Friday, May 16, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Atheist Burka

I have been thinking of the series of posts that would make up this project for months. Here it is, the second day, and I am already altering the arrangement.

Two members of the studio audience responded to yesterday's posting by saying, in effect, "I'm comfortable with 'under God' in the Pledge. The issue just does not interest me."

I know that this is a very common sentiment.

I consider this sentiment to be like that of the fundamentalist Muslim woman who has become comfortable wearing a burka each time she goes out in public. She is comfortable going outside only in the company of a male family member and is comfortable being denied an education or any activities outside the home.

I am not saying this to insult anybody. I am attempting to describe a common psychological phenomenon where the victims of one generation of social discrimination prepare the next generation to also be victims of the same discrimination - to be comfortable in their role as second-class citizens.

Not only is she comfortable in this life (because, face it, it is the only life she knows and we are certainly more comfortable with what is familiar to us than what is different), she enthusiastically begins teaching her young daughter to be comfortable in this life as well. Young minds are malleable, and can be made comfortable with a great many things. We know as a matter of fact that a young girl born in such a country can be raised to be comfortable with the limitations that the leaders of her fundamentalist religion will require of her.

In Texas recently we found another example in which children, raised in a closed community where girls are married off at puberty, also became comfortable with their situation. They could not conceive of anything else. When the camp was raided and they were taken off to foster care, they did not praise their liberators. They demanded a return to what they were comfortable with.

In America, the government begins the process of fitting children comfortably into the atheist burka on the first day of school. From that first day they are told then told to repeat the mantra that the the government does not like those who do not support 'one nation under God'. It thinks that they are just as bad - just as 'un-American' - as those who do not support 'liberty and justice for all'.

As these children come to understand what the words in the Pledge mean, they will include in their growing understanding the idea that people who support 'one nation under God' and 'liberty and justice for all' are good people, and that those who don't support 'one nation under God' or 'liberty and justice for all' are not good people – at least as far as the government and the school are concerned.

Some people like to speak about phenomena such as this in terms of 'memes' – mental analogues to genes that get passed from one generation to another. We should not be surprised that natural selection will favor the meme that will give its host a sense of comfort and will suppress resistance against passing that meme on to the next generation. Ideas fed into the brains of young children are just the type that generate the type of comfort. So, the six-year-olds of today will teach the six-year-olds of tomorrow to wear the atheist burka comfortably and not to complain.

Many of us have applied these concepts to other groups. We have spoken of the way that religious fundamentalists pass religious fundamentalism on to the next generation in ways where the child cannot grow up to question them. We have not realized that we are a party to passing down a set of myths to our own children as well.

We have not been so eager to apply these concepts to ourselves. We have been fed the meme since we were six that not favoring 'one nation under God' is shameful and as un-American as not favoring liberty and justice for all. The government requires that signs be posted where the youngest Americans cannot escape them that tell children, "If you want to be one of us, then you will trust in God – and if you do not trust in God we will not think of you as one of us."

The question of how religions hand down their myths from one generation to the next can be found in how 'comfortable' we are with the way atheists are treated in this country. We can look at ourselves to study how these memes work. They have certainly infected us, given the lack of interest many of us have in rejecting the denigration and abuse of atheists even by their own government.

In some of his writings and his speeches Richard Dawkins has talked about 'consciousness raising'. Here is one area where the concept of 'consciousness raising' applies.

"I am 'comfortable' with the myth that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' is like a person who does not support 'liberty and justice for all'. "


You're comfortable with that?

And you're going to stand aside while the government teaches the next generation to be comfortable with the idea that those who do not favor 'one nation under God' are as bad as those who do not favor 'liberty and justice for all'? You are comfortable with our children growing up to be 'comfortable with' a barrier that keeps them out of public office and positions of public trust? You are comfortable with society handing out atheist burkas to their children and demanding that your children wear them, and then pass those burkas on to their children?

'Consciousness raising' was introduced to deal with the problems found in other groups who were made 'comfortable with' various forms of discrimination against other groups. They were 'comfortable with' treating women as property whose sole duty was to to obey their fathers and their husbands, and with being treated as property. 'Consciousness raising' applied to the practice of teaching women exactly what it is they had become comfortable with, so that they could see it for what it is.

Atheists need to be made aware that they have been made 'comfortable with' barriers that keep them out of public office and positions of public trust. They have been made 'comfortable with' civic ceremonies where the people unanimously declare, "A person who does not support 'one nation under God' cannot possibly be a patriot." They have been made 'comfortable with' signs in civic hall and on the money that say, "Only somebody who trusts in God is to be considered one of us."

