Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Pledge Project: Why?

I think that I owe an answer to this question:

Are you not bored with this yet? I used to be a regular reader here, but I have to tell you, this pledge thing is not that interesting. But every time I drop in for a visit, God and the Pledge is within the last few day's topics. Yawn.... While I am an atheist, and I don't like the phrase "Under God" anymore than you do, I just can't understand why you think this is such a large grain of sand in the Vaseline jar.

The Pledge Project ends on July 7th.

Specifically, I expect that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to give its opinion between June 26th and June 30th. Whatever the date, I will then post a directory of postings written up to that time linking to the various arguments that I have discussed. Hopefully it will serve as a useful resource for those who will be engaged in the debate that follows.

NOTE: 6/23. I have discovered that the above prediction was based on false assumptions.

I have already asked for the time off from work for the week following the anticipated decision date so that I can fully participate in the debate.

The national discussion will probably go through the July 4th weekend where people will use the patriotic holiday to muster support for ‘under God’ in the pledge, then the story will fade as the nation moves on to other issues.

I will move on as well. However, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely hear the case late in 2009 or early 2010, rending a final opinion on the issue of ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust.’ I sincerely believe that if these moral arguments can be pushed into the public light before the Supreme Court hears the case, that there is a chance that the Supreme Court may decide correctly on these issues. Otherwise, the Court will give us a new and extremely narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause that will prohibit nothing less than fine and imprisonment for not attending Church.

So, why am I putting so much energy into this?


(1) Because I think these policies are extremely destructive – far more destructive than most people realize.

(2) Because the principles on which my objections are based have implications across a number of areas where discrimination and religious conflict are an issue.

The Costs of the Current Policies

A lot of people are significantly underestimating the harms of having ‘under God’ in the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ as our motto. In particular, they are ignoring the psychological harm being done to young children.

There have been a great many psychological studies done about what happens when you divide a population up into an in-group and an out-group. These experiments have involved differences as subtle as giving one group a blue ribbon to wear on their shirt and the out-group a green ribbon - or dividing a room between 'those on the left' and 'those on the right'.

The out-group becomes submissive and servile. They find it difficult to look members of the in-group in the eye. They become underperformers, suffering from a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence that keeps them from even trying to accomplish some of the things they might have otherwise strived for. At the same time, the in-group becomes dominant and aggressive. "Believing in themselves", they become much more willing and able to assert themselves against others, particularly members of the out-group. Because of the extra effort, they actually become more successful.

It does not matter whether we are talking about Arians and Jews, blacks and whites, males and females, theists and atheists, the psychological dynamics of in-group and out-group relationships follow the same pattern.

I see that pattern to be blindingly obvious whenever I read news stories about some abuse or insult inflicted on atheists and their passive response to these assaults.

How can you get 6 million Jews into the forced labor camps and gas chambers? How can you get millions of black slaves to work the fields with just a few overseers? How can you treat women as property for thousands of years and have women submissively believe that this is their rightful place, and keep them in that place even in several regions of the world today?

These things happen because the human brain is wired in such a way that out-group membership makes people submissive and obedient, unwilling to take a stand against their own victimization.

President Bush, when he said that he would not appoint anybody to be a judge who does not believe that our rights come from God, should have seen that as the end of his political life. It should have been like claiming that he will only appoint white judges or Christian judges. Yet, nothing happened.

Monique Davis, in claiming from her chair as a Illinois state representative that atheism is a philosophy of destruction, should have seen this as the end of her political career - the way that Trent Lott's career suffered with a single comment praising segregationist Strom Thurmond. She apologized only for raising her voice.

Kieffe & Sons, the Ford dealership telling secularists to sit down and shut up in their advertisement, should have been met with protests that would have threatened to shut down their business unless they gave a serious apology. For a few moments it seemed that they were actually worried about the response. Then they realized that the people they were dealing with were too passive to be much of a threat.

These are real-world observations that make it obvious that we are dealing with a situation with an aggressive and dominant in-group culture of theists against a passive and submissive out-group culture of atheists.

This comes from a program that teaches children on the first day of school, and on from there, that those who support ‘one nation under God’ and who trust in God belong to the in-group, and those who do not belong in the out-group.

Demoting Atheism

In addition to creating a society of aggressive theists and passive atheists, the Pledge and the motto do an excellent job of serving their primary purpose of steering children away from atheism (because no child wants to be a part of the out-group of he can help it) and towards theism (because children have a deep need to be a part of the in group if they can get in).

It does so in a way that shuts their mind to atheism, because atheism comes at too high a cost. Adopting atheism means entering into the out-group. Evidence that atheist claims might be correct stirs an emotional response – a level of anxiety that overrides rational thought and fixes the person’s brain on a belief that they cannot afford to let go of. They feel the anxiety and they conclude that atheism must be wrong. Somehow – someway – it must be wrong.

