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On Arrogance

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. -‘Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784

July 1, 2002. Outside my window, the fireworks celebrating the founding of the nation of Canada burst over the city of Ottawa.

My emotions are, as they always are on occasions such as these, mixed.

In Canada, of course, this is pretty much a platitude.

In a qualified sense, I suppose I can say I love my country–insofar as I appreciate the many things I think we generally get right as a national body, when we could just as well have got them wrong.

But I’m cranky at the best of times about patriotism, and about nationalism itself. It’s partly their amorphous and frequently unstable position on a certain continuum, at one extreme end of which reside blatant bigotry and tribalism. It’s always made me uneasy.

Ultimately, I think, beyond this, however, my greater difficulty with them is less due to this concern than it is due to something intrinsic in my character. I’m not sure I’ve ever really grasped love of country, I must confess. There are more than a few of my fellow citizens I count as friends; some of them I can say I love insofar as I would quite probably defend their lives to the death if forced to do so.

But of country? How does one love a country? I can’t conceive of 30 million thumbtacks, let alone 30 million fellow citizens, each and every one somehow supposed to be precious to me by virtue of the markings on their passports.

Nations, it is of course arguable, are more than a population. They are their history, their customs, their laws; they are a shared experience, and they are a land mass (in this case, one of extraordinary beauty, and of extraordinary scale; that at least, on balance, isn’t so hard to love). Perhaps more than anything else, they are a spirit, an attitude about how we live together; on what their citizens agree. We are our laws, yes, but we are (and this is of particular significance to the discussion toward which I’m working) also our interpretation of those laws. We are, most of all, our attitude toward our fellow citizens–for that matter, toward our fellow human beings, citizens or no.

It is this about Canada, I suppose, you might catch me saying I love. There are days, I think, we manage about as sane a view of this as any country on the planet manages.

This, I acknowledge, isn’t necessarily saying so much. But I’ll take what I can get.

So yes, getting back to the point: it might be love. If a nation is the principles it embodies, or merely attempts to embody, I think I might just manage something akin to love. On our better days, we do manage a level of tolerance of pluralism, of decency and respect between majorities and minorities. You do have to like that about a nation.

It is in this context that I have been reading the fallout from the recent decision of the U.S. ninth circuit court of appeals, on references to a certain god in a certain official pledge of allegiance.

The matter (to reiterate what you almost certainly already know) was brought forward by a father who is also an atheist. His daughter attends a U.S. public school. That school mandates regular recitation of a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag, and that pledge includes the rather clear statement that the U.S. is a nation “under God.” The court, in an appeal decision, has decided, that on balance, yes, this practice is in violation of the First Amendment to that nation’s Constitution, which holds that its legislators shall make no law “respecting an establishment of religion”–the storied U.S. Establishment Clause, which, it is popularly read, embodies and inspires the official separation of church and state in that nation.

The backlash to this decision from the voices that purport to speak for Godly America has been, it will I expect surprise no one, one of swelling–and I must comment terribly irrational–rage.

It has also, I should comment, been somewhat educational. Though more on that later.

Let me stake out the ground. It seems to me that I most wish to say, in schematic, the following on the matter:

(a) Under the U.S. law, the ninth circuit court of appeals is, simply, unavoidably, utterly correct about this.

(b) This reflects wonderfully on the beauty of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution in that it is also absolutely the right thing to do.

(c) The enraged backlash from various sectors of the body politic suggests strongly to me that frankly, everyone–particularly those coming off as so enraged–knows this perfectly well.

Down to business:

The law

By the books–under legislation and by precedent–the contradiction between the U.S. Constitution and the school district’s regulation mandating recitation of the pledge is unmistakable. I argue: anyone who tells you otherwise just isn’t being honest (certainly not to you, and probably not even to themselves). Read the decision, the pledge, and the Constitution yourself, and see if you feel like telling me otherwise.

For five minutes, never mind the media lines about the “liberal” ninth circuit (and this goes out to everyone, but especially to all the opportunistic pundits and legislators who jumped on the godlier-than-thou bandwagon the night the decision went public).[1] Save yourself the trouble. Read the law yourself.

Let me give you a hand with this, if you lack the strength in your wrist to click as far as the URL to the text of the decision.[2] I submit, for your convenience, the following.

