Omnipresence

“Get your hands off our god – you god-haters!”
    —An unidentified protester watching the removal of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state judicial building, 27 August 2003

“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty.”
    —President Eisenhower upon signing the bill adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, quoted in Judge Alfred Goodwin’s majority opinion in Newdow v. U.S. Congress, 2002

It’s not easy being an atheist in the United States of America today. Organized religion influences public life here to a degree unmatched in any other country in the First World, and everywhere I go, I find reminders both subtle and not so subtle of this fact. If God himself isn’t obviously present, his followers make up for it by doing their best to make mention of him ubiquitous. There are Christian churches on practically every corner with signs out front calling the faithful to worship, all operating tax-free and thereby forcing the rest of us to pay higher taxes to support them.[1] There are Christian private schools at every level of education, also tax-exempt. There are Christian broadcast networks on every radio and TV set, with televangelists and faith healers raking in the cash from their flocks. There are Christian books on the bestseller lists, popular Christian magazines and newspapers, an entire industry of gospel music and Christian rock, and Christian student groups on every college campus. If I stay in any hotel, I’m likely to find the Christian Bible, and no other holy book, placed in every room regardless of whether I asked for it or not. There are Christian missionaries that go door-to-door trying to induce complete strangers to convert. There are powerful Christian special interest groups and lobbying organizations, weekly prayer breakfasts on Capitol Hill, and Christian politicians in office dominating every level and every branch of government.

In fact, although the United States was conceived and brought forth as a secular nation, based on the principle of separation of church and state, religion has been seeping into government practically since the ink was dry on the Bill of Rights. Today, the religious neutrality that is one of the fundamental components of our government and essential to our cherished liberty is under increasingly concerted assault, as the Christian right wages its most aggressive battle ever to dismantle the Constitution’s guarantee of Americans’ freedom to choose any religion they wish or none at all, and in its place establish a de facto theocracy. There are calls for the Ten Commandments to be posted in public school classrooms, municipal parks, and courthouses. There are official Congressional chaplains, their salaries paid out of tax money. There is overtly religious language on our currency, in our Pledge of Allegiance[2], in our legal oaths, and in our patriotic songs and slogans. There are political organizations whose sole cause is to promote the teaching of Christian religious beliefs in public school science classes, and others who are lobbying for government to fund discriminatory and pervasively sectarian groups with tax money in the name of charity. There are state constitutions that deny atheists the right to hold office (unenforceable, admittedly). There is even an official holiday called the National Day of Prayer.

In practice if not in theory, church and state in America have become intertwined. Come election time, the airwaves are saturated with politicians – and not just those who belong to the religious right – calling for more faith, more religion, as if theistic belief were a panacea to solve all of society’s problems. Increasingly in recent years, elections have become competitions to see which candidate can publicly express his piety as loudly and as often as possible, to cater to religious constituents who regard a candidate’s agreement with them in matters of doctrine as an essential prerequisite to him receiving their vote.[3] By contrast, I cannot recall the last time a self-declared atheist held any high-profile public office in the United States; I do not know if it has ever happened. It has been observed that many of America’s founding fathers, due to their unorthodox beliefs, probably could not get elected today.[4]

The pervasiveness of religion doesn’t end there. As I write this, it is the year 2003 AD – 2003 “Anno Domine”, Latin for “in the year of our lord”. Western society’s calendar begins at the year Jesus Christ was supposedly born, and being politically correct by labeling the years CE, for “Common Era”, instead does not change that. Most of our curses derive from theism – when people get angry, you might hear “God damn it” or “Jesus!” or “Go to hell!” When something good happens, people often say “Thank God!” If I go out on the street and sneeze, someone is likely to say, “Bless you.” Many people’s names come from religion as well. There are many people named Faith, Christian, or any number of other names that echo religious concepts or were the names of Biblical prophets – I even share my name with the first man of the Book of Genesis.

And I don’t even live in the Bible Belt.