This is amplified by the fact that in-group members tend to assist in-group members up the social, political, and economic ladders. Presidents appoint only those people to be judges who believe that our rights come from God. Military officers recommend promotions and key assignments to members of their prayer groups. Voters bar from elected office anybody who is not willing to pledge allegiance to ‘one nation, under God’.

You do not need to have a person sit down to do a cost-benefit analysis for these types of considerations to have an effect. All you need is the emotional response that comes from recognizing that adopting a particular attitude towards God (or towards those who do not believe in God) puts certain values at risk. The emotional response is enough to generate the agent’s decisions on the matter with almost no cognitive input. “I do not like the way that your ideas make me feel, so your ideas must be wrong.”

The power of teaching young children that those people who support ‘one nation under God’ and who trust in God are good, and those who do not support these values are bad, is the power of the emotional associations that these practices create that will be with the child far into adulthood.

No amount of anecdotal evidence to the contrary has any relevance here. Anecdotal evidence is always (and rightly) highly suspect. We have the observed results that I have mentioned above of political leaders and businesses making hostile and denigrating comments about atheists without repercussions. No anecdotal evidence can change those observed facts.


Finally, the stigma (the socially manufactured aversion) of atheism gets attached to anything that can be linked to atheism. By associating evolution with atheism and creationism to ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘under God’, proponents of creationism can touch basic emotions that the government has planted in children at a very young age.

By associating Democrat with atheist political factions can cause people to transfer the uneasiness that they have towards atheism to Democrats, and turn more than a few elections in their favor.

People are using the bad name of ‘atheism’ against some worthy causes, but the passive and servile atheist is unwilling to do anything to challenge these practices.

One option that those who support these good causes can do in order to save themselves from these associations is to strongly join in the denunciation of atheism and to assert, “Religious people can believe in evolution,” and “Democrats can have faith, too.”

Of course, nobody thinks to deny the ‘badness’ of the object of the original association – of atheism, in this case. One side tries to link what it wants people to hate with what is already hated (atheism), while the other tries to deny the link with what is already hated (atheism). What they share in common is the sociological fact (and it is a fact) that the comparison object is hated.

It is a hatred that is only made worse by the fact that the government is teaching young children that those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ are bad people (just as those who do not support ‘liberty and justice for all’ are bad people), and telling citizens, ‘do not think of those who do not trust God as being one of us’.


I am well aware of the fact that I am taking on a topic that out-group members are going to find . . . uninteresting. I am making claims that are completely at odds with the passive and submissive nature of out-group psychology.

However, the fact that people find the topic uninteresting is not an argument against my position. The empirical evidence to support my position is there. We see it every time elected officials and business leaders trash atheists and atheism wand receive an impotent protest in response.

It is exactly the type of behavior we were taught in grade school, where the school ritual was to denigrate those who lacked support for 'one nation under God', and we were told at best to take the insults in silence or at worst fiegn acceptance of those same standards. So, now, when politicians and business leaders denigrate atheists, we still follow our old school lessons and take the insults with silence or, at best, a weak and impotent protest that goes nowhere.

Yes, I think that this issue is important. I think it is worth every bit of the energy that I am putting into it. Soon, this issue will be front-page news and we will have a few days' opportunity to expose people to arguments that they have not had to deal with before. I want to be as prepared as possible to take advantage of that opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,
The Atheists who would question your "Pledge Project" are the same Atheists who don't see themselves doing anything for other Atheists except "lend their anon voice" to the proceedings. The "herding cats" analogy really applies to Atheists. As a lot, the vast majority of them do nothing . . . and are proud of it. In fact, most of them may just be embarrassed that others are actually doing something to make this a more meaningful world. They are so proud of their ability to live in a "Christian community" without being "detected", they don't want someone coming along and plaster an "Atheist sticker" on their bumper. Most Atheists are spineless. Pointing to those who aren't spineless does not change the fact that most Atheists wouldn't cross the street if it meant their world would identify them as one of "those" people. And, the "revolution", or should I say, "evolution", goes on. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

As a recipient of extreme denigration, mischaracterization, and outright abuse by a fundamentalist family member, I find your blog and this topic very helpful.

Thank you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anton kozlik

I thank you for your compliments.

However, I consider the 'herding cats' analogy to be a conceit on the part of atheists. Atheists, in fact, are very easy to herd. The theocratic majority has been herding us for years. The very passivity you mention is the passivity of sheep being herded, not that of cats living independent lives.

Also, as I tried to indicate in my post, I would not be as harsh on those who do nothing as you are. The symptoms you described are exactly those that you get when you apply in-group vs. out-group psychology to the status of theists and atheists in America. Those are the defining characteristics of out-group behavior . . . passive, submissive, attempting to hide that which would brand one as a member of the out-group (if possible), attempts to at least appear to be a member of the in-group, and seeking the acceptance of the in-group (often by allying with them against fellow members of the out-group).

