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Atheists Tune in 'God Bless America'

George H. Smith

A tragedy of the dimensions of Sept. 11 can bring a search for scapegoats in its wake.

On the political left we find some who blame the supposed evils of "global capitalism," while on the political right we find some who blame the godlessness of American society.

Although the particulars differ, both camps suggest that the victims were complicit, whether directly or indirectly, in their own destruction. And thus is any concept of authentic innocence swept aside.

The Cold War is a thing of the past, so the religious right can no longer target godless communism as the source of our woes. The terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 massacre were not atheists at all but religious fundamentalists of the most extreme type, so the blame is placed on domestic rather than on foreign godlessness.

If it is true that Americans put their differences aside in a time of crisis and rally around their common values, this might help to explain the recent proliferation of "God Bless America" signs and banners throughout America. It might be supposed that Americans are returning to those religious values on which this nation was founded.

There are several problems with this interpretation, however, not the least of which is that America was specifically established as a secular nation, not a religious one. There is no mention of "God" in the Constitution. And when Thomas Jefferson mentioned God in the Declaration of Independence, he was referring to the God of deism - that rationalistic creator, popular during the 18th-century Enlightenment, who did not communicate with human beings or otherwise intervene in human affairs.

Many of America's most influential founding fathers - such as Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine - were deists highly critical of Christianity and other revealed religions. Paine (whose pamphlet "Common Sense" was the sparkplug of the American Revolution) claimed that "the most detestable wickedness, and the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion." And Jefferson followed suit with his observation that the God of the Old Testament "is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."

Paine, Jefferson and other deists lamented the intolerance and persecution that were common features in the history of Christianity, Islam and other revealed religions. In their view, people who believe they have an infallible lock on divine revelation will often feel justified in using violence and terror against dissenters and unbelievers. Reason, not faith, is the philosophical foundation of a free and tolerant society.

Atheists are a distinct minority in our society, so we might wonder how American atheists react to the "God Bless America" signs, posters and banners that seem to have popped up everywhere. Do atheists feel excluded by this outpouring of religious sentiment? Do they feel they are being told that only those who believe in God can be good Americans?

I recently posed this latter question to a large group of atheists on the Internet, and their responses were nearly unanimous. Virtually no atheist felt in the least troubled or excluded by the public enthusiasm for "God Bless America" - so long, that is, as such expressions were by private citizens and not sponsored by government.

Although this reaction may surprise some people, it is identical to my own. For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se; rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11.

Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so meaning lies in the intent of the speaker. And in most cases the sentimental intent of "God Bless America" is something with which I and most every other American atheist can heartily agree.

It so happens that "God Bless America" is the title of a beautiful and inspirational song by Irving Berlin, and this undoubtedly helps to explain why this expression tugs at the heartstrings of so many Americans. The song and its title have become part of American culture. Only the most jaded atheist could fail to appreciate what these have come to symbolize - namely, a tribute to this land and the best in those who inhabit it.

Some religious believers may take great pleasure in the exclusionary implications of "God Bless America," as if atheists are somehow less than legitimate members of American society. But for me tolerance and understanding are part of being an atheist, so I refuse to judge a belief on the basis of its worst representatives.

I will therefore continue to judge the recent popularity of "God Bless America" in the most benevolent light possible. I will take it for what I believe most Americans intend it to be: a tribute to the ideals of freedom and tolerance on which America was founded.

Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.


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