Religious Diversity and Alienation

Religious Diversity and Alienation December 19, 2012

I have been struck by the language some atheist bloggers I read have used in recent days, in reference to how they felt about President Obama’s speech/sermon in Newtown.


As a progressive Christian, and as someone who has studied Biblical studies, theology, and philosophy of religion, I often feel something that could be described as “alienation” when I hear others use religious language, even in my own church.

But I am part of a diverse congregation, and am a minority. And so I have come to the conclusion that I should not expect most people to be talking about God or the Bible or religion or everyday events in the way that I would. All that would mean was that instead of me feeling alienated, most other people would.

If we are to be a diverse nation with religious freedom, then we are going to have to learn to live with alienation. A diverse society means precisely a society in which there are large numbers of people who think differently than you do and view the world differently than you do.

As a Baptist, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I have never understood the latter to mean that a president ought not to be allowed to attend church, or speak in a way that reflects or mentions his or her own religious views. I understand the concern that someone in a position of power and authority can be influential just through their association with a particular religion or ideology. That is why we adopt the measures that we do in public schools, to prevent any teacher or school board deciding to influence the children of others in ways that their parents might disapprove of. On their own time and outside of their role as teachers, they are free to speak as they see fit.

On the one hand, a presidents are different. They are constantly in the public eye, and any distinction between “private” and “public” becomes largely meaningless. But they are also speaking more to adults than to children, and so the concerns that we have regarding school-age children do not apply in quite the same way.

It is hard to generalize, since people use – and refrain from using – religious language in different ways in different contexts. And so let’s keep the focus on the present example. In the midst of a tragedy, I personally find the mention of God tends to create more problems than it solves. But I understand that others are seeking comfort and finding it through such use of language.

What do readers think? Is there any way that a president could speak – or refrain from speaking – about religion or in religious terms, that would not alienate someone?

Am I right to think that the only way to have a diverse society is to learn the maturity necessary to accept that there will always be those whose way of speaking and thinking alienates us – and that our own way of thinking and speaking will have the same effect on others?

But even if we agree on this point, there is a conversation to be had. At universities, we often emphasize the need to use inclusive language in order to at least recognize that our own gender, skin color, perspective, culture, or nation, is not the only one. It is not about compromising your own perspective, but recognizing that just because you are a “he” doesn’t mean that you can assume that any president, even in the future, will be a “he.” It is not about denying your morality or religion, but about writing and speaking in a way that recognizes that not everyone who hears or reads your words will share your identity.

So how might a president – or anyone else – speak in the midst of a tragedy in a way that would comfort and acknowledge believers and unbelievers of various stripes and descriptions? Is such a thing even possible?

Do any of us have a right to not feel alienated by the language used by others? Even by those elected to represent us? Do we not need to remember that our representatives represent us in our diversity, and not any one group among us – and does that not entail that they will inevitably not be representing some of us, in some ways, at least some of the time?

And when it comes to situations of tragedy and heartbreak, do we we simply need to accept that when we mourn we do not always express ourselves with the care or the consideration that we might otherwise, and make allowances for that?

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  • When I read what PZ Myers said about the President’s speech, that left me scratching my head. Sure, I would have preferred a speech with less religious sentiment. But a tragic event such as this is not the time to make that a protest. This should be a time for unity, a time for trying to find ways of making such tragic events less common, a time for coming together and putting our differences aside, even if only temporarily.

    • The trouble with the notion of phrasing it as “setting our differences aside” is that a theist-based speech does not do so; rather, it requires the atheist to set aside his atheism, while the religious take solace in social validation of their theism’s assurances. It is like suggesting “seeking common ground on my territory”. This seems not an especially big deal in this particular case. However, it could justly have well been… if one of the parents was both irreligious and offended.

      Considering the relatively red-leaning area of New England involved, and the likely generational cohort of elementary school parents, and that (obviously) they were parents, the GSS suggests demographic chances of any particular child’s parents being a “none” seems on the order of 5-10%; the chance of an atheist, nearer 1%. Given there’s 20 sets of bereaved parents, that could fall on either side of an even bet for having at least one unaffiliated — though geographic clustering likely lowers the odds a bit from independent probabilities. A random source on the web (, with
      back-citation missing) gives Newtown as only 70.14% religiously
      affiliated; though that may refer to formal church membership rather
      than self-identification, it would suggest slightly better odds. Thus, it may well be that there actually was one, who also felt that the coming together was more immediately important than that any offense given by the insensitivity.

