Atheists Tune in ‘God Bless America’

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.