Today, in a letter addressed to President Joe Biden and the State Department, 15 Congress members on the “Republican Study Committee” claimed the U.S. government is using taxpayer dollars to “promote atheism worldwide.”
If that sounds bizarre to you, you’d be right, because that’s not even close to what’s actually happening.
Here’s the backstory: In April of 2021, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor announced that it would be offering one or two grants totaling $500,000 to groups that wanted to fund a project to “support Religious Freedom globally.” In particular, this money was meant to help people often branded as apostates. Examples of possible projects listed on the website include “legal rights advocacy” (to protect non-theists in majority-religious nations), journalism (to promote dialogue between religion/non-religious people and address mutually beneficial goals of religious freedom for all), and increasing the capacity to document abuses of religious freedom.
As we’ve seen repeatedly in the Freedom of Thought Report released by Humanists International each year, atheists are uniquely targeted in countries where they are in the minority, with punishments including prison time and execution.
All that’s to say: These are important projects! If the U.S. State Department wants to promote religious freedom worldwide, then protecting religious minorities in places where they’re under attack is a good use of funding! And that’s what the funding announcement called for:
[The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s] goal is to ensure everyone enjoys religious freedom, including the freedom to dissent from religious belief and to not practice or adhere to a religion. By not adhering to a predominant religious tradition, many individuals face discrimination in employment, housing, in civil and criminal proceedings, and other areas especially in the context of intersectional identities. DRL’s objective is to combat discrimination, harassment and abuses against atheist, humanist, non-practicing and non-affiliated individuals of all religious communities by strengthening networks among these communities and providing organizational training and resources.
Just to be clear about that last sentence, that is DRL’s objective just with this particular call for grant proposals. The bureau’s overall goal is much broader.
It’s not like promoting religious freedom for atheists is the only item on DRL’s wishlist, either. They’ve offered funding to combat antisemitism online, to promote religious freedom in (majority Buddhist) Burma and (majority Muslim) Bangladesh, to assist freedom of expression in Morocco, and so many other worthy efforts. More to the point: Promoting religious freedom for atheists should not be confused with promoting atheism itself. The government is doing the former, not the latter.
And yet, this morning, well over a year after the call for this particular grant proposal was announced, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, trashed the entire thing and wrote it off as an attempt to “promote atheism worldwide”… which it’s not. He wrote this in the letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken:
We are writing to express our grave concern that the State Department is using appropriated funds to support atheism and radical, progressive orthodoxy across the world.
… As an initial matter, therefore, we would like to know what other United States government programs supported with appropriated funds are being used either to encourage, inculcate, or to disparage any official belief system – atheist, humanist, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise. It is one thing for the Department to be tolerant and respectful of a wide range of belief systems, and to encourage governments to respect the religious freedom interests of their citizens. It is quite another for the United States government to work actively to empower atheists, humanists, non-practicing, and non-affiliated in public decision-making. Any such program – for any religiously-identifiable group – in the United States would be unconstitutional.
… This would be analogous to official State Department promotion of religious freedom “particularly for Christians” in China, with the express goal being to build a corresponding missionary network. Obviously, this goal that would never pass constitutional muster and would be derided by radical leftist bureaucrats in your agency as completely out-of-bounds. So why is this atheist NOFO [Notice of Funding Opportunity] not viewed with similar objection?
The argument sounds reasonable until you look closely. Banks argues that this funding promotes atheism in a way that’s illegal. He says this is analogous to promoting religious freedom for Christians in China, which would NEVER EVER happen.
Except it does happen. All the time. And anyone who looks at the other projects promoted by the agency would know that. Banks neglected to mention that the DRL has, in fact, done exactly what he says they won’t do.
In a similar call for grant proposals to promote religious freedom in Afghanistan, the agency literally mentioned the importance of helping “Shia Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, and others.” A different call for expanding religious tolerance in Mozambique pointed out the prevalence of “religiously motivated discrimination among the various Christian faiths practiced in northern Mozambique.” Yet another call for proposals to support religious equality in Bangladesh highlighted how the “government sometimes fails to hold accountable the perpetrators of mob violence against minority Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi, and Humanist communities.”
All of those are problems. All of these demand our attention. If the United States can assist in protecting religious freedom in places where that’s under attack, no matter who’s under attack, it’s a worthy goal.
What Banks is doing is pretending that one proposal out of many, one that assists atheists specifically, is actually a government endorsement of godlessness. It’s nothing like that. Banks just doesn’t know how to read, or Google, or hire staffers who have any competence in their jobs.
He’s not interested in defending the Constitution. This letter is all about stoking the Culture Wars and angering white evangelicals who will never take the time to dig into the details. There’s a reason Banks, in this same letter, also denounced Black Lives Matter and “Critical Race Theory,” slammed abortion rights, and equated atheism with “Marxism and communism.”
He’s not trying to make sense. He’s just throwing shit at the wall to see if any of it sticks. He just wants the headline. And the propagandists at FOX News gave it to him.
On a side note, the letter says atheism and humanism are “official belief systems,” therefore any defense of them is, by definition, unconstitutional. Like I said earlier, that’s a garbage argument altogether because promoting freedom for non-religious minorities is not synonymous with endorsing atheism, but that specific line includes a strange footnote:
You might think that tweet from the American Humanist Association says something like “Humanism is an official belief system” because why else would he link to it? But no! That’s not what it says! Not even close. This is the tweet Banks linked to:
That’s an old tweet referring to anti-trans comments made by Richard Dawkins. What does that have to do with Humanism being a “belief system”? No clue. Banks just tossed it in there, I assume, because he’s not counting on anyone to closely read his letter.
Also, the letter is signed by a handful of Republican House members including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who was previously lauded by a right-wing atheist group’s leader too dumb to realize Crenshaw isn’t a reasonable person. Crenshaw has previously criticized more insane members of his party, but his signature on this this letter is evidence that he’s part of that extreme flank.