Obama, the Prayer Breakfast, and Plato

February 6, 2012

Not much has been said in the atheist blogosphere about President Obama’s appearance and remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2. Probably a couple of reasons for this. The appearance in itself is not really news. Sadly, this is just what our presidents, Democrat or Republican, do. Also, I sense that not a few atheists think Obama should be cut some slack on church-state issues—both because he’s better than any alternative (can you imagine President Gingrich?) and because some suspect that on ceremonial occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast, he’s just going through the motions. However, having reviewed his remarks, I think they merit some comment.

First, however, let me comment on the sincerity of Obama’s profession of faith. During his remarks, Obama emphasized that he is a Christian and that he prays each morning. Some atheists have told me they’re convinced Obama isn’t really religious. He’s too intelligent. He makes the requisite obeisance to religion because it would be political death otherwise.

One interesting thing about this take on Obama is that it’s very similar to what many in the Religious Right say. They also think Obama is faking it—although not necessarily because they think he’s too intelligent to be religious.

But unless I’m shown convincing proof otherwise, I’m going to take Obama at his word. To begin, it’s just a prejudice to say that one can’t be intelligent and a believer. There are many different factors that can cause someone to be a believer. It is true that higher education is correlated with an increased level of religious skepticism, but not every one who graduates from Harvard Law School or who has a PhD in physics from MIT is an atheist. For many, religious belief is more of an emotional commitment than it is an intellectual one.

Anyway, there are two things I find noteworthy about Obama’s remarks. First is his emphasis on values, and how religious beliefs can motivate some (presumably including himself) to behave ethically. Nothing terribly new here. However, to the extent we need further evidence that one reason people cling to religion is that they (mistakenly) view it as providing a foundation for morality, the president’s remarks provide that confirmation. The supposed connection between religion and morality is, arguably, religion’s last line of defense, especially when religion is seen as they only secure foundation for morality.

Which makes one of President Obama’s remarks especially interesting, Although Obama does note religion’s alleged connection to values, he also suggests it is possible to have a secular basis for ethics. Specifically, he states, “I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs—from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato” (emphasis added). I’m not an historian of presidential speeches at prayer breakfasts, but it would not surprise me if this is the first time that a president has stated in such a setting that a secular philosophy can provide a foundation for ethics.

Being somewhat familiar with Plato, I’m not sure he’s the best example of a secular moralist, but leave that point aside. The important thing is that Obama has indicated that one can find a basis for morality outside of religion. Sure, it’s nothing more than a nod toward secular ethics, similar to the brief acknowledgement that he gave nonbelievers in his inaugural address. But it’s something. If atheists are ever going to gain acceptance and cease being second-class citizens, Americans must recognize that people can be ethical without reliance on religious texts or revelations.

Of course I’d prefer that the president not go to prayer breakfasts; I’d also prefer that he didn’t pray; and I’d strongly prefer that the president not seek moral guidance in what, objectively speaking, is an incoherent hodgepodge of taboos from barbaric tribes, self-serving edicts from priestly hierarchies, and a dose of commonsense morality—that is, from religious “ethics.” But if we have a president who’s religious—and that’s the likely reality for some time to come—it’s good to have one who at least realizes that religion has no monopoly on morality, and is willing to acknowledge that fact, even at a prayer breakfast.