Of faux pas and First Amendments

    Last week’s commentary criticizing aggressive atheists stirred up a lot of controversy, some of it unintended.
    This week, Chris Satullo reacts to the reaction in his Center Square audio column.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20100228.mp3]

    Well, that stirred things up.

    Last week, I commented, admittedly in an exasperated tone, on the tendency of some secularists to talk about religion in dismissive, insulting ways.

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    I tried to hold a mirror up to such critics, by doing a shtick that portrayed human reason’s role in history in similarly unfair manner.

    This spurred much reaction. I got emails from people of faith, saying things like Bravo and Hell, yes.

    On the other side, some seemed shocked that anyone could be allowed on public radio to confess a belief in God. A few demanded I resign or be fired. I guess I’m lucky no call arose to burn me at the stake.

    Clearly, the piece was not as persuasive as I’d hoped. And I did one really stupid thing, for which I must atone. I quoted an old joke about the deep-blue political tendencies of that wonderful Philadelphia neighborhood, Mount Airy.

    This was dumb, on three counts:

    First, never poke at Philly pride of neighborhood.

    Second, jokes rarely fit well in serious essays.

    Third, humor that works among friends often falls flat with strangers.

    So, to Mount Airy, where so many good friends live, my apologies.

    Next, a word about the First Amendment, much cited in the raging on-line debate.

    Some folks seem to misread this sacred text.

    Here’s the part about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    The First Amendment generally tells the federal government it must not impinge on freedom of conscience, or public acts driven by conscience. It is clearly more concerned about government meddling in religion than the reverse. The establishment clause tells the new federal government not even to think about setting up a national church.

    The amendment does NOT say that people of religious faith must keep quiet about their quaint beliefs, lest they annoy nearby atheists. Activism motivated by the Gospel of Luke is as legitimate as activism motivated by An Inconvenient Truth.

    None of this should be construed as a defense of cringe-worthy ideas such as creationism in schools. But such errors pretty much come in a First Amendment package deal with paragons such as Dr. King, Dorothy Day and Sister Mary Scullion.

    I agree with the secularists on this: No creed should be enshrined as official government policy. Not Catholicism, not fundamentalism, not Hinduism. But not atheism either.

    OK, fire away.

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