Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

God In American Politics

April 3, 2012 1:11 p.m.

Guests: Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologists

Sean Faircloth, author of "Attack of the Theocrats"

Related Story: Richard Dawkins On God In American Politics


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Read Transcript

CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Religious conservatives have become a powerful political force in the United States in recent years. The strength of the religious right has determined elections, forged policy, and overturned court rulings. It's happened here in California with the Prop 8 initiative. Does that political power really reflect the conscience of mainstream America? An emerging group of political secularists say no. They're hosting a seminar on reclaiming politics based on secular morality and the principle of separation of church and straight. And two of the featured speakers are my guests, Sean Faircloth, a legislature from Maine, and author of the book, Attack of the Theocrats.

FAIRCLOTH: Great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Richard Dawkins will also be joining us in a few moments, the renowned evolutionary author. Sean, you'll be here with professor Dawkins in San Diego for an event called a secular society worth saving. Do you see secular society imperiled in America?

FAIRCLOTH: Very much so. That's what I write about in my book. The sun title of which is how the religious right harms us all, and what we can do about it. I often quote Barry Goldwater who said I have no respect for the religious right, those people who remember Barry Goldwater remember him as Mr. Conservative, Mr. Republican. And yet he would not have a chance to get a Republican nomination today because a particular sect has really secured veto power over one of two major political parties in the United States. We are a nonpartisan organization at the Richard Dawkins foundation for reason and science. We think that conservatives and progressives should unite to remove religion from government where unofficial its effect has been particularly invidious over the last 30 years

CAVANAUGH: The Republican Perez liberal primaries that you've alluded to have hinged on issues important to the religious right. Rick Santorum wants religion to play more of a role in the setting of public policy. Do you think this is really what most Americans want?

FAIRCLOTH: Absolutely not. I'm a graduate of the university of Notre Dame, and when Rick Santorum says his stomach is troubled by president Kennedy's great speech from 1960 in Houston about the separation of church and state where president Kennedy, then candidate Kennedy, declared the separation of church and state should be in his words absolute, I think those are in fact the values of most Americans. And it is now time for secular Americans to stand up and speak out. And that's what the event this coming Friday at golden hall is all about so that people can really rally for the true values of our founders.

CAVANAUGH: In your book, the attack of the theocrats, you outlined several instances where you say public money has been spent for religious reasons instead of addressing common social problems. Can you give us an example of that?

FAIRCLOTH: There are many. We layout a ten-point vision of a secular America. And these all redress problems in current law, not if rim Santorum becomes president, but problems that already exist in American law. Everybody knows and should about the religious bias against gay people and women's reproductive rights. But in addition to that, there are laws people aren't so aware of like religious bias in child protection laws that gives greater leeway for so-called faith healing which can lead to effort to arouse situations and sometimes death for children. Land use planning has religious bias at a federal level in it. And tax policy is rampant with religious bias so that it's one thing for a fundamentalist preacher to say women should be subordinate and gay people should be discriminated against, but it's another for that same mega-minister to have a so-called parsonage exemption for his extravagant home where he is enriched by the rest of us taxpayers in the way no one else is. We speak out against these injustices.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't your argument about a secular society is supported by the majority of Americans, how is it the religious right such a powerful political force?

FAIRCLOTH: They're very strategic in running for legislatures and City Councils, and they did if in a savvy way, worked their way into the Republican port so they have tremendous veto power. And since that's only one of two major political parties in the United States , it gives them the appearance of being 50% almost, even though that's not even remotely true. They fight above their weight class, and in some ways you have to take their hat off to them. But now we're wringing it back. And the secular Americans who will be meeting this Friday in downtown San Diego are going to speak out for the Jeffersonion values, Madisonian values on which this nation was founded.

CAVANAUGH: On a recent address that I saw on the Internet, Sean, you talked -- you gave a presentation in a very red state, the conservative state of Kentucky, represented by Ran Paul, and rich McConnell I think is also a Senator from Kentucky, and during that speech, secular groups seem to come out of nowhere to fill up the hall. And it made me wonder, do you think it's difficult to be nonreligious in parts of America now?

FAIRCLOTH: It certainly is, however I think we are underestimating how many secular Americans there are. Just to illustrate by that anecdote you mentioned, when Richard Dawkins spoke at a place called eastern Kentucky university which is in the Bible belt or at least the perception of that, when he spoke this, and I was honored to be the opening speaker, there were 2,300 people in the room. If Senate McConnell of Kentucky or ran Paul of Kentucky said I'm going to speak at eastern Kentucky university, I will bet you bottom dollar, 2,300 people wouldn't show up. And these people were so pleased to see Richard Dawkins but even more pleased to see each other because they realized what they have been told about their voice in America is not true. There are secular Americans, humanist Americans, agnostic Americans, and liberal religious Americans who believe adamantly in the separation of church and state whose voices have not been heard.

CAVANAUGH: I hear that professor Richard Dawkins is now on the line with us. Hello, thank you for joining us.

