Thursday, November 3, 2011

Trivial Atheism

In my online arguments, the question often comes up - why are you atheists so petty? Why do you seem so obsessed about trivialities, like an invocation prayer before a city council meeting, or a Ten Commandments poster in a public school? Why, in God's name, do you want to yank "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" off the money?

The obvious answer is, of course, "If it is so trivial, why do YOU care?" But that really sidesteps the point, so let's look a little closer at it. Those two phrases, in particular - are they really so trivial?

From the beginning, they were intended as attacks upon atheists. Both phrases have a long history of people pushing for them – but those efforts got nowhere for decades. It wasn’t until 1954 when “Under God” was added to the Pledge, and 1956 that “In God We Trust” was approved as the official national motto. By no coincidence, those actions were passed during the McCarthy Era, as a direct “in your face” attack to the “Godless Communists.” We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the communists that were supposedly hiding behind every bush, so we declared – officially – that to be American meant believing in God. In doing so, we silently declared the obvious corollary – that atheism itself, even if not directly connected to communism, is un-American.

And how are these phrases used today? Well, for starters, hardly anyone says the Pledge itself. Scouts, of course, and I believe some – but not all – public schools still recite it to start the day. And of course, no one ever reads their money, reverently admiring the motto printed upon it. But those two phrases are still in everyday use. Look at the envelopes you get in the mail. I see a lot in my job – a small but noticeable percentage have either “In God We Trust” or (more often) “One Nation Under God” stamped or printed on them. Not “Jesus Loves You” or any other religious message – those two specifically. Look at bumper stickers while you’re on the road. You’ll see a lot of fish placards, church ads, and other religious slogans and greetings – but you’ll also frequently see those two phrases repeated over and over. For bonus points…when you see those two officially endorsed slogans, check to see if one of those other expressions of Christian faith are affixed alongside. More often than not, you can tell exactly which god they trust and are under.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to prevent these private expressions of faith. People can put whatever they want on their envelopes, car bumpers, yard signs, and billboards. But these particular expressions seem disproportionately popular. It appears to me that people want not merely to express their religious beliefs – they want to show that their government endorses those beliefs. It isn’t the private expression I oppose – it is the government endorsement.

While you’re checking bumpers, check the license plates. At least five states currently offer plate designs that include one of those two phrases. Indiana, in fact, tried to offer their version at no extra cost to better encourage people to display their faith on an official government-issued placard. Georgia offers a sticker to be added to the plate at a nominal fee of $1 – probably not enough to cover printing and administrative costs – to be affixed covering the county name on the plates – thus eliminating whatever benefit those county names provide that caused them to be added in the first place. In public schools, where other direct expressions of Christianity have been forbidden as government, those two phrases are often posted as substitutes. In case after case, those two phrases are used to slip religious expression – usually Christian expression – into government settings where it does not belong.

Check out this editorial by the mayor of Tifton, Georgia. Note how he uses “In God We Trust” to support his call to explicitly endorse Christianity. The Supreme Court says that those two phrases are mere “ceremonial deism” with no direct link to any specific faith. Does it look like Mayor Cater agrees with that?

Look at public school teacher Bradley Johnson. He posted huge banners displaying those phrases and others to “celebrate the religious heritage of America” – in his public school math classroom. Note that he claims that forcing him to remove the banners is discriminating against Christians – not deists, not believers in general, but Christians. Does he think those phrases are non-sectarian?

Look over the Congressional Record to see the debate on the recent House Resolution to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the national motto. In example after example, the various representatives cite Christian quotes of how important God is to our heritage. Rep. Harper (R-MS) cited John 15:13. Rep. Franks (R-AZ) claimed “And I would submit to you…if man is God, then an atheist state is as brutal as the thesis that it rests upon and there is no longer any reason for us to gather here in this place. We should just let anarchy prevail because, after all, we are just worm food.” Rep. Aderholt (R-AL) hinted that while knew they could not legislate a Christian nation into being…that’s really what they intended. Rep. Pence (R-IN) thanked Rep. Forbes for introducing the resolution and his “defense of America’s Christian heritage.”

It is possible, from an objective and disconnected point of view, to interpret these two phrases as trivial, non-sectarian, ceremonial deism. But in the real world, that is not how they are used. In reality, they are used over and over again as expressions of specifically Christian faith, as proof of government endorsement of that faith – and as attacks against atheism and atheists. If you see our opposition as “petty” – then you prove only that you are not one of those being called un-American every time the phrases are used.