Plea of a Secular Student
Here we are, only a few months left of what is officially the first year of the new millennium. For 225 years since the birth of out nation’s independence has it grown and thrived to become both a superpower of the world, and the home of the freest government in the world. In addition, we have enjoyed many individual freedoms and rights since the drafting of the constitution by our founding fathers. These include the right to privacy, free speech, and the freedom of religion—and it is the last one I would like to address today.
Indeed, I am a true American. I am a sixteen-year old male Caucasian born into citizenship in this very city. However, there is one trait that I hold which is not associated with the majority in this country. I am a member of what well-known lawyer Edward Tabash called “the most unjustly despised minority in America today.” That group is the atheists.
An atheist is of course defined as “one who does not believe in a god or gods.” Yes, I disbelieve in the existence of a god. No, I am not one because I think it is ‘cool’ to have a view different from the majority of Americans (as one theist accused me of). I am an atheist because there was simply a profusion of problems I had when confronting the idea of religion, god, and the supernatural. I do not engage in activities that my religious fellows do. I don’t pray, I don’t practice dogma, I don’t read any holy text, I do not support superstition, and I don’t believe in an afterlife. These are the general characteristics of an atheist.
This is simply a position I have on the issue of religion. Yet, an atheist has much to endure. One must face being in the minority, face criticisms by the religious, and face the disruptions in the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
I can relate to all three of these obstacles. I have noted the fact that my kind is a minority. All my life of living in my home city, there have been only a handful of atheists that I have known. Thus, it is difficult to engage in discourse with my kind.
In addition, I, like many other atheists, have faced criticism by the religious because of my being an atheist. Whenever this fact is disclosed to a religious individual, the reaction is seldom positive. Usually, either the person is bewildered or they respond distastefully. When they are bewildered, they present me with a big “Why?” and can never seem to really accept it. When a religious person is distasteful, they usually tell me with emphasis, “You’re going to Hell!” or another similar response. While I have met religious individuals who have been nicer about my disbelief, I question this common attitude toward atheists. Why is it that, because we are godless, we are instantly labeled ‘evil’ or ‘immoral?’ Because we follow no religion, we suddenly do not grasp the meaning of life? Believers have also accused me of not enjoying my life because I have no “spiritual guidance.” To be honest, I am quite happy as an atheist. I have my reserved reasons why, and I live my life accordingly. Of course, there are many defending arguments of the atheist position, but I will not crystallize upon them for doing so would require an essay of its own.
Returning to my third statement, an atheist also witnesses the violation of the separation of church and state. First, let me lay the foundation of this principle. I quote from article VI of our constitution:
“The Senators and Representatives…and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.”
This states that the government is not to be run specifically under religious qualifications, that no person that can hold office must have any religious affiliation. It is apparent that the constitution is godless (the constitution makes no reference to a god) and was meant to be secular. While it allows the freedom of religion to all citizens, the constitution and the government have no ties with a religious doctrine. I quote again from Justice Hugo L. Black of the case of Everson v. Board of Education, 1947: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”
Unfortunately, violations of this principle are occurring today. President George W. Bush is initiating his plan of funding faith-based charities. This is a blatant violation, as the government is lending support and money to these religious charities. It is also in violation of the “Establishment Clause” which prohibits the government to respect any religion over another. In addition, while prayer is allowed at school, staff-led prayer is not. According to a joint statement by the ACLU and a statement by the U.S. Department of Education on schools and religion, staff and administration of a school must not participate in religious activity, and to neither encourage nor discourage such practices by the students. Despite this fact, it is still evident that any activity by the nonreligious students are either discouraged by fellow students, or nonbelievers do not take any course of actions. I once again quote, and this time from the Christian’s Bible: “…when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly”[MT 6:5]. Even the Christian’s Bible supports that prayer should be in the believers privacy, not exposed to the public where people of all backgrounds are found. I also notice how, when prayer occurs at our schools, the religion that is practiced is Christianity. What about the Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, and people of other religions? It is not fair that one religion is favored over another. Some may argue that the reason is due to the fact that the major religion in this country is Christianity, but despite this I have seen the presence of students with non-Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.
Now, let me clear up one issue. As an atheist, I personally do not want to see a country where nonbeliever’s rights are above the rights of religious. All that we do ask is that our rights and abilities are level with those of the religious. I have no desire to disrupt the constitutional right to freedom of religion. People have the freedom to practice any religious doctrine as they choose. Although I am an atheist, I was raised in a religious family. I do not desire for any actions resulting in the restraining of their right to follow a religious doctrine. The freedom of religion is one of the qualities of a free government such as ours. However, I do believe in discussion and debate over this issue, and to improve a public understanding of the nonreligious. Believers sometimes are not comfortable with the activism that some atheists engage in, but some of us are only active because we want to prevent this country from becoming a borderline theocracy, something that the likes of the Religious Right wishes for.
Although we are in the first year of the new millennium, it will not be long before my generation has its hands on the controls of the world. We are entering a new time period, and with it we must help resolve the problems presented in the world. We need to approach these problems with science, reason, and logic, rather than pseudo-science, blind faith, and superstition. I am sorry to see that such fundamentalist issues still linger in this modern world, and that people of differing viewpoints do not settle so easy (at least this is the case with secularism). As a secular high school student, I wanted to address this issue, which is of concern to me, and now it stands.