Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Pledge Project: Three Related News Stories

We are now between 1 and 30 days away from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust'. Today, I am looking at three stories related to the Pledge Project.

The goal of the Pledge Project is to introduce moral arguments into discussing issues like the Pledge of Allegiance in addition to the legal arguments that (at least on the part of secularists) have been about the only arguments used to date.

Story #1: Philidelphia vs. the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts have been leasing land from the city of Philadelphia at a rate of $1 per year for a building that they constructed. However, because of the Boy Scouts' discriminatory policies towards homosexuals and atheists, in 2003 Philadelpha's mayor, John Street, decided that the Boy Scouts can no longer use public lands unless it agrees not to discriminate. The Boy Scouts could continue to use the property, but only at a market rate for the rent (about $200,000 per year).

The Scouts have filed a lawsuit in federal court that the city's decision violates their Constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

The issue of discrimination is a moral issue, but it is vague and ill-formed. For example, the Boy Scouts do not only discriminate against homosexuals and atheists. It discriminates against girls. Yet, there seems to be little complaint about this discrimination. If discrimination against girls is permissible, then it seems there is little reason to complain about discrimination against homosexuals and atheists. If discrimination against homosexuals and atheists is a problem, then those who speak about discrimination need to explain why discrimination against girls is not an issue.

The moral issue that I have not seen raised in this debate – that very much deserves to be raised – is the fact that the Boy Scouts teach children that atheists are incapable of being the best sort of citizen. I wrote about this aspect of the Scouts earlier in the post, "The Pledge Project: House Resolution 5872”. This Resolution involves raising up to $3.5 million for the Boy Scouts with a commemorative coin.

The objection then, and the objection in Philadelphia, is that the government support of the Boy Scouts is similar to the Government putting up billboards – or organizing classes – to teach children that "atheists are incapable of the best form of citizenship.” Since atheists are peaceful and law-abiding citizens (and taxpayers) with no history of violence against the government, the government has no right to be involved in a campaign that atheists are incapable of the best type of citizenship.

This goes beyond the simple claim that "the Boy Scouts do not allow atheists to become members.” We are now talking about, "The government is participating in a program to teach children that peaceful and law-abiding neighbors are incapable of the best form of citizenship.” It is one thing for an organization like the Boy Scouts to exclude people as members.

The Boy Scouts can exclude girls, for example, without declaring that women are "incapable of the best type of citizenship”. If the Boy Scouts were to violate this principle – if the Boy Scouts were to include among its messages that women are morally or psychologically required to stay home and make babies – we can be assured that they would get no government support in spreading its message.

I would like to see this moral argument included in the debate on this issue. However, I have not seen this argument yet.

Story 2: New Zoning Board Member Refuses to Say the Pledge

Newly appointed Zoning Board of Adjustment member Robert Field Jr. sat during the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting. Field said he did so because he doesn't feel reciting the pledge is appropriate for the ZBA, which sits in judgment of other people's business, as in a courtroom.

Field does not object to the Pledge of Allegiance. He says it at Rotory Club meetings. He does not want to say the Pledge when serving on the Zoning Board because of the trial-like nature of its business. He does not want to give those who come to the Court an appearance of bias.

The merits of his argument against the Pledge in his zoning board meetings is not relevant to this post. The relevant fact is that his refusal to say the Pledge is news, and some consider it good enough reason to object to Field holding his position.

Reading the news, we see another instance in which the argument in favor of saying the pledge is that it shows respect for those people who fought for our freedoms (where failing to do so in an insult to them). The argument against saying the pledge is that those who refuse to do so have a right to freedom of speech – a right to the freedom to refuse.

Effectively, the argument is that Field has a right to insult America and those who fought for our freedoms if he wants to.

When [Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth was] told of Field's refusal to participate in the pledge, Pantelakos was incensed. "I'm very upset that anyone would not want to do the pledge. If you live in this country you should do the pledge."

Nobody, as far as I can tell, has pointed out to Representative Pantelakos (who, I want to point out, is a Democrat) that this is the same as saying, "If you live in this country, you should believe in God,” or, "If you do not believe in God, you should not live in this country.”

Until we insert some moral arguments into this debate, the debate in the eyes of the public will be built on the assumption that anybody who refuses to say the Pledge seeks to dishonor those who fought for our freedom and stands against American values. Until we insert some moral arguments people will continue to believe that the dominant issue regarding the Pledge is whether everybody should show respect for the flag, the country, and those who served this country. Or whether some people have a right to disrespect the flag, the country, and those who fought for our freedoms.

Story 3: Beloit Wisconsin city councilor refuses to recite the Pledge.

Rookie Beloit city councilor Sheila De Forest stands mute with her hands clasped in front of her while her colleagues recite the Pledge of Allegiance for each council meeting. Adding fuel to the fire, she responded when asked by the Daily News to explain her, well, inactions: "There are some things I am certainly willing to pledge my allegiance and life to. A piece of fabric is not one of them.”

This case has generated comments such as the following:

. . . if [de Forest] has no allegiance to this country, then which one is she allied with? Doesn't matter, I won't be voting for her again. Mark Blakeman

Ms. De Forest has alienated virtually every veteran who proudly fought for our country and that same flag. . . . The proper thing for her to do is resign immediately, and if not, the council should investigate means to remove her from office. Darryl Peach

Here, as in the other cases, the debate is being carried out among the same terms. The claim is that those who do not say the Pledge insult anybody who has fought for the country, while the defense for those who do not say the Pledge amounts to, "People have a right to insult those who do not serve the country if they want to.”

Yes, they do have a right. But the unquestioned assumption in this case, as with the others, that a person who does not say the Pledge is insulting America, has no loyalty to America, and is insulting anybody who has fought for the country needs to start being questioned. Otherwise, we have a situation where no person can get elected (or can expect to hold onto their seat if they are elected) unless they are willing to support 'one nation under God'.

In other words, the Pledge becomes a virtually insurmountable barrier between secularists and atheists on the one side, and elected office and positions of public trust on the other.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Pledge Project: Apologies and Excuses

There was some news that Kieffe & Sons had apologized for their advertisement in which they told people like me who object to "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto to "sit down and shut up." This caused some bloggers (e.g., PZ Myers of Pharyngula) to prematurely declare victory and to start gloating about our great success.

In fact, there was no apology and, even if there had been, a proper understanding of the moral concepts of apology, excuse, and proportionality would have demonstrated that it was almost as morally outrageous to accept a mere apology in this case.

I want to make some comments on the difference between an apology and an excuse.

An apology says, "What I did was wrong. I recognize this wrong and I recognize that you have good reason to condemn people who do what I did. I deserve your condemnation. Please know that I recognize this fact and will resolve not to be worthy of your condemnation in the future."

An excuse says, "I know that it looks like I did something wrong but, really, it wasn’t my fault. The fates conspired against me. The conclusion, however bad they seem to be, do not justify calling me a bad person. I am really a good person – in spite of appearances."

An example of an excuse is that of a person who runs his car through a crowd of pedestrians. He asserts, "I know this looks bad for me. However, the accident was not my fault. In spite of my efforts to maintain my car, the brakes failed, and that is the reason I hit the pedestrians." This is an excuse. It does not allow us to draw any negative conclusions about the agent.

One of the main properties that distinguish an apology from an excuse is that the admission of wrongdoing implies an obligation to compensate those who were wronged in some way. The person who intentionally (or even negligently) runs his car through a crowd of pedestrians deserves to be punished, and deserves to pay a lot of medical bills (or to have his insurance company do so).

Kieffe & Sons are offering no apology until they admit that they have wronged others and have an obligation to compensate those others for the wrongs done. The wrong in this case is running an advertisement for 90 days that sought to sell hostility towards secularists and atheists.

The proper compensation, in this case, would be to take some action to reverse the harm done. Kieffe & Sons could, perhaps, run another advertisement that explained how many of the truths that we take for granted today were once held by less than 14% percent of the population – from the value of democracy to the right to vote to the wrongness of slavery. In fact, if they want, they can even point out that Christianity itself was once believed by only a handful of people. Clearly it is a bad idea for the majority – simply because they are the majority – to sit down and shut up.

This would demonstrate that Kieffe & Sons are truly sorry for what they have done. However, insofar as they are unwilling to offer any compensation, this is the same as saying that they have done nothing wrong. They may use the word 'apology' – but they are not admitting to any wrongdoing. They are simply using the word as a shield to disarm critics while continuing to insist on the legitimacy of their behavior.

Here is what Rick Kieffe wrote about the advertisement:

Regrettably, the commercial that has prompted the current objection to religious sentiment ("Under God", "In We Trust") was not closely reviewed by our dealership before it went live. The commercial has been replaced.