In short, our society is god-soaked. Religious influence touches virtually every aspect of life, in ways that range from the subtle and commonplace to the overt and intrusive. The religious contingent of the population is large, loud, well-organized, and commands the lion’s share of attention from the media. By contrast, atheists, skeptics and nonbelievers are a silent minority, largely ignored by the media and looked down on by society at large. I have read many accounts of atheists growing up or living in heavily religious communities, alone (as far as they know) in their convictions, afraid to speak out lest they be ostracized, assaulted, abandoned by their friends or loved ones, fired from their job or kicked out of their home – or having these very things happen to them when the truth does get out. So little media attention does the atheist viewpoint receive, some people who independently come to reject god-belief do not even know what this position is called, or that there are others who think the same. In his book Losing Faith in Faith, in the chapter titled “Freethought on Donahue”, atheist activist Dan Barker describes how, after he appeared on a popular television show, there followed a flood of letters written by people thanking him for letting them know they were not alone, some of them elated that now they knew what to call themselves at last.

To live in such a hostile environment requires great courage. But it takes even more bravery for an atheist to do this than it would take for a theist under similar circumstances, because atheists lack a crutch available to believers: the promise of divine justice in the end. Christians and other theists can console themselves that ultimately, they will be victorious and their enemies will be humbled. Atheists, however, have no reassurance but the truth, and no guarantee that they will inevitably prevail. It takes far more courage to withstand persecution and harassment without this supernatural security blanket. To stand firm in the face of threats of hellfire and eternal agony, with nothing to promise one’s opponents in return except peaceful oblivion, requires greater strength of conviction still. And to do all this alone, without the reassurance of like-minded partisans at one’s side or even the knowledge that any other such people exist in all the world, requires an integrity and a strength of character that is truly exceptional. Christians who have all their lives attended church where they pray, sing, and shout “Amen” in unison with hundreds of fellow believers each week cannot possibly imagine the courage it takes to be a lonely atheist.

(It should be pointed out that I am not claiming all these qualities for myself. I was fortunate to have had an upbringing in which I was not subjected to the sort of vindictiveness described in this article. However, I am aware that many atheists cannot say the same, and the commendation these people have earned for not giving in is well deserved.)

In light of the overwhelming dominance of Christianity over atheism in American public and political life today, it is deeply ironic that Christians so often try to claim the mantle of persecution for themselves. Christian literature is replete with references to themselves as an oppressed minority, under siege and despised by society at large. For example, right-wing writer David Limbaugh’s book Persecution claims to expose the alleged “selective mistreatment” of Christians that runs rampant “throughout our public life”, spurred on by “anti-Christian forces now controlling significant portions of our society”, a “society-wide disinformation campaign” with the ultimate goal of “eliminat[ing] Christianity from American government and public life” altogether (quotes from http://www.regnery.com/regnery/031001_pers.html). Another site, http://www.biblicaltheism.com/willchrist.htm, blames the “humanistic worldview” for the “many current public policies that produce religious discrimination against Christians…. Christians are usually startled to observe that humanists now occupy the high ground. They are firmly entrenched and well fortified in the principalities and powers of this world.” A third site, http://www.worthynews.com/christian-persecution.html, announces that “persecution of Christians is on the increase in the United States…. a pattern is emerging reminiscent of Jewish persecution in [pre-]war Germany.”

What motivates absurd statements such as these? Why do Christians claim that they are the ones being denied their rights and discriminated against, when the opposite is so obviously the case?[7]

I believe that there are two major reasons which explain this. The first is that there is a very real need for persecution, a desire to see oneself as belonging to a group of misunderstood and mistreated outsiders, that is built into the basic fabric of Christian mythology. This motif recurs throughout the New Testament and the history of the belief system that grew out of it, whose first adherents were a despised cult treated savagely by the Romans. These people sought to explain how such things could happen to them, the faithful; and so the belief that “all that will live godly… shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12) was invented by the writers of the New Testament and eagerly taken up by those who followed them. Their suffering was a test of their faithfulness, they concluded, and moreover a sign that they were on the right path; this sinful world would always hate and reject God’s wisdom, and treat the messengers who bore it correspondingly. As a result of these origins, worldly power and success have historically been viewed with suspicion in the Christian system.

