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On Being an Atheist Watching the Inauguration

Obama hopeYes. Okay. Pride; hope; history; immense joy; inexpressible relief.

Yes. Sure. Absolutely.

But also this.

I was watching the Inauguration, with pride and hope and history and joy and relief. And the message I kept hearing was, “We are one country. This country belongs to everybody in it. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a part to play. Everybody’s experience matters.

“Everybody — except you.

“Everybody except you and the roughly 15% of Americans who don’t believe in God.

“Not you. You’re not part of this. This isn’t for you.”

Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re about to say. Yes, Obama said the word “non-believers” in his speech. He said, quote:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.”

And yes, that was pretty neat. As far as I know (does anyone know for sure?), this was the first time that a President’s inaugural address said anything about non-believers in a positive, inclusive way. I’m not going to underestimate that. He said it, and it was pretty darned cool. A milestone, even.

He said it once… in a speech, one of a series of speeches over the inaugural ceremony, that over and over again hammered home the message, “This is God’s country.”

Rick warrenFrom Rick Warren’s icky opening invocation:

“Almighty God, our father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you, it all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story.

“The Scripture tells us Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.”

and:

“…when we forget you [God], forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us.”

and:

“I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS), who taught us to pray, Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

SignDo I need to point out what’s wrong with this? Do I need to point out how grotesquely inappropriate it is — in a massive and public government ceremony, addressed both to and on behalf of a secular nation populated by people of many faiths and many people of no faith — to assert that everything that happens comes from God and belongs to him? To assert that there’s something wrong/ needing of forgiveness about “forgetting” God and claiming our achievements for ourselves? To not only invoke a prayer on behalf of the whole country, but to do so in a specific prayer that comes from his particular religious tradition, in the name of his particular god?

Ew.

Rev joseph loweryOkay. Moving on. We have the closing benediction from Rev. Joseph Lowery. A much, much better speech than Warren’s, and one which, when you take the God stuff out of it, I have little to argue with and a tremendous amount to be inspired by. But we still have this:

“Thou, who has by thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our heart drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to thee, O God, and true to our native land.”

and:

“We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States…”

and:

“We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th President…”

and:

“Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.”

Gods handSo again, we have the message: It’s God who directs us towards goodness. It’s really bad to “forget” that. We — as a country — should stand true to God.

(Yes, I know that those words are from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song considered to be the Negro National Anthem, with an important and powerful history in the African American community and the civil rights movement. I get the value and meaning of using this song in the inaugural ceremony. But there are plenty of other lyrics from this song that don’t frame the United States as a Christian nation, and that don’t chastise non-believers for their non-belief.)

Plus we have the unsettling notion that Obama is God’s servant. Sorry, but no. Obama is our servant. Yours, mine, ours. He is the public servant of the people of the United States of America. It is to us, and to the Constitution, that he owes his allegiance. Not to God.

And plus we have the very unsettling message that “we” includes people who go to churches, temples, and mosques, people who seek God’s will in an assortment of places… but “we” does not include people who don’t seek God’s will at all. “We the people” does not include people who don’t believe in God.

Obama inaugurationAnd then. Most importantly. From Obama’s own Inaugural address:

“…the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

and:

“This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

and:

“…and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

No.

No, no, no.

The promise of equality and freedom and opportunity was not given to me by God. My confidence is not given to me by God. God’s grace is not upon me.

No.

Finally, of course, the enormous elephant in the room:

Duerer-PrayerWe have the very fact that this inauguration was opened and closed with a prayer. The fact that Sunday’s inaugural concert was opened with a prayer. The fact that the oath of office was sworn on a Bible, and concluded — unrequired by the Constitution — with the words, “So help me God.” The fact of the insistent repetition of the phrases “God bless you” and “God bless the United States.” The fact that God was all over this inauguration like a cheap suit; the examples I’ve cited here, while the most egregious, were really just a drop in the bucket.

Completely regardless of the content of these prayers and invocations, we have the unquestioned assumption that religion and prayers and repeated references to God and faith should have a significant part — indeed, any part whatsoever — in the ceremonies of our government. We have the unquestioned assumption that the prayers of a church belong in the single most important ceremony of our state.

Look. You can’t spend all day talking about how God’s grace is upon the nation, and how everything that happens comes from God, and how equality and freedom and opportunity are promised to us by God, and how the elected leader of a democratic country is God’s servant, and how forgetting God is a sin that requires forgiveness — and then mention once that some of the people making up the strong patchwork of this country are non-believers — and call that real inclusivity and recognition of non-believers.