This is what Kieffe said in a news story about the advertisement:

Rick Kieffe, owner of Kieffe and Sons Ford, said he doesn't regret running the ad, which aired on radio stations in eastern Kern County and the Antelope Valley, but he does apologize for offending anyone.

There is no apology here. Instead, Kieffe has only said, "I am sorry that you overreacted to what I wrote and were therefore offended by something that you had absolutely no right or legitimate reason to be offended by."

Just because an insult contains the words "I am sorry", this does not imply that it is less than anything less than an insult. For world-class bloggers to take this slap in the face and declare victory is embarrassing at best. At worst, it provides people like these with a license to continue to do the same thing.

It certainly is convenient for people like Kieffe that they can market hostility on the airwaves for 90 days, then end it all with a backhanded insult that draws a cheerful "Thank you," from the likes of PZ Myers.

This is actually a repeat of the embarrassing behavior that atheists exhibited when Illinois representative Monique Davis insulted atheists (declaring atheism a philosophy of destruction while executing the duties of her office). She ended by calling up the witness she had shouted at and said, "I am sorry I raised my voice. I was in a bad mood." But she said nothing that admitted to the bigoted nature of her comments. Yet, here, too, the atheist community responded by cheerfully saying, "Thank you."

I felt embarrassed for the atheist community as I watched this – as I watched them suffer the insults of a legislator from her chair in the legislature, watch her give such a feeble apology that left her accusation that atheism is a philosophy of destruction entirely intact, and watch the atheist community cheerfully wag its collective tail as if they had somehow been rewarded by this behavior.

In this type of situation, a sincere apology requires a genuine and explicit admission of wrongdoing – a refutation of the claims for which one is being criticized. "I am sorry I raised my voice" and "I am sorry that you had an unjustified overreaction to the truth" does not count as an apology.

An apology will come with an offer to do something to make up for the wrong that was done. The compensation must be proportional to that harm.

If a legislator condemns atheism as a philosophy of destruction while she is sitting in legislative session, then she must at the very least be willing to go onto the floor of the legislature and repudiate her statements saying that they were wrong, that no good person would make such statements, that she deserves our condemnation, and that she will put extra effort into fighting this type of bigotry in the future (preferably announcing some plan to do just that).

If a business spends 90 days promoting hostility towards atheists then he owes 90 days explaining to those same people why his earlier statements were wrong and why no good person would do what he had done.

Anything less than this is not an apology. Anything less than this should be treated as adding one insult onto another.

When (if) we do get a sincere apology that meets these conditions, then at that point it would be appropriate to respond with forgiveness and not to hold grudges. This posting is not a call to establish a permanent blood feud against those who insult atheists and to never find any sort of apology sufficient. This posting says that there are too vices – the vice of too much forgiveness and the vice of too little, and justice requires something that morality requires an apology that is proportional to the wrongs one is apologizing for.

In fact, we can simply assume that the size of the apology is proportional to the size of the wrong that the agent thinks she has inflicted, such that the back-handed insults the atheist community has received in recent events are just another way of saying, "We did no wrong to start with, so we owe you no compensation."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Pledge Project: Freedom of Speech

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' (somewhere between 0 and 32 days from now), one of the phrases that will certainly be thrown about is “Freedom of Speech”

This phrase is constantly misused. Sometimes it is out of ignorance, but there are those who love to exploit ignorance for rhetorical purposes. Its effect is to muddy the waters of public discourse to either conceal or distract people from the facts of come issue they are interested in promoting.

The type of problem that I am talking about surfaced in the recent blowup over the Kieffe & Sons Ford radio advertisement. The concept of 'a right to freedom of speech' was misused in the advertisement itself, and by those who criticized the advertisement. It was used in a way that suggests that mere criticism or condemnation of a person's position is a violation of freedom of speech.

Point: The right of freedom of speech is not violated until somebody threatens or uses violence against those who make certain claims. Unless and until a threat or actual use of violence occurs, the 'right to freedom of speech' is being respected.

In other words, Do not assert that somebody is violating your right to freedom of speech, and do not allow them to claim that you are violating their freedom of speech, until violence has been threatened or used against those who make particular claims.

Let’s look at how the right to freedom of speech was used within the advertisement itself. The advertisement said (after telling 14% of the population who do not believe in God to sit down and shut up):

I guess I just offended 14 per cent of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case then I say that's tough, this is America folks, it's called free speech.

Here, the right to freedom of speech is being used to deflect criticism. It is being used as if to say, 'Because we have a right to freedom of speech, we can ignore any and all criticism that might be made against what we say'.

However, even the Neo-Nazi and the KKK member has a right to freedom of speech. Their right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to immunity from criticism. If it did . . . well, I would like to hear Kieffe & Sons declare that because the KKK has a right to freedom of speech, it would be wrong to criticize them.

This fact tells us how we should be answering the person who says, "You might be offended by what I said. However, that’s tough. I have a right to freedom of speech."

The response should be something like,

This is, in fact, the response that one should be given when they make a bigoted statement and then assert the right to freedom of speech. "The Nazi and the KKK members also have a right to freedom of speech. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is right."

In other words, "You can't use your right to freedom of speech to hide from criticism."

I want to note that the right to freedom of religion is also misused in this way. People who claim a 'right to freedom of religion' often assert that this means a 'right to immunity from criticism'. It is now commonplace for the followers of any religion to assert, "If you say anything bad about my religion, my holy text, my prophet, my practices, or my positions on any social issue insofar as they are derived from scripture, you are violating my right to freedom of religion."

That’s not true. Here, too, the right to freedom of religion does not translate into a right to freedom from criticism. It implies only a right to freedom from violence. It would be wrong to padlock the doors of the church shut, to outlaw the scripture, and to arrest people who performed the (peaceful) practices of their religion. But it does not violate freedom of religion to condemn the person who holds absurd religious beliefs.

As long as the critic limits himself to the use of words and expressive language to condemn the followers of any given religion, no violation of the freedom of religion has taken place. The right to freedom of religion/speech does not imply a right to immunity from criticism.

The other example of a misuse of the freedom of speech comes from criticisms of the advertisement. The advertisement tells the 14% who do not believe in God to "sit down and shut up." Critics then responded that Kieffe & Sons is not showing respect for the right to freedom of speech.

However, telling people to 'sit down and shut up' does not violate anybody’s freedom of speech. They are not backing up their statement with any violence or any threat of violence. We are all still free to ignore their suggestion.

Many of us did ignore the suggestion – and we did so without reading the slightest hint of a call to violence in the advertisement against those who ignored the suggestion. I know, at least, that I could not find a call to violence within the advertisement. So, any claim that the advertisement displayed a lack of respect for freedom of speech is simply false. It is a misuse of the term.

One of the major problems with misusing the right to freedom of speech in criticizing the advertisement is that it promotes confusion. To the degree that people fail to appreciate that the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence (not a right to immunity from criticism), it makes it possible for people to misuse the phrase for rhetorical purposes. It makes it possible for people to exploit this confusion to defend things (like the Kieffe & Sons advertisement, and some extremely absurd belief systems) that are indefensible. It makes it possible for people to exploit the confusion to condemn others who have done nothing wrong.

Another problem with misusing the right to freedom of speech is that it serves as a distraction. Debate then gets side tracked on some worthless discussion rather than focusing on the real meat of the issue. In the case of the Kieffe & Sons advertisement, charges were thrown back and forth about freedom of speech being violated when it was not being violated. This took attention away from the issue that should have been discussed – whether we should assume that the majority position is always right and the minority position is always wrong.

The real point:

Kieffe & Sons was debating bigotry and defending in on the bases that the bigots are in the majority. However, imagine a Nazi saying, "86% of us believe that the Jews should die. We should tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up." We see this as a very poor argument. Kieffe & Sons needs to come up with something to defend their bigotry other than the fact that bigots outnumber their victims.

All of this talk of freedom of speech on both sides of the debate, other than to recognize that "no threat of violence has been made to no right to freedom of speech has been violated," was a distraction.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals renders its decision, there will be a lot of talk about "freedom of speech" and "freedom of religion" then as well. It would be useful to point out that unless and until somebody starts advocating violence, nobody’s rights are being violated.

"Your right to freedom of speech and your right to freedom of religion is not a right to immunity from criticism. So get over it. Here comes the criticism."

P.S. If any of you might have heard that Kieffe & Sons apologized for their ad, you might want to consider reading their comments to the local news.

Rick Kieffe, owner of Kieffe and Sons Ford, said he doesn't regret running the ad, which aired on radio stations in eastern Kern County and the Antelope Valley, but he does apologize for offending anyone.

