Monday, August 18, 2008

Bigotry Deserves No Allegiance

Schools are starting up again across the country. One of the things that this means is that the government is once again going to start to indoctrinate millions of children into the attitude that, in order to be a good American, one must endorse 'one nation under God'.

Many children will go to school to see the message prominently displayed on the classroom wall, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not think of you as being one of us."

It is not enough that the government declares this to be the official state attitude towards atheists. Many of the teachers – and many of the classmates – that the atheist (or would-be atheist) students will interact with daily believe this. To think that this does not color interactions between atheists and the rest of their school is na├»ve.

It is here, at a very young age, under the direction of the State and the active encouragement of teachers and fellow students, that young atheists and would-be atheists learn to hide what they believe. They learn to be timid and fearful – attitudes that they will carry with them throughout their adult lives, much to the delight of the theocrats and others who favor having an sectarian state.

If I have not been plain enough in the past, let me be clear now, I think it is right and necessary to explicitly protest this policy.

It's not sufficient to simply sit down and shut up while others say the Pledge of Allegiance. In this country, those actions simply reinforce the message that atheists are un-American. In our cultural language, sitting down and saying nothing is interpreted as a sign of disrespect for liberty and justice for all, disrespect for the government, and, in particular, disrespect for those people who have fought and died to protect our liberty.

Which is exactly the message that the theocrats want to give.

So, we are given a choice to make one of two statements whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is given. We can either stand up and show respect for the idea that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' is the same as a person who does not support 'one nation . . . indivisible, with liberty and justice for all'.

Or we can remain seated and silent, and tell the community that our attitude is that people who fight and die for our freedoms are not worthy of our respect or consideration.

These are the two legally and culturally permitted statements that one can make whenever the Pledge is offered. No other message is permissible.

Both of them are messages that cast atheists in an unfavorable light.

Worse, it casts atheists in an unfavorable light in the minds of children . . . six, seven, eight years old . . . who are not old enough to question. It casts these ideas into the minds of children who will unthinkingly attach emotions and sentiments to these ideas. They will associate being 'under God' and trusting in God with a sense of belonging and acceptance that will make it very difficult – impossible for some – to be at all comfortable with the idea that some citizens do not believe in God. They will associate not being 'under God' or not trusting in God with the sense of being outcast and isolated, unworthy of the equal respect and consideration not only of one's government, but of other people.

At this point it is all too common for some individuals to stand up and say, "That is not what happened to me."

However, imagine somebody writing about the dangers of falling from a great height – how this breaks bones and causes death. Then, those few people who have fallen from a great height without being harmed, stand up and say, "That is not what happened to me."

We would be fools to think of their few exceptions give us good reason to reject the idea that falling from a great height is dangerous. We would be foolish to look at the exceptions and say, "This must be the norm." We should only look at the norm to discover what the norm is.

And the norm, when it comes to the public's attitude towards atheists, is that atheists are un-American, are unfit to hold public office and positions of public trust, is the last person most parents would want their child to marry, is immoral, and is politically disposed to support a Holocaust or Stalinist purge.

I would like those atheists who think that they, too, have not been affected by this social attitude to actually look at your lives. You're not worried about what anybody would think if they were to discover that you do not believe in God? Proclaiming your atheism to somebody that you might want to date – or their family – or your family – does not cause you an ounce of concern? You think you can run for public office stating explicitly that you believe that no God exists and that this would do absolutely no harm to your campaign?

A slave can be comfortable as a slave if he learns to accept this as his role in society, and conforms his own attitudes and expectations to the position that society has assigned them to. Slaves continued to willingly serve their masters throughout the Civil War - even taking up arms against the Union army.

However, the fact that some blacks had internalized the slave culture and found themselves comfortable within it, is not an argument for saying that no injustice is done under the institution of slavery. The fact that some atheists are comfortable in a culture hostile towards atheists is no proof that no injustice is done with the current Pledge, the current motto, and the current culture that they support.

Speifically, what I am endorsing is going to the school and asking or demanding (because, on an issue such as this, it is within one's rights to demand – at least in the sense of saying, 'You are an accessory to bigotry if you do not agree to this') the right to deliver a message to the school other than the two government approved messages.

What I am endorsing is demanding the right to say that students (or anybody else for that matter) should not be forced into a situation where they must communicate to others either, "I support 'one nation under God'" or "I have absolutely no respect for any who fight and die for liberty and justice for all." I support demanding the right to say – and even to demand that the school itself say – that bigotry deserves no allegiance.


anticant said...