But this view runs into a fundamental paradox in the present day: the widespread success of Christianity does not fit this mold. Christians are taught to emulate Jesus, and Jesus always opposed, never supported, the establishment; but now his followers have become the establishment. It would seem, well, un-Christlike – not to mention dangerously close to making Jesus’ warnings of persecution in Matthew 10:16-18 into a false prophecy – to simply declare victory over their much less numerous and more poorly organized opponents, and glory in their wealth, power and influence. Believers must therefore find a way to reconcile their dominance over society with their belief that God’s people will always be persecuted. The most straightforward solution is simply to invoke cognitive dissonance, and to declare, in the face of all evidence, that they are a persecuted minority. (Dave Holloway provides some insightful further comments on the “victorious underdog” motif prevalent in this belief system.) A cynical observer might add that these claims serve an additional, more practical purpose: reassurances that all is well and Christians continue to be in charge would not be nearly as effective in motivating the flock to open their wallets.

There is a second major reason why Christians in the United States today feel they are being discriminated against, and that reason is as follows: simply stated, Christians have historically had more rights and more privileges than any other group, and now that this inequity is finally being recognized, it is being corrected. Having grown accustomed to special privileges, some Christians protest that their rights are being taken away, when in reality what is happening is that the extra rights they have acquired are being rolled back, returning them to equal footing with other groups.

To name one example, until 1963, the date of the landmark Supreme Court case of Abington v. Schempp, daily Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer were required by law in many American public schools. As the quote from President Eisenhower at the beginning of this article shows, and as Judge Goodwin’s decision agreed, the intent of adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was to enforce a religious orthodoxy of monotheism. Ten Commandments monuments in public places, such as Roy Moore’s, can only be designed to send the message that those other than Judeo-Christian believers are second-class citizens; after all, the first four items of this decalogue command that only a specific deity is to be worshipped, and define what types of worship are and are not acceptable. If this is not a government establishment of religion, then what is?

After each court decision striking down one of these practices, public outrage predictably ensued. Lawmakers’ response to the Pledge decision is detailed in footnote [2]. Thousands of protestors came to Alabama, many from hundreds of miles away, to show their support for Roy Moore (although when groups such as the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation file suit against unconstitutional government actions in other states, complaints promptly arise demanding they butt out of other people’s business). In the year following the Schempp decision, lawmakers proposed no fewer than 150 constitutional amendments to permit mandatory school prayer, according to a New York Times article from November 23, 2003[6].

To those who claim that Christianity is being discriminated against in America, I ask: What rights, precisely, are Christians being denied? Are jackbooted government thugs closing down their churches, or breaking down their doors and confiscating their Bibles? Can’t they stand on a street corner and hand out literature to their heart’s content? Don’t they have their own TV and radio stations broadcasting their message twenty-four hours a day? Can’t they give as much money as they want to their favorite televangelists? What more do they want that they do not already have?

If one looks at the events that cause the greatest hue and cry of persecution to arise from Christian fundamentalists – such as the striking down of organized school prayer, of Ten Commandments monuments in government buildings, and of professions of religious faith in official affirmations – a pattern emerges: these were all circumstances in which Christians were denied permission to express their beliefs in a manner that would convey official approval of these beliefs and would either single out and exclude nonbelievers or else coerce them to conform. What this shows is that some Christians have defined their religion in such a way as to allow them to force others to practice it[5], and anyone who opposes their right to do this is therefore seen as denying them their freedom of religion.

As an example of this, consider the issue of school prayer. To hear some of the hysterical rhetoric emanating from the religious right, one would believe that the debate was over whether all mention of God should be banned outright from public schools. This is not, nor has it ever been, the case. Individual students, even student groups, have always had the right to pray during school hours and on school grounds, so long as they do not disrupt others. That right is protected by the First Amendment and students have never been denied it. What was struck down by the courts, and what Christian fundamentalists are pushing to restore, is organized, coercive, teacher-led prayer that would send a strong message that the school administration – which is an arm of the United States government – officially endorses the religious message contained in the prayer; prayer that would send a message to participating students that they are favored insiders and would put pressure on students who believe differently to conform. These Christians want teachers, employees of the government, to lead their students in a profession of religious faith. It is not enough for them that they have the right to practice their beliefs; they want to be able to force them on others as well, with government support. That would be the essence of unconstitutional religious discrimination.