Which is about the same as saying, "I apologize for your irrational overreaction to something you were entirely unjustified in being offended by."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Pledge Project: Respect in Minnesota

There was a meeting yesterday (May 27) in Minnesota to discuss a change in the student handbook. (See Vote Split on Rule for Pledge) The current handbook requires that students stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. The Principal of the school suspended three students for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. After these suspensions, a fourth student refused to stand during the pledge (in protest) and was suspended in turn.

After this, the school was informed that the law prohibits the school from requiring students to stand during the Pledge. As a result, the school board met to discuss changing the handbook. Six of the seven trustees met yesterday.

The motion to change the school handbook to conform to the law failed. The vote resulted in a tie, so the motion to change the rule did not pass. The board will try again in June with all seven members present.

Even the three members who voted to change the rulebook have expressed displeasure at having to do so. They do not like the law, but feel compelled to obey it. The remaining three do not like the law either, and feel compelled to ignore it.

It has been my argument that this is the result of years of debate in which people have relied solely on legal arguments to challenge the Pledge of Allegiance and other church-state separation issues. It has generated hostility towards the law that is now strong enough that the law might simply be ignored, or re-interpreted.

The article that I referenced above has a comments section. If you read the comments, almost all of them fall into one of two groups.

Group 1: “Children should be required to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance because they owe respect to all of those who fought for our freedoms.”

Group 2: “Children should not be required to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance because they have a right to freedom of speech.”

Notice that Option 2 does not even question the claim that refusing to stand during the Pledge shows disrespect to others who fought for our freedoms. In effect, Option 2 can easily be taken as saying, “Children have a right to show disrespect for those who fought to protect our freedoms if they want to.” It is consistent with talking about those who sit through the Pledge as one would talk about the Nazi Party. “Yes, I agree with you, what they are saying is despicable and I absolutely condemn what they say. I am merely defending their right to say it.”

But, if sitting through the Pledge is contemptible, then what about those atheists who sit through the Pledge because no honest atheist can pledge allegiance to “one nation under God”?

Furthermore, the purely legal line of reasoning suggests a powerful response. “What is this country coming to if we not only teach our children not to respect the flag and our nation’s values but we protect those who treat our values with contempt?”

It’s time to start a new group.

Group 3: “You can show more respect by refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance than you can by standing it or saying it.”

I added my comment to the comment section attached to this article. However, people need to start going to these meetings and telling not only the school board but the other attendees about the moral objections to having a pledge of allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ to start with.

I would like the news reports of this next meeting to report on somebody who said something like the following:

I would like to thank you for allowing me to have a few minutes of your time.

A citizen can show more respect for those who fought for our freedoms by refusing to stand during this Pledge, with the words ‘under God’, than they can be saying it.

When we teach children to pledge allegiance to ‘liberty and justice for all’ we are trying to teach them that a person who does not support liberty and justice for all is a bad person. He is certainly a bad American.

When we teach children to pledge allegiance to ‘one nation indivisible’ we are teaching them that it is important to support the union. We certainly have good reason to avoid another civil war.

When we teach children to pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ we are teaching them that all good Americans believe in God, and that everybody who does not believe in God are bad Americans.

That last part, when ‘under God’ was added to the Pledge, crosses a line that the government has no right to cross. You have no right to be teaching students that Americans who do not believe in God are bad Americans. You have no right to be teaching children that they should look at their classmates and their neighbors who happen to be atheists with the same contempt that you want them to have for those who do not support liberty and justice for all.

You talk about ‘respect’, but you teach them contempt for neighbors who do not share your religious beliefs.

One of these people who fought for our rights was my father, Technical Sergeant William L. Fyfe. My father joined the army when he was 18 years old. He enlisted, with the intention of making the military his career. He served through the end of World War II through the Korean War, and into the Cold War. He worked for military intelligence, which involved a few missions behind enemy lines.

My father was an atheist.

You owe him your respect. Yet, you insist on starting each day telling the children in your school that an American who does not support ‘one nation under God’ – an American like my father – is as bad as an American who does not support liberty and justice for all. You teach them that my father was a bad American. The claim that in the name of respect everybody else has to stand while you call my father a bad American simply piles one insult onto another.

You want to deny that you are teaching children that my father was a bad American? Tell me that the Pledge is not used to teach children that people who do not support liberty and justice for all are not good Americans. Tell me that the Pledge is not used to teach children that people who do not support the union are not good Americans. Then tell me that you are not teaching them that people who do not believe in God are not good Americans.

I cannot stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I cannot for the life of me stand and join others in saying that my father was a bad American because he did not believe in God. Do you think that those who fought for our freedom deserve our respect. Then show them your respect, then quit saying and quit teaching these children that those who fought without believing in God are bad Americans.

Of course, I am a special position to speak about my father in this way. However, the fact that he was not your father in no way detracts from your right to demand that a local school board, city council, or legislature stop treating people like him with disrespect.

Teach the nation that an American shows more respect for those who fought for our freedoms by refusing to join in the Pledge with the words ‘under God’ than by spitting on Americans who fought for freedom without a belief in God. Teach them that an American who respects all military servicemen will not allow anybody – in particular their own government – to say that servicemen who do not support ‘one nation under God” are as bad as those who do not support “liberty and justice for all”.

Do not let the claim that standing and saying the Pledge means respect for those who fought and respect for America, while refusing to stand implies disrespect for those who fought and for American values. If you allow them to get away with this message, you are simply helping them to teach others (and particularly children), that good Americans say the Pledge and bad Americans do not.

It is absolutely absurd for us to continue to help teach this lesson.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Pledge Project: Sit Down and Shut Up

Kieffe and Sons, a Ford dealership in Mojave, California thinks that I should sit down and shut up. They are running a radio ad that says:

Did you know that there are people in this country who want prayer out of schools, "Under God" out of the Pledge, and "In God We Trust" to be taken off our money? But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Now, since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don't just tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess maybe I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case, then I say that's tough, this is America folks, it's called free speech. And none of us at Kieffe & Sons Ford are afraid to speak up. Kieffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond: if we don't see you today, by the grace of God, we'll be here tomorrow.

Yes, I do know that there are people who want “under God” out of the Pledge. I want the government to quit telling people that it regards a peaceful law-abiding citizen who does not support “one nation under God” to be the unpatriotic equivalent of an American who does not support ‘liberty and justice for all’.

There are people who want “In God We Trust” taken off the money, because the government should not be handing out political leaflets that tell the people, “You are not to think of those who lack trust in God as being one of us.”

As for prayer in schools – I know of nobody who wants the government to ban prayer in schools. I have only heard objections to schools telling students when to pray, how to pray, and to whom to pray. Nobody I know would advocate punishing a student who whispers a prayer before a test or says grace before eating lunch.

But, it is customary for people like those responsible for this add to bear false witness against others. It is often easier to promote hostility towards others by lying about them than by telling the truth.

The reason why Kieffe & Sons think I should sit down and shut up is because 86% of the country are Christians. This leap between 86% believe in God to 86% are Christians is another example of lying for effect. Unless Kieffe & Sons have never heard of people who believe in one or more gods but who are not Christians.

Some people commenting on this advertisement have already pointed out the flaw in that reasoning. It is the same flaw that I used in the book Perspective on the Pledge. Assume that a nation was 86% white, and they voted to support a pledge of allegiance to “one white nation”. Would the fact that 86% are white imply that they are morally permitted to tell the 14% who are not white to ‘sit down and shut up’?

I want to draw another lesson out of this rebuttal. Please note that, in the counter-example above, a person does not have to be black to object to a Pledge of Allegiance to ‘one white nation’. A person can be white and still recognize that it is fundamentally unjust for the government to have children pledge allegiance to a white nation.

Similarly, even if 86% of the nation believes in a God, a person can still believe in God and know that it is fundamentally unjust for the government to teach children to be prejudiced against those who do not support ‘one nation under God’. Any attempt to portray this issue as being one in which only the 14% who do not believe in God can be in favor of removing ‘under God’ from the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ from the money is fundamentally dishonest.

A person only needs to consider whether the government has the right to tell people, “We do not want you to think of those who do not believe in Jesus as being one of us,” or “We do not want you to think of those who are Catholic as being one of us,” to see the moral problem with a government statement that, “We do not want you to think of those who do not trust in God as being one us.”

A person only needs to consider the immorality of a government that says, “Those who do not support one white nation are, in our eyes, as bad as those who do not support ‘liberty and justice for all’ to see the immorality in the government’s pledge to view people who do not support ‘one nation under God’ to be the same as those who do not support ‘liberty and justice or all’.