Atheists have been made 'comfortable with' a President who states, "We need common-sense judges who realize that our rights come from God, and that is the type of judge I intend to nominate." Even though they and their neighbors have young children who have just heard the President say, "If you do not believe that our rights come from God then you are not qualified to be a judge," they are 'comfortable with' this situation and simply go about their business.

The atheist burka means atheists not being judges in the United States.

They hear of an Illinois representative tell an Atheist witness before a government committee that, "Yours is a philosophy of destruction," and "You have no right to sit in that chair." The atheist burka means shrugging and doing nothing.

Ultimately, my point is that I do not care how comfortable you have come to be in the atheist burka. It is time to take it off.

More importantly . . . much more important than you taking off the atheist burka yourself . . . you should not allow the government to put the atheist burka on the next generation of children.


Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist. By itself In God We Trust doesn't bother me, any more than naming Thursday after Thor bothers me. It's a figure of speech, an anachronistic quirk. You, I imagine, use the word 'Goodbye' to people. You're saying 'God be with you', but you don't mean it. We live in a post-theist culture, with bits of language like mottos and placenames and so on littering the lingustic ground.

The problem isn't 'In God We Trust' by itself, it's the people who use the phrase maliciously. And it's those people who should be attacked and discredited, not the motto.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The phrase itself is malicious - because (1) it is spoken by the government, and (2) it contains the word 'we'.

It's a phrase of exclusion. "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us."

As for "goodbye" - if people who hear it are not aware of a meaning, then it does not have that meaning. "Atom" started off meaning 'indivisible particle'. But it is not the case that when I use the phrase today I mean 'indivisible particle'.

In fact, it doesn't mean 'indivisible particle' - not any more. And 'goodbye' doesn't mean 'God be with you.' Not anymore.

And what 'In God We Trust' means is that to be one of us you must trust in God.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those who is quite comfortable with the pledge. I also feel that battles like this, which really amount to a massive inflation of what it means to be oppressed, cause otherwise sympathetic people to quite listening.

It's like what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have done with racism. People quite listening as carefully to issues of racism because these people have expanded the definition has been expanded the definition to include trivial and bogus matters.

Or consider what one feminist did with "rape" (I think it was Dworkin) -- rape was to include any sexual act where the woman later regretted it. lol. That redefinition does NOT serve women. Had it become widely used that way, people would no longer react to real cases of rape the same way. They'd shrug and maybe ask for more information.

This issue seems the same way. It heightens victimization to a level I can't accept while simultaneously reduces sensitivity to cases of real oppression.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous,
I read Alonzo's blog but have never commented, but your answer has made me so angry I need to respond. Do you not hear what you are saying when you give the " Oath of Allegence?" You are giving your word, your pledge. How on earth can you be indifferent? I'd rather you agreed to leave in " Under God" because you felt it should be there than to say you just don't care. You sound like about 90% of the U.S. population. They really don't care but want to be counted with the majority. They are sheep. If our forefather's had known they were fathering a band of sheep they may have left this country to the Indians and gone back to where they came from. Your indifference shows disloyalty to all that have fought for our freedoms and to your forefathers who founded this nation so their children could live in freedom

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous 2

You wrote:

I also feel that battles like this, which really amount to a massive inflation of what it means to be oppressed, cause otherwise sympathetic people to quite listening.

I never used the word 'oppressed' so I am not much concerned about whether its meaning is being inflated or defelated.

I am content to deal with the specific facts of the matter.

The Pledge equates a person who does not favor 'one nation under God' with a person who does not favor 'liberty and justice for all'. It shows no distinction between them.

No atheist who says that he is an atheist can get elected to public office.

A majority of the population state that they will vote against an atheist on that reason alone.

The President of the United States explicitly stated that he would not appoint anybody to be a judge who does not believe that our rights come from God, and he was not even challenged on the statement.

A sitting representative of the State of Illinois speaking while in session and in her capacity as a representatives says of atheism, "Yours is a philosophy of destruction," is barely challenged for her statement, and never appologized to atheists for her statement or retracted it or denied that she believed it. Yet, she is still sitting as a legislator in the United States.

The words 'under God' were put in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' was made the national motto to create a political barrier between atheists and public office and positions of public trust (e.g., judgeships) and to create social barriers between atheists and the rest of the community. Those barriers are real.

I'll let you decide how you want to use the term 'oppression'. I am against governments teaching children that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' is as bad as a person who does not support 'liberty and justice for all'. I am against creating a society in which children encounter at every turn a sign that says, 'You only count as one of us if you trust in God.' I do not care how these practices are labeled. They are objectionable under any name.

mikespeir said...