      It did not happen this time, but it could well have been that one of the bereaved young parental couples might have been a sufficiently PZ-style firm atheist to be deeply offended to the point of expressing their frustration to the press and castigating the President’s insensitivity to the tragedy’s diversity — and in such event, I see no possible better time for them to do so than at the point of their failure to be consoled. That the political land mine was avoided seems a matter of luck; PZ’s plaint, a pale shadow warning of the consequences had it not been missed. The numbers of self-identified Atheists in the country has now risen to par with the number of self-identified Jews. (Suggestive of the odds, press reports suggest one of the children was Jewish.) It would seem cautious for politicians who wish to maintain the aspiration to e pluribus unum to begin using more inclusive language as insurance against accidental alienation of Atheists just as they (mostly) seem to for the Jewish community.

      Of course, I may be underestimating the savvy of the President’s political staff; they may well have checked the exact sectarian affiliation of each of the parents, and vetted the speech accordingly. If so, I see little harm in maximizing the consolation to those most directly bereaved.

  • You’re right that atheists feel alienated by the religious language, but I don’t mind the President using it… I just wish he would *also* use language that suggests that non-religious people are also grieving. If you read his speech, you’d get the impression that Christians were the only people affected by it.

    • Grieving and supporting. And a hurt that other major figures, by implying that prayer could have prevented this, imply that lack of prayer caused it.

  • Burzin M Wallace

    Can’t please everybody.

  • In the movie “Patton,” George C. Scott asked the company chaplain to pray for good weather, so that “We can better kill our enemy.” I feel more comfortable if our Presidents let those who know God, do the speaking on behalf of God. Better weather and results are practically guaranteed.

  • As a non-believer, if I were the parent of one of those murdered children, I don’t think that I would begrudge any believer any comfort that he could find in the face of such a terrible tragedy. It is true that believers and unbelievers alike were effected by the tragedy, but no one was effected to the degree that the parents were and their feelings were paramount. Unless Obama knew that their were atheists among those parents, then I couldn’t give a shit how PZ Meyers thinks he would have felt had he been one of them. Calling it a “slap in the face” strikes me as the same kind of dumbassery as Christians who take offense at “Happy holidays.”

  • good question – speaking about God in public is like using NULL (or failing to use it) in programming. You have to get it right or the program will not work. NULL is I do not know, and is a mandatory part of programming and the programming language. God / El / etc are similarly a part of our human language. How then do we use such a word? In some cases אָמַר נָבָל בְּלִבֹּו אֵין אֱלֹהִים works just fine. No Hebrew – check out Psalm 14 – but take care. I would translate this say for today as – the lute – or the harp – spoke in its heart – you know music and such – God – unaccountable.

  • Katherine Appello

    I am realizing more and more as I get older that yes religious freedom, speech and assembly all interconnected matter and are a primary part of our nation’s history, struggles etc…, but I do think that part of what made America so great is that here you had all these “founders”, who though Christian had profound differences often about faith, yet managed to create a Republic. The first right listed is religion, and this belief in a higher power, providence and a necessity to maintain a Biblical Worldview perspective on life, and governance, while also accepting that we don’t all think the same etc… I do think that we must never misunderstand the establishment clause, which too many and many atheist, all due respect, have twisted around to erase all Judeo-Christian in particular, traces from the public square, which is contrary to our fundamental as a nation, and to the Constitution.

  • mud man

    Heinlein I think it was summarized the Law this way: You shouldn’t offend other people. And if you’re other people, you shouldn’t be offended too easily.

    PZ and his ilk are offended way too easily. It’s a living.

  • grayapple

    Ah yes, let’s not forget the real victims here, peevish atheist bloggers. Cripes, these guys need to lighten up.

  • Susan Burns

    President Obama was speaking from his heart and he is a Christian.

  • Bob

    I am an atheist, but not an American atheist. Personally I found the President’s speech very moving. I think the context is important. He was speaking at an interfaith ceremony. For that reason I think it’s alright for him to speak as a Christian, because that’s what the meeting was for. When he’s speaking in his official capacity, it would be nice for atheists to be aknowledged briefly- he could say ‘people of all faiths, and none’. It’s a simple phrase which recognises people without a faith exist.

  • I am a nonbeliever and I didn’t really mind the speech. I don’t want the president to pretend that he isn’t Christian, or pretend that many (most?) of the families directly affected by the tragedy aren’t Christian. It would, perhaps, be helpful if, in moments of great tragedy, nonbelievers and believers alike who suffer are acknowledged in some small way – just to keep reminding us that we are one nation – everyone included.

  • Warmonkey

    He’s a Christian, he can’t quote a line from every religious text of every religion and then after ten hours of quoting, also quote an Atheist making a snide remark concerning religion. How is this a big deal, and how is it alienating ANYONE? I am a South African, and although my president is a Christian, he regularly dances around in a Zulu outfit making a mockery of EVERYONE who isn’t a cultural fundamentalist, and no, I don’t feel alienated or offended. Get over it, the United States will have an Atheist president eventually.

    • Warmonkey

      Of course, I don’t mean this to be offensive. I just consider all this controversy about the president being a Christian to be somewhat of an attack on my beliefs.