Certainly, there is no law of nature that prohibits a person from believing in God from also believing that these types of government claims are unjust and immoral. Kieffe & Sons has insulted a great many people who believe in God by claiming, in effect, that everybody who believes in God endorses the bigotry expressed in their advertisement.

Yet, this is only the third dishonesty found in this advertisement so far.

Though it does cause me to wonder whether it would be a good idea to buy a car from a group of people have proved in their advertisement that they are more than happy to bear false witness and make other dishonest statements and inferences when it pleases them to do so.

I also want to note the misplaced appeal to “free speech” in this advertisement (as well as in some responses to it). Free speech, as I have written in the past, is not a freedom from condemnation for what one says. It is a freedom from violanece. Unless and until people start talking about a violent action (including the violence of government prohibitions backed by people with guns), no violation of free speech has taken place.

In a free society, a car dealership has the right to produce an advertisement quoting from Mein Kampf if he believes it will help to sell cars. It is equally within the realm of free speech for others to condemn the advertisement.

Similarly, as a free country, Kieffe & Sons are free to produce their bigoted hate-mongering advertisement, and it would be wrong for anybody to respond to it with violence. Yet, it is not a violation of free speech to condemn the advertisement. In act, the right to freedom of speech includes the right to condemn other peoples’ bigotry. Not to react with violence, but to react by pointing out that no decent, moral, and just person would ever produce or support the injustice and bigotry that Kieffe & Sons ha endorsed in its advertisement.

Telling somebody that they should sit down and shut up (that no moral and just person would make those types of claims) is not the same as forcing them to sit down and shut up. It is only the latter that violates freedom of speech. Condemning bigoted speech is not the same as banning it.

Here, again, it may be useful to point out that there could be problems with buying a car from a dealership whose management has such difficulty telling the difference between right and wrong as those who run Kieffe & Sons.

Finally, I want to point out that the attitudes expressed in this advertisement (that so many atheists and secularists have gotten worked up about) are the same attitudes found in the national motto and the Pledge of Allegiance themselves.

When the national motto says, “You should not consider a person who lacks trust in God to be one of us,” it is easy to see how the owners of a car dealership might come to believe that it is permissible to tell their customers, “We do not consider a person who lacks trust in God to be worthy of our respect.”

When the Pledge of Allegiance equates those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ with those who do not support ‘liberty and justice for all’, it is not unreasonable to believe that they are teaching citizens to treat those who do not value ‘one nation under God’ the way they would treat those who do not value ‘liberty and justice for all’.

It is even interesting to note that, in the eyes of some, it is sufficient ‘protection’ against the charge of discrimination that atheists are not required to actually say the Pledge of Allegiance. What are atheists supposed to do while the rest of the class or the civic group stands and gives the pledge of allegiance?

According to the doctrine endorsed by many people (including many justices), the proper behavior for atheists during the Pledge of Allegiance itself is to sit down and shut up.

I am not inclined to follow this particular advice. As far as I can tell, there is little difference between the Kieffe & Sons advertisement, and a statement by a bus driver in Alabama saying, "Shut up and get to the back of the bus."

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Case of David Habecker

As a clear example of the Pledge of Allegiance (with 'under God') being used to bar atheist from elected positions and positions of public trust, we have the case of David Habecker.

Habecker was a trustee for the city of Estes Park, Colorado, who was removed from office for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He was elected to his position. Then the Mayor announced a new policy of opening each session with the Pledge of Allegiance. At first, Habecker (an atheist) went along with this. However, his conscience got the better of him, and he quit joining this ritual. As a result, the people of Estes Park held a special election (paying tax money to do so) to remove Habecker from public office.

I could not write up the details any better than they appear in the ruling of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for case of David Habecker vs. the Town of Estes Park.

Habecker was elected in 2000 to fill the seat of a deceased Trustee of the Town Board and was reelected to a full four-year term in 2002. As a Trustee, Habecker voted on routine matters such as budgets, appropriations, and hiring and firing of the Town Manager and Town Attorney. The Board consists of six Trustees and the Mayor of Estes Park, who sits as an ex officio member with a tiebreaking vote. Formal Board meetings are held twice a month and are open to the public.

Events giving rise to this litigation commenced on May 11, 2004, at the Estes Park Board meeting, when Mayor John Baudeck announced a new “policy” of opening meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and asked that all present stand and recite the Pledge. Mayor Baudeck led the Pledge at the beginning of each Board meeting thereafter, and was continuing to do so at the time this litigation began.

Habecker joined in standing and reciting the Pledge at the May 11 meeting and several meetings thereafter, but declined to say the words “under God.” By September, according to his deposition testimony, Habecker felt hypocritical reciting even this redacted version of the Pledge, considering that others were unlikely to see that he was omitting the words “under God.” Thus, at the September 14, 2004, Board meeting, Habecker sat silently during the recitation of the Pledge. He explained at the meeting that he did so because of his objection to the use of the words “under God.” Habecker continued to sit silently through the Pledge for the remainder of his service as a Trustee.

Upon learning of Habecker’s refusal to recite the Pledge, three citizens of Estes Park, Dewey Shanks, Norman Pritchard, and Richard Clark formed a committee to recall Habecker from office. Pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 31-4- 501 et seq. the Colorado recall statute, the group collected signatures and filed a petition for Habecker’s recall with the Town Clerk, Vickie O’Connor. As required by § 31-4-502(1)(a)(I), the petition included a statement of grounds for the recall, which read:

Electors suffer a loss of confidence in Mr. Habecker’s ability to represent citizen’s [sic] pride, patriotism, and common decency. Prior to Town Board of Trustees meetings, he purposefully and irreverently chooses to publicly sit, facing away from the flag of the United States, during recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. His defiant behavior occurs because the phrase “. . . under God . . .” offends him. He states he intends to continue until the United States Congress strikes the phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Habecker failed to reveal this violation of his principles during campaigns for election. We consider this omission a deliberate tactic to assure voter ballots towards his election. We consider this tactic unethical and unacceptable.

We respect Mr. Habecker’s right to free speech under the Constitution of the United States, but insist on maintenance of responsibility, accountability, leadership, respect for others, and high standards of public conduct. His vital beliefs regarding church/state personal conflicts were not revealed at the critical time of election.

We do not regard these actions, omissions or motivations honorable [sic], and demand his removal from his elected position. . . .

By a vote of 903 in favor of recall to 605 against, Habecker was recalled as a Trustee. Habecker claims that his stance on the Pledge was the predominant reason for his electoral defeat.

If the Pledge of Allegiance can be used to get an elected official removed from public office, it is not a stretch at all to argue that it is being used to keep atheists and secularists – at least honest atheists and secularists – from getting elected in the first place.

Those who say that the Pledge of Allegiance is not important (that it is just words, that it represents ‘ceremonial deism, and nobody pays attention to it), needs to square their thesis with the fact that a group of citizens were motivated to remove Habecker from office – without even waiting for the next election – for refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance. It motivated them to research the rules for a recall, circulate their petition, get the signatures they needed, sign the petition in sufficient numbers, and vote to recall Habecker in sufficient numbers to remove him from office.

This hardly seems consistent with the thesis that 'under God' is of no political significance.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Pledge Project: A Memorial Day Dilemma

Memorial day presents something of a dilemma for me.

My father was in the military. He joined the army at the age of 18 with the intention of making the military his career. He served through the closing days of World War II, the Korean war, and on into the Cold War. For most of his career, he worked in the military in intelligence. During the Korean war, this meant a few trips behind enemy lines.

My father was an atheist. He joined the military before the Pledge of Allegiance had the words 'under God' in it, and when our national motto was e pluribus unum rather than 'In God We Trust'. He felt that a soldier’s duty was to protect his country – which, in the case of the United States, meant protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

He did not approve of adding 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. A soldier's duty was to his country, not to his church. What was a soldier supposed to do, after pledging allegiance to 'one nation under God', if his church demanded one thing of him but his country demanded something else? No soldier, in his mind, should have his loyalties divided in this way.

My father served in the military, as he intended, until the military transport he was riding in crashed in Japan. He was quite severely injured, and was given a military discharge and listed as 100% disabled as a result. Over time, scar tissue became brittle and internal injuries reopened.

My father died three years ago.

Now, Memorial Day comes along. Several organizations plan Memorial Day events to honor those soldiers who have served their country. However, as I read the announcements, most of those events involve saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Assuming that I went to one of those events, what am I supposed to do?

When they get to the part of the ceremony when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, I could sit while everybody else stands and goes through the ritual. We know how that would look. To everybody else attending (including many of the service personnel), it would look as if I have no respect for those who served this country. It would be taken as an act of contempt.

