Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Pledge Project: Acting Against Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Note: I was wrong on the date in what follows, but the rest of the post stands and remains relevant for whenever this decision is released.

I was going to wait on this project . . . but, I think it would be foolish to wait.

The project . . .

Sometime in the next 50 days, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will release its decisions on whether 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance and 'In God We Trust' on the money and in government buildings violates the First Amendment's prohibition on establishing religion.

I consider 'under God' in the pledge, and the national motto of "In God We Trust" to be the most significant cause of the deteriorating political situation that atheists in specific and secularists in general are facing in the United States, and I want to see these practices ended.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision, this will create a political uproar that could have a significant impact on the federal election and several local elections. It will have a significant impact on the electability of atheist candidates (or any candidate who would not pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God') and the status of atheists in America for the foreseeable future.

To get a hint of the type of problems I am talking about, vjack was coincidentally kind enough to post on the topic just this evening. See America the Intolerant: Attitudes towards Atheists Revealing.

If we continue to debate this issue as we have debated it in the past we should only expect the results of those debates to be a continually growing barrier between atheist candidates and public office and positions of public trust, and a growing deterioration of the view of atheists among most Americans.

If you think that being a rationalist should not disqualify a person for a position in public life as an executive, legislator, judge, or appointed leader, then you have reason to reject 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' because, as long as they exist, positions of high public office are not available to rationalist candidates.

I do not think that there is any virtue in being an atheist. I can think of many pairings in which I would choose the religious candidate over the atheist alternative. However, I can also think of many pairings where I would choose the atheist over the religious alternative. Where those pairings might occur in the political process the atheist candidate ought not to be disqualified merely because he is an atheist.

I do not need to believe that there is a particular virtue in being black, or that blacks are inherently superior to whites, to know that a government-endorsed program to keep blacks from public office is a vice, and nothing that a good person could support. I do not even need to be black to have strong and serious objections to any such project.

Similarly, I do not need to believe that there is a particular virtue in being an atheist, or that atheists are inherently superior to theists, to know that a government-endorsed program to keep atheists from public office is a vice, and nothing that a good person could support. I do not even need to be an atheist to have strong and serious objections to such a project.

Let's be honest – these policies were adopted, and they continue to be enthusiastically supported – because they serve as a way of keeping political power out of the hands of any person who will not pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God'. They are loved (by those who love them the most) because they endorse a religious barrier to public office that only allows those who are willing to express a belief in God to pass through.

From the very first day that a child can read the words on the money or on the school room wall that say, "In God We Trust", the government is teaching that child that if she wants to be counted as 'one of us', she will trust in God, and she will not accept any who do not trust in God as one of 'us'.

From the very first day that a child enters public school the child is taught that, at least in the eyes of the government, any person who does not support 'one nation under God' is like a person who does not support 'liberty and justice for all'. These are things that all good Americans support, and those who do not support them are not to be thought of as good Americans.

The reason that those who support these policies the loudest want these lessons taught in the public schools – the reason why they are so emphatic on protecting these policies – is precisely because it helps them to eliminate competition from 'secularists' and 'atheists' for positions of public power and public trust. Through these policies they can keep political power in their own hands. By keeping political power in their own hands they can protect these policies.

Attempting to interpret this as some wild conspiracy theory involving millions of people whispering a secret that is never released to the public would be a mistake.

We find the same type of 'conspiracy' in 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' today that we found in 'separate but equal' in the years between the Civil War and Civil Rights. No sane person could look at the way that blacks were treated before 1960 and say that it followed the constitutional guarantee that blacks be treated as equals. However, a deep-seated prejudice (not a conspiracy) kept the majority who loved their privileged status from admitting what no sane and honest person could deny - that these 'separate' institutions and facilities were not 'equal' (and could never be).

Today, this same type of deep-seated prejudice causes people to ignore what no sane and honest person could deny about 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' – that these, like 'separate but equal', are government-supported policies that aim primarily at promoting hostility towards a group of peaceful and law-abiding citizens based on (in this case) nothing more than their beliefs about God. These policies exist to keep political power in the hands of those who are willing to pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God' by making it nearly impossible for those not willing to make such a pledge from gaining public office.