From the U.S. Constitution. From the text of the decision and its precedents. For your consideration:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. -‘The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, proposed 1789, ratified 1791

The legislative history of the 1954 Act [which appended the Pledge of Allegiance, which previously made no reference to any god] shows that the “under God” was not meant to sit passively in the federal code unbeknownst to the public; rather, the sponsors of the amendment knew about and capitalized on the state laws and school district rules that mandate recitation of the Pledge. The legislation’s House sponsor, Representative Louis C. Rabaut, testified at the Congressional hearing that “the children of our land, in the daily recitation of the Pledge in school, will be daily impressed with a true understanding of our way of life and its origins….”-‘Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, writing for the U.S. court of appeals for the ninth circuit, in the case of Michael A Newdow vs. U.S. Congress et al, June 2002

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways…. The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of a religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. -‘Supreme Court Justice O’Connor, in the 1984 Lynch case, concerning display of a nativity scene in a city’s Christmas display; cited by Goodwin on Newdow, above.

At minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise to act in a way which establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so. -‘Ibid.

There are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools. -‘Ibid.

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not mere acknowledgement that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and–since 1954–monotheism. The text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion…. Furthermore, the school district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, and this amounts to state endorsement of these ideals. Although the students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the Pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the Pledge. -‘Goodwin on Newdow, again.

Now I don’t particularly want to insult your intelligence by interpreting all of that for you in great detail. As I expect you can see, these aren’t particularly arcane matters of law.

Rather, this is the law as what it should be: common sense, decency, and justice, formally applied.

This is what the armature of the decision amounts to, outside technical matters of determining standing and jurisdiction: the state at its founding agreed it would not endorse any religion in any form. The Pledge quite explicitly endorses a religious view–that there is one god, and that the nation is collectively subordinate to this god. Mandating that such a statement shall be read in a classroom which is quite directly and visibly an instrument of the state sends the quite unmistakable message that this is the view the state considers orthodox. It is at this point almost redundant to say: that’s endorsement of religion insofar as it is the favoring of one religious view over all that might contradict it.’

What part of that, I should like to ask the rabid pundits who jumped on the justice who wrote this view, don’t you get? What part do you need explained again?

I’m ending this section here. I argue: it need be no longer. If you’re looking for a complicated, obfuscated treatment that muddies these quite clear waters, you need only wait a bit, and read the shameless prevarications of the Supreme Court justices I expect will shortly be arguing to overturn this particular moment of sanity and of honesty, so that they may justify the state’s endorsement of the superstition to which they and/or their political supporters personally subscribe.

Or will they find the ethical chutzpah, the clarity, and the courage, to surprise the world, and uphold it?

Frankly, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

What’s right

And that’s a pity. For if they do overturn this, they’re destroying something that not only deserves to live, but something we all (and yes, this includes people beyond the jurisdiction of those laws, actually) are better off seeing survive.

As I wrote above: I argue that beyond being the law of the U.S., this decision is also, to any decent, ethical human being with a grain of respect for their fellow human beings, simply the right thing to do.

I write it quite without blushing: the principle set forth in the U.S. Establishment Clause, is, I argue, among the wisest sentiments humanity has got around to inscribing in their books of law.

It was born, as I expect most readers of this should know, of tragedy and grief, as so many of the great ideas are. It was born of suffering, and of hatred, and of persecution. The founding fathers of the United States knew very well the misery that arises when a dominant body attempts to enforce conformity in matters of religious belief.

They knew of the Inquisition. It was alive, though waning, in the years leading up the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. They would have known more intimately the frequently insane religious foment that had surrounded the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts from their very founding–the persecution by the Puritans of the Quakers, the frequently rabid prosyletization with which the Quakers responded. Certainly, they would have known of Roger Williams’ The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution chronicling much of these events–part of the argument through which Williams’ obtained a charter to found the colony of Rhode Island.[3] We know, of course, that Thomas Jefferson knew of the persecution of Quakers under the official aegis of the Virginia assembly, as he wrote about it. And quite frankly, that’s another history we cannot neglect in discussing this issue. Jefferson:

Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. -‘Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784

Note that this particular passage accompanies a larger context: Jefferson discussing the state of legislation controlling religious belief in the young Republic. Note also that there’s a particularly key passage here regarding the contemporary dispute–Jefferson argues explicitly here against enacting statutes against non-monotheistic beliefs, despite implying he has little respect for the word of those who hold them. I quote at great length (archaic spelling modernized):

By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father’s right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom. The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the era of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged. Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food. Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. -‘Ibid.