DAWKINS: It's a pleasure, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I was just talking to Sean about the address that you gave in Kentucky where all of the people seem to just come out of nowhere, these secular groups, people interested in hearing your message in a very conservative state of Kentucky. It made me wonder if people are even afraid to admit that they are nonbelievers in a particular environment like a very conservative state, how can secularists become a political force?

DAWKINS: Well, I think you're perfectly right, and that is exactly what happens. I suspect that it's a critical mass phenomenon, when enough people come out or are encouraged come out, then suddenly many, many, many more will do so. As long as people think they're in a beleaguered minority, they're not going to admit that they don't believe in any sort of supernatural power. But I think that what we can do by going to the Bible belt, and holding these really rather popular, well-attended meetings is show people that they're not alone. And when enough of them realize they're not alone, they'll suddenly start coming out. And then there'll be a critical mass phenomenon, and they will all start coming out.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Dawkins, what have you seen on this tour that you've been on that perhaps has even surprised you about traveling across America giving this message?

DAWKINS: I was hugely encouraged by the reason rally in Washington DC. It was a rainy day, it was not at all a pleasant day, it was very cold. Thousands of people, tens of thousands of people -- one had 30,000 people turned out in the rain and stood there for as much as eight hours while they were entertained and were listening to speeches. It was a very, very encouraging sight.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, and I'll ask you both this, some people would argue that religious voters often say to Americans that they -- we must regain the moral high ground in order to be a great nation. It seems like that is resonant with a lot of people, the idea of becoming a more moral society. I'm wondering what do secularists have as an answer to that typical notion of morality? And I'll start with you, Sean.

FAIRCLOTH: Well, that's a very important issue for me. As a ten-year elected official, I found time and again when the religious right used the word moral, what they meant is let's condemn people about their private sexual matters, which I think is an utterly kegraded use of morality. When you look at the issues we talk about in this tour with professor dawkins and in all of the efforts we work for as, you see the normal choice, the compassionate choice, the reasoned choice is the choice that is secular. So I would challenge them issue for issue, whether it's compassion for our fellow gay citizen, equal treatment of women, whether it's compassionate treatment of children, where there are many religiously biassed laws, we stand toe on toe and say our choice is the moral choice. Because people people are coming this Friday, people should go to the Richard Dawkins San Diego site, and sign up soon if they want to go because we're starting to run out of tickets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And professor Dawkins, who you would you answer that?

DAWKINS: I would agree with that. I think it's preposterous that the religious have hijacked the very word morality. The very idea that you need religion in order to be moral is ludicrous, and actually I think rather disgraceful. If you actually think of where religious people agriculturedly get their morals, from the Bible, you seriously get your morals from the ten commandments, now shalt have no other God before me, keep the Sabbath holy, what on earth has that got to do with the modern world? Those aspects of the ten commandments that actually do have some relevance, like now shalt not kill, do we really need religion to tell us now shalt not kill? What a ridiculous idea! The idea also that people get their morality by being afraid of God, afraid of going to hell, what a barbaric idea! That the only reason you should be good is that you're afraid of being eternally punished in a lake of fire or that you want to suck up to God in order to go to heaven. Morality is not the province of religion. We are going to take morality back into the secular world, and that's one of the main themes of my talk in San Diego on Friday.

CAVANAUGH: And yet at the same time, Professor Dawkins, I would imagine, I would assume, perhaps I'm wrong, that you do embrace people of faith who want to join in this secular movement simply because they feel it's better for society.

DAWKINS: America was founded in secularism, and of course, yes, we embrace those secularists like many of the founding fathers who were religious, many of them were not religious, but some of them were. Secularism is not the same as atheism. Secularism is the belief that religion should be kept out of politics, should be kept out of policy. And that is the -- one of the great gifts that the United States of America has given to the world.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you've mentioned on several occasions, both of you, professor Dawkins and Sean, this event that's happening on Friday in San Diego and sign up early for it, what's going to happen there? What is this event going to be like?

FAIRCLOTH: What I think is most important about it is the opportunity to see now in San Diego that they can come together as a movement. And one of the things that we are newly instituting at is helping our local communities really organize themselves for a secular voice and a humanist and atheist voice in their community. There is no relationship that during my ten years in politics I was lobbied regularly by the religious right, but I did not hear from people who said listen, I think we should treat gay people equally because I follow a set of moral values based on reason and science, not one based on an ancient document or some interpretation of some ancient document. I think we need more of these secular voices bringing the people together at golden hall this Friday night, tell be a moment not just for them to celebrate seeing Richard Dawkins but also to organize among themselves, and that is critically important.

CAVANAUGH: The event is called a secular society worth saving, the role of religion and secularism in public policy. It is at golden hall at the downtown San Diego concourse. Of the program begins at 6:00. I've been speaking with Richard Dawkins and Sean Faircloth. Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us.

FAIRCLOTH: Thank you.

DAWKINS: Thank you.