It is revolting, in the aftermath of last week’s attacks, to witness the attempts of an unscrupulous few to profit by it. Most of us expected petty criminals would appear with phony donation hotlines or souvenirs from the rubble to be hawked on the Internet. Even worse were the statements of “religious leaders” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who looked to exploit this national tragedy so as to further their own political agenda and brand of religious intolerance.
Falwell and Robertson, who have since retracted their statements at the behest of the White House and others, claimed that some of the blame for the terrorist acts rested with “pagans, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way.” Labeling the attacks as payback for “turning away from God” and punishment for a secular government, they smeared the easiest scapegoats to inspire further division at a time when national unity is needed.
Last I checked, there were churches, not agnostic sanctuaries, plentiful in every neighborhood and Gideon’s Bibles, not Neitzsche’s The Antichrist, in every hotel room. Elected officials have to profess some degree of piety, not atheism, lest he or she commit political suicide. And it has only been for about the last quarter of this nation’s history that the Pledge of Allegiance has included the phrase “under God” (enacted in 1954, at the behest of religious groups). Similarly for the replacement of the national motto of our forefathers, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One), with “In God We Trust” in 1956.
Religion is thriving, and most Americans understand that a secular government, fully separate from the institution of religion, is the foundation for this greatest freedom we enjoy, that to believe, (or to disbelieve), in any way we choose.
Falwell and Robertson have openly expressed their contempt for this freedom, expressing a hope that the terrorist attacks will end the “yapping” about separation of church and state. I can only think of the words of Thomas Jefferson, “History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government” and Thomas Paine, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish [Muslim], appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit” and conclude that Robertson would have to hold our founding fathers as accomplices to the WTC and Pentagon bloodbaths.
Certainly my own family would not be welcome in Falwell’s America, as my wife and I are atheists. Instead of stereotyping us, get to know us and you’ll discover we are patriotic Americans, just like you. We are no less moral than you, we give to charity, we love our children no less than you love yours, and we are raising them to be responsible, active, caring citizens. We are not the idiots lashing out at Muslim Americans or vandalizing their mosques, nor are we representative of the apathetic, non-voting slouches which have become all too numerous of late. Yet by Falwell’s implication, we are partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. If there actually is a god who would punish innocents because their government has protected the rights of the few who choose not to believe in him, well, that is all the more reason for me to be an infidel.
Being irreligious does not mean we hate the religious, it means we simply do not have a need to practice any faith. We celebrate your freedom to think as you please, and merely ask for the same consideration in return. We have exercised our freedom of conscience, in concert with the advice of Jefferson, who advised his nephew: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God… If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”
Jefferson’s message (re-read it again) points to the fact that belief in a deity is not a prerequisite to morality or good citizenship, that these virtues can be derived from reason and empathy. Ethics can be found in religions such as Taoism and Buddhism, neither of which are based on worship of any god or gods. One hardly needs divine revelation in order to arrive at the Golden Rule, which every civil society has discovered, irrespective of their beliefs concerning the supernatural. The fact is, most of us, believer and non-believer alike, choose only those ethical precepts and maxims from religion which our human nature tells us are good, such as the Sermon on the Mount, while rejecting, for example, the Old Testament’s edicts to kill adulterers, or the Koran’s instructions for men to beat their wives if they are suspected of “disobedience.”
To suggest that morality can only be practiced by those who profess belief in a particular type of supernatural being is an insult to millions who have led ethical lives and many who have contributed to freedom and civilization throughout history. It is a form of bigotry that most, but not all, devout Americans reject.
This type of bigotry is one of the elements shared by the repressive Taliban regime and the extreme religious right in our country. Both seek a theocratic government, where non-believers are to be excluded (or worse), but the Falwell/Robertson sentiments are all the more evil because they attempt to twist the ideals of Jefferson et al. to fit their agenda. Freedom of Religion does not mean being allowed to choose between a Lutheran or Baptist or Catholic church, or that the only restriction to teacher-led, public school Christian prayer be that it remain somehow “non-sectarian” (despite the presence of agnostics, Buddhists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses).
The root cause of the terrorism we are fighting is not our diversity, or Church-State separation, or “pagans.” It is not American foreign policy, because our enemies hate us not because of what America does, but because of what America is: the antithesis of a church-based, repressive empire. No, the root cause is the religious fanaticism that is so attractive to the weak-minded. Attractive because it provides a simple world view in which some mighty deity will protect them from perceived foes, as long as they blindly follow a set of rules. Attractive because it allows a mental and moral laziness in which strangers can be instantly judged according to their professions of piety, instead of having to invest the time to learn of their actions and understand their motivations.
Our leaders should condemn and fight, just as vigorously at home as abroad, the intolerance and hatred of religious fanatics, and should never forget Jefferson’s wisdom: “…it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And instead of trusting to a god that our attackers most fervently believe they are serving, I’ll hope we can revive the spirit of E Pluribus Unum in the times ahead.