Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review ~ Under the Glass Stained Ceiling: Atheists Precarious Place in Modern American Politics’

“For the nonbeliever, separation of church and state is obviously not about protecting religion from government; it is about protecting themselves from both.” --Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo's ‘Under the Glass Stained Ceiling: Atheists Precarious Place in Modern American Politics’ is a great introduction to the place of atheists in American politics. Written as his Master’s thesis at George Washington University in 2008, Fidalgo slightly revised it and added a preface for publication in early 2012. 

Fidalgo describes the atheist’s lack of political power and the overwhelming power of religion through the backdrop of the 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. This is illustrated by surveys, polls and statistics relating atheist’s political affiliations and the attitudes of their fellow Americans towards them. He covers the potential awakening of atheists to become a political force and those that would stand in their way to intentionally or unintentionally marginalize them. ‘Under the Glass Stained Ceiling’ describes the atheist activists as generally falling into two categories: the ‘policers’ and the ‘instigators.’ The ‘policers’ attempt to correct overreaches by religion and perceived slights against the nontheistic via litigation and legislation. Fidalgo sees them as passionate, but not actually antagonistic towards religion. They have more of a “live and let live” mentality. The ‘instigators’ are far more aggressive on a cultural scale. These are the so-called ‘New Atheists.’ They (and I include myself in this group though I dislike the label) want religion up front and out in the open so it can be discussed, studied, critiqued, and criticized. There is an overview of the lack of open atheists in public office, save for a handful, and a discussion as to whether or not that would be beneficial to secularism. Frankly, and I know Fidalgo was including it to get all sides, but I do not understand how any secularist or non-theist could think it would be a bad thing for such people to hold office. I digress. The book also summarizes some examples of the ‘religion-baiting’ that politicians use to rile up the religionist base and the potential backlash that this could invoke. This baiting and marginalization is not limited to the Republicans on the right.

An added benefit of the book originating as an academic work is that does have a tone of neutrality. It doesn’t paint any one side as sinister, but the realization that these disparate groups have quite a distance between each other. Fidalgo's style is brisk and easy to read (for a master’s thesis this is no simple task) while providing useful statistics and quotes from various personalities along the spectrum.

It is by no means a comprehensive look at atheists and politics in America but it does not need to be and—I think—it is more useful this way. It is a useful introduction to atheists that may want to get involved; but have no idea where to begin or, quite frankly, what they are up against. I also think that it is useful for the ‘hardcore’ atheists who are active in the movement and read large, dense books on a variety of topics. There are some points that I found new, interesting, and challenging and I definitely fall into Fidalgo’s ‘instigator’ category. Conversely, I feel as if it would be greatly beneficial for religious people (the type that may be so inclined) to read about their atheistic family, friends, neighbors place in America and why many atheists are becoming more open and outspoken. They may find some level of understanding or empathy as to why atheists take some of the stances that they do. ‘Under the Glass Stained Ceiling’ does not discuss theology or “truth.” It never gets itself mired in the minutia. It is an evenhanded overview of the reignited culture wars of the past decade as it pertains to the involvement and marginalization of atheists in politics. I hope he writes more on this subject to expand upon and update it. 


Andy said...

I've been in favor of a botoom-up grassroots model of godless politics. If you build the local communities the political power will follow.

Steve said...

From the ground up is always the best way to do it; but I think for that to occur, let alone work, we need a lot more people open and active. I think the quicker path is through a secular coalition including the religious. There are plenty of people that see the logic and need for government divorced from religion. They exist and it would be illogical to dismiss it. People for the American Way come to mind.