Any more than you can spend all day talking about how same- sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry, and non- discrimination laws shouldn’t be expanded to cover sexual orientation, and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military — and then say, “Oh, no, I’m not homophobic.”

Am I being churlish?

Dont worry be happyShould I just be happy about the mention of non-believers? Should I just be happy about this little baby step towards full recognition of atheists as actual citizens of this country, citizens with the same rights and responsibilities, the same expectation of respect and passion to contribute, that everyone else in this country has?

Maybe. For the record: I am thrilled that Obama is President. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Thrilled. I’m thrilled because I care about torture, and global warming, and the economy, and the war, and education, and science, and our standing in the world at large. I’m thrilled because I care about our country’s history and future, and I’m awestruck at what Obama’s election means about who we’ve become and what we can be. And I am thrilled because I care about secularism; because Obama is a Constitutional scholar, and I think he has potential to be one of the best advocates for secularism and separation of church and state that the White House has seen.

But I am done with this. I am done with repeated references to God and religion in official government events.

I’m not just done with it because this is supposed to be a secular, non- sectarian country, founded on (among other things) the idea of the separation of church and state. I’m not just done with it because I think the very presence of religion in politics makes for a toxic mess, with policy debates based not on observable evidence, but on unsubstantiated dogma.

No atheists usaI’m done with it because, when Presidents and other official representatives of our country and our government insist that this is God’s country, the implicit — if unintentional — message is that, if you don’t believe in God, this is not your country.

Screw that.

This is my country, too.

Comments

  1. Maria says

    I watched his speech, it was a big thing on the news over here too. To an outsider looking in, it all sounds more than absurd. I think 98% of the population here would have fallen out of their couches in pure shock if a Swedish politician would talk like that, referring to god in every other sentence. Not even the only party here that are openly basing their political ideas on Christianity (and one of the smallest parties) Kristdemomkraterna – not even their leader ever talks like that, even though ‘Christian values’ shines through what he says pretty clearly anyway. But that sort of rhetorics hardly exist in Swedish politics, even if some of the ideas do, with small and marginalized groups.
    It’s hard to appreciate the difficulties and frustration American atheists are facing and feeling, but things like this do make it easier to understand what a weird situation you have to deal with over there.

  2. says

    I’m of two minds about the whole issue. On the one hand, I’m with you– the constant godiness, especially Rick frigging’ Warren, was obnoxious. And Obama’s mention of non-believers (it’s been confirmed that it was the first mention in an inaugural address, I just can’t find the link to the article at the moment) was nice, but sandwiched in between all his religious talk, it felt a bit hollow. So yeah, it’s annoying and disappointing.
    On the other hand. I feel like maybe we have bigger targets than civil religion. I don’t know. I’m not sure what the way to go about this is. Do we fight the appearance of religion in society and thus change religiously motivated policies (anti-gay legislation, creationism, etc), or do we try to make changes on those policies and worry about the religion later? The former method seems the most logical, but I think it’s nearly impossible. The latter seems kind of upside-down, but a lot more readily achievable.
    I’m conflicted, is basically what I’m saying. In a ridiculously long comment.

  3. ggab says

    You’re all insane.
    Here is a play on what it seems like you’re expecting.
    (Young man approaches pulpit in a church)
    Minister-”Hello young man, I’d like to tell you about God’s love for you.”
    Young man- “No thank you, I’m an atheist.”
    Minister-”Get thee behind me!! You are the imbodiment of Satan!! You represent everything that is evil in this world!! You want to eat our Christian babies!! YOU ARE THE DEVIL!!!!”
    Young man-”No I’m not.”
    Minister-”Oh…okay then. Would you like to marry my daughter?”
    End Scene
    It wasn’t very long ago that the president of my country stated that I should not be considered a citizen. The atmosphere around here has not gotten any better for me but Obama stood up there anyway and said that I am welcome.
    I think that was far bigger than many people realize.
    I would still call it a baby step, but it’s from one huge fucking baby.
    We’ve got our foot in the door now.
    Of course that’s just my humble opinion.

  4. J. J. Ramsey says

    Christine, the reason dealing with civil religion is important is because it is symbolic of how pervasive religion is. Symbols matter. They often express implicity, often unwritten rules. They affect how we think about things and even how we frame debates.

