by Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin
We, the authors, are atheists. Some will no doubt hold that since atheists abhor religion in all its forms, consistency demands that they oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which in fact is neither a mosque nor at ground zero). The thought is that atheists must oppose the building of any new building devoted to religious observance. But this view about what atheists must believe is false. Abhorrence of religion does not entail abhorrence of the freedom to practice religion. Atheists indeed affirm freedom of conscience, even though they oppose the views to which many are led by their consciences.
We atheists are particularly well placed to speak to public matters concerning religious tolerance. As we have no religion of our own, atheists are especially well practiced at tolerating religion. More importantly, atheists are also keenly attuned to the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for a democratic society. And the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a clash over these very principles. Our view is that those who oppose the Mosque have abandoned fundamental principles at the core of the form of constitutional democracy originated by the United States.
First, consider some facts. America is home to nearly two million Muslims. The vast majority of them obey the law, respect the Constitution, serve their country, pledge allegiance to the United States of America, pay taxes, love their children, live peacefully with their neighbors, give generously to charities, contribute to their communities, work hard, and so on. A considerable number of Muslim citizens were killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11; and many have died since then, courageously serving America in the War on Terror.
Muslim citizens and their families suffered the attacks on 9/11 and their aftermath right along with the rest of America. Thus the most common way of framing the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”– in terms of “them” and “us”– is entirely wrongheaded. Some of “us” are devout Muslims, and Muslims in America are particularly keen to affirm an understanding of their religion that contradicts the view of Islam propagated by the extremists who perpetrated the attacks on 9/11. Insofar as the country embraces the view of Islam that the terrorists promote, it capitulates to the terrorists and insults its Muslim citizens. Those who have adopted the terrorists’ view of Islam basically say to nearly two million of their fellow citizens, “You claim that your religion is peaceful, and even though your behavior confirms this, we do not believe you. We believe the terrorists instead.” This attitude is simply unacceptable. Consider: No one rushes to equate Christianity with the religious views of extremist Christians who murder doctors and nurses, bomb buildings, protest at the funerals of our fallen soldiers, and so on. When committed in the name of Christianity, such acts are called “extremist” not only because they’re extremely immoral and unjust, but also because they rely upon an extreme and hence distorted conception of the Christian faith.
By calling the terrorist acts of 9/11 “extremist,” we in part affirm that they were based on a distorted conception of the Muslim faith. People who oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” deny this; again, they accept the terrorists’ conception of Islam. In doing so, they adopt a crucial component of the terrorists’ view of the world, namely, that a just and peaceful society of persons of different, and even opposed, religious faiths is not possible. Once that position is accepted, the foundation of constitutional democracy is abandoned, and theocracy– the view that social justice and peace is possible only among a people living under a single religious authority– is embraced. Popular opposition to the so-called Mosque, though most frequently portrayed as an expression of uncompromising patriotism, actually requires a betrayal of core commitments of American democracy. What a disgrace.
To be sure, not everyone formulates their opposition in this overtly anti-American way. Some invoke the age-old distinction between the right and the good, claiming that building a mosque at ground zero is unquestionably allowed by law, yet “insensitive” and thus morally wrong. This view looks like a principled stance that affirms the legal rights of Muslims, while also making a moral plea against the so-called Mosque. Yet those who formulate their opposition in this way nevertheless adopt the terrorists’ view of the matter. To say that those who plan to build the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” have the right to build it, but are morally wrong to do so, leaves completely intact the terrorists’ premise that people who adopt distinct and even opposed religious commitments cannot live together peacefully as equals. It is to say, in effect, that the corrupt view of Islam explicitly endorsed by the terrorists and adopted by ignorant non-Muslim citizens in the US entails special moral restrictions on Muslim citizens concerning how and where they can congregate as a community; it is to assert that non-Muslim citizens are permitted to place upon Muslim citizens moral burdens that members of other faiths need not bear. It is thus to embrace the terrorists’ understanding of Islam and to affirm their theocratic vision.
To put the matter in a different way, those who say that building the Mosque would be morally unacceptable because “insensitive,” are actually mired in a contradiction. The call to be “sensitive” makes sense only if it is admitted that Muslim citizens are equal members of our society; for only those who are part of the “us” that is making the request for sensitivity should be moved by considerations concerning which acts are insensitive. But then the view affirms that it is the terrorists’ conception of Islam that ought to prevail in America, thereby revoking the affirmation of equal membership upon which the request for sensitivity rests. In short, if Muslim citizens are equal members of our society, they have the right to build a Mosque wherever it is legal for them to do so, and it is not a matter concerning which non-Muslim citizens should attempt to exert moral coercion. If, on the other hand, the exertion of moral coercion is justified, then it must be that Muslims are not equal members of our society. And that’s the view of the terrorists.
There is a third way in which popular opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is formulated. Some say that because Christian churches are forbidden in certain parts of the Muslim world, there is reason to restrict the building of mosques in the United States. But this is pure rationalization masquerading as reasoning. Such a view affirms that the scope of religious freedom should be determined by foreign powers, in this case, leaders of the most intolerant and strident theocracies. Those who adopt this argument would allow those who openly oppose freedom to set the example for America. This is to concede crucial ground to the terrorists; in fact, it is, again, to affirm the terrorists’ view of the place of religion in society.
In short, those who oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in any of these ways have abandoned one of the most precious commitments at the heart of American constitutional democracy. But the problem is not merely that a crucial principle has been abandoned. The opponents have in addition unwittingly– at least we hope it’s unwitting– embraced an alternate principle that is, in the end, at the core of the theocratic view promoted by the terrorists. Once again, opposition to the so-called Mosque adopts the terrorists’ view of Islam and joins the terrorists in denying that persons of different and even opposed religious faiths can nonetheless live together as equals in a tolerant, just, and stable society.
While it is true that the kind of atheism we, the authors, endorse asserts that the central and distinctive commitments of the world’s most popular religions are all false, we nonetheless uphold freedoms of conscience and religious exercise. And we endorse these freedoms not merely as legal formalities or as regrettably necessary obstacles to tyranny. The freedom to live in accordance with one’s deep-seated convictions about the Big Questions of human life is not a mere luxury; it is a fundamental component of human dignity. Opposition to the Mosque refuses to recognize the dignity of a religious community in New York City that is committed to acting in ways designed to forcefully reclaim their faith from those who have distorted it.
Robert B. Talisse is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Democracy and Moral Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Scott F. Aikin is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of The Regress Problem in Epistemology (Routledge, 2010). Talisse and Aikin are co-authors of the forthcoming book Reasonable Atheism (Prometheus Books).