Contrast this wisdom, if I make an aside, if you have the stomach, with the pious pandering of the shameless hypocrites that currently inhabit the U.S. Congress. Consider the prevaricating bastards of our times who mouth that the Constitution defends “Freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” (think, for a moment, on the implications for freedom of such veiled bigotry–I will have more, to be sure, on this later), and compare them with Jefferson.

Returning to the point, I submit to you: you should respect these words, this wisdom, not merely because this is Jefferson writing. You should respect them because they make much sense. These are the writings of a man who knew what misery followed the use of legislation to dictate orthodoxy.

This was the context in which the First Amendment was enacted. The founding fathers of the U.S. were far from naive. They looked at what had transpired in Virginia, in Massachusetts, and on the European continent. They considered these histories, and did something both courageous and wise.

They said: no more, not here.

Then they codified the First Amendment.

As inheritors of this tradition, I’m not sure citizens of any formally secular state will ever be able to thank them enough.

Now the suffering experienced by a child in the contemporary U.S. public school system who doesn’t believe in a single god, or isn’t sure they do, is of course, undeniably orders of magnitude less than the worst of that suffered by the Quakers in the 1600s, or the Marranos under the Inquisition.[4] Certainly, their life is probably rarely in danger, and nowhere is it written in law that she cannot be an atheist, agnostic, nor polytheist.[5]

As the court’s decision has (I think quite justly) noted, however, such a student may indeed (and I should say, quite probably does) suffer at the hands of the state’s law in this regard: it makes her an outsider. It tells her, not especially subtly, that her countrymen consider belief in their god to be so necessary a part of citizenship, that they codify it in their declaration of allegiance, and recite it before her regularly.

Let’s be clear. It is an injury. Imagine the emotions of such a child. Some, certainly, will see it as merely ceremonial, and largely meaningless, as are the words to so many rituals, and largely shrug it off–an approach, which, strangely, those defending the inclusion of the words sometimes defend as being the proper attitude to take.[6] Others will reason with themselves that complaining over this isn’t worth the discord it will cause between them and their peers, and will tolerate the subtle slight. Others will brood slightly, in quiet resentment of the obvious message that their viewpoint is so disreputable that the body politic has actually gone out of its way to exclude it. Still others will feel subtle self-loathing, thinking there are good reasons to protest against this (and frankly, there are), then discovering they lack the courage.

I should note that above I did note the other rather nasty implicit message here–the clear signal sent that anyone uncomfortable with such a declaration is simply beneath notice. They’re apparently not important enough to the body politic that it need even notice they exist.

Sometimes, that message isn’t so implicit, either. Consider the statement of House Speaker Dennis Hastert on the subject of the decision, a few days ago: ” Of course, we are one nation, under God. The Pledge of Allegiance is a patriotic salute that brings people of all faiths together to share in the American spirit. ”

It’s pretty clear here, isn’t it? People of all faiths. Apparently, those are all the people that matter.[7]

Frankly, I think those who claim to see this as a minor thing protest too much (and note that, for persons who supposedly see it as so minor a thing, they’re protesting awfully loudly about its being opposed with apparent initial success).

Seriously. If it’s really “ceremonial deism,” what’s the harm in taking it out? Why all the raving on talk radio, and from the floor of Congress?

The reality is incontrovertible. The Godly America people have spilled their cards all over their table, in their rush to get photos of themselves folding their hands in prayer onto the front pages. It absolutely isn’t mere ceremonial deism.

And let me make no bones about this: whatever these people really think of those words, I don’t think it’s so minor a thing. And I have much sympathy for men like Newdow, as well, who apparently don’t think it’s so minor a thing either, that his daughter must hear these words daily, spoken with the authority of the state by the only instrument of the state she faces regularly–the teacher assigned her by the public school system; saying not just that this is what we believe, but what you must pledge yourself to; what it is expected you believe if you are a citizen of this nation. And I have that sympathy for any child of independent bent, who, passing through those classrooms, feels and must cope with the subtle marginalization, and the less subtle indoctrination implicit in this practice.

No, I don’t think it’s so innocent a thing.