Incidentally, the same problem exists with the Pledge of Allegiance in its present form. By officially affirming that God exists and is monotheistic, it represents the goverment impermissibly taking a position on a religious issue. To illustrate why this is a problem, imagine that circumstances were reversed – that the United States was 85% atheist, and that the Pledge of Allegiance contained the phrase “one nation under no god”. Would Christian parents object to teachers leading their children in reciting this negation each morning? Would they accept the argument that any student who did not agree with such a sentiment could simply keep silent while his classmates said it, or in this parallel universe, would the American Christian Liberties Union promptly file a lawsuit?

In this universe, however, it is uncontested that Christians make up around 85% of the population of America, an overwhelming majority. So who, exactly, is discriminating against them? And given that we live in a democracy, how did these other groups come to power in the first place? Even members of the federal judiciary are nominated and confirmed by politicians who must win general elections. Are Christians perhaps arguing for their own ineptitude, that they keep electing politicians who then do not represent their interests?

While not even the most paranoid Christians would go so far as to say that atheists outnumber believers, they do claim that atheists exert influence not proportionate to their size. And this is true. In America, we have the Constitution, which guarantees all groups equal rights, regardless of their size. This document ensures that there are some fundamental freedoms which are not up for a vote, one of which is freedom of religion – a right which necessarily encompasses freedom from religion for those who desire it. This does not mean I am advocating the banning of religion from the public square – like all groups, Christians, in their capacity as private citizens, are guaranteed the right of free speech to promote their viewpoint to their heart’s content – but it does mean that the government must remain neutral in such matters, and may not use its law-making power to act in a way that compels citizens to adopt a particular religious belief, or tends to do so.

In the end, any fair-minded consideration of all the facts must inevitably show that Christian claims of persecution are utterly without substance. Christians in America today are not being oppressed, but exactly the opposite. They have almost complete control of the government, they overwhelmingly dominate popular culture and the media, they have the resources and the freedom to spread their message, they possess vast wealth and enormous power, and they have taken full advantage of all these things. And when advocates of church-state separation try to carve a tiny secular preserve out of the vast tracts of theistic land – when they dare to suggest that there should be any area, no matter how small, in which Christianity’s dominance should be anything less than absolute – the Christian majority in this country reacts with unreasoning rage, screaming that all their rights are being taken away. In the face of this juggernaut of faith, what are nonbelievers to do? Truly can it be said: If you think it’s hard being a Christian, you should try being an atheist.

Atheists do not own huge, wealthy churches, do not belong to massive and politically powerful constituencies, and do not have their own schools, their own television channels, or their own countries. And for the most part, that is the way we like it. We are content not to be under the spotlight. We do not aggressively proselytize, nor do we seek to impose our will on others – we simply ask to be left alone. A minority we may be, but I am not claiming that we therefore deserve any special rights or considerations; I reject the rhetoric of victimhood. I merely seek to point out the manifest absurdity of Christians claiming they are the ones being persecuted. For myself, all I ask – all we ask – is that the basic human freedoms of speech, conscience and belief be guarded vigilantly and applied to all equally, including atheists. I am confident that the truth will win out in time.

Living as a freethinker in this god-soaked society, constantly bombarded by messages to conform, can be depressing at times. Humans are by nature a social species, most comfortable when they have the support of a group. By definition, atheists are some of the most individualistic members of society (otherwise they would not be atheists), but sometimes the pressure to succumb is acute. Regrettably, for the foreseeable future, nothing we can do is likely to change this state of affairs – religion is just too entrenched in daily life. All we can do is proclaim our dedication to reason, and declare before the hostile crowd that only real evidence, not mere pressure to join the bandwagon, will ever sway us.

In the gloom of this religious world, there is one ray of hope, which is that society is gradually becoming more enlightened and secular over time. It was only a few hundred years ago that to openly state one’s atheistic convictions could lead to imprisonment or execution. Even just a few decades ago, there was no atheist movement to speak of at all; whereas today, though still small, it is vibrant. Though very gradually, the power of religion is weakening. In this respect, the Internet is a particularly wonderful invention, providing a truly public and global platform for speech and allowing atheists across the world to find each other and to unite.

This is not to say that the light at the end of the tunnel is just ahead. We still have a very long way to go, and fundamentalism is an ever-present threat. Even today, there are those who would have us erase all the progress of the past few centuries and plunge society back into the dark ages of superstition and theocratic church rule. Nevertheless, progress has been made, and will continue to be made as long as people of courage and principle are willing to stand up and fight. Despite all the setbacks, despite the superstition and the madness, humanity is rising, with the potential for undreamed-of greatness in its future. For today, I am content to be an atheist in a world of believers. To blaze a new trail, one must always walk a lonely path at first.