I guess I don't understand what you think we can do. I see only three roads to resolution. One is by way of referendum. Another is legislation. The last is judicial fiat.

There's practically a nil chance we'll have a referendum. Still, if we did, keeping God on money and in the Pledge would win in a landslide.

There really is no chance Congress will reverse itself and vote God out. That would be political suicide.

The judiciary is our only hope, at least for the foreseeable future. I do hope federal judges cannot be swayed by the lobbying of special interest groups. They might by the arguments of a skilled lawyer. I'm not a lawyer, skilled or otherwise.

Exactly what use would it be for me to get all worked up over this?

There is one more way, one I expect will at last provide the solution: patience. We're becoming more secular as a nation. Unless a great war or economic chaos sends the average man and woman running back into the embrace of religion, I see this trend continuing. No, I can't see religion ever dying out, but it will become increasingly irrelevant. The day will come when one can be an atheist and hold high political office, maybe even that of President. It probably won't happen in my lifetime. Even my grandchildren may not see it. But I'm convinced someone down the line will. Waiting isn't a very delectable morsel, but I'm not sure we have any choice but to eat it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


As for what to do . . . stay tuned. I'll be getting to that.

As for religion dying out, this is not about religion vs. no religion - any more than segregation was about whites vs. blacks.

Even if religion were to die out, we will still have differences in opinion. An atheist planet would have 'sects' consisting of Objectivists vs. Communists, for example.

It's about how to treat others with whom one disagrees.

Anonymous said...

'As for religion dying out, this is not about religion vs. no religion - any more than segregation was about whites vs. blacks.'

The best analogy I ever heard was that it's like ending poverty - people who want to end poverty don't want to do it by shooting poor people, they want to do it by enriching them. I want an end to religion like I want an end to poverty.

Anonymous said...

'As for "goodbye" - if people who hear it are not aware of a meaning, then it does not have that meaning.'

Yes, precisely my point - 'in God we trust' does *not*, to the vast majority of Americans mean 'you have to be (particular subset of) Christian and discriminate against atheists'. Most people are not aware of the meaning, it does not have that meaning.

The Queen of England is the head of the church, and it says at her coronation not only that she is 'defender of the faith' but that *God Himself directly selected her for the job*.

There is not one single English person, including the Queen, who actually believes that.

Aim for the people *misusing* 'In God with trust', seperate them off from the pack. Demonstrate how it's incredibly recent, introduced as an anti-communist measure. Explain how it is being misused and who is doing the misusing.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, I cannot think of any reason why people would put so much time and effort to hang "In God We Trust" in as many government buildings (including classrooms) as they can get it into except to say that those who trust in God are special and any who do not trust in God should "think of yourselves as outsideers".

This is the difference between "In God We Trust" and the empty statements you talk about. People do not really care about empty statements - they are empty.

The fact that people care so much to put "In God We Trust" so prominently in so many places - and, particularly, in places that young children are required to spend so much of their time - suggests that they have a motive for this.

What else could that motive be other than to tell people, "You are not really one of us unless you trust in God"?

Anonymous said...

'What else could that motive be other than to tell people, "You are not really one of us unless you trust in God"?'

Again, there's a distinction to be made between those who *place great emphasis* on the motto, and those who don't even notice it.

The British nation anthem is 'God Save the Queen'. When a British sportsman wins a medal and it's played, it doesn't mean everyone in the stadium explictly and consciously endorses belief in the divine right of monarchs.

Rather the opposite, in fact. The British have a healthy sense of irony. If they think about 'God saving the Queen' at all, it's to smirk at how silly the idea is.

The motto 'in God we trust' is used by religious nutballs to promote religious nutballism. The correct response is to smirk at them, to point out how ridiculous they are. The motto is a silly bit of fortune cookie nonsense, not a declaration by the entire American government that they're out to get athiests.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is a bit difficult to smirk at how silly an idea is when the idea one is smirking at has been almost completely effective at blocking access to political office and positions of public trust and generating a public attitude towards atheists that surveys report Americans have towards atheists.

Indeed, it does not seem to be a silly idea at all. Not only does it aim to keep atheists out of public office (and thus reserve political power entirely for the theist) . . .

It works.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your English examples are not relevant here.

You do not live in a country where an atheist cannot get elected into public office.

You do not live in a country where 67% of parents would object to their child marrying an atheist.

You do not live in a country where a President (or Prime Minister) can say that atheists are unfit to be appointed into positions of public trust and be appointed to it.

