What's Next for the Reality-Based Community? Fundamentalists score major victories, but where does that leave the rest of us?
November 5, 2004
Over the past few years, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, with the assistance of such
prominent thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have been calling on atheists to
identify themselves as brights, but it never has caught on nearly as much as its proponents had hoped. But in just the past few weeks, another term has achieved far more popular circulation, "the reality-based community."
In his article, "Without
a Doubt," published last month, author Ron Suskind brought the term into print,
perhaps for the first time. He attributes it to an unnamed senior presidential adviser,
who defines it as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of
discernible reality." Recalling his conversation with the aide, Suskind writes, "I nodded
and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism."
The first week in November has been a less than encouraging time for that community.
In the presidential election, a few atheists found valid reasons for preferring the current incumbent to any
of his challengers (the Democratic candidate as well as several third-party and
independent alternatives), but many secular people and even some religious moderates have
been concerned about what George W. Bush alternately has done and
has promised to do in order to court religious fundamentalists in this country--deferring
to religious strictures against stem-cell research, reproductive access, and equal rights
for sexual minorities, and also providing direct federal assistance to religious groups.
None of the above has been particularly heartening for people who believe in scientific
research, advances in health and medicine, personal liberty, or the very wall of
separation between religion and state. In a
statement released Wednesday, November 3, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of
Church and State, is quoted as saying, "The Religious Right is already crowing about
providing Bush's margin of victory. The movement's leaders expect to be handsomely
rewarded for that. The culture war may go nuclear."
Beyond the incumbent securing another four years in office, eleven states featured ballot
initiatives that asked voters to deny same-sex couples the right to marry; on Tuesday,
November 2, the initiatives passed in eleven states. Since the Massachusetts
Supreme Court protected that right late last year in its state, a debate about
same-sex marriage rights has raged on across the nation. In late September, the
leadership of the US House of
Representatives tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block its legality anywhere in the
country by asking its members to vote on a constitutional amendment, which the president
openly supported. And back in February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin
Newsom briefly sanctioned civil marriages between same-sex couples in his city, until
they were stopped and invalidated by the state of California. After Newsom made his bold
move, the Board of Directors of the Atheist Community of Austin weighed in on the issue
resolution in March, announcing its opposition to applying religious strictures to
what is legally a secular institution.
Across the nation, the latest victories by religious fundamentalists seemed complete by
Wednesday, November 3, but in Texas, the struggle continued through Friday.
A final vote on high-school health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education
(SBOE) still was scheduled for Friday, November 5. The proposed textbooks have been
controversial because of their failure to provide medically accurate information about
The Texas State Board earlier held two public hearings on the textbooks. Health educators
and medical experts, who oppose the textbooks, came out in full force for the hearing on July
14. Fundamentalist Christian groups, who support the textbooks in the name of
"abstinence before marriage," dominated the hearing on
September 8. While other textbooks also were being considered this year, the two
hearings focused solely on the proposed health textbooks for high-school
students.rnrnConsequently, the Texas State Board's initial meeting on Thursday, November
4, took an unexpected turn when SBOE member Terri Leo of District 6,
arguably the member most aligned with the Christian right here in Texas, expressed
contention with health textbooks proposed for students in the sixth, seventh and eighth
grades. She faulted one textbook series for failing to include gender-specific language
when discussing sexual attraction and asked that revisions specify that such attraction is
explicitly and exclusively for the opposite sex. In the process, she referred to the lack
of specific gender references as "asexual stealth phrases." She claimed to make her
objections on the basis of Texas law, specifically the state's Defense of Marriage Act,
which denies same-sex couples the right to marry (although it says nothing about the right
After Leo voiced her objections, Don McLeroy of District 9
asked that the publishers refer explicitly to "husband and wife" when discussing marriage
instead of "partners." He tried to justify his recommendation by pointing out the
initiatives against equal marriage rights for same-sex couples that had been passed by
voters in eleven states two days earlier.
By Friday, November 5, publishers had agreed to include definitions of marriage as between
a man and a woman in addition to using the phrase "husbands and wives" instead of
"partners" when referring to spouses.
Yet Mary Helen
Berlanga of District 2 expressed reservations about these revisions, saying that the
Texas State Board's political interference set a very bad precedent. Her colleague David Bradley
of District 7, another supporter of the religious right, had made motions to pass all the
textbooks, except for the high-school textbooks, with all the latest revisions to which
the publishers had agreed, but Berlanga offered substitute motions to approve the books
without those revisions. However, Berlanga only picked up the support of three of her
Nunez of District 1, Joe J. Bernal of District 3,
and Mavis B.
Knight of District 13. Those four are the only Democrats currently serving on this
elected body in a state where the Republican party effectively has been taken over by
Christian fundamentalists. After Berlanga's substitute motions failed, Bradley's won
Then the Texas State Board finally voted on the high-school health textbooks, which were
approved thirteen to one. Knight provided the sole dissenting vote.rnrnIn a press
conference immediately afterwards, Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told reporters, "This
is a sad day for Texas teens. Four million teenagers will rely on these textbooks for
information that is accurate and up-to-date. Instead of doing the responsible thing and
providing high school students with life-saving information about sex and health, the State Board of
Education has left them to fend for themselves and get information from each other and
sources like the internet and MTV."
Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, also was there
to comment on the Texas State Board's dogged insistence on exclusively heterosexual terms
for describing relationships. He suggested that the publishers' compromises result in
textbooks that will be alienating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.
In any event, the issue of separation between religion and state remains underacknowledged
in mainstream political discourse, and the extent of its stakes often has been minimized.
Ironically, the only group that comes close to appreciating its full implications are the
country's religious fundamentalists, who choose to oppose it. Where does that leave the
rest of us?
In televised debates, the president's Democratic challenger, US Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said that
he would not want to impose his own Catholic faith on other citizens, including
"atheists," an explicit reference to nontheistic Americans by a national politician that
is shocking because it is so seldom made. But on Wednesday, November 3, the Senator ended
his concession speech with what he described as a prayer: "God Bless America."
From the officers:
The ACA Lecture Series continues Sunday, March 8th at 12:15pm at the Austin History Center, 9th and Guadalupe. The building opens at noon. Ryan Bell will talk on "My Year Without God: Now a Permanent Condition."