On the other hand, I could stand and go along with a ritual of pledging allegiance to God. Let's set aside my own objections – that I can make no sense of pledging allegiance to something that is not real. In this case, the relevant issue is the fact that I would be promoting something that my father was against - the idea of military personnel pledging allegiance to something other than their country. I would not be honoring my father any by doing this, I would only be appeasing others.

A third option would be that of standing and pretending to participate in the ritual (rather than actually participating), pretending to pledge allegiance to God while I secretly crossed my fingers or mumbled past the words that I found offensive or spoke only of that which I actually believed. However, these gestures are absurd to the point of being childish. If I behave as if I support these rituals then, in the eyes of everybody else there, I do support these rituals.

To see this, assume that an officer should take his oath in a room full of people such that nobody could not tell that he is simply mouthing the words. Imagine him later claiming, when accused of violating his oath, that he did not take the oath. He merely mouthed the words. At best, this would be taken as naive and childish. If his intention was not to take that oath, he can only discharge his intention by making his refusal obvious and unambiguous. Anything else (like taking the oath and changing a few words while hoping that nobody notices) is to be understood as taking the oath as written.

Another option that I have available is not to go – to leave the ceremonies honoring our soldiers to those who are willing to pledge allegiance to God while doing so. Unfortunately, this has the effect of generating the illusion that only those who believe in God honor our soldiers and their sacrifice. Those who do not believe in God stay home and refuse to show respect. In other words, this is not going to be seen as being much different than going to the ceremony and sitting out the Pledge.

The latter option, where these rituals are left to be the exclusive domain of the theists, compounds the wrongness.

My father wrote to me about one of the Memorial Day celebrations he attended when he was still alive - a ceremony involving an air show (an activity that my father, who had served in the air force, very much enjoyed) that was set up to honor those who served their country – people like my father.

However, with my father in the audience, those running the event decided to read the following (or something very much like it) over the loud speaker:

"In God We Trust" is our national motto.

This is not some Christian, right wing, political slogan.

We adopted this motto because men and women, on principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools.

If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.

If Stars and Stripes offend you, or you don't like Uncle Sam, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet.

We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don't care how you did things where you came from.

This is OUR COUNTRY, our land, and our lifestyle.

Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right to express his opinion and we will allow you every opportunity to do so. But, once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedoms, the right to leave.

They read this to an audience that included my father. My father made service to this country his career, swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution, and willing to do so with his life even though he knew he would not get any heavenly rewards for doing so if he should die. Some things are simply worth the risk.

To my father, the Constitution was worth protecting. Yet, a group of people at a government run Memorial day ceremony decided to tell the audience that those Americans who had ideas like my father, who were willing to defend and protect the Constitution with the one and only life they would ever have, should leave the country, because they were not good enough to be here.

This is how these people decided to thank my father for his service to this country - his decision to make a career out of protecting the Constitution of the United States.

It was a sickening display. Yet, it was what can be expected when Memorial Day celebrations become the exclusive domain of those who 'trust in God' and pledge allegiance, not to the Constitution, but to their particular diety.

A pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God', combined with false but nearly universal assumption (supported by the government) that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' dishonors those who fought to defend this country, creates this type of situation. The government, in supporting this practice, supports a situation where people like my father cannot be honored. Memorial day honors are reserved exclusively for Americans who support 'one nation under God'.

Memorial Day will continue to look like this in the future, until people realize that there are people in the military who do not give any allegiance to 'one nation under God' but to The Constitution of the United States. These people too deserve our respect.

It is disgraceful that, when it comes to honoring those who defend the Constitution, our government allows only two options. You can choose to show no respect to anybody who served this country, or you can join others in respecting only the theists who served this country while denigrating atheists. The option of showing respect for all who served this country - theists and atheists alike - does not exist because a bigoted faction insists on excluding any who do not share their religion from these ceremonies.

So, where do you go to pay respects to the atheist soldier who gave his allegiance, not to God, but to the Constitution?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Pledge Project: Resolution Respecting Atheists

The Pledge Project: Respect for Atheists Resolution

Be it resolved that (insert name of Civic or Government Organization here) condemns any statement that explicitly or implicitly denigrates the moral character or patriotism of any citizen based solely on the fact that the citizen lacks trust in God or lacks a belief in God necessary to honestly pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God'.

I came up with this resolution from hearing a number of people say that the national motto, "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance with "under God" does not denigrate those who do not believe in God.

If this is the case, then let those politicians and civic organizations explicitly give their vote to this proposition. Let them go onto the record as saying that any statement that condemns the moral character or patriotism of a citizen based solely on a lack of a belief in God.

This resolution is particularly fitting for an organization that either has voted or is considering a vote to post the national motto in any public building, or the 10 Commandments, or any other religious display.

I would actually expect the resolution to fail (or to never come to a vote). This is because ‘In God We Trust” and “under God” are meant to deliver the opposite message – that those who do not trust in God are not patriots, and that a requirement to being a good citizen is to support 'one nation under God'. These practices exist to teach the people that those who do trust in God are not to be thought of as 'one of us', and a person who does not support 'one nation under God' has a moral character like that of a person who does not support 'liberty and justice for all'.

But let's not play with words any longer. Let's put the proposition before the legislators (at whatever level of government) and have them state explicitly whether they endorse or reject such a statement.

This should be something that even those who say that I am being too harsh on the issue of the national motto and national pledge should be willing to support. What reason can there possibly be against putting legislators on the spot and having them tell us whether or not they view law-abiding and peaceful atheists citizens as the equal to other citizens in terms of moral character and patriotism.

There are two ways that a legislator can vote on the issue. She can vote to condemn anybody who explicitly or implicitly questions the moral character or patriotism of a citizen based solely on a lack of belief in God. Doing so will make it the official position of the governing body that passes the resolution that they stand opposed to anti-atheist bigotry – the type of bigotry that we find quite common in this society.

It would be useful, wherever this resolution can be passed, to say, "This is the government's official position with respect to those who say that an atheist, insofar as he lacks a belief in God, lacks a moral foundation and cannot be trusted." It would be useful, wherever this resolution can be passed, to say that, "The government’s official position is to condemn anybody who takes the fact that a person (student or adult) who does not say the Pledge of Allegiance allows us to imply anything about his moral character or his patriotism."

On the other hand, the representative can vote "No" on such a resolution. This at least puts anti-atheist bigotry out there in the open for all to see. There will be no more hiding the fact that a particular politician views the atheist as inferior to other citizens in terms of moral character or patriotism. Once it is out in the open, we can start to deal with it. Dealing with anti-atheist bigotry is a lot harder as long as the anti-atheist bigot is allowed to keep his bigotry behind a thin veil. That thin veil allows those who do not want to see this bigotry (those who would condemn bigotry if they were forced to confront it, but who are not being forced to confront it) to pretend it is not there.

So, let's put it out in the open where they no longer have the luxury of pretending.

There is a third option – the option of abstaining. This is where a legislator refuses to cast a vote on an issue. Yet, one can still make political hay about the fact that a legislator or civil leader is unwilling even to say that atheists are the moral and patriotic equal of other citizens. After the politician abstains, he can be hounded, and asked repeatedly, “Do you believe that a person who does not trust in God or who does not pledge allegiance to God can be the moral and patriotic equal of one who does?”

A fourth option – an option that I would expect many civic bodies to take – would be to try to put off the issue and simply never bring it before the body to be voted on. This is where one needs to make a fuss. This is where one starts to collect petition signatures (particularly in and around college campuses), and where one goes to the press saying, “We merely want this body to acknowledge that they consider atheists to be the moral and political equal of other citizens. Why won’t they do that?”

Even if the resolution never gets voted on, the act of gathering signatures and of pressing the issue in the newspaper will still bring the issue out in the open. It will still spark discussion and cause people to confront anti-atheist bigotry and make it harder to deny or hide from the fact that it exists.

This resolution is not just fit for city, county, state, and federal governments. It is a fit resolution for a large number of civic bodies. It is a fit resolution to be considered by a school board, or the local Parent-Teacher Association. It is a fit resolution for any organization that might host an event that might include the Pledge of Allegiance. It involves any number of political and social campus organizations, from free thought organizations to those organized around civil rights or similar political themes.

If you, the reader, should decide to pursue this option before some legislative or civic body, I would like to recommend that you bring some recording device. In most cases, I would assume that you would come home with a set of bigoted remarks that can keep the atheist and secular blogs buzzing for days.

I would like to advise the reader who pursues this option to be ready for the press regardless of the outcome. If the resolution fails, then the message is simple. “Every legislator who voted against this resolution is a bigot who denies the political equality of citizens who do not believe in God.”

