When Juan Mendez, an atheist Arizona State Representative was tasked with giving the opening prayers to the legislative session, he offered something that was a little more philosophical.
“Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads,” Mendez said. “I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.”
Here, Mendez attempts to make the ordinary transcendent, replacing the worship of an invisible higher power with the recognition of the beauty of humans working together. The idea that “faith in humanity” should take the place of faith in the supernatural has become increasingly popular amongst modern atheists. Carl Sagan brought this sort of mild-mannered universe-oriented atheism into the popular atheistic imagination. And indeed, Mendez did quote Carl Sagan, saying, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
This appeal to humanity is good in a lot of ways. It undermines the prevailing discourse that one has to be “religious” in order to be good. Participation in America’s political sphere in the last fifty years has required a religious affiliation. Protestant Christianity is preferable, but Judaism is acceptable. Well-meaning spirituality can work in a pinch. And Islam isn’t really a religion anyways. So basically, being “religious” in the political sphere has nothing to do with what you actually believe and do, but your willingness to accept a certain label and attend church enough to keep up appearances. Mendez’s speech is undermining this idea, asserting that atheists can be just as moral as the religious – and, possibly, even making the point that atheists are more focused on what’s going on around them than religious people.
So I guess my main critique of this idea as it appears in Mendez’s speech is that it risks glorifying human action too much. Mendez’s speech is not nationalistic, yet one can easily see how rhetoric which is singularly focused on the glory of temporal, human action could be quite easily adapted for very dangerous, nationalistic purposes.
I’m not trying to say that Mendez is doing any of this in his speech, rather, I just want to say that I don’t think the atheist rhetoric of the good of humanity is without it’s problems. And it’s going to become a powerful rhetoric in America as the atheist movement grows – which it may very well do. It thus deserves continued attention and scrutiny.