Quite frankly, I think it stinks.

I think it’s perfectly, bloody clear: the addition of those two words, in the context, was mean-spirited, and it’s designed to be exclusionary. Insisting on the regular recitation of this, verbatim, in the public schools, is likewise a rotten thing to do. Contrary to the pious claims of the pundits, I frankly don’t think it has anything to do with bringing people together. Frankly, and I think every damned one of those mindless parrots in the U.S. Congress who stood up to protest knows this, I think it has everything to do with driving them apart. It’s comparatively subtle against taking their land and driving them from your colony, but it’s the same basic hatred.

Beyond the mere matter that it’s intolerant to insist those words be intoned, I have to add: I frankly think it’s coercive. I frankly think it’s a subtle form of indoctrination. Consider the court’s very finding that the aim of recitation of the Pledge was the inculcation of the ideals it contains: if implicitly, one of the ideas is that citizens of this nation should regard themselves as being governed by a god, what else does this practice unavoidably attempt to impress upon young minds?

No, not that the history of the Republic is wrapped up in the history of theistic religion. Rather, that everyone believes this. And you should too.

The state does not demand you attend church. Neither should the state demand anyone listen to such indoctrination, however subtle.

It’s not just a matter of law. It’s wrong, pure and simple. It’s not just that Jefferson would probably have thought so. It’s that if you’ve a decent bone in your body, you should think so.

Civilized people don’t do this. Decent people don’t do this. True heirs to the spirit of tolerance and pluralism don’t do this.

And no government should do this.

We are leading here, to my final topic–the question I pose is this: why are those words there in the first place? And what can we glean from the outrage when their removal is threatened?

Freedom from religion, and the arrogance of the majority

The Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. We are after all not just another nation, but ‘one nation under God.’ -‘Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman, October 2000, during an address at Notre Dame University, during the presidential campaign

The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe…. I don’t recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, “In God We Trust.” So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country. -‘letter to the editor, the Augusta Chronicle, October 22, 2001, following an atheist complaining about the religious nature of services commemorating the deaths on September 11

Every twice-born man, who, relying on the Institutes of dialectics, treats with contempt those two sources (of the law), must be cast out by the virtuous, as an atheist and a scorner of the Veda. -‘The Hindu laws of Manu, Chapter II, verses 10-11

They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): so take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them. -‘The Qur’an, Surah IV, verse 89

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good. God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Will the evildoers never learn–those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on God? There they were, overwhelmed with dread, where there was nothing to dread. God scattered the bones of those who attacked you; you put them to shame, for God despised them. -‘Psalm 53: 1-5

In the first two of the passages above–Lieberman’s notorious comment during a campaign speech, and the letter to the editor–there’s an additional lesson here for those who argue that the ‘under God’ formulation in the Pledge, and the references to this god on the currency are mere ceremonial Deism.

Note that we move through Lieberman arguing that, given the phrasing of the Pledge, there should be no ‘freedom from religion,’ to the letter writer apparently picking up this chord from Lieberman, and other instances of these supposedly ceremonial phrases, and moving to expel the atheists from the U.S.. All this, from supposedly innocent, ceremonial words. Harmless, indeed. Or did the writer, perhaps, have in mind a merely ceremonial expulsion?[8]

In the totality of those five excerpts (Lieberman, the letter, and the three canonical texts of three of the major religions), the outlines of a larger context take shape.

First, note that hatred of atheists is nothing new. It’s actually common to at least three of the world’s major religions, and we find records of it thousands of years old. In the sacred books of Hinduism, of Islam, of Christianity, and of Judaism, we find this common thread. (Atheists might take this as a minor point of pride, insofar as evidence is excellent they may well be one of the more ancient of belief systems; apparently they were around to annoy even the writer of the Psalms.)

Now we can speculate as to why that might be. Naturally, the atheist is the common enemy of all these faiths. Naturally, it is the object of the authors of all of these purportedly holy books that people subscribe to the faiths they describe, and an atheist does not by definition do this. The rather different character to an atheist’s critique of a given religion, against other mystical religions’ critiques, may also play a role, insofar as the atheist, advancing less that a religion can ridicule in return, can be a particularly annoying critic.