On the other hand, if the resolution passes, be ready praise the legislators for their vote on this issue. However, be ready to ask, "Why does the legislature then insist on hanging a sign in their building that denigrates the moral character and patriotism of somebody who does not trust in God. They say that this is a patriotic message. However, it cannot be a patriotic message unless one believes that a person who trusts in God is more patriotic than one who does not?"

Or, after the body passes such a resolution, be ready to ask, "Why does this body then insist on starting its sessions with the Pledge of Allegiance. After all, this cannot be thought of as a patriotic exercise unless one believes that a person who pledges allegiance to 'one nation under God' is more patriotic than one who does not. Yet, this body has just said that it is wrong to question the patriotism of a person who does not pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God'. So, which is it?”

I would like to warn you that one of the ways that legislators will try to avoid making a clear statement on this issue is by changing the language. They may seek a resolution that states that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of religion – which is ambiguous as to whether or not it is fair to discriminate against those who have no religion.

The issue must be kept focused on the question of whether the legislator holds prejudices against citizens who do not have a trust in God, or who would not pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God’.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Pledge Project: In God We Trust - America

An article in the Orange County Register recently, Westminster Cyprus Express Their Faith in God, told of the successes of an organization called "In God We Trust – America" in getting city governments to prominently display the national motto in their city halls. Their goal is to get every city government to display this motto.

"A strong belief in God is important because it's intended to give hope. It's the only thing that can give hope to the citizens in this country. And American patriotism is founded on love of God and country" said Bakersfield councilwoman Jaquie Sullivan, who launched the nationwide campaign to have the national motto mounted at public buildings.

This is another example of the type of bigotry that I talked about in yesterday’s post coming from Ron Lowe in Idaho. Those arguments apply here as well. If she truly believes that patriotism is founded on a love of God, she must then believe that no atheist can be patriotic. As such, she is making judgments about people – prejudgments (or prejudices) about people - she does not know.

We also have reason to suspect that she will use a religious test for government appointments and in judgments about how to spend government money, denying political and economic opportunities to people she is supposed to represent based on her religious prejudices.

Yesterday, I asked hypothetically to consider how well an atheist would fare when dealing with a man like Ron Lowe, who holds that the word of an atheist means nothing, if Lowe were in a position to make appointments or recommendations to fill private jobs and public appointments.

Here, where we have a majority of a city council voting to put "In God We Trust" on the wall of a civics building or, better yet, to display it prominently behind the seats of the council itself so that a person giving testimony cannot help but see the words each time she looks up.

So, when it comes to putting people on government committes, awarding government contracts, hiring government employees, and making political appointments such as judgeships and ambassadorships, what type of people get these positions? What chance does an atheist have of getting any of these awards from a person who holds that patriotism in America requires belief in God?

It is at least legitimate to wonder whether, and to what degree, politicians who hold the view that patriotism requires religious belief award those opportunities first to people 'of faith' – effectively limiting the opportunities of those who do not trust in God accordingly.

The lock on political power that theists are seeking to perpetuate for their own people, and the lock-out that is perpetuated against who do not 'trust in God' – goes beyond the mere fact that atheists are effectively blocked from winning public office. Atheists are also blocked from the economic and political opportunities made available by having friends in public office – at least to the degree that those who hold public office sincerely believe that 'we' (those of us who should hold public office and serve in positions of public trust) must trust in God, and that these awards are only fittingly assigned to people willing to support 'one nation under God'.

In the case of anti-atheist discrimination, there happens to be one area of employment that atheists tend to dominate – a field that does such a good job at making money for theists and protecting their lives and well-being (and the lives of their loved ones) from disease and natural disasters - that the field provides genuine opportunities for success for atheists.

This is the field of science and technical research – the field that comes up with the technological breakthroughs that allow businesses to make billions of dollars and provides the medical breakthroughs that keep the billionaires (and their friends) alive.

For this reason, the atheist scientist is capable of doing quite well.

However, this, in turn, is used as evidence that there is no discrimination against atheists.

The fact is, the success of atheist in some social niche should not be taken as the same as saying that anti-atheist bigotry does not exist in other niches – in the political back rooms, in the awarding of government appointments, in the military regarding promotions and assignments, in court regarding the acceptance of testimony and awarding parental custody to children.

Nor is it legitimate to remark that since the absence of anti-atheist discrimination in one area pulls up the average income levels for all atheists when taken as a whole, that there is no reason to be concerned with the harm done to those atheists who might want to consider a profession other than science - such as politics (or some form of public service) or military service.

There is another item in this article that concerns me. In it, I found the following:

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said her group is considering legal action against expansion of the slogan "In God We Trust". But she doesn't see her group taking on city councils across America. "How can you tell someone they can’t put that on a city seal when it's the national motto?" Johnson asked.

Note: Ellen Johnson is no longer the president of American Atheists, but was at the time this article was researched.

Here, I see a repeat what the tendency for atheists in specific and secularists in general to look at all issues in terms of legal arguments. Johnson, here, does not even pay homage to the fact that their might be a moral component to the question of whether a government should post a sign that says, in effect, "A person who does not trust in God is not one of us."

This is in spite of the fact that Johnson sees a clear problem with pursuing the issue of "In God We Trust" being posted in public buildings as a legal issue.

The law is whatever the people want the law to be. Slavery, up until 1860, was legal, and even Constitutionally protected. Anybody who tried to fight slavery before 1860 on legal grounds – by arguing that it was unconstitutional to own slaves – would have been out of luck. The argument against slavery had to be fought on moral grounds first, and legal grounds second.

For purely practical reasons, fighting the motto "In God We Trust" and the discrimination and prejudice this embodies also requires taking on the moral arguments first. Until people see the moral problem, they will see the legal efforts as unimportant at best, and, at worst, mean and spiteful.

"In God We Trust" (and other issues of church-state separation in this country) continue to be fought on legal grounds alone – so much so that the leaders of the movement (including Michael Newdow, the ACLU, Americans for the Separation of Church and State, and Ellen Johnson and the American Atheists) seem incapable of even conceiving of a moral argument against this practice.

I would like to take these leaders of the atheist and secular movements and ask them, "Assume that there was no First Amendment – no bill of rights calling for the separation of church and state. Let's assume that the theocrats were right and the founding fathers made the same mistake regarding religious bigotry that they made with respect to slavery and permitted these practices. If that were the case, how would go about fighting a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God' or having 'In God We Trust' as the national motto? Would it even be possible, as you understand things, to raise an objection against these practices in the absence of the First Amendment?"

Think of the people who debated the First Amendment over 200 years ago. Clearly, they were not debating the issue of the separation of church and state based on a legal argument that such a prohibition has already been written into the law. They were debating whether such a prohibition should be written into the law.

That is also the debate we should be having. Two centuries after the authorship of the First Amendment, we seem to have completely forgotten about the moral question as we suffer from an extreme form of tunnel vision that continues to focus our attention exclusively on the legal question.

When the Pledge of Allegiance last came before the Supreme Court, I saw a segment on C-Span involving Michael Newdow and someone defending 'under God'. The priest, in this case, asked Newdow to explain where the first amendment came from. If there were no first amendment, what would Newdow say to propose or defend such an amendment.

The priest was actually making the point that atheists have no foundation for their morality. He was arguing that, outside of a legal objection to 'under God', Newdow and other atheists could not come up with a moral objection to the practice. Morality comes from God and, for the sake of preserving morality, Newdow should respect the need to have a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God'.

This is my challenge to anybody who wishes to speak on this subject. "What would you say in defense of such a prohibition if there were no First Amendment?"

In addition to having somebody go before a council that is posting such a sign and saying, "This violates the First Amendment to the Constitution," it would be refreshing and useful if somebody were to go before the council or school board debating such a proposal and say, "No fair and just representative would vote to put up a sign that says, 'We do not consider a person who fails to trust in God to be one of us'. It is wholly inappropriate to put such a message on the courthouse wall, on the money, or anywhere else."

"When you put 'In God We Trust' on the city seal (or display it in city hall), you are telling the people, 'Do not think of those who fail to trust in God as being one of us. They are not. To be one of us, you must trust in God. Fail to trust in God, and you are not one of us.' No fair and just government would make such a claim against its own peaceful law-abiding citizens. Even if the constitution permitted it - which it does not, it would not be right."

Answering this objection with the claim, "But this is the national motto, and certainly it is permissible to put the national motto in a public building," is effectively muted by this argument. It may be the national motto, but that does not change the fact that no fair and just government would post a sign making such a claim about a segment of its peaceful law-abiding citizenry.

