What America can learn from its atheists.

One of the best essays I’ve read on the whole Pledge debate in general and the recent Supreme Court case in particular is from The New Republic Online titled Under God and Over. Leon Wieseltier does a great job of pointing out the ridiculousness of the government’s arguments for keeping the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge; that it’s essentially devoid of any religious meaning and is actually only a historical reference. He also points out how this attitude is actually hostile toward religion even though those who promote it like to think they’re being friends to religion in doing so. He touches on a lot of points that most atheists already have a pretty clear understanding of. In short, it’s a good read. I’m going to quote part of the last two paragraphs as they’re my favorite part.

There is no greater insult to religion than to expel strictness of thought from it. Yet such an expulsion is one of the traits of contemporary American religion, as the discussion at the Supreme Court demonstrated. Religion in America is more and more relaxed and “customized,” a jolly affair of hallowed self-affirmation, a religion of a holy whatever. Speaking about God is prized over thinking about God. Say “under God” even if you don’t mean under God. And if you mean under God, don’t be tricked into giving an account of what you mean by it. Before too long you have arrived at a sacralized cynicism: In his intervention at the Court, Justice Stevens recalled a devastating point from the fascinating brief submitted in support of Newdow by 32 Christian and Jewish clergy, which asserted that “if the briefs of the school district and the United States are to be taken seriously,” that is, if the words in the Pledge do not allude to God, “then every day they ask schoolchildren to violate [the] commandment” that “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain.” Remember, those are not the Ten Suggestions. It is a very strange creed indeed that asks its votaries not to reflect too much about itself.

For this reason, American unbelief can perform a great quickening service to American belief. It can shake American religion loose from its cheerful indifference to the inquiry about truth. It can remind it that religion is not only a way of life but also a worldview. It can provoke it into remembering its reasons. For the argument that a reference to God is not a reference to God is a sign that American religion is forgetting its reasons. The need of so many American believers to have government endorse their belief is thoroughly abject. How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God’s name wherever it looks? (His name on nickels and dimes is rather damaging to His sublimity.)

Good stuff.

37 thoughts on “What America can learn from its atheists.

  1. I haven’t read the essay yet, but again, as a Christian, I never said the pledge in school.  I thought it was stupid to be forced to say it.  I do agree that the phrase “under God” shouldn’t have to be in it, especially since it was tacked on and not in the original version, but that aside, I don’t like “pledging allegience”.
    For Christians, this should cause a red flag because we’re not supposed to participate in Idol Worship. I know it’s not “worship” per se but it’s close, Christians have called far less such.  For me, being forced to say out loud that I will be devoted to an entity, whatever it’s form is ludicrous to me.  I love this country, I think it’s better than most out there, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are still problems with it, and that’s the great thing, I have the freedom to discuss those problems.  So with the acception of being treasonous, why should we be forced to sware devotion to a peice of cloth?
    I never said the pledge in school and I always got the “unpatriotic” thing.  So?  Doesn’t mean I root for the other guys, I’m just not one for school spirit and don’t want to be forced to go to the pep-rallies, is that so wrong?
    If I said anything stupid I blame it on the frelling Time Change….loosing sleep grumble….

  2. Certainly there are plenty of Christian denominations that ask for an exception to the Pledge for just that reason, Speaker.

    For myself, it never seemed (and still doesn’t seem) that big a deal.  Having everyone say the Pledge together doesn’t bother me.  More and more, though, the inclusion of the religious phrase bothers me.

  3. For me, it was that we HAD to say it.  I don’t mind it’s existence, and I don’t mind the National Anthem before events and such.  It’s the fact that from an early age, you have to say it every week day morning of your life.  They’re better now because you can be silent if you want, but still it seems to me like conditioning.  If you say it enough you’ll mean it sorta.
    If kids didn’t have to say it every day I doubt people would care about the phrase. 
    But still, kids are forced to Zieg Hail the flag every morning.  It just gives me 1984 heebie jeebies.  Perhaps I over analyze it, but still….

  4. But still, kids are forced to Zieg Hail the flag every morning. It just gives me 1984 heebie jeebies. Perhaps I over analyze it, but still

  5. Cool - you read ‘The New Republic’ too, Les? It being such a small magazine, actually (and a small world too, it seems). TNR was the first time I ever paid for an online subscription.

  6. VernR….
    I apologize, I didn’t mean that the pledge was inherrently “Seig Hail” like…the fact that kids are forced to say it with their hands over their heart in forced devotion daily.  I know now you can be silent but when I was in school not too terribly long ago we go in trouble if we were silent. Some schools still force you to say it too….
    That what was the metaphore was too, not to the words in the pledge by themselves.

  7. Speaker, I think you made some valid points.  The “Under God” line is bad enough, but as Les pointed out, it’s basically an add-on for political reasons.  The pledge itself always seemed lame to me, if only because the school I went to (and I suspect many others, past & present) failed to explain civic and ethical concepts that would make the symbols of Pledge and Flag relevant to the kids in the classroom.  I think the pledge does have real meaning, but forcing kids to recite it without context day after day kills off any curiosity or interest they might have over the ideas that form the text.