Second, this hatred, ancient and widespread, as is I think illustrated quite clearly by that letter above, has survived quite intact into the modern age. Further: it has found refuge in the overtones of Lieberman’s comment (since adopted widely) that freedom of religion does not imply freedom from religion.

This, is, I think, hardly a hard charge to support.

Ask yourself: what else does that phrase mean in terms of impact? Who else does that injure?

Ask yourself: why should it be acceptable to the state that you believe whatever you damned well please, so long as you believe in some god or other?

Ask yourself: is this just? Is this logical?

Ask yourself, What is the justice in saying: “No, we must put nothing in the law that tends to endorse one group’s particular vision of a deity over another, as this has tended to be injurious in the past”? Let us agree not to allow the government ever to discriminate against anyone in this manner.

Except for atheists. The atheists are another matter. Discriminate against them all you like.

Ask yourself: what pathetic kind of freedom is freedom of religion, if it means only the freedom to choose from an approved slate of cosmologies? No, apparently, sorry, you may not think for yourself on these questions if your conclusions ultimately diverge from these. You have freedom of thought, as long as you don’t arrive at the thought that actually we’re just entirely wrong about the very existence of this god, not about merely whether you should face east while praying to it, or consider its alleged earthly mother equally divine.

Well folks, in any case, my apologies. I don’t much care what you consider acceptable in this regard, and no amount of legislation, or pontificating from the would-be guardians of the acceptable range of opinion on this matter, is going to change what I think in any case. I must, and I do, think you are wrong about this.[9] And damned pushy about it, too, that you would try to enact laws on the matter.

And again: that’s the very point. This is about endorsement; this is about freedom of conscience. No, however the slack-jawed pundits might try to distort the issue, atheists are not saying they want the right never to hear the word god. No, atheists are not saying they want the right never to encounter a church service. Nor, quite frankly, does it really bother most of us (as I suspect I’m typical here) merely to know such traditions continue, nor even to observe them (I, personally, am all for the regular rituals, if it keeps the practitioners of these religions out of the streets–it’s much the same principle as supporting organized sports for juvenile delinquents–that way, they only damage each other).

No. They are saying they know damned well (as do you, as does everyone) that it’s their right to insist their state in no way endorse nor tend to promulgate any such belief. They are saying: it’s a secular state for a damned good reason (note, no, not an atheist state, but a secular state), and let’s keep it that way. They are saying they’re every bit citizens, just as everyone else is, and a law that mandates the endorsement in a state ritual of a view of citizenship that explicitly excludes them is simply wrong.

And I am saying, without apology, furthermore, that it is arrogant, presumptuous, and frankly a form of repression that any dominant group thinks it can do this–work its views on religion into a mandatory public ceremony clearly establishing the permissible bounds of citizenship, in such a way that it quite clearly excludes others from these bounds, merely because they differ from the dominant group on a purely religious question.

All of this: the trial, the backlash, the hypocrisy that has crept into public discourse following the decision leads me to a line of thought I think should be inevitable here. So I now have a proposal. An idea I’d like you to follow up, if you don’t mind making a few inquiries.

Ask yourself this: why is it so important to public life (and I think it clearly is) that atheists remain politely invisible, thank you very much?

I, naturally, have a hypothesis I rather like that explains this, besides explaining the angry raving of the masses of rogues who stood up to denounce the clear and simple justice pronounced by an honest judge.

I think, if you’re honest, the reason is clear enough:

I think the only reason this is such a big deal, the only reason those words are there in the first place is an unvoiced, but unmistakable fear.

That fear is: that the only reason anyone believes in this god is they think everyone else does.

Yes, I really think that’s much of what it is. Why else insist your society repeat it so obsessively, particularly in ceremonies (such as the declaration of fealty to the nation itself) where speaking up to differ, or even abstaining, is so difficult that an impression of uniformity on this issue can readily be enforced? Why else tuck it into the margins in the coinage?

Again: I say fear.

This explains also rather neatly what drives this uproar. It’s not that you think your god demands this service. It’s that you think this is how you keep it alive. And if you stop, this god may disappear.

If I must shame you, I will shame you. I argue: If you are truly people of faith, you should have no truck with this fear.

And no place for laws that enshrine it.

It has been said before. Let me say it once more: if your god needs the protection of legislation, he must be a feeble creature indeed.

Get him out of the laws. You know you can’t justify his being there.