The claim also disarms any arguments that appeal to distorted Constitutional claims or quote-mining the founding fathers. Regardless of what the person defending this motto might come up with, they cannot use it to quiet the objection that no just representative of the people would make such a claim against its peaceful law-abiding citizenry.

Ultimately, the issue of the national motto is more of a moral issue than a legal issue. If no moral objection can be raised against posting "In God We Trust" in public buildings and on the money, then the claim that it ought not to be done is arbitrary and unfounded. Even if the Constitution does prohibit such an act, if there is no argument that the Constitution should prohibit such an act then that makes this a part of the Constitution arbitary and unfounded.

On the other hand, if there is a moral argument to be made against posting the national motto - and, in fact, there is a strong moral argument against it - then this argument does not depend on what the Constitution says. In fact, this moral argument would be an argument that told us, "Even if such a constitutional prohibition did not exist, a fair and just people would create one."

Any argument to the effect that the Constitution allows governments to make unfair derogatory statements about peaceful citizens based on religious belief is an argument that the Constitution permits something that should not be permitted. It makes the claim that the constitition permits such an act similar to the claim that the constitution permits slavery. Even when it was true, it did not morally justify slavery.

There is a moral argument to be made in addition to the legal argument, and this argument needs to be put before the people. It is on the basis of this moral argument that we judge whether a law is just or unjust - or just some arbitrary but groundless limit on what others may or may not do.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Pledge Project: Atheists are Untrustworthy

If you're an atheist, that means nothing. So therefore, your word means nothing, so you have someone whose work cannot be trusted.

Yesterday I wrote a post in defense of the proposition that a pledge of allegiance that compares those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ with those who do not support ‘liberty and justice for all’ actually contributes to a state where the majority of people say that atheists definitely ‘do not share our views of society as Americans.’ I argued that the sentiment that atheists are outsiders and are not truly ‘one of us’ can be traced at least in part to a national motto that says, “Do not consider a person who does not trust in God to be one of us.”

In that posting, I referenced an article written by on eof the authors of a survey that quantified some of the hostility against atheists in this country. That author provided his own explanation for this hostility.

In my opinion, it is likely that a lot of this hatred can be attributed to the specious link between morality and religion. Many religious people believe that atheism and immorality are synonymous, and a scientific world view often is associated with criminality.

This theory is not incompatible with my claim that a Pledge of Allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ and a national motto that excludes those who do not trust in God are also not a part of this problem. This is not an ‘either/or’ proposal. There is, of course, a strong sentiment that equates atheism with immorality and this, in turn, can explain why the nation originally thought it necessary to have children pledge allegiance to God and to tell children (by putting it on the money and in classrooms) that those who do not trust in God are not to be thought of as ‘one of us’.

We certainly hear evidence of this view every time somebody argues that prayer in school is necessary to teach morality to children, and the abolition of prayer in school is the leading cause of immorality. Ben Stein's movie "Expelled" was, for the most part, a proclamation that the immorality inherent in atheism and 'Darwinism' are what made the Nazi holocaust and the Soviet gulags possible.

We see an example of this in the words of Ron Lowe, grand historian for the Grand Lodge of Idaho explaining why atheists are not permitted to be Masons.

While one of the few absolute requirements to membership is a belief in one god, religion and politics are not to be discussed within the Lodge. Ron Lowe, grand historian for the Grand Lodge of Idaho, tells why they insist that only deists need apply: "The reason you cannot be a Mason and an atheist is because, in our degree work, we ask that you swear allegiance in the presence of God. The feeling is that if you swear before God, that means something. If you're an atheist, that means nothing. So therefore, your word means nothing, so you have someone whose work cannot be trusted.

This type of statement is simple, naked bigotry. Lowe has just said that I cannot be trusted. He does not know me. He has not worked with me in any way. Yet, he has decided to prejudge me – the very definition of prejudice - by literally accusing me of being untrustworthy while having no information at all about how I live my life.

Furthermore, Lowe has been driven to this attitude by his religion. This is not only a clear instance of bigotry, it is an instance in which religion has been a driving force towards prejudice. In this case, religion has been a cause, not of virtue, but of vice.

In fact, this is an example of religion doing something that religions have been infamous for doing for thousands of years – turning people against their neighbors for no reason other than "you do not share our beliefs."

A just person . . . a moral person . . . will judge others innocent until proven guilty. If Lowe was a moral and just person, then his attitude towards me would be that he would not judge me (or, more accurately prejudge me or be prejudiced against me) without having evidence of something that I did or did not do. He would have wait until he had evidence that I was untrustworthy before he said that I could not be trusted. And he would not bear false witness against me by testifying to others that I am untrustworthy when there is no evidence to support such a claim.

For my part, I have evidence that Lowe is a bigot. I have evidence from his own words, quoted above. Furthermore, Lowe testified in his own words that his bigotry is grounded on his religion – that his religious beliefs are the foundation for his immorality.

Still, I will not go from this to accuse all religious people of bigotry. I would be a hypocrite if I were to do so, and I would be making prejudicial claims against those people who are religious and yet still avoid this type of bigotry. I will judge each religious person on his or her own actions.

There are a lot of different religions in the world and, while Lowe's religion (or at least his understanding of that religion) obviously preaches prejudice and injustice, this does not imply that all religions preach prejudice and injustice, or that even all who follow Lowe’s religion read into it an endorsement of bigotry and injustice.

I will withhold judgment of Ms. Smith’s moral character (whoever Ms. Smith happens to be) until I have been given evidence of something that Ms. Smith has said or done that I can judge her on. If Ms. Smith also says that all atheists are untrustworthy, then I will judge Ms. Smith to be a bigot in the same way that Lowe is a bigot. But I will not judge Ms. Smith to be a bigot because Lowe is a bigot, Lowe is religious, and Smith is also religious.

I will not even judge all Masons to be guilty of sharing Lowe’s moral failings, even though Lowe claims to be speaking about all Masons. His own testimony to the effect that all Masons are bigots is not enough to actually justify the conclusion that all Masons are bigots. It does not override the moral requirement to judge each person by his or her own actions.

However, if bigotry is the official standard of the Mason organization – if statements to the effect that the Mason organization prejudges all atheists to be untrustworthy (and thus is an organization dedicated to bigotry), then objections can be raised against any people who decides to belong to such an organization – or at least who belongs to the organization without protesting its dedication to immoral prejudgment (prejudice towards) others.

Another point that I want to make, that is relevant to previous discussion, is to ask whether it is at all reasonable to believe that Lowe, as an employer, would be willing to hire an atheist into a position of trust within his company (assuming he was in a position to hire others), or whether he would recommend an atheist for a position in another company or to an appointment for a position of trust.

If he were in a position to recommend appointees to a government committee, to recommend a student to a military academy, or (if he were in the military) to recommend a subordinate for promotion or an accommodation, is it reasonable to expect that he can believe that atheists are untrustworthy and that will NOT affect the opportunities that atheists have for appointments and promotions where people like Lowe are in positions of authority?

A belief is a disposition to act. It would be virtually impossible for Lowe to believe that atheists are inherently untrustworthy without him being disposed to keep atheists out of any position that required trust – such as the Masons itself. To allow an atheist into any position that required moral integrity – to vote for an atheist candidate, or to recommend an atheist to a friend as somebody who can be trusted to carry out a particular task – must confront his prejudice that no atheist is fit for such a position.

The claim that atheists are not losing out of opportunities because of the presence of anti-atheist bigotry is a truly remarkable statement. The claim that atheists do not have reason to hide their atheism for fear of suffering a loss of income and opportunities is equally absurd. The fact that atheists can and do deny their atheism for the sake of obtaining opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable is hardly an argument that anti-atheist bigotry does not exist, does not represent an injustice, or is not worthy of our moral concern.

Insofar as fair and just people would remove this bigotry, one place to start is to end the government endorsement of these attitudes. When the government puts up a plaque that says "In God We Trust" on government buildings and, in particular, in classroom walls where young children are exposed to it every day, they are reinforcing Lowe’s prejudice.

When the government promotes a Pledge of Allegiance that equates people who do not support 'one nation under God' with those who do not support 'liberty and justice for all', people like Lowe can feel vindicated that their prejudice against atheists is justified.

The way to fight this type of prejudice is to explicitly deny that this sort of bigotry is justified – to assert that America is a nation dedicated to 'justice for all,' and that justice prohibits the type of prejudice that is written into statements such as, "If you're an atheist, that means nothing. So therefore, your word means nothing, so you have someone whose work cannot be trusted."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Pledge Project: Explaining Bigotry

Today’s post is meant for the rationally minded in that I am going to attempt to draw relationships between observations and propositions meant to explain those observations.

