Monday, January 19, 2015

An atheist's thoughts about MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr, who preached nonviolence as an instrument to repudiate injustice, who helped initiate the civil rights movement in this country, who was assassinated in 1968, would have turned 86 this month. 

Today, Martin Luther King Day, we honor his work in different ways -- we open ourselves up to conversation with new people; we read articles, and take in the insight this author or that author has to offer about this history we are all a part of; we might even attend a service, lecture, or other program where we sit among others in the audience and bear witness with our presence to King's legacy. However: of all the ways we might choose to observe Martin Luther King Day, the least we must do is be mindful that the struggle he and so many others were engaged in is not yet over. Political disenfranchisement, economic inequality, and racial prejudice are not museum pieces, but active components of the society we all share in.

In 1964, not long after he'd been selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, King sat for an interview with the writer Alex Haley. The piece was commissioned by and published in Playboy (partially giving truth to the lame claim: "I read it for the articles"), and was the longest interview with King ever published.

The Playboy Archive has posted the full interview, in two parts, to their Kinja blog, here. Read it! Here's the link again! And one more time! That's three times -- now you have no excuse for not reading it.

Atheists, Humanists, and others committed to the separation of church and state (as a guarantor of equality before the law for us all!), may be surprised, or will perhaps be delighted, by King's response Haley asked for his opinion on the Supreme Court's ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional:
I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother [Alabama governor George] Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the Congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.
That doesn't need any more explanation than this: AMEN.

The rulings Haley refers to are Engel v. Vitale (1962) or Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). The latter case was brought to court on behalf of a young man named Ellery Schempp, who many of us know as a friend, a colleague, and a comrade in the fight for a more just society -- one in which atheist is not a derogatory label, in which the government plays no favorites among the many communities of shared values and beliefs that comprise our melting pot nation, and in which equality is not just a pious abstraction, paid lip service on MLK Day and other civic red-letter dates, but a real concrete state of affairs we might, through our shared effort, and powers of reason and compassion, bring about more quickly.

*      *      *

Here's a further thought from MLK, from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., p.620, 1987:
We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.
I have no problem understanding "a poverty of the spirit" as referring not to supernatural concepts like the soul, but to tangible human characteristics: the will to seek out justice, the willingness to do what's right.

Now, I'm sensitive to the trouble we might run into when we interpret words belonging to one philosophical tradition -- here, they are words spoken by a preacher of Christian gospel, a man who was unflinchingly theistic -- as if they could be universalized. This may not in all cases be appropriate; indeed, it can in many cases be an act of over-interpretation, or of over-writing another person's meaning with our own. In other words, it can be an arrogant failure to listen. With those caveats in mind, I do not think in this case that my
 substitution breaks faith with the message of Dr. King. Rather, in translating his "spirit" into my "spirit", I hope I am only endeavoring to find common ground across a boundary marking differences in belief.

I'll leave you with another example of this sort of translation, one shared with me by Ellery Schempp himself in an email earlier today. MLK wrote: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means."

And here is how Schempp invites people who identify with the aims and work of the secular movement to read this same message:
We must pursue humanist ends through humanist means.
Hey now; that's a message we should all be able to sign on to! For it is a true fact, whatever flavor of theism or atheism we might profess:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.