Anonymous said...

Alonzo - "herding cats" -- I believe you miss the point of what constitutes a society. Whether they are "herded" or "pressing flesh" or "wearing some form of identification", they would at least be "rubbing shoulders" with other Atheists, and that, which seems to be missing in many of the Atheist arguments, is what constitutes a society . . . a social group . . . a group of people with with some common interest. The "fundy strength" comes from their "rubbing shoulders" which is a social activity, and whether those people rubbing shoulders are "believers", "blacks", cats, or "graduates of a particular institution", they have something in common that shows itself in their "social activities". As an Atheist, the only Atheist social activity available to me outside of The Milesians, are these "web forums". Its almost as if "Atheists don't use deodorant so we won't get too close to each other!" I believe a lot of the comments and observations come from Atheists who have failed to recognize that change doesn't just "happen".

I can see where my "herding cats" analogy can be interpreted as "herding" as a means of control. Let me clarify the point. Its so that the "cats" can enjoy good food, warmth, protection, shelter and enjoyment of life. Its so that the "herd" can defend itself against those who would attack members of the herd.

The Mormon Joseph Smith was also a Mason. When the mob assinated him, his last gesture was to use the Mason "signal" for "help" as there were several Masons in the crowd. No one helped him. Atheists don't have a secret way of asking for "help". A part of the reason is that no one would would answer the signal. An even more frightening point is that fellow Atheists do not appreciate how pervasive the other side can be. Why don't some of these "young" experts on fighting causes look to some older "veterans" instead of believing they have all the answers or that they had "invented" the light bulb?

PhillyChief said...

I think it's crucial to the success of ridding injustices like this to frame the argument in moral terms. Arguing points of law doesn't register with people, likewise, people can't look at this as merely being a reflection of the popular vote, so no big deal. It is a big deal, and the only way to make that known is to frame the argument morally.

Sheldon said...

"I am well aware of the fact that I am taking on a topic that out-group members are going to find . . . uninteresting. I am making claims that are completely at odds with the passive and submissive nature of out-group psychology.....However, the fact that people find the topic uninteresting is not an argument against my position."

Just to clarify, because I am the one quoted in the post. I am not submissive, I am more than willing to defend my atheism, and defend not saying the pledge on a number of grounds. And I mostly agree with what Alonzo has written on the subject, at least what I have read. It just seems like Alonzo has beaten it to death.

But to each his own. Its Alonzo's blog, and he can write what he wants.

I was a much more loyal reader of this blog when there was a greater diversity of topics.

Bacchus Veritas said...

Without people like you with passion for what they believe in, we would all be nowhere. Keep up the discussion and people will start to hear. Keep up the good work and thanks for keeping us posted.

Visited via AtheistRev

Efrique said...

I'm not even from the US, but you sure as hell aren't boring me - what you're doing is important.

Keep it going!

Uploading... said...

I think you're in danger of making atheism into an institution, with activists getting in peoples' faces. Why don't we just go riding around on bicycles like Mormon missionaries, preaching our cause at each door?

I consider myself a secular humanist, not an atheist activist. I don't hide the fact that I don't believe in any form of a higher power than my own best judgment, and a system of ethics which I think OUGHT to be espoused by every homo sapiens on this planet. But I'm sure as hell not going to do more than be an unyielding wall when it comes to people trying to force their religion and religious beliefs on me. Walls don't push back. They just stand there and don't yield.

I came to my atheistic and secular humanist philosophies AFTER being raised as conservative christian. I pulled myself out of the morass. Others will do so too. So y'know what? I don't think children are being poisoned by money and the pledge. I don't LIKE it being there, but I don't think it's even particularly insidious.

After all, look how bad the Creation Science people lost. It was a landmark decision, and it's holding up.

It's true that we haven't always had "In God We Trust" and "Under God" on our money and in our pledge to the flag. But you're free to dissent, and refuse to add 'Under God' when you say the pledge.

Frankly, I think the 'Under God' and 'In God We Trust' phrases fall under the 'you don't have the right not to be offended' clause that's inferred by the existence of the First Amendment.

PhillyChief said...

"Walls don't push back. They just stand there and don't yield."

And what if those earlier walls were too weak, or too poorly spaced so as to result in yielded ground? What then? Should we not reclaim that lost ground now? What of those of us who were born after this event took place? A wrong is a wrong, and that doesn't become either right or acceptable over time. Imo, the wrong becomes more egregious the longer it's allowed to stand.

If you know of another way to address wrongs other than "getting in the faces" of those who champion them, by all means, let's hear it.

Uploading... said...

