Monday, March 15, 2010

The Alienation of Atheists

I am, I confess, quite surprised at the lack of atheist response to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a daily school ritual including 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, and a national motto of 'In God We Trust' is unworthy of their attention.

I have heard many atheists complain that organizing atheists is like 'herding cats'. This is actually a conceit - a case in which many atheists (and each other) prefer hiding from the truth and imagining themselves as something better than thay are.

In fact, this case demonstrates exactly how easy it is to herd atheists - to get them to sheepishly do that which is not in their own interest. In this case, it is done by controlling the attitudes they adopt as children.

My objections to 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' spring from the effect that praise and condemnation have on the minds of children. Through the use of praise and condemnation, we promote some desires and inhibit others. The desires that we promote and inhibit have an effect on how people act - even on how they act when nobody is looking over their shoulder.

The Pledge of Allegiance - recited daily - gives praise to those who support 'one Nation under God', and condemnation to those who sit or refuse. As such, it promotes a desire to be a person who supports 'one Nation under God' in children, and an aversion to those who do not support 'a Nation under God'

This is quite blatant in the behavior of those who attend ceremonies in which the Pledge is given. Even those who do not support such a nation, rise so as to disguise the fact that they are a part of the shameful group that the Pledge of Allegiance condemns. They may substitute a few words of their own for Under God, or rush over it, and think themselves clever and pat themselves on the back for doing so. However, the objective of this whole charade is to avoid the condemnation that comes from being seen as one who does not pledge allegiance to the United States.

There is a reason why it is so important to have this Pledge in the public schools and at other ceremonies where young children are involved, and for having it on the coins that young children typically handle every day of their lives. By doing so, it plants these attitudes in their brains where they are fixed at a very emotional level. This is not done to plant a belief in the minds of young children. It is done to plant a set of attitudes - desires.

For a young child, supporting 'one Nation under God' becomes a sign of acceptance and belonging. One is a member of the group, welcomed by the group, loved by the group, and cared for by the group. It is safe and secure - a feeling that nature itself has given young children a strong need to acquire. Most of them, anyway. They do not recite the Pledge becaues they mean it or even understand it. They recite it because they need to belong.

However, once these attitudes - these emotions - get attached to supporting 'one Nation under God', the rest comes easily enough. It becomes a test of belonging - of membership in the group - of patriotism itself - that one be willing to stand and give support to 'one Nation under God'.

Those who stand and support and make this pledge are one of us - members of the group - safe and secure within the herd.

Those who do not are outsiders - unAmerican - aliens within their own country and their own culture - adopting a status that is quite appropriately termed 'alienation'.

It is exactly the same message that we see in the Motto.

In God We Trust.

To belong to the group - to be a member - one has to trust in God. Refuse to trust in God, and you are outside the group. You do not belong. You are outside of the community.

Ultimately, I would argue that these basic forces are what caused the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to render the decision that it did. It certainly was not grounded on any type of logic or reason. The posts that I have written in the last three days show how far from reasonable that decision was. So, what forces were involved that caused educated judges to make such absurd statements?

What caused this decision is the comfort that people find in being members of the group - in being a part of the We that trusts in God - in being a 'good American' who supports 'a Nation under God'.

I am not saying that these judges said deliberately, 'I am going to write this insanely stupid nonsense because I want the people to like me.' I am saying that writing this insanely stupid nonsense felt comfortable, and that the comfort that comes with being a member of the group blinded them to the nonsense they put down on paper. The very act of recognizing how insanely irrational those arguments were is too uncomfortable, so the agent blinds himself or herself to its stupidity.

This situation is going to persist - it is not going to change - so long as these practices remain a part of our culture. So long as we continue to plant - at a very basic and emotional level - the attitudes that the comfort and security of belonging is attached to supporting 'a Nation under God - that being a member of We requires trust in God - to that degree atheists are going to continue to be second-class citizens locked out of public office and unable to be seen as having more than a small whiney voice on the outskirts - even outside of - their own community and their own country.


vjack said...

I agree completely. My theory as to why stories like this get such little traction has to do with learned helplessness. Again and again, we see conservative courts work to preserve the status quo, even when it is blatantly unconstitutional. People lose hope. They convince themselves that nothing they do is going to succeed, and they sink into inaction. Personally, not a day goes by when I don't feel like I'm fighting against this. So far I've managed to resist, but I am worried about eventually burning out.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The learned helplessness theory assumes that the desire was there to start with, and then snuffed out by repeated failures.

That theory is falsified by the fact that the repeated failures do not exist. There are not even attempts (or, they are so few that they could not possibly generate such a wide sense of learned helplessness).

I hold that the desire is suppressed at the start - it never gets a chance to form.

And the dominant mechanism for doing so is the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto - which is why these practices in particular need to be addressed.

Even if one cannot get the law changed, the very act of publicly challenging them deprives them of some of their authority.

These mechanisms teach young children to have an aversion to anything that can be seen as counter to 'one Nation under God'. That is the very reason it was included in the pledge - just as the other text was inserted to teach children to oppose that which can be seen as counter to union, liberty, and justice for all.

The fact that these demands are contradictory is not as much of an issue as it should be.

Atheists as well go throught this period of learning as young children. Even if they sit out the pledge, they learn the rule that support for 'one Nation under God' is good and objection to 'one Nation under God' is bad. The gnawing feeling in one's stomach at the thought of drawing this type of attention to oneself demonstrates this.

It takes serious effort to overcome this type of indoctrination.

Rex said...

I agree as well, but I would like to put my own spin on this concept.

I have been more and more encouraged by the progress and the visibility of the atheist movement over the past several years. Even though we have not had huge victories yet, we have small ones all of the time. Awareness is spreading, and more and more, the non theistic opinion is gaining in respectability and as a source of perspective free of the taint of any sect.

Removing "god" from our money and our pledge are huge psychological and symbolic steps. Those things may not happen until well after the time that we are completely secular in practice.

The atheist movement continues to make progress, so when I read stories like that, I always mentally add two words to the end of it: "for now"

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Of course their removal will be a long ways off.

However, the protest of their existence need not be.

Remaining silent on this issue grants them authority. If atheists are not vocally and visibly pointing out the problems with these practices, then children are encouraged to adopt them unquestioned.

If, instead, they were protested - if the demand for their removal was public and reasons given, then children must still endure the practice will be aware that there are protests against it, which will weaken its effects (making its later removal that much quicker).

Anonymous said...

Nice post, very well articulated indeed.

When I was attending schools where the pledge is standard, I would just try to stand there and not participate emotionally. It had nothing to do with religion or God for me. Though I've always realized the true blessings this country has bestowed upon us, at the same time, one can't just ignore the true privations its bestowed upon us, either. I just couldn't reconcile pledging any real allegiance to a country that I saw depriving people - up to and including its own citizens - of real liberties.

I support atheists' cause when it comes to the pledge and our money, though, I would favor the inclusion of some acknowledgment of naturalism over the removal of God.

Unknown said...

I'm really, really angry about it, as I have expressed here and here.