Uneasy truce proves our strength

Such gatherings are difficult for many to tolerate here in the Bible Belt. Nonetheless, a conference at the Darraugh Center at the University of Central Arkansas later this month dubbed “Reason on the Rock” will provide atheists, agnostics and other skeptical people a forum to discuss their views. The Arkansas Free Thinkers Society and the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, the meeting’s sponsors, report that 150 attendees have already registered.

According to Ann Orsi, vice-president of AFTS, who spoke to the Arkansas News Bureau, “Secular conferences are on the rise around the country.”

She also told reporters that the UCA meeting is being modeled on the larger, national Skepticon conference. Skepticon in turn, grew out of a student organized lecture held on the University of Missouri campus that featured two prominent atheist speakers, P. Z. Myers and Richard Carrier.

One of the most interesting wrinkles in the realm of skeptical thinking regards whether Skepticon is in fact, simply a conclave of atheists. This divide is typified by an online “debate” between J. T. Eberhard, an outspoken atheist and Skepticon organizer, and Jeff Ward, a blogger on the indieskeptics.com discussion board. Eberhard perhaps paradoxically argues it is much more than an atheists’ roundtable, whereas, Ward notes the predominance of atheists and “anti-Christian” topics.

In a world full of myriad Christian denominations — many that have a long-running historical enmity with one another — it’s ironic that their detractors can’t seem to agree, either.

Irrespective of one’s particular profession, the mere fact that we have these schisms speaks to the strength of our democracy and the wisdom of our Constitution. Yes, here in America you are fully free to believe whatever you want. You can subscribe to secular reason or divine providence. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once wrote, “Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others.”

To be clear, this is not easy. Most nations of the world have a demonstrated inability to walk such a thin and wobbly tightrope. Indeed, many of those nations who presently harbor America’s terrorist enemies are the subjects of theocracies — governments where religion and state are fully conflated. For those in our nation who clamor for a tighter connection in the United States, those theocratic nations should provide a strong cautionary tale.

To a similar point, James Madison wisely observed, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Again, such separation requires a level of tolerance that many nations simply cannot countenance. In their haste to coerce conformity, they willingly — if unknowingly — surrender their right of self-determination and religious freedom.

Yes, in America even if “we” are completely, objectively, incontrovertibly correct and “you” are wholly apostate, opposed and closed to our position, we must respect your right to endorse folly.

To this Robert F. Kennedy once argued, “Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired.”

As such, we see that tolerance of those who do not share our most cherished beliefs poses no inherent threat to those beliefs. We don’t have to like it, but it seems to worked pretty well thus far.