  8. It’s little facts like these that make this obsession with the pledge so wierd.
    The original Pledge was recited while giving a stiff, uplifted right hand salute, criticized and discontinued during WWII.

    from Here.

    It’s all about tradition until the tradition is a little uncomfortable to deal with.

  9. Thanks Brock, I was going to point out the fact that the Pledge was originally given while holding your hand in a position not unlike the Nazi’s famous gesture, but you beat me to it. Yes, it was changed to placing your hand over your heart once the Nazi’s started making asses of themselves.

    Personally, I’ve never been a big ‘rah-rah’ type of guy in the first place, but if we’re going to pay lip-service to the idea that America is an all-inclusive society then we should ensure that our expressions of Patriotism don’t belie that claim.

  10. It wasn’t me Les, it was Brooks who pointed out that interesting fact - thanks a lot, because now I feel I owe you an interesting fact!

  11. Oops! Sorry about that Brooks! I was in a hurry and only glanced at the name. Proper credit where it’s due. Thanks for pointing out my mistake, Brock.

  12. That’s OK, you don’t need to give me credit. I take everyone else’s credit all day long around here.

    I also like how they changed the word MY flag because they didn’t want immigrants thinking of the flag of their homeland when reciting the pledge.

  13. That’s not the ONLY thing the Nazi’s ruined, *** Dave.  They ALSO comPLETELY ruined the whole mustache look that Hitler had!  I mean, come on!  All kinds of people used to have those rediculous looking things!  Wouldn’t it be great if we coulda still had those today?  They’re so goofy lookin’.  But he just HAD to wear it when he started the Holocaust.  Like a douchebag.  A damned Nazi douchebag…

  14. More good stuff relating to the second paragraph in Les’s quote.

    Yesterday Diane Rehm interviewed Susan Jacoby who was making the rounds to promote her new book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Based on (most of) the first chapter it appears to be a worthwhile book.

    The chapter titles provide an overview of the thrust of Jacoby’s book. It’s not the usual slant on American history and I look forward to filling some of the numerous gaps in my knowledge.

    1.Revolutionary Secularism
    2.The Age of Reason and Unreason
    3.Lost Connections: Anticlericism, Abolutionism, and Feminism
    4.The Belief and Unbelief of Abraham Lincoln
    5.Evolution and Its Discontents
    6.The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought
    7.Darwin and the Culture Wars
    8.Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, and Darwinists
    9.Onward, Christian Soldiers
    10.The Best Years of Our Lives
    11.Culture Wars Redux
    12.Reason Embattled

    Here is part of her closing paragraph.

    American secularists have trouble deciding what to call themselves today, in part because the term has been so denigrated by the right and in part because identifying oneself as secular humanist

  15. I agree that “secular humanist” is a pretty clunky term.  My concern over “freethinker” is twofold:

    1. Everyone at least draws on some “received opinion.”  Even if it’s just looking for a quote about secularists that resonates, as you note. 

    2.  It perpetuates the idea that non-secular folks (say, “a Jew, a Catholic, or a Baptist”) is simply a little religious automaton, being fed pablum through the ears and regurgitating it, unexamined, back out the mouth.  While I can think of some apparent examples of that, there are many religious folk I know who examine critically the “received opinions” that are handed to them, to see if they are congruent (or resonate) with their own reason, feeling, and experience.

  16. ***Dave,

    How could I not agree? A good part of the education process consists of receiving opinion

  17. In my “book” it’s all about “the identicalness of religion and politics”
      for many years already I argue that religion(s) should be treated like any (other) political movement: apart from personal reflection and inspiration, -that is not anyone else

  18. (Frans:) that religion(s) should be treated like any (other) political movement

    There is the ultimate reason why I formally resigned my membership in the Protestant church.

  19. From the Netherlands no less.

    This time I mostly disagree. In my book it’s all about separation of Church and State. It was in our Constitution because the deists and evangelical Protestants found it mutually beneficial to have it that way.  The founders wanted separation because of the abuses that they saw in the European systems of government. They didn’t slip it under the door in the dark of night. During the ratification process the issue was openly and heatedly debated by the several state assemblies.

    Us vs them is a long standing part of the human condition. In many American Indian’s native languages the tribal name often meant ‘The People’. Anyone else not in the tribe was an outsider

  20. For my part, churches should lose their tax exempt status.

    Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. But could that ever happen, and how could we bring it about?

  21. hi
    Out of left field again.
    A great deal of time is spent debating what we think about these issue of religion and in particular church and state,this is perfectly natural.However the language and logic required to debate is a left brain hemisphere activity.
    I am tending to feel more and more that the reason religion flounders in the face of logic and rational is that it is a right brain hemisphere activity ie intuitive.
    If genuine spiritual revelation is intuitive then it is impossible to refute it using logic.
    The interpretation of this revelation as god or whatever is problamatic,and, since the only language we have is a rational construct that despite all the effort of philosophers,poets etc,will allways fall short of the actual experience.No way for it to be conveyed to rationalists.
    If it is true that religion stems from intuition then it has no place alongside politics which is a rational? construct.
    This begs the question,If half of our total perception of reality is based on the proccesing based on intuition how do we apply this intuitive knowledge in a world dominated by rational and logic.
    I have a nagging doubt that the more I try to pursue knowledge about the human condition using just logic and rationale.The further i drift from the true nature of the condition which is 50%intuition. 
    I am sorry if this goes of tangent.I just can’t help thinking that if we are to diffuse the terrible potency that religion has aquired then we need to understand the epistemology as well as taking practical political action.