To the world, to my countrymen, and to the citizens of the United States:

A secular state is the only sane approach in a world in which a plurality of views on religion (including atheism) is the reality.

The founding fathers of the U.S. knew this. They crafted their laws carefully, to ensure they enshrined what the citizens of a nation genuinely had in common. They knew that this meant, given the variety of religious belief throughout their territories even then, outlawing state endorsement of religious belief of any kind, and avoiding where sensible all entanglements with it in matters of state. They noted elsewhere quite explicitly that this was the case, for they knew what state entanglement in religion could do to a nation. James Madison, for one:

What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not. -‘James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, 1785

Frankly, I think we all know this, if we only give it a moment’s consideration.

This is no laughing matter. This is no small thing. I say: stop messing with it. The erosion of the U.S. founders’ intentions has gone far enough; it must go no further.

Better, it must, as the that circuit court has found, be redressed. In the interests of sanity, and in the interests of justice.

To the citizens, legislators, and judiciary of the U.S., for what it’s worth, I say: keep those words out of your pledges; let the message be clear: the state has no intention, and no right, to influence what you believe on such questions, in any way whatsoever.

Your descendants will thank you again, maybe in another 200 years.

I’ll leave you with a few more words from John Adams, as, really, the crux of the matter, and an explanation as to why a Canadian citizen should bother to comment on this issue:

Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery … are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.[10] -‘John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America

To which, finally, I have little to add. Except that I’d rather like to keep that point. I’ve grown rather fond of it, in my way.

The fireworks have long died down as I write this. It is the next morning now. The nation of Canada has begun its 136th year.

I can’t tell you how much I hope the people and the courts of the United States do what’s so obviously right here, and uphold their own laws on this matter.

I think I’d feel a little less ambivalence toward nations and citizenship, if nations were more universally concerned with protecting such freedoms as the freedom of conscience the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution so obviously originally sought to defend.

For what it’s worth, I could learn to love such a nation that takes this step, and defends this freedom. Hell, I think I could muster some downright passionate loyalty for that sort of a state.

So, I expect, could very, very many U.S. citizens

To the citizens of the United States that will decide this matter, to the courts that will hear the appeals, I can only recommend to you: do what you know is right.

Give your fellow citizens a pledge all of them can say with sincerity.


””-AJ Milne, 1 July, 2002


[1] An amusing note, as interpreted by a commentator on PBS this evening: the Republicans in the U.S. Congress got awfully hot and bothered about this allegedly “liberal” court, until they realized that the judge who wrote the decision was a Nixon appointee. Then the Democrats got in on it too. Way to show leadership, oh craven ones.

[2] For the full text, see Michael A. Newdow, Plaintiff-Appellant, No. 00-16423, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

[3] A curious note here: popular histories of the U.S. currently make much of the persecution Puritans suffered at the hands of the Church of England, and the impression is left that the Puritans were not free to practice their faith in England. There is some truth in this: the Puritans considered themselves members of the Church of England, and wished to reform it. Doctrines despising the complexity (and corruption) of the hierarchy, and which saw the ornate Anglican style of worship as antithetical to the relationship they wished to have with their god were central. Needless to say, the hierarchy were unsympathetic, and in the ensuing power struggle, the Puritans lost. But consider this: if you define the Puritan faith as wishing to tear down the traditional Anglican practice, and the Anglican faith as wishing to preserve it, you have a curious case: you have a faith which can only survive by destroying another.

Quite frankly, for this reason, however respectable their theology (and as what I think anyone would call a hostile witness, I have to acknowledge it had more than a little merit), the Puritans make rather poor poster children for religious pluralism. The truth is, there are shades here of the modern fundamentalists, who cry continually that their right to believe as they wish is under siege from secularism; that their right to free speech is under attack, when, quite frankly, such an attack follows inevitably from a commitment to pluralism. Genuinely free speech, quite frankly, is the last thing they want, and it is for this practical reason determined secularists regularly find themselves in opposition to them. The early history of the U.S.–reference again The Bloudy Tenent — is, as I’m sure is generally known, marked by much intolerance on the part of the Puritans, who really weren’t much for anything we’d recognize in the modern world as pluralism. Williams founded Rhode Island essentially as a refuge from Puritan persecution.

