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Al Gore on Arrogant Atheists

James Still

If the message boards are not yet crawling with the news they soon will be: U.S. Vice President and Presidential candidate Al Gore admitted that he was a born-again Christian. During a 60 Minutes interview, broadcast on Dec. 5, he also attacked nonbelievers--or what Gore referred to as the "anti-religious view"-- calling them "arrogant" and "intimidating . . . making people who do believe in God feel like they're being put down and I don't like that. I've never liked that."

Nonbelievers are arrogant? For shame! Al Gore is sure to fall under the wrath of every online freethought editor for his comments. By the end of the week, it will be the conventional wisdom of outraged atheists, humanists, and agnostics everywhere that Gore is one more in a long line of religious bigots, for whom casting aspersions on reason is seen as a good gimmick for political gain among the religious right. 

Before we arrive at that point, however, let's stop and examine the context of Gore's remarks. He made them during a moment  in which his personal life was under the microscope. As the cameras roll, Gore is seen strolling on the campus of Vanderbilt University while the voice over tells us that just after his tour of duty in Vietnam, Gore enrolled in the Divinity School. "Did you want to be a minister?" the interviewer asks. "I was open to the call," he replies. Gore admitted that he was searching for the meaning of life. "What duty do we owe to our Creator?" he had asked himself at the time. Gore went on to express frustration that born-again Christians are often lampooned by nonbelievers but he admitted that he is uncomfortable when politicians talk about religion all of the time, especially when they use it as a wedge to drive between the separation of church and state. Even so, Gore said that religion was the "foundation of his life" and he stated that he will continue to be "personally guided by religion in his professional life."

Rather than join the bandwagon of outrage over Gore's remarks, I'd rather spend a moment to reflect and to defend him. Many of us nonbelievers are arrogant, incredibly arrogant, and in our single-minded attempt to engage in spiritual cleansing, we often forget that we have no more a monopoly on the truth than anyone else. Yet this reality does not seem to prevent some nonbelievers from howling their indignation loudly, bolstering their own sense of superiority by ridiculing those who believe in God. It is this rigid attitude that unites fundamentalist atheists with their religious cousins in that fundamentalist atheists are not content to revel in their own perfect worldview, but rather they must also prove others wrong in order for them to be right. It is this intellectual elitism that religious believers see when they glance behind them at those atheists who nip at their heels. In the end, this had led to a serious image problem for the rest of us for whom our atheism is not challenged by the coexistence of religious belief.

It is important to notice that Gore never once says that arrogant atheists are wrong for proclaiming their beliefs or even for proclaiming them passionately. Gore says that they are wrong for putting down others who do believe, and in that remark lies the rub. The result of denigrating the beliefs of others, no matter how silly they seem to us, is bigotry and intolerance. Gore attended a divinity school because he was searching for meaning in his life. That search led him to public service and regardless of what one thinks of his political views, no one should look down upon him for honestly searching for answers in his life. After all it is the search, not the discovery, that makes life's journey meaningful. Even though I do not believe that God exists, I strive to keep an open mind toward the matter. There are some--atheists and theists alike--who have already decided down to the last detail what is true and false and thus busy themselves with ridiculing those who do not yet know or agree. But for most of us the search continues. That is as it should be. 



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