Thursday, June 20, 2013

Atheists have beliefs, too.

I am an atheist. If you've been around here long enough, this isn't news to you. But it's probably also not news to you that one of the surest ways to offend me is to suggest that I don't believe in anything. One need not believe in a higher power, an all-mighty being, to have very sincere and deeply-held beliefs about the world. I've been asked (by someone I thought was pretty enlightened and educated) why I'm so opposed to the death penalty if I don't believe in any god. I was a little floored by that question because I didn't know that anyone really equated being an atheist with seeing life as one big hedonistic free-for-all where anything goes.

I believe in a lot of things. I have deeply-held beliefs about what is right and wrong, about how to treat my fellow humans, and how to treat dogs (especially red-headed cocker spaniels). I believe killing people is wrong, so I oppose the death penalty. And for myself, I oppose ever, ever handling a gun. I am that person who would be tortured for the rest of her life if I ever actually had to act in self-defense such that another person died. You can think that's silly, but that's how strongly I believe in not harming another human being.

Somehow, a few years ago I wound up researching a topic for a case that led me to the caselaw about conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. (Stay with me.) I think I was researching the legality of removing prospective jurors from capital juries based on their religious opposition to the death penalty. I think I was looking for research on the idea that one's deeply held moral and philosophical views don't have to be tied to a particular religion to receive some respect under the law. Because, of course, my opposition to the death penalty isn't tied to any particular religion, but it is based on deeply-held moral and philosophical views that fill the same place in me that religious beliefs fill in those who subscribe to a religion.

This research didn't lead to any novel issues for any of my cases, but it did teach me that for US Supreme Court purposes, I was right: that the deeply-held moral and philosophical views of non-believers are respected by the law the same as the deeply-held moral and philosophical views of those who subscribe to particular religions. During the Vietnam War, many young men who were drafted objected, arguing that they were conscientious objectors whose deeply-held moral views did not permit them to take up arms. Young men who had life-long connections to the Quaker Church were being allowed to get out of combat roles without penalty. Young men who were just non-religious pacifists, though, were being imprisoned or otherwise penalized for their objecting. They were being denied protection as conscientious objectors. The US Supreme Court put an end to that. In a line of cases (the most cited of which is U.S. v. Welsh), SCOTUS said that the deeply-held moral and religious views of non-believers were also worthy of respect, saying in essence we can't let people whose sincere moral beliefs lead them to oppose taking up arms get out of combat roles if they can identify a particular religious text they follow but screw those whose sincere moral beliefs stem from something other than a religious text. The bottom line: atheists, too, can qualify as conscientious objectors. Woot!

(I never really worried about that what with not being subject to the draft and being female, but if pressed, I do think I would be able to find enough people who've known me long enough to say, "She really, really couldn't ever raise a weapon against another human being." I hope.)

So it was with this in mind that I read this story about an atheist applying for US citizenship. Margaret Doughty has lived in the United States for over 30 years. The application for naturalization requires applicants to pledge to bear arms in defense of the nation. (Those of us who are born here are never asked to pledge that, which is good for me. I defend my nation's founding principles every day, but not with a gun.) Doughty wrote a thoughtful answer that while the question didn't seem relevant to someone her age (64) and sex, she couldn't lie and had to say she wouldn't be able to hold bear arms. The response? The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services told her she needed to provide a letter from a church! That she belonged to! Ok, not a church: a nonviolent religious organization. She needed to prove that her conscientious objector status was due to religious beliefs.

Which means that after 40 years after Welsh (a 1970 case), officials of the US government are still instinctively discriminating against atheists, implicitly reacting from a view that deeply-held moral beliefs must be tied to a particular religion to be worthy of respect. Oy.

The good news is that the Humanist Legal Center took up Doughty's cause and wrote a sternly-worded letter on her behalf. (I kinda wish my area of law involved more sternly-worded letters because I would enjoy writing them.) In response, the pinhead bureaucrats who insisted she provide a religious affiliation to have her moral objections to war be respected backed down. Doughty's application for citizenship was approved today. So I extend to her the heartiest godless Huzzah I have.

And I would encourage those bureaucratic pinheads to remember in the future that atheists have morals and philosophical beliefs, too. Ours are as deeply-held and as worthy of respect as those of any religious persons. Oh, and would it kill you to know the law as it relates to your job??

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