Well, getting in peoples' faces is taking it to the level of zealotry. Which is NOT what atheism and secular humanism is about. I don't need an anti-religion religion, which is essentially what is being advocated here. You'll never convince anyone of anything by getting in their faces. You're just going to make yourself look like a jackass to the more moderate majority.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Clearly, it's Clary

Any attempt to interpret my writing as a declaration of the need to promote atheism is a misinterpretation of my writing. Out of nearly 1000 posts in this blog, there is exactly one (1) in which I discussed arguments for and against the existence of a God.

I leave the job of promoting atheism to others.

This blog is about ethics - about promoting morality (through praise and reward) and inhibiting immorality (through condemnation and punishment). It is about what makes some action right (actions that we have reason to encourage or promote) and others wrong (actions that we have reason to discourage).

The Pledge Project is not about atheism. It is about bigotry.

It is about policies that lock people out of elected office unless they are first willing to pledge allegiance to "one nation under God". It is about teaching young children that in order to be 'one of us' you must 'trust in God'. It is about a government unjustly and unjustifiably putting a group of peaceful and law-abiding citizens who do not believe in God in the same moral and social category as those who promote tyranny and injustice for all.

There is nothing in what I write that a good Christian cannot accept.

In exactly the same way that a person can be white and still stand opposed to prejudice and discrimination against blacks, a person can be Christian and still stand opposed to prejudice and discrimination against atheists.

In the same way a white person can oppose a government plan to put on the schoolroom wall a sign that says, "We are a white nation", a Christian can oppose a government plan to put on the schoolroom wall a sign that says "We are a Christian nation." Both signs are immoral, and they are immoral for the same reason.

Again, everything that I have written is something that a fair and just Christian can . . . and should . . . accept as being true.

Classifying the claims that I make in these essays as being in-your-face anti-religious as as much of a mistake as classifying the opposition to segregation as being in-your-face anti-White.

PhillyChief said...

I think there's a disconnect here. What are YOU calling "getting in their faces"?

Anonymous said...

I live about an hours drive from the US (yes, I'm one of those America-hating Canadians). I gave-up believing in Santa Clause et al in my early teens. My loss of fairytales roughly coincided with our governments removal of a reference to god from our natioal anthem.
Whenever the old words were used, I woud just hum the "god keep our land" part - Same as I always wondered what would happen if I had to give evidence in court - It would be pergury to offer an oath on a bible!
I just look at a yankee buck and giggle to myself. "In God We Trust" comes from the "land of Liberty" where the word "Liberal" is used as an insult!
Honestly, if truth-in-advertising were to be applied to the USA, it would have to be re-branded as "The Corporate States of Christmas-Shopping".

Steve Shea said...

You put these thoughts together nicely, Alonzo. I hadn't juxtaposed "The Wave" with "The Pledge" yet, and I can't see any holes in your argument.

If anything, the funneling of cash to faith groups for public relief and welfare activities is a further assault on the secularism of the Constitution, and a further denigration of atheism.

Would religious institutions in the US be as charitably inclined, or as active in relief and free public services such as soup kitchens, if they did not have specific government sanctions for their accumulation of wealth?

I'm thinking not only of the WH OFfice of Faith Based Initiatives, an expensive, divisive boondoggle if ever there was one, but also simply of the religious institutions' exemption from tax obligations. What if that were extended to non-religious institutions?

Or what if it were removed from the religious ones?

To keep this centered on your idea, I think this would undermine the received wisdom of a connection between faith and morality, the easy assumption that religious people have values, and atheists do not.

I think I'll give Rep. Stark's office a call...

Anonymous said...

The ethical discussion here is relevant, but falls somewhat short. It emphasizes the advantage given to an "in-group," but does not explore the danger to the in-group itself. The Pledge and Motto are important ethically and politically, not just because they serve to silence atheist opposition, but because they serve as "subtle reminders" that not only do human rights and the rights of citizens flow from God, but also that the authority of the Government of the United States derives from the authority of God. Acts of the government are not to be judged in the context of human ethics, but as the will of God. The majority in-group understands that the wrath of the US Government is equivalent to the wrath of God, wielding the Sword of Divine Justice. The Pledge and Motto are important tools for building American acquiescence to theocracy. Any "rights" given to humans or citizens by man, God, or Government can be taken away by Government, since the Government, essentially, IS God.

Does this sound paranoid or extreme? I have it on the best of authority: Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Antonin Scalia. Go to the web site of the Catholic magazine "First Things," and search for an article by Scalia from a few years ago called "God's Justice and Ours." He lays it out clearly. The problem with "post-Christian" Europe, he says, is that their Governments failed to properly educate their citizens, and now think that those Governments can properly be judged by the citizens with reference to merely human ethical values. Americans, after a half-century of theocratic education, know better.

The Pledge is not just unfair to atheists and atheism -- it is, according to Scalia, necessary to prevent America from falling victim to the terrible consequences of too much democracy.