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Private Scrutiny

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On a recent episode of Up with Chris Hayes the panel discussed atheism in America. Richard Dawkins provocatively suggested that there isn’t too much discussion of religious beliefs in the public square, but too little. Dawkins believes that private religious beliefs should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other belief candidates may hold.

Hayes, an atheist, strongly disagrees and emphasizes that private and public beliefs are separate because “no one is legislating on transubstantiation.” I don’t need to check the legislative calendar to know he’s right, but I’m not sure that means we should “respect a distinction between beliefs on public matters and public policy and private beliefs.” Superficially, the distinction makes some sense, but practically we run into difficulties.

We don’t treat other private beliefs that way

Candidates get asked questions about their families and other non-public matters all the time. Off the top of my head:

  • Romney’s dog or is Romney an emotionless robot
  • Dennis Kucinich’s UFO
  • The sexual lives of countless politicians

Now, maybe Chris Hayes himself has never brought up any private issues. That’s a respectable position, but the media as a whole doesn’t seem to honor that distinction. “Character issues” either matter or they don’t. Sheltering religious beliefs from criticism is purely convention and cowardliness. Arguably, all the “private” issues that the media currently discuss are far less consequential than a candidate’s faith.

We don’t know in advance what issues will be public

Let’s take a look a few innocuous private religious beliefs:

  • The 2nd Commandment prohibition on images of God’s likeness

Turns out that really caring about drawing heavenly images is why we see deadly riots after Danish cartoons. How strongly you feel about the second commandment will probably affect your response such controversies.

  • Life begins at conception

It wasn’t that long ago that no one ever talked about stem-cell research. But again and again as technology progresses, a naive little conviction that life begins at conception affects public policy. Abortion>In vitro fertilisation>stem cell research>?

  • The Noah’s Ark Myth

We all know that creationist style beliefs about the age of the earth lead to politicians promoting nonsense in science classes. But what if a politician takes a short passage in Genesis 8:21-22 seriously? It’s exactly those words that lead Rep. John Shimkus, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to dismiss global warming as problem. That’s what God told Noah, apparently.

So, should the press assume that evidence-free beliefs will never become a matter of public concern because no one is legislating on them right now?

The Way We Think

Subjecting public figures’ style of thinking to skepticism and examination should not be taboo. If someone credulously accepts nonsense that’s important to know. The media should expect to be loathed. Politeness is never an excuse for the Fourth Estate. We’ll never know every issue that will confront us before we elect our representatives, which is exactly why appraising how they think is so crucial to voters.

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