You do not live in a country where a sitting legislator can declare that atheism is a "philosophy of destruction" and actually improve her political standing - where the legislator, in this case, was a Democrat rather than a Republican.

You do not live in a country where a Presidential candidate can declare "We need to have a person of faith lead the country" and get a standing ovation.

You do not live in a country with a daily ritual where children at a very young age are coerced every day into pledging allegiance to 'one nation under God.'

You do not live in a country where inboxes are filled with spam emails on how this is 'one nation under God' and that any person who does not accept this fact should either sit down and shut up or leave the country.

You do not live in a country where a domininat youth organization (and one that is the beneficiary of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in government money and aid across the country) declares that a person who does not believe in God is not capable of the best sort of citizenship.

You do not live in a country where atheist members of the military are denied promotions because recommendations for promotion are made by superiors who base their decisions in part on the 'moral character' of the subordinate - and no atheist can be a person of good moral character.

Anonymous said...

Well, I live in America, if that's any help.

The British thing is an analogy, a counterexample. The vast majority of Americans *don't* think all that hard about 'In God We Trust'.

If they did they'd probably do what the Brits do and start to realize how silly it is.

You keep saying atheists 'can not' be elected in America. That's not because of the law, or the Constitution, or the Supreme Court. The law explicitly says 'no religious test for office'. There are all sorts of things you can't be if you want to be President - Catholics and Mormons have a hard time of it, divorcees and adulterers do. We've had atheist Presidents, the Muslims and homosexuals and Hispanics still have a way to go. Black guys will only win black areas, white guys won't win in black areas. Half the population are women, and a woman was called a 'bitch' yesterday for daring to run for office. I'm an atheist, an atheist would have trouble winning an election ... well, boo hoo, at least he's in with a chance, unlike, say, a Native American.

Meanwhile, all those groups have problems in the actual workplace. Atheists don't, not in the vast majority of jobs. Put an white male atheist, a Muslim and a woman - all the same age, all the same level of education - in an office job, come back in ten years and see who's been promoted fastest, see who's earning the most.

The problem has nothing to do with religion. It's that a lot of ordinary people feel threatened by change, and are seeking tradition. Seeking conservatism.

Again this all comes down to the same thing, the same problem I have with your analysis: it's not the motto, it's not the law, it's not the structure or system ...

There is a very specific problem in America. One particular brand of one particular religion has had just enough power to swing a couple of close elections. This has served the neoconservative agenda.

And the way the theocons have won all the recent battles is simple - they've convinced 'ordinary Americans' that they're 'folks' like them, all reasonable and normal. When they are, some of them, insane. They believe in things that would make a Mormon blush. They believe that US airline companies ensure that only one pilot is a Christian because they're worried about the plane crashing in the event of the Rapture; they believe that parents have the right to kill their children; they believe that the dinosaurs died out because they didn't fit on the Ark. they believe ... lots of crazy stuff.

Average Americans don't. But the theocons have worked out that you win in a democracy by understanding the hopes and fears of the 80% of Americans in the middle and pretending you're like them.

That's how you win, and that's the opposite of what you want. You want to present atheists as an oppressed minority. No. Present atheists as just one group threatened by religious extremism. Isolate the extremists in the fundamentalist churches, explain how they are wrong, how crazy they are. How anti-rationality is hurting America, and that so many of their 'traditions' weren't around at the time of Reagan, let alone Washington.

Not by picking a fight over a fortune cookie phrase like 'In God We Trust'.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The fact there are other groups who have difficulty getting elected is not an argument against the position that I am defending here.

Imagine somebody complaining about bigotry against women that the woman should not complain because there is also bigtory against blacks. Then, telling the blacks that they should not complain about the bigotry they face because there is also bigotry against women.

In fact, these postings have to do with a set of principles that affect all different types of bigotry. Any attempt to excuse any of this bigotry on the grounds that bigotry exists is self-contradictory. It is, in part, because bigotry exists against blacks, women, and others that the moral principles that condemn bigotry are to be defended.

In other words, if we allow that it is permissible (and not to be challenged) that the government can declare, "In God We Trust" - that this is not objectionable and not to be objected against - then we also must allow that no objection should be raised against a similar slogan that excludes other groups (women, blacks, etc.). If such behavior is not to be challenged as wrong, no group can defend itself against bigotry.

The same applies to the case of a white male atheist gaining promotions faster than women or Muslims. If this were a valid argument, then let's drop the reference to the atheist for a moment.

Would it be a valid argument to hold that since a women can be promoted faster than a Muslim that no objections should be raised against discrimination against women? Or is it your contention that we should discover the one group subject to the most discrimination and that no other group facing discrimination should complain.

