Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, popular conservative commentator, and possible 2016 presidential candidate, recently wrote a short piece for National Review Online entitled “Atheist Absurdities.” Writing in response to the U.S. Navy’s removal of bibles from their Navy Lodge hotel rooms—a decision, prompted by pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that, prompted by pressure from other groups, including the American Family Association, they quickly reversed—Carson argues, “If they [FFRF] really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.” The lack of a Bible is, ipso facto, a promotion of atheism, which, according to Carson and many others, is a religion itself. When I first read Carson’s piece, I took it as an example of how religious neutrality is becoming an impossibility—how “we are all religious now.” But I think it actually points to something different. Carson is not asserting a universality of religiosity, where there is no neutral nonreligious and the religious is constituent of our very material being. Instead, he seems to be declaring Christianity, or at least the Bible, as neutral ground. The presence of a bible, then, is equilibrium. The absence of a bible is an “infringement.”
Like many people, including many conservative Christians, Carson argues that atheism itself is a religion, or at least something quite like it. “Is atheism a religion?” is not a question for scholars, especially historians. However, how and by whom this question is posed and answered provides excellent data. “Like traditional religions,” Carson writes, “atheism requires strong conviction,” identifying what I assume is a necessary but not sufficient condition for counting as “religion.” If atheism is indeed a religion, or at least a set of religious beliefs, then it “is extremely hypocritical of [FFRF] to request the removal of Bibles from hotel rooms…[which] imposes their religion on everyone else.” How is it, then, that by supplying a bible, the government is not showing preference to a religion?
This discussion about the politics of religious identity reminds me of a scene from the television show Louie. In one episode, Louis C.K., a comedian, is on a USO tour in Afghanistan. He tries, feebly, to chat over lunch with a fellow entertainer, a 19-year-old cheerleader. As he rambles about never really having known a cheerleader before, she interrupts him to inform him that his stand-up act is disgusting. Then she asks, “Why can’t you say Christian things and be funny?” Louie is incredulous, wondering what sort of “Christian things” she’s talking about, and how they can be funny. A minute later, when Louie shows her a duckling his daughter gave him, he refers to it as a “pretty bad-ass duckling.” The cheerleader laughs and replies, “See? You’re being Christian and funny.” Part of the humor in the scene is the apparent meaninglessness of the phrase “being Christian.” But it’s far from meaningless. What the cheerleader means by “Christian” is “not-disgusting.” In the way that “being clean” implies lack of dirt, “being Christian” in America is often identified by its absences or oppositions. “Christian,” throughout American history, has indicated a variety of negatively defined identities, including not-sinful, not-foreign, not-Catholic, not-sectarian, not-secular, etc. To be is not to be.
In this schema, the absence of Christianity is necessarily anti-Christian, whereas the presence of Christianity is neutral. This is precisely what Tracy Fessenden addressed in her seminal Culture and Redemption: “how particular forms of Protestantism emerged as an ‘unmarked category’” (6). The center constitutes itself by defining a periphery and maintaining the boundary. Only by this process, and as a product of its history, could it be intelligible to argue that the absence of a book is an “infringement” but that book’s presence is not. This is a powerful kind of emptiness.