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.


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I have been reading your blog for a long time, but have never worked up the nerve to comment. I just want to say THANK YOU for the work you do. My father is an atheist who has instilled in me very strong moral values, especially how to treat others the way I would want to be treated.

I am excited about your Pledge Project. I agree with your position completely. As a child I had a classmate who as a Jehovah's Witness could not make a pledge to the flag. She had to leave the room during the pledge and the other children teased her ruthlessly. Even though the phrase "under God" gave me a queasy feeling, as a seven year-old, I said it anyway. I knew I did not want to be different. I now wish that I had had more courage back then.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Sure, people make fun of the Pledge in school, but before something can be a subject of parody it has to be important. You hear it every day, and it sinks in. You learn it without being overtly taught it.

You're absolutely right, Alonzo. There's a connection.

And that's not even considering the overt antagonism to the "godless commies" the pledge addition was meant to display.

Anonymous said...

My personal opinion is that the pledge and the motto are primarily a reflection of anti-atheist bigotry; they are not entirely innocent of causing such bigotry, but other causes have far more influence.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

My personal opinion is that 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' are both the cause of anti-atheist bigotry, and an expression of that bigotry drawn from other sources.

Anti-atheist bigotry certainly existed before 1954. If it did not, these laws would not have passed.

Yet, these measures can be fought on both grounds - both in terms of teaching children to grow up to be bigots, and as expressions of bigotry that come from other sources.

It is a perfectly good argument to make that, "Whatever would cause you to support legislation of this type is not causing you to be a good person. Those causes are suspect."