In 1898, Robert Green Ingersoll wrote an essay entitled, What Is Superstition? It contained this excerpt:
The belief in gods and devils has been substantially universal. Back of the good, man placed a god; back of the evil, a devil; back of health, sunshine and harvest was a good deity; back of disease, misfortune and death he placed a malicious fiend.
Mormon candidate for president Mitt Romney, a Republican as was Ingersoll, would agree with the Great Agnostic, at least on this point. Anyone familiar with Mr. Romney’s strong religious beliefs knows that the former Massachusetts governor believes in gods and devils, and credits the former for bringing sunshine and harvest while blaming the latter (a malicious fiend) for disease, misfortune and death.
Should voters care about a candidate’s beliefs about gods and devils? Yes, I think voters should care and would care, if the issues were addressed in very specific ways in public forums.
Do you believe in God? Do you pray? Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Americans expect their politicians to respond yes to these kinds of general questions.
But, what if the questions went deeper? The above questions are almost cliches with the faithful, that is, the nominally faith-based majority. Such questions are too broad to get at what a candidate really thinks – and in Romney’s case, as would have been true of candidates Bachmann or Santorum, what the candidate really believes just might give even otherwise favorably inclined conservatives more than a little pause.
While most Americans claim to be religious and say they believe in God and rarely challenge established norms of supernatural beliefs, I think most would be startled if reporters and others could get Romney to be more specific about his supernatural convictions. If he were just a citizen or a candidate for a lesser office, maybe this would not be such a big deal. But president?
Consider a few other sentences in Ingersoll’s take on superstition:
Is there any evidence that gods and devils exist? The evidence of the existence of a god and of a devil is substantially the same. Both of these deities are inferences; each one is a perhaps. They have not been seen — they are invisible — and they have not ventured within the horizon of the senses. The old lady who said there must be a devil, else how could they make pictures that looked exactly like him, reasoned like a trained theologian — like a doctor of divinity. Now no intelligent man believes in the existence of a devil — no longer fears the leering fiend. Most people who think have given up a personal God, a creative deity. They now talk about the ‘Unknown,’ the ‘Infinite Energy,’ but they put Jehovah with Jupiter. They regard them both as broken dolls from the nursery of the past.
Most adults reason like trained theologians. There is plenty of skepticism but a shortage of nerve to talk about doubts. Most adults have embraced religions and all that came with them during the long years of socialization. They were fed a diet of god-talk, bible fables, angels, ghosts, prayers, magical miracles, told about heaven and hell, the authority of priests and so on. All this Twilight Zone indoctrination arrived unaccompanied by alternate explanations.
This kind of faith only goes so deep. When the ludicrous nature of religion is brought into conscious awareness under certain conditions suitable for rational reassessment, many adults have second thoughts. A pause in consent that is only habitual can lead some to revisit the intellectual appeal of faith contrasted with less familiar explanations from science concerning the natural world.
No better opportunity exists at the moment for sparking this kind of reassessment than the 2012 presidential presidential election. For that, we can thank Mitt Romney.
Here’s a radical idea: Get Romney to be specific about his supernatural beliefs. If non-Romney enthusiasts can do that, enough citizens might take a closer look at the implications of this particular Mormon in the White House. A fuller recognition of his supernatural convictions could swing the election to President Obama. While Obama himself is no Ingersoll, or a even a secularist, compared with Romney he’s Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
I find it hard to believe that even religion-besotted Americans want a commander-in-chief, a leader who will have the power to blow up a good chunk of the planet that embraces the supernatural insanities that animate Mitt Romney.
Let me offer a few questions I’d like to see put to the candidate, the better to prompt Americans to look more closely at Romney’s mental state. The attributions about his beliefs are all found in a speech given at the George Bush Presidential Library – see Michael Luo’s article entitled, Romney, Eye on Evangelicals, Defends His Faith, New York Times, December 7, 2007.
▪ You have called for a robust role for religion in public life. What would you like to see as part of that role that does not exist at present?
▪ You have declared your intention not (to) separate us from the God who gave us liberty. What is the nature of the separation you have in mind and how will you prevent it using the powers of the presidency?
▪ What is the evidence that God gave us liberty, versus the liberties provided by our secular Constitution, as written by the Founders after we gained our independent from Great Britain?
▪ You say you would not separate us from our religious heritage. Is this a role for the president and, if so, what does it entail and how will you prevent such a separation?
▪ What is the evidence for your assertion that the nation’s founders envisioned a prominent place for faith in the public square?
▪ You have criticized those who seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God, claiming that some are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. To what extent would you, as president, work to have God acknowledged in the public domain beyond any such acknowledgement than is now the case?
▪ What would you say to those who affirm that secularism, which you have termed a new religion, is simply the non-presence of deities in government, and thus no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.
▪ You have often stated that a president will need the prayers of the people of all faiths. How do you know this? How does that work? Can a president not succeed if some faiths don’t come through with prayers? Are some prayers more helpful to a president than others? Which ones are best and how do we know that?
▪ You declared: We do not insist on a single strain of religion—rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith. Who is we? Besides welcoming a symphony of faith, how do you feel about a symphony of reason, a quintet of doubt or other combinations from citizen players who prefer no faith at all but rather reliance on critical thinking, evidence and empiricism? Is there an equal place for them in America if you are elected president?
▪ You have stated that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. Billions of people around the world would not agree with that statement, tens of millions of Americans would not, either and, what’s more, it’s doubtful that anyone has any idea what it even means. Why does mankind need to be saved, and how will Jesus do that?
No doubt many Americans will have others such questions, and as the campaign gets going more will be suggested. It would, for instance, be helpful to hear from the candidate about religious ideas that he has not volunteered in his frequent appearances in churches, at religious universities and in forums composed primarily of evangelicals. Here are just a few that would most interest secularists like myself:
▪ Is the God you believe in male, female or something else?
▪ Does “God” speak English? If so, does he/she/it have an accent?
▪ Do you believe every word the Mormon religion professes about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from Egyptian texts? Can you understand why most Americans find this story difficult to believe?
▪ You have talked about having conversations with God. Could you tell us a bit more about these chats? What is the nature of the conversations, how often do they occur, how frequently are you influenced by God’s answers and what does God think about separation of church and state?
For now, answers to these questions will surely encourage original thinking amongst the faithful. If Mitt Romney’s could be induced to be more specific about his superstitions, I believe his prospects for election as president would soon fall in the category Ingersoll described as the broken dolls from the nursery of the past.