[4] “Marranos.” Spanish term for the Christianized Jews converted–frequently by force–in states where Christianity became, de facto or de jure, the state religion–and widely believed secretly to hold heretical beliefs–these were the first and most numerous targets of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was contemporary with the writing of the First Amendment in the U.S., but barely; generally, the worst excesses of the Inquisition somewhat predate the writing of the Constitution: the first Marranos were burned in Seville in 1481, and by the mid to late 1700s, proceedings became more rare, probably principally because its principal prey–suspected secret Jews–had been hunted almost to extinction. See Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition, Norton 1964, reissued 1996.

[5] (Note added after initial composition) The danger, however, to Newdow, is palpable. He’s received a number of death threats since the ruling went public, and has been offered police protection. As of this writing, as far as I know, he has thus far refused the police protection.

[6] This, of course, begs another question legislators and jurists have previously considered when this question has arisen: if these words are to be taken to be so meaningless, so innocuous, so ceremonial, how is this nation to know the whole of their pledge is not so taken? And is this really what they wish?

[7] And never mind that it also fails as a logical argument. You can argue atheists aren’t “people of faith,” logically enough, I suppose. But what of polytheists, who might also be uncomfortable with those frankly unnecessary words added to the U.S. Pledge? What of animists? I think it’s only reasonable to call them people of faith, and I think it’s pretty damned clear those words are intended to exclude their viewpoint as well. Hastert: if you ever read this, I think you’re one craven twit. Just so we’re clear on this.

[8] (Note added after original composition) The ‘atheists out’ theme surfaces also in the Newdow case. Bob Norman, a Florida columnist who interviewed Newdow in 1999, reports he has received such enlightened reader feedback as an email titled “Get Out” with the content “You atheists are idiots…. You don’t deserve to be Americans,” besides a number of suggestions that Newdow himself should be kicked out of the country. Death threats too, of course, against both Newdow and Norman. It does rather seem a case of shoot the messenger, and, I must say, speaks volumes about such thinkers’ conceptions of freedom of expression that they will so threaten not only Newdow, but the reporter that would give him coverage; as Norman himself comments somewhat wryly, “I’ve written about mobsters, rogue cops, dirty politicians, and all manner of South Florida hustlers in the past, but I’ve never been threatened like this.” See First Pledge, by Bob Norman.

And though I like to think this next observation should go without saying, perhaps I’d better say it anyway, as it has always astonished me what the body politic will choose merely not to notice if left the choice. So note also that, here (again) we have writers whose rhetoric attempts to equate (a) atheists demanding through formal legal channels that their state act with proper secular respect for pluralism with (b) a band of theocratic zealots whose hatred for such respect is such that they will conspire to slaughter U.S. citizens by the thousands. Here, again, we have writers who suggest that somehow these two groups are allied, and then offer incitements to murder the atheists as the apparent cure. Irony simply seems too pathetic a word for this. So, for that matter, does hypocrisy. Perhaps there are no words for this. But make no mistake; here there is madness–the stunning, purblind madness of paranoid fanaticism. Probably, the utter absurdity of their position somehow escapes these zealous thugs. Let it not escape the rest of us, when we write our laws.

[9] Most early drafts of this work had here, and in the proceeding paragraph, the formulation that the verboten idea the legislators seem so eager to forbid is that monotheists are ‘a bunch of superstitious nutbars,’ and that sorry, I can’t help but hold this idea. I replaced it with the current phrasing shortly after posting (yes, prior to anyone commenting, and probably prior to anyone reading this work), as yes, it did seem a bit over the top even to me. Let it never be said I can’t manage some diplomacy now and then. In defense of the drafts that did use the less diplomatic term, I can only comment that when virtually the entire Congress stands up to declare themselves the personal guardians of holy fervour, it should be understandable that I might become a bit cranky about this. Frankly, I think I’m still a little shaky from that spectacle. It’s kinda difficult for me to laugh that hard that long without becoming a bit unhinged.

[10] I left out “and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe.” Frankly, I wouldn’t be particularly pleased if anyone were to think I might be suggesting that should include the area currently governed by Canada. And frankly, as long as there are such men as the Liebermans, Rabauts, and Hasterts in their government, to whom the separation of church and state is a punching bag on which they wager their reelection, I think you can expect me to remain rather hostile to this idea.

Copyright 2002, A. J. Milne. This electronic version copyright 2002, Internet Infidels, Inc.

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