallow and weak caricatures of issues that are much deeper. I think that the people of faith that work directly in those situations would take issue with your flippant generalizations of them too. They’re odd statistics to use to illustrate that the world is getting worse simply because it has forsaken a Judeo-Christian foundation for morality.
This negative worldview seems more grounded in petulance than reality. There are so many ways in which the world is getting so much better. There are fewer people in poverty. Diseases are being treated and have in some cases been completely eliminated. Many of us live better than any king or queen did several hundred years ago. Education is more widespread. So many in the world can read. So many can write and find a voice for themselves. There is so much opportunity to do good. We all have so much reason to hope, and we are all so empowered to act. How amazing is it to think that if your office requires you to be anywhere in the world tomorrow — you can be there?
So much in the world is flourishing. By what measurable metrics are you arguing another time was better for people?
But you instead said that the modern day reminds you of ancient Rome. Really? Do you so dishonor the memory of your own martyrs that you would inflate your own circumstances as if you shared their life and death struggles? It serves no one when we can’t distinguish between persecution and a fragile spirit that struggles to live in a free society. People are going to disagree with each other. People are going to live without the approval of everyone else. Freedom necessitates that.
Regarding Roman emperors demanding people to acknowledge them as gods, please be self-aware enough to not do the same thing. I don’t want to be obligated to acknowledge your god either, and that’s exactly why there is separation of church and state. It has been and will continue to be difficult finding that balance of separation, so everything is essentially erring on one side or the other. We have to show each other grace, and have some grit.
As you closed your speech, you advocated that we must maintain the freedom to let people live according to their faith. That the religious must fight back, and not merely hope for moral renewal and a swing back to sanity. Then you underscored that first and foremost the religious must put their principles into practice in their own personal lives, teaching their children that there is such a thing as truth, and that morals are not relative.
I admire your call to people to live these things personally. And I think that’s what all of us want to do — to live our own convictions, to live our personal lives with minimal interference.
And we are also afraid of the same things. We are so similar in this. Neither of us want Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. In knowing how much I don’t want that, I can empathize with your views. In addition to this, I also used to be a Christian — I know the concerns are sincere. Trust that even though I am across the divide — mine are still sincere too.
And I do agree that Christians sometimes face legitimate discrimination — especially in academia as described in Greg Lukianoff’s book Unlearning Liberty. He makes a comment “If you told me twelve years ago that I, a liberal atheist, would devote a sizeable portion of my career to defending Christian groups, I might have been surprised. But almost from my first day at FIRE, I was shocked to realize how badly Christian groups are often treated.” And I look at Greg as an example for myself. I truly believe in freedom of religion and do not want to extinguish people’s faith or erode their freedom to practice it.
I ask for the same in return, because I’m skeptical my faith, my convictions, are given equal consideration. When you question if a person even has the capability to be moral — you dehumanize them. When you portray them as militant and belonging to a larger conspiracy to organize destruction — you paint us as an enemy.
And even if you do view us as enemies — I’m perplexed by something that was very absent in your speech. Jesus explicitly commanded you to pray for your enemies, to do good to those that persecute you. That spirit seems so absent in this, as well as any concern to pray at all. Do you count so little on your god to swing the pendulum “back to morality and sanity” that all the burden falls on mobilizing the churches through fear, anger, and inflated victimhood?
I look across the divide and am confused. Where is your courage to love? Where is your grace? You talk about freedom but the spirit behind your words leaves the aftertaste of listening to people who only want power. You are speaking as the US attorney general, I don’t know what more power you would want. Can you really speak as a victim? Doesn’t this strike you as irony? It seems that frequently your tales are intentionally manipulated to craft a specific narrative.
For instance, in your examples of anti-Christian sentiment in the world, you pointed out how corporations were being forced to offer health care which provided birth control options that violated the business owner’s religious beliefs. You only told a fraction of that story. That specific conflict ended up in court, and The Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious conviction in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Stop playing the victim. The government still works, and it still works to protect the religious. As the attorney general, please also make sure it protects those of us who are not religious.
We cannot make enemies of each other. If we get so frenzied to constantly see the devil in each other, we’ll end up doing his work for him.
I hope this finds you well. Take care.
Christopher, The Apostate