The mere fact that there are so few atheists in public office (and none who have run for public office while denying that we ever were, are, or will be 'one nation under God' since there is no God) is testimony to the effect of these policies.

An important exchange between Chief Justice Rehnquist and Michael Newdow the last time the Pledge of Allegiance came before the Supreme Court is telling on this matter.

As reported on MSNBC:

Newdow had argued that the words "under God" were divisive and damaging to national unity, by pitting atheist against believers.

"What was the vote in Congress" when it decided in 1954 to add the words "under God" to the pledge, asked Rehnquist.

Newdow replied that it was "apparently unanimous," prompting Rehnquist to question how divisive the pledge really was.

"That's because no atheists can get elected to Congress," Newdow insisted, prompting a sudden round of applause in the audience.

Newdow touched almost accidentally on what is a key concern in this dispute – a matter that the audience recognized instantly and responded to. One way to express that concern is as follows:

If an all-white Congress unanimously passed a pledge of allegiance to 'one white nation', only a bigot would deny that they did this to divide the nation between those who were white and those who were black in an attempt to keep political power in the hands of those who were white.

This Pledge Project is about creating a nation where rationalists can have a chance of winning public office and positions of public trust.

This is about creating a nation where the government is not teaching its citizens from the youngest age that their government looks on people who do not support 'one nation under God' the same way it looks on people who do not support 'liberty and justice for all'.

It is about creating a nation where the government does not put up signs in every government building and child's classroom that state, "Only a person who trusts in God can be one of us. And if you want to be one of us yourself, then you must also trust in God."

After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision, the case will almost certainly go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will hear the case late in 2009 or early 2010. This gives us a year and a half to make the case that 'under God' is not about mentioning God in the public square. It is about keeping atheists out of public office.

In fact, any campaign to give atheists a chance to win public office must begin with defeating these practices. There can be no (honest) atheist in high public office against the backdrop of a nation whose government teaches children from the youngest age to pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God' and where political advertisements adorn every public office that say, "Only one who trusts in God can be one of us."

Do you think that rational candidates who base conclusions on the evidence and who understand and can apply the rules of logic should have a chance to honestly win public office?

This issue is where that campaign begins.


Tommykey said...

While I favor having "under God" removed from the Pledge, at present it is not an issue that really motivates me.

However, I was thinking that a campaign to achieve this should adopt the slogan "Restore the Pledge", because we are seeking to bring it back to what it was before "under God" was put in and to get across that those words were not in the original pledge.

mikespeir said...

Tommy, my thinking has been like yours on this matter. It's never bothered me much to say "under God" with the pledge. Still doesn't, really. There's no visceral loathing of the concept of God within me that groans for expression.

Still, I think I'm beginning to lean more and more Alonzo's way. Even if there's no particular emotional aversion to make me flinch at the words, there seems to be very good rational justification to object. I can't see myself becoming an activist, but if it ever comes to a referendum....

But ask me again in a year. By then I might be a flaming zealot.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

tommy, mikespeir

One of the effects of telling children from the age of 6 what their place is, is that they become comfortable with it and think it as normal.

Women raised in a society that says that women are to remain covered at all times, obey their husbands, and have no liberty grow up thinking of this as normal, and even defend these insitutions when they come under attack.

Read about the children raised in that cult that was recently raided in Texas. Raised to think that they should be the sex toys of the men in the camp, they have trouble conceiving of another kind of life.

The children in that cult a generation ago who became women and mothers, raised their daughters to accept that situation as well.

This year, the government will teach the next generation to be as comfortable with anti-atheist bigotry as you have become.

Sorry, but I view your attitudes on this matter to be like that of the mother in a fundamentalist Islamist culture teaching her young child to be comfortable wearing a Burka and doing nothing without the permission of her father or brother.

So that she, in turn, in 20 years, can raise her child to be comfortable in a Burka, and pass on the same standards to her children.

Are you going to help the theocrats raise the next generation of atheists to be as comfortable in a situation where they are barred from political power and made the scapegoat for every social ill as the previous generation made you?