Footnotes

[1] Within a three-block radius of the apartment where I lived at the time this article was written, there are four Christian churches. Within a three or four-mile radius, there are at least twelve, each of which owns a considerable amount of land. How much revenue is the local government losing out on by exempting them from taxes?

[2] The original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy, made no reference to gods or theism. The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge by Congress in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy paranoia, to set the United States in contrast to the “godless communism” of the Soviet Union. “In God We Trust” was made the national motto two years later, and added to paper currency one year after that, for similar reasons. See the quote at the beginning of this article. (See http://www.ustreas.gov/education/fact-sheets/currency/in-god-we-trust.html for more.) This rather flimsy historical precedent did not seem to make an impression on the U.S. Senate; when the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the addition of “under God” to the pledge to be unconstitutional in June 2002, this august legislative body passed a 99-0 resolution condemning the ruling, with individual senators thoughtfully characterizing both the decision itself and the judges who handed it down as “stupid”. See http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/06/26/senate.resolution.pledge/index.html. Ironically, the very furor over the decision simply goes to show that “under God” in the pledge is indeed an establishment of religion. If it were only a watered-down reference to an abstract higher principle, a form of “ceremonial deism” with no real religious meaning, then why would so many people be so deeply concerned to defend it?

[3] A 1999 Gallup poll asked Americans whether they would vote for a generally well-qualified presidential candidate of their party who happened to belong to one of the following groups: Catholic, Jew, Baptist, Mormon, black, woman, homosexual, or atheist. Only 49% of Americans said that they would vote for an atheist candidate, by far the lowest percentage of all eight groups. (59% said they would vote for a homosexual and 83% would vote for a Mormon; all other categories had a better than 90% approval rating.) See “The Protestant Presidency“, which also makes some cogent points about religious belief as a necessity to be elected to public office, for more details.

[4] Some of the founding fathers who held unorthodox or non-Christian religious beliefs include Benjamin Franklin (a deist who said that he had doubts as to Jesus’ divinity), John Adams (who said that Christianity was “the most bloody religion that ever existed”), James Madison (who wrote in the Federalist Papers that religion could not be relied on as an inducement to morality), Thomas Paine (a deist whose Age of Reason was an uncompromising attack on Christianity), and Thomas Jefferson (who kept a copy of the New Testament from which all the miracle stories had been excised, and said that the virgin birth of Jesus was a “fable” similar to Greek legends about Athena and Zeus). The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that the United States was “not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”, was unanimously ratified by the Senate and signed into law by President John Adams.

[5] Or, at the very least, they expect the legal right to practice their religion with official government support and approval, while expecting those who believe differently or do not believe at all to stand aside and remain quiet. It is noteworthy that, despite the pluralistic nature of our society, no one has ever considered mentioning in the Pledge of Allegiance the many other deities in which American citizens believe; likewise, our money does not say “In Various Gods We Trust”. All the talk of “ceremonial deism” in the world cannot hide the fact that the deity referred to on our money, in our pledge and in our national motto is and was always intended to be the Judeo-Christian God. In addition to this, we have years dated by a religious calendar, months named after Roman gods and deified Roman emperors, days named after Norse deities, planets and astronomical objects named after classical mythological figures, and holidays co-opted from pagan religious festivals. Why don’t atheists get equal time? Why don’t we have any holidays named “Freedom” or “Love” or “Reason”?

[6] Martin, Douglas. “Edward Schempp, 95, Dies; Fought School Bible Readings.” The New York Times, 23 November 2003, p. 40.

[7] It may well be the case that Christian conservatives can point to a few genuine incidents in which overzealous school administrators, employers or government officials unfairly denied Christians their constitutional rights (though in my experience, most stories of this type turn out to be fabrications). However, if I may repeat an excellent analogy spotted on the Internet: the occurrence of a few cases where Christians were denied their rights does not prove the existence of a general conspiracy against Christians any more than the few cases of food poisoning reported in elementary school cafeterias each year prove that there is a conspiracy to sicken American children.


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