Actually, I try to do this in all of my posts, but today I want to make the objective explicit. The reason is because I have received some comments to earlier post that, as far as I can tell, only make sense in the context in which atheists face no discrimination in this country, are not denied access to public office or positions of public trust, and are as well accepted and trusted as any other people.

As a result, these objections at least seem to imply it is false to assert that ‘under God’ in the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ in the money might be related to some sort of anti-atheist discrimination. The argument being that they cannot be related to a discrimination that does not exist.

So, I want to begin by calling forth a post at Atheist Revolution that I referenced in the first essay in this series. That post, in turn referenced an article about public hatred of atheists that appeared in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

We are talking here about a set of documented observations. Once we have these observations in hand, the next step will be to look at ways of perhaps explaining and predicting those observations.

The observations go back to a University of Minnesota Department of Sociology Survey in which people were asked to identify a group that “does not agree at all with my vision o f American society.” 39.6% of the respondents listed Atheists – nearly twice as many as those who identified the second group in the category (Muslims – 22.6%).

I am offering a theory that I suggest will help to explain this observation. I look at the national motto an see that it says that, “A person who does not trust in God is not one of us.” I look at the Pledge of Allegiance and see that it teaches a vision of American society that includes being ‘one nation under God’.

I suggest that there may be a link here. I suggest that when people (particularly children) see the motto “In God We Trust” on the money or on the schoolroom wall, they are inclined to believe that trust in God is a part of our ‘vision for American society’. From which it follows that a person who does not share a vision of a nation that trusts in God does not share our vision of American society.

I suggest that when people (particularly children) are taught to pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ that a substantial portion of those children see this as suggesting that a person who does not support ‘one nation under God’ is like a person who does not support ‘liberty and justice for all’. They take a poll that asks them their attitude towards atheists and, quite naturally, they report that their attitude towards atheists is, in fact, very much consistent with their attitude towards people who do not support ‘liberty and justice for all’. That is to say, both groups ‘do not agree at all with my vision of American society’.

We can enter into a chicken-and-egg question here to ask which came first. Do people have an attitude that atheists do not share their vision of American society because the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto (which they are exposed to as very young children) teach them to adopt that attitude? Or is it the case that an attitude that atheists do not share their vision is what causes them to support a Pledge to ‘one nation under God’ and a national motto of ‘In God We Trust’?

Or is this a vicious spiral, where the ‘vision of American society’ as ‘one nation under God’ supports the Pledge, and the Pledge in turn passes along to the next generation a vision of American society as ‘one nation under God’?

I would be inclined to the latter.

However, one view that I find to make absolutely no sense is the view that says that a Pledge of Allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ and a national motto of ‘In God We Trust’, but before the eyes of young children at every opportunity, is unrelated to the fact that people have a vision of American society that excludes atheists. This ‘theory’, which I see at the root of a large portion of the comments that I have so far received to this post makes absolutely no sense to me.

The arguments that I have read tend to suggest that there is no relation between the current Pledge and Motto and widespread hostility towards atheists tend to be of a type that says, “When I was a child me and my friends did not pay attention to the Pledge of Allegiance. We would even make fun of it.”

This is the type of anecdotal evidence that researchers will tell you have absolutely nothing useful to contribute. It is like the anecdotal evidence that one looked at a waterfall and instantly knew that there was a God and Jesus was his son, or anecdotal evidence on the effectiveness of magnets in relieving pain, or ghosts, or alien abductions, or the amazingly predictive power of a Tarot card reading.

When I dismiss anecdotal evidence of this type offered by those who declare no relationship between the Pledge, the national motto, and widespread hostility towards atheists, I am following a principle that even my critics accept when they hear anecdotal evidence of ghosts and religious miracles.

Ultimately, two things are needed to support the thesis that ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ are socially impotent in promoting hostile attitudes towards atheists – particularly in the light of strong evidence that such an attitude exists. One is to provide some other explanation for these observations – an explanation that is incompatible with the thesis that ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ can have an effect on how children think. The other is to provide some reason to think that ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ cannot also have an effect – that they must be socially impotent.

I, of course, do not think that such a challenge can be met.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Pledge Project: House Resolution 5872

The moral principles that I am applying to 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto in this series of posts are meant to be applicable to a range of similar behavior. In fact, a moral principle is not a moral principle if it is not applicable to a range of behavior.

One example of similar behavior is the passage in the House of Representatives yesterday of HR5872, "To require the Secretary of the Treasury to mint coins in commemoration of the centennial of the Boy Scouts of America, and for other purposes." It passed by a vote of 403 in favor to 8 against. (See, Congress's $3.5 million "bake sale" for the Boy Scouts By Chris Rodda)

Effectively, this is an act by Congress that will provide the Boy Scouts of America with about $3.5 million in funding from the proceeds of a commemorative coin.

Two Types of Wrong

There are two types of wrong associated with this act. The first is a traditional violation of the separation of church and state. The government is promoting religion by acting in such a way that will provide a religious organization with $3.5 million. In this project the government will put up taxpayer dollars to fund the commemorative coins. However, the project is geared to see that the government is paid back before the Boy Scouts see any revenue.

This is the level at which most people who would raise objections to this law will speak against it. It is a government entanglement with a religious organization and, they will declare, we do not want the government supporting religious organizations. Can we expect the government, in a few years time, to provide the same type of support for Camp Quest – an organization that sends children to a summer camp that is founded on reason rather than myth?

However, I consider this wrong to be rather trivial. It may count as a legal violation, but I do not even know that I can make the case that it is a moral violation outside of the moral obligation to obey the law.

Yet, there is a second level of wrong that is clearly a moral violation independent of any Constitutional or other legal provisions.

The Boy Scouts has as their statement of religious principles:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. . . His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship

So now imagine a House Resolution that supports raising $3.5 million to put a series of signs in American schools (because these signs are meant to target young children) that say, "Nobody who doubts the existence of God can be the best kind of citizen. Good citizenship is only possible for those who believe in God."

It is one thing for a religious organization to assert its beliefs that a God exists and that morality requires that followers perform certain types of acts and are prohibited from performing other acts. It is one thing to question the government's sponsorship (or attempts to raise money for) an organization that promotes a particular religious view.

It is quite another for the government to help raise $3.5 million dollars (or any amount of money for that matter) to give to an organization that is actively involved in a campaign to impugns the quality of my citizenship and denigrates and belittles the quality of my contribution to this country. When the federal (or state or local) government involves itself in this type of campaign, it has gone beyond a simple violation of a legal principle separating church and state. It has become an agent of bigotry that is immoral for any government to involve itself in regardless of what anybody might have thought to have actually written into a constitution and bill of rights.

Even if there is nothing special about my own citizenship that allows me to raise objections against organizations that call it into question, or against legislators who fund teaching children that my citizenship is suspect, the legislature is also paying this organization to question the citizenship of my father. William Fyfe volunteered to join the army in 1946 with the intention of making a career out of serving his country. He served through the Korean War and beyond until an airplane crash ended his military career and sent him home with a medical discharge (100% disabled).

Four hundred and eight representatives voted yesterday to support an organization that says that my father (an atheist) was incapable of "the best kind of citizenship".

Gee, thanks.

The principles that I am applying here to House Resolution 5872 are the same principles that I have been applying this week to 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto. 'Under God' in the Pledge also says that those Americans who do not favor 'one nation under God' are incapable of the best kind of citizenship. "In God We Trust" as the national motto says that the best kinds of citizens are those who trust in God, and those who do not trust in God fall short of this idea.

One thing we can say about this resolution to fund the advertisement to children that atheists are incapable of the best kind of citizenship is that it is consistent with government policies regarding 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' on the money. These practices are also meant to advertise to children that atheists are incapable of the best kind of citizenship. However, consistent immorality is no virtue.

The moral case does not depend on the sentiments of the founding fathers and is fully independent of the beliefs that might be attributed to them. Their sentiments on this matter are as relevant as their sentiments about slavery. To the degree that the founding fathers might have sanctioned a government that denigrated and belittled the citizenship of peaceful law-abiding atheists, this does not demonstrate the moral legitimacy of the practice. Instead, it would demonstrate (if true) another area (like slavery) where the founding fathers would have been in need of further moral advance.

By what moral right does the Federal Government agree to help raise $3.5 million to advertise to young children the view that you and I are incapable of the best sort of citizenship? That is the question at issue here, and that is way in which this issue should be presented to and debated in public forums. The legal question of the separation of church and state is still relevant. However, that question should not be discussed to the exclusion of the moral question of the government raising $3.5 million to advertise to children that we are incapable of being the best sort of citizen.