CrypticLife said...

tommy, mike;

The problem isn't solely whether atheists feel some aversion to actually saying the pledge with "Under God" in it. Many have indicated they do, and as Alonzo points out when children are young it actually is something they think about.

The problem is that it IS actually an argument that's used to denigrate atheists generally and atheist candidates in particular. People use the argument that God is on our money to support it being in the Pledge, and to argue that the nation is a Christian nation. Sophisticated people do not, but many voters are not sophisticated.

There will still be barriers to atheists gaining office. The first atheist who runs will be forced to explain and prove their morality, and will likely be subjected to attacks invoking Hitler (another bad argument, but one that's used with great frequency). Or Mao. Or Stalin. There are enough barriers without the ridiculous one of having allegedly "ceremonial" deism in the pledge and on currency.

Tommykey said...

I suppose you are right, and as I wrote in my initial comment above, if you are going to mount a campaign to remove "under God" from the Pledge, then it should be branded as a RESTORE THE PLEDGE movement.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There are other ways of doing things.

Without the federal government taking action, local governments can refuse to use the Pledge as written - the way that some communities refuse to show the Confederate flag.

A local school board can pass a resolution stating, "Insofar as it is wrong to teach students that an American who does not favor 'one nation under God' is as bad as a person who does not favor 'liberty and justice for all', we resolve that the Pledge of Allegiance will not be used at any events or functions in this school district."

A different group might want to try for a different pledge entirely.

I want to avoid any distractions that would be involved in discussing which of these options to choose. I want to focus on a simple point.

The government ought not to be involved in a campaign to generate hostility towards atheists, or putting up walls between atheists and public office or positions of public trust. The government is wrong to teach young children that an American who does not favor 'one nation under God' is as bad as an American who does not favor 'liberty and justice for all'.

Where people go from there, I wish to leave up to them.

Rob Miles said...

I decided long ago to no longer say the words "under god" when reciting the pledge. For a while I just left that out, hoping the silence would be deafening, but it often went unnoticed. Then I realized what was wrong with the phrase: this is not a nation under god in any way; it's a nation under law. Despite what the religionists say, our country was not founded on "Christian" principles, it was founded on the rule of law.

So I now replace "under god" with "under law", which keeps the rhythm that, though not original, is what we are used to (unless you're 60+) and says exactly the same thing but in the correct way. I figure the more I do it, the more others around me will say "under law", and they in turn will get others doing it to. Before you know it, no more "under god" in the pledge.

That won't necessarily work for money, though, so I just systematically mark out the word "god" from all of my bills before I spend them. Every little bit helps, I suppose.

And no, that is not considered defacement of money, as it does not attempt to fool anyone as to it's real value or cause it to no longer be usable.

Anonymous said...

As an atheist, I agree with your contention that "one nation under God," and "In God We Trust" are intended to subtly establish theism as the norm in the USA. If we are going to take this movement seriously, however, I think we atheists need to recognize that those phrases also exclude other non-theists: Buddhists, Wiccans, etc., and we should invite them to join us in this fight. We need to help them understand, and we need to understand ourselves, that this fight is theirs as well as ours.

I am not suggesting this simply as a pragmatic alliance. Any social norm that excludes any group, or several of them, on the basis of religion is wrong. There are a whole lot of us who may not realize that we actually share some vital interests in these issues with each other. We atheists should be concerned for all who are excluded and we should express our concern more inclusively. It's a smart move politically, and, more importantly, it's the right thing to do.

Saraaaaahhhhhh! said...

Well, here's my issue. Why should I pledge allegiance to my country at all? Why should I feel some sort of moral obligation to support my country? I support democracy and freedom, liberty, and justice for all people, not just Americans. Saying the "pledge" at school every day is a way of brainwashing children to have blind faith in their country, no matter what the government stands for. We need a healthy sense of rebellion taught to our children. I say, how bout we don't have a pledge? That would eliminate the issue of "under God" or not.

I also strongly believe our currency needs to be re-minted to have no reference to "God." This should start now.