Seen from one angle in a two-dimensional image, a cat looking upward to smell its owner’s face looks like a beard. Seen from another angle, it looks like a person at risk of catching ear mites. If you told Francis Bacon or whomever that images of housecats blocking the lower parts of their owners faces would one day delight millions of people, he would say, “Zounds! Accost me not, gypsy! Forsooth!” He just doesn’t have the interpretive framework. Today is Friday, and so much depends on point of view. Won’t you cherish and/or shatter your illusions with me?
The people I know who do not believe in god tend to wind up with the same ethical systems as the people who do. Maybe it’s the beneficent influence of a traditionally religious society; maybe it’s biological, but people of all creeds enjoy consensus on basic altruism. You don’t need the Bible to tell you stealing is bad, for the same reason that you don’t need a referee to play backyard football. Ethical systems are based on actions, results and sometimes motives. Provided they agree on what’s right and what’s wrong, two ethical systems can be functionally congruent while totally disagreeing on why wrong is wrong and not right.
Fun fact: in Austria, you are prohibited from wearing a hat or other headgear in your driver’s license photo unless you are doing so for religious purposes. This policy holds to Austria’s motto, We Promise Never To Be Dicks About Yarmulkes Again, but it also creates an interesting dynamic. We can all agree that a decent society does not prohibit individual religious expression. In the case of the Austrian driver’s license hat, though, all forms of individual expression are prohibited except the religious. It seems we are headed toward that donnybrook of liberal democracies, the scenario in which everyone is treated equally but some people get treated especially equally. Enter Niko Alm: Austrian, atheist, insists on wearing a pasta strainer on his head.
In addition to being every woman I told myself I should just go over and talk to, SE Cupp is also a mystery. She’s a professed atheist who has written a book called Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity. She’s just completed a master’s degree in religious studies at Columbia, and also just asserted her nonbelief on Bill Maher fifty times. [Warning: Maher at his most irritating.] She did the same thing with Sean Hannity, who insisted that she was actually an agnostic.* In an interview with the Daily Beast, she told Benyamin Cohen that ““I knew at a very young age that I didn’t really buy the whole God gamut.” She also told him that as a child she wanted to be a nun. Her columns for the NY Daily News—in which she argues that President Obama has not effectively wielded the power of fear and that we shouldn’t clean up the BP oil spill—suggest that she might simply be a contrarian. Yet she has built her career on aggressively upholding traditional beliefs. Let us not forget, when she argues that the news media naturally attack Christianity because “liberalism and secularism are the standards and anything that crops up against that are the exceptions,” that she is talking about a religion professed by nearly 80% of Americans.
As anyone who has read about the United States in a book will tell you, ours is a country founded on egalitarianism. Let the tottering empires of Europe labor under the notion of a permanent ruling class; America has no king, because America needs no king. Sure, certain of the exceptionally gifted among us will rise to power and prominence, and it’s only logical that those men and women keep their positions for long, illustrious careers. But even from the lofty heights of power they see us at eye level. Ours is not a culture in which a small elect view the rest of us as braying lambs, raised to numbly trot after the herd. No—we live free, with no shepherds to herd us to safety or slaughter. Or, um, maybe that’s totally how it is. Maybe the levers of American power are set hopelessly beyond the reach of any person of average heights, and we live at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Maybe the presidency really is a fifth column with its top higher than our eyes can see, and our only defense is a conglomeration of old families and wealthy industrialists trying desperately to trick us into right action before it’s too late. Both explanations—a nation of free men, a sad school play in which frightened children mumble words they dimly understand—seem equally possible. And either explanation is, after all, self-fulfilling. This week, Combat! blog presents evidence for both sides. Is America still operated by Americans? Or have we devolved into a kleptocracy in which corporate money and political aristocracy compete to see whose views they can make our own? More than most questions, this one depends on how you look at it.