This would be like saying that a woman who is raped ought not to complain so long as we can identify a different woman who has been raped and murdered.

Or that the convenience store that has been robbed of $500 has no moral case to make against those who robbed him if a liquor store in the neighborhood has been robbed of $502.

The claim that I am 'picking a fight over a fortune cookie phrase like 'In God We Trust'' is a misrepresentation of what I write. I am arguing in defense of a moral principle that governments ought not to engage in practices that aim to promote hostility towards others. It turns out that I am using this instance of promoting hostility towards others as an example. But it is a mistake to confuse the example with that which is being exemplified.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, you bring up good points. The references to God should not be included in the Pledge and on currency. It does seem logical that these can only serve to foster intolerance. And I think that, as we become a more enlightened nation (due to people like you), the words (and hopefully the entire Pledge) will be dropped.

But I think that anonymous says it best when he says --

"I also feel that battles like this, which really amount to a massive inflation of what it means to be oppressed, cause otherwise sympathetic people to quit

-- He's exactly right. While you may not have explicitly used the word "oppression," you certainly imply that atheists face discrimination in our culture. While this is true (you cite excellent examples), these texts are not, in my opinion, the cause of such bigotry any more than the masculine pronouns in the U.S. Constitution are the leading cause of sexism.

I appreciate what you're pushing for, and you're a very intelligent person. But there are, in my opinion, better actions to take to fight these injustices. As far as the pledge goes, start by calling out and correcting those who apply the very outdated words to situations for which they were never intended.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I do not imply that atheists face discrimination in our culture.

That much I explicitly state, because there is too much evidence to ignore.

A person who is explicitly an atheist faces significant barriers to winning public office for no reason based on merit - and also faces significant barriers to being appointed to positions of public trust by politicians who equate atheism with a lack of moral character and a lack of patriotism.

President Bush has said that he will not appoint anybody to be a judge who does not believe that our rights come from God.

Presidential Barak Obama faces an obstacle to getting elected by the lie that he does not say the Pledge of Allegiance - what does this say about the electability of a person who will not pledge to "one nation under God"?

Where legislators say that atheism is a philosophy of destruction from the legislature itself without being challenged, what does this say about the the willingness of the legislators to consider the interests of atheists?

Political marketing groups know full well that they can round up votes against any proposal merely by associating it with the term 'atheist'. Public relations groups know that if they can attach the term 'atheist' to any public policy they can increase the chance of defeating it.

The Supreme Court of the United States is on the verge of replacing the "Lemon Test" for the First Amendment with the Coercion Test - which will limit what is prohibited by the First Amendment solely to forcing an individual to attend church.

"Under God" and "In God We Trust" drive both the Democratic and Republic Parties to be more religious than they would otherwise be, now that religious belief is a requirement for public office.

Two-thirds of the population say that they would object to their child marrying an atheist. It would be absurd to think that this attitude will not also have an impact on hiring and promoting atheists within a company or organization, or providing opportunities to atheists in the form of recommendations for employment or for other forms of business dealings.

A person has to live his life with his eyes closed and his fingers lodges securely in his ears while shouting, "I can't hear you!" to deny that atheists face discrimination in this country.

Of all of this, the one point of discrimination that I am most interested in is this series, is barring atheists from holding public office and positions of public trust.

Kristopher said...

the pledge is not like "good bye" or "god bless you" after a sneeze or "merry christmas" all which i think are nothing more than "a post-theist culture, with bits of language like mottos and placenames and so on littering the lingustic ground." and i thought the same thing about the pledge until reading this blog but the pledge is really quite different. the pledge is an american propaganda piece used to create "good citizens" akin to pro-american brainwashing (force children to repeat a phrase over and over again) and adding theistic elements to to that is pro thiest brain washing. nationlistic brains washing is bad enough making it thiestic in a country that advocates seperation of church and state is worse.

It is funny that you bring up burkhas though... in cultures that force women to be accompanied by a male relative or deny them education is obviously bad. i suppose that wearing a burkha could be categorized as bad as well. but how different is forcing a woman by law to wear a burkha in public and forcing women by law to wear shirts in public? i think you'll find both groups make the same arguments "its just too damn sexy" its wierd that people focus on the burkha as they symbol of opression and not the denial of education.

i am worried that the athiest movement will push their issues past the realm of reason. like when feminist activists say that all men are rapists, or when someone claims that it is impossible for someone with darker skin to be racist. or that all people of lighter skin are racist.

but i think that arguing against "under god" does not yet cross that line.

athiests that get bent out of shape when someone says "god bless you"... that is crossing the line.