  22. There’s a fallacy in assuming that intuition “comes out of thin air” or “out of the mysterious right brain” and is not simply a less-than-conscious response to real observations.  Most people who claim intuition can be taught to become more aware of the concrete things that led them to their conclusions (such as verbal and nonverbal cues), and will readily acknowledge that if you take away those inputs, their intuition also vanishes.  There’s nothing magical about intuition.  It’s a skill—not one that everyone has, any more than everyone is good at dancing—and it can be developed and sharpened with education and practice.

  23. Not the intuition i’m thinking of.
    Rationality logic is also plucked out of thin air of the mysterious left brain unless you know of some mechanism to describe the process.
    “The rational mind,specialised for language and verbal thought seems to operate analytically,much like a computer,following the digital laws of logic.The intuitive mind however,is analogic and therefore much more difficult to describe.Its most important feature,one which cannot be modelled in logical terms is its ability to grasp things whole.The intuitive mind is capable of dealing in conceptual wholeness.It spies pattern or form,shapes in our visual field,sounds in our aural field,meaning in our linguistic field.
    Intuitive understanding is indeed more of a feeling than a knowing,paying more attention to context than detail.It is an understanding that allways appears fuzzy at the edges because our rational mind can never analyse it with its logic.
    All our deepest profound wisdom falls into this category.
    If we consider our understanding of colour,space and time,beauty,love or understanding itself,it becomes apparent that all these fundemantal concepts are essentially experiential,repulsing rational,verbal thought.They cannot legitimately be reduced.They can only be ingested whole.”

  24. Rationality logic is also plucked out of thin air of the mysterious left brain unless you know of some mechanism to describe the process.

    If you don’t know the mechanism, you simply don’t know the mechanism. If you attribute either rational thought or intuition (however defined) to be plucked out of thin air, the burden of proof is on you

    I have no reason to believe that intuition is anything more than the result of a pattern matching process. I admit that I’ve never given intuition much thought (harharhar), but have you ever tried to come up with an analogy to explain a more complex problem or done an impromptu whiteboard diagram?

    Another experiment you can try is to start with the joke “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and try to come up with different punch lines. Speaking for myself, I find it difficult to do so. Since the punch line is counter-intuitive, it takes effort to think up another one.

  25. The intuitive mind is capable of dealing in conceptual wholeness.It spies pattern or form,shapes in our visual field,sounds in our aural field,meaning in our linguistic field.
    Intuitive understanding is indeed more of a feeling than a knowing,paying more attention to context than detail.It is an understanding that allways appears fuzzy at the edges because our rational mind can never analyse it with its logic.
    See, this is where I disagree.  Just because it can deal in wholeness doesn’t mean it starts out there and can’t be returned to its component parts.  It’s only a “feeling” if you can’t understand it well enough to describe it.  Doesn’t mean NOBODY can.  If you treat intuition as something that can’t be analyzed, then you’ll never try, that’s all.

  26. No proof is possible,all our philosophies,including scientific ones require at some point a leap of faith.

    You are indeed headed straight towards solipsism. If you are consequent, you have to admit that you can merely assume that there’s a world out there and this discourse may well be just a figment of your imagination.

    I find myself living in a society that has replaced the mytholgy of religion as the source of absolute truth with the mythology of science as the font of all wisdom.

    Which society do you live in?

  27. The energy ripple in the space time continuum that was
    spacemonkey is no more, but in accordance with somebodies
    law about something or other and energy.It has reappeared
    having undergone a metamorphosis,an evolution perhaps?
    Enter Solipsist,who says"a big fat hello!to any other
    underachieving,disenfranchised,bottom feeders out there”
    and is looking forward to the cut and thrust,red in tooth
    and claw no doubt,as i work my way out of this
    epistemological whole I have dug for myself.
    Now where has that christian dude gone with my shovel.

  28. Just as long as you allow us Dos Equis types to circumsize—er, circumscribe—your arguments.

  29. sorry i left my phrase book in my other reality
    dos equis, two horse/horse back.  Are the capitals a clue

  30. Just googled Dos Equis.
    Shock! horror! you’r a piss artist? I thought it was some just feminist ball bustin crap.

  31. IF?Instead of thinking of fundemental particles as actual objects and instead
    consider them as energy patterns.Not a new idea I’m sure.
    AND if everything in the universe can be reduced to these fundemental energy patterns.
    THEN we also consider mind / consciousness,epiphenomina or not as just another expression of an energy pattern.Albeit one which can’t be seen or measured.
    WE do away with the parodox of mind over matter,since what we are then dealing with
    is energy influencing energy,at a distance or otherwise.which is something we
    experience all the time in light,magnetism,radiowaves etc.
    Good grief the sides of this whole are steep, does anyone have a rope.

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