Friday, March 23, 2012

The Reason Rally: The Dream of Legislative Equality

One of the stated objectives of the Reason Rally is "Legislative Equality"

Legislative equality. Secular Americans can run for office and adequately represent theists, just as theists in office can represent their secular constituents proudly and openly. We deserve a seat at the table just like theists, and we hope this rally can put our values in the radar of American voters.

Well . . .

Imagine this. We have an atheist candidate on the stage with other political candidates. The debate moderator takes the stage and says, "Let's start with the Pledge of Allegiance."

If the atheist candidate says the Pledge, he is a hypocrite. If he does not, he is anti-American. If he changes the words then his pledge does not count. "What if he dropped the words with liberty and justice for all rather than under God - would that be okay? No!"

We are not going to see anything near legislative equality until we challenge those programs and practices that teach Americans - starting at the earliest ages mostly in public schools - that patriotism and being a good American requires belief in God.

They see it on the money - where they learn that "We" (good Americans - those who belong here) trust in God and, by implication, those who do not trust in God are not good Americans.

They experience it in the practice - which many are coerced into from the first day of school - that equates patriotism with supporting a nation "under God" and equates atheism and even secularism with secession, tyranny, and injustice.

More importantly, they . . . or, actually, we . . . learn this at an emotional level. It is not learned as a belief to be rejected as soon as the evidence shows it to be false. It is learned as a set if emotional attachments that stick with us and guide our actions independent of any evidence. Like a fear or an addiction, it does not vanish the instant one learns it is irrational or even counter-productive.

Through these practices, children, are taught to associate the comfort and security of belonging to the community with trust in God and supporting a nation "under God". We are taught to associate fear, shame, and alienation from the community with the denial of God. We are taught to associate the same emotions to a person who rejects a nation under God that we are taught to associate with those who reject a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is one of the reason why so many atheists are "in the closet". It is because the national motto and the Pledge of Allegiance, taught to us as young children, has associated atheism with shame and embarrassment - with the fear of rejection and alienation. We do not like being seen as "them". We do not like being seen as anti-American. Consequently, we find a great degree of emotional discomfort in telling the world that we do not trust in God, and we do not support a nation under God - because there is no God to trust or for the nation to be under.

In fact, one of the things many of us discover is that many of us are trained to find it a lot more comfortable joining theistic Americans in attacking (fellow) atheists. This buys us acceptance in the political community. This buys us the favor of our neighbors and associates - those who have also learned the lesson that the only good American trusts in God and supports a nation "under God".

Here, we see two of the great currents that something like the Reason Rally must struggle against.

The first is the number of people who will not show up or offer support because they do not feel comfortable doing so. They don't want to let on to their friends that they view this "religion" thing to be fanciful, disconnected from reality, and a bit dangerous when myth and superstition becomes the basis of real-world laws and policies. Their question - to themselves - is, "Can I get there in a way that covers my tracks?" However, in most cases, it will be merely a feeling of discomfort and anxiety at the thought if attending such an event. They will not even understand the source of this anxiety, but it will determine their choices nonetheless.

The second is the number of people - even atheists and other members of the secular community - who feel more comfortable attacking and criticizing such an event than supporting it. This criticism buys them at least some measure of acceptance in a community that is taught to praise religion and condemn atheism. They have at least some opportunity to convince others, "Well, he may be a good atheist, but at least he is not the worst sort of atheist. He is, perhaps, the one-in-a-million exception to the atheist rule."

Once again, I am not talking about cold-hearted rational calculation of personal benefit. I am talking about people doing what human beings always do. We avoid that which makes us uncomfortable and do that which makes us comfortable. Only, in this case, we are responding to comforts and discomforts given to us as children - mostly in public schools and in our young economic lives as we handle money - and that we act on as adults.

It not only affects their attendance at the Reason Rally or their disposition to stand at the Pledge of Allegiance regardless of their beliefs. It affects how they feel about certain political candidates. "I am not prejudiced against atheists. But I don't have a good feeling about this guy."

At the same time that these practices are making future atheists uncomfortable with social expression, it us giving undeserved praise, self-confidence, and assertiveness to those who support a theocratic America. After all, they trust in God, so they belong here. They are fighting for the real America - an America under God. They are like the people supporting liberty and justice for all. It is easy for them to rally their supporters - the government motto and Pledge give them an official Government endorsement.

For those of you who are attending the Reason Rally, and those who are writing about it or otherwise discussing it, I would like you to give some thought to those who are not there. I would like you to devote some conversation time to the barriers that others face that keep them away, or that makes them feel more comfortable giving criticism than giving support. I would ask you to decide what you can do to tear down those walls.

While you have that discussion, I propose including a discussion of the Massachusetts pledge case. and preparing in advance of any announcement a decision how to defend the decision that these practices cast atheists as unpatriotic and poor citizens.

The topics are intimately related.

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