April 1, 2010

U.S. Not Nation Under God

Cross in Flag.jpgWhenever an atheist brings up the many problems associated with the inclusion of "one nation under god" in the pledge of allegiance, one can be sure that other atheists will dismiss the complaint as unimportant. I've been on the receiving end of this dismissal countless times, and I expect at least some of you can relate. Of course, the criticism is not usually that correcting the pledge is unimportant but that it is less important than so many other areas of necessary action. It is a matter of deciding how to pick one's battles.

Many atheists view the pledge as an antiquated bit of nonsense with little importance aside from ceremony. They have a point. After all, when was the last time you were expected to recite it? Unfortunately, the experience of your children may be different. Given the choice between focusing on fixing the pledge and persuading President Obama to finally stop funding abstinence only sex education or funneling federal money to faith-based agencies, it is difficult to argue that the pledge should take priority.

"Under god" in the pledge, "in god we trust" on currency, or some version of the Ten Commandments on government property may be largely symbolic and may have little impact on the daily life of the average American atheist. And yet, these examples are part of the cultural context in which many of us live and do nonetheless exert an influence on our experience. Perhaps they should not be our top priorities but neither should we trivialize them.

Many Americans believe that America is indeed "one nation under god," and these cultural symbols reinforce that misguided impression. They are a form of institutional bias through which atheists are made to feel like second class citizens and religious believers may find justification for perceiving us as outsiders.

I cannot read the Establishment Clause without coming away convinced that these cultural symbols violate the intent of those who drafted it. And I cannot encounter these symbols without facing the outsider status they confer on me.

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