Our similar but not identical problem in the UK is the current government's obsession with promoting "faith schools" - Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian - which atheists and secularists keep on pointing out are bound to be socially divisive with potentially disastrous results, as they were in the case of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately the Conservative Opposition also pay lip service to the supposed worth of "faith schools", so we shall be no better off in this respect even after the now widely longed for change of government.

Anonymous said...

I find the whole pledge disconcerting. In a democracy, the state exists for the benefit of its people, not the other way around. Forcing children pledge allegiance to the state is something you'd expect to see in places like North Korea. There's really no place in a democracy for this sort of political and religious indoctrination.

Anonymous said...

Good post , i agree .

Anonymous said...

I recently 'came out' to my inlaws, who are about as hard core Repulican theo-cons as you can think of. And I felt really nervous about it.

Burt Likko said...

I face a similar problem every day in my work. Court clerks commonly administer this oath to witnesses:

"Do you swear that the testimony that you give to this Court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

Unless the witness answers "yes," the Court will not admit their testimony. I have no objection to the oath, other than its last four words. But where a student in a classroom who refuses to submit to the Pledge of Allegiance risks social ostracism. By objecting to the form of the oath, I risk much more than that.

I am in the position of being dependent upon the judges and clerks to get the things that I need for my clients. Obviously, the judges I appear before have a great deal of power to make my life difficult if they wish. The clerk, too, are in a position to either create or remove obstacles to for me -- by being pleasant and courteous to the clerks, I can often get inside information about the court's schedule and the latitude to correct minor mistakes in my paperwork when they inevitably arise. So I have a substantial incentive to not make waves with the clerks -- and of course, the judges who handle my client's cases have a great deal of power to make my life easy or difficult.

But the oath bothers me every time I hear it. It bothers me that the legal system relies upon a nonexistent diety to be the guarantor of truth, and that it rests upon the fear of a Bronze-age bogeyman to make people tell the truth. Anyone who does not take God seriously has no incentive to tell the truth (although a four-year prison term for perjury is, in my mind, a much more serious issue than divine disapproval!). It distresses me that my clients, my witnesses, and I must submit to God in order to be heard in the courts. Finally and most importantly, it strikes me as an Establishment of religion, which the Constitution forbids, and which the Courts should police against.

But making a protest against the practice would carry a very real price. I would no longer get favorable treatment by the clerks were I to object. I would start having my paperwork scrutinized in ways other lawyers' would not be, and be given fewer opportunities to correct problems. And if I want to pursue my career path to become a judge, gaining and keeping the political favor of these very people is critical because their opinions will count heavily for or against my appointment application with the Governor.

I'm curious as to what readers here think is the appropriate thing for me to do in terms of keeping my good reputation and also keeping to my principles.

justintempler said...

You can make a differenece

Atheists attend God and Country Day at Wilson Co. Fair

Church members and atheists alike attended God and Country Day at the Wilson County Fair Sunday.

For years the fair has offered a $2 discount to church members.

This year, the rules changed after a group of atheists contacted fair officials saying the discount is unfair.

"The $2 discount only to Christians is a discriminatory practice. You might as well put only white people get a discount today," expressed Blair Scott with the National American Atheists affiliate.

Fair officials compromised and agreed to accept printouts from all organizations, including atheists.

About a dozen atheists came to the fair on Sunday wearing shirts to identify their group.

dbonfitto said...

Which is exactly the massage that the theocrats want to give.

I know it's a typo, but in an otherwise excellent post, it rubs me the wrong way!

Anonymous said...

Transplanted Lawyer -

Since you asked for comments from readers, I suggest taking the route in which you can do the most good.

As a layman, it is my assumption that judges have a lot more power to help (or hinder) society than do lawyers who are constantly being harrassed by clerks. As such, I assume you could do more good as a judge, even if that means a number of years having to accept that oath in silence.

Also, depending on where you live, the consequences might not be quite so dire. I'm an out atheist, more or less. I don't bring it up (for example if I was a lawyer I wouldn't complain about the oath), but I don't hide it either so if it comes up in casual conversation I tell people I don't believe in any gods. If they ask me if certain things bother me (like the pledge) I say, yeah, of course, they'd bother you too if you were me. Living in Denver, I haven't recieved any blowback. People just accept it without any problems.

I'm not sure how it affects my career... I'm at a low enough level that it doesn't matter right now. If I move up it might become a problem. However I don't really have any aspiration to be a VP or CFO, so that's not nearly as much of a burden for me. :( I'm sorry you have to deal with something like this.

Burt Likko said...

Thanks, Eneasz! That's pretty much what I'm doing now. If I ever do become a judge, I'll ask my clerk to omit the "under God" portion of the oath. Until then I haven't found a better feasible alternative than putting up with it.