  5. says

    J.J.: I know. That’s why I’m conflicted. The thing is, while I get the importance of symbols and whatnot, it’s that very importance and power that makes them so difficult to go after. Logically, that’s how we should do it: get rid of the religious rhetoric and the power of religion, and these issues that are controversial because of religion will fix themselves. But exactly because symbols have power and importance far beyond what they really should, it makes them extremely difficult to go after. Look at how people reacted to Newdow’s suit against having “so help me god” in the oath. Derision, mockery, outrage, etc. It’s backwards and weird, but I feel like we have a better chance of making progress on the issues that matter to us sooner if we focus on those, rather than the symbols, because if we put the issues on ice until religion is no longer a major factor in society we’re gonna be waiting a hell of a long time.
    It’s possible that I’ve gone off on a tangent, but I’ve been mulling over Greta’s post and my earlier response for a bit now. I may need to write something longer of my own on my blog.

  6. says

    You’re all insane.
    Here is a play on what it seems like you’re expecting.

    ggab: Expecting? No. Asking for? Yes.
    Yes, the nod to non-believers in Obama’s inaugural address was not trivial. But I am still disturbed by the degree to which church and state are not separated in my country. And the content of the inaugural ceremony was both a classic and an incredibly public example of it.
    So what do you propose we do about that? Do you think we’ll get what’s right by not asking for it, and by not speaking out when it doesn’t happen? Do you think we’ll get separation of church and state by keeping our mouths shut?
    I, for one, don’t think so. I think it’s important to acknowledge the baby steps… and to point out that they are only baby steps and that there’s a lot further yet to go.

  7. tumbleweed says

    I’m with you. By the time I finished watching as much of the inaugural as I could and still work (shouldn’t it be a national holiday??) I was thoroughly irritated by the amount of religiosity surrounding the various ceremonies ushering Obama into office. Do a mental exercise and substitute allusions to the classical Egyptian gods and you can hear how absurd it all is. So inappropriate in this day and time in our government. And all that official nonsense can only impede those who are beginning to think rational thoughts. Who knows how much harm it does us all to have a large portion of our citizens subject to magical thinking? Illogic breeds illogic and it’s a short step to swallowing creationism and denying global warming. I think it’s a big issue…or should be.

  8. yoyo says

    I totally understand and sympathise with your sentiment greta, and I cannot forgive the disgusting RW giving his “prayer”, however although the god references sound disconcerting to an Australian ear, I was able to pass over them as chaff. Almost like the “ums” in a speech, or the nauseating patriotism in many of the speeches. It seems that american political life has a parasite called overt christian god talk and another called sickening patriotism and it seems to be the price that all political figures no matter how progressive have to pay. Certainly, other countries in Eurpoe and Aus/pacific take it as a weird quirk of your country. I dont know how you can defeat it but i do know that in the 70s in SA of all places we had a GLTF friendly premier who saw that the role of govt was to educate not to follow the baser impulses of the electorate and maybe that is what you need but i cant see it in this term.

  9. says

    Greta,
    I’m betting 10 million or so of us feel the same way.
    Newdow fought and lost — no standing. I’m betting if even a million of us file a lawsuit, that would be sufficient for standing, or at least get some attention.
    Do you think that’s a possibility? And, if so, would you join such a coalition? Or even help start one?

  10. Buck Fuddy says

    Here’s what cracks me up about Warren’s sermon and others like it that use the “Lord’s Prayer”:
    If you look up the chapter (Chapter 6, in the Book of Matthew) from which it’s taken and read it in context, it’s basically saying, “Don’t pray in public, just to impress people with your piety. When you pray, go and lock yourself in your closet. And don’t repeat words taken from some book; just say what’s on your mind. Say something like this: ‘Our father, who is in heaven…’”
    So, basically, they’re doing EXACTLY what the Bible says NOT TO DO, and showing their ignorance by actually quoting from the very chapter that says they shouldn’t be doing this!!!
    I know it’s all bullshit, but these morons claim to believe in it. Obviously they don’t even fucking understand it!

  11. says

    What bothered me was how the God references killed the moment. Near the end of the speech, I was tearing up… but he had to do the god thing, and destroy a good speech.

  12. JC says

    Yeah, global warming you hit it right on. Ignorant f-ck. How many record lows do we need to hit? How many (650) scientist need to do a 180 on global warming. dumbass

  13. tekym says

    Perhaps cynically, I’m inclined to see it as a way for Obama to continue building the massive amount of political capital and approval he has. He already has the support of most atheists and agnostics, I’m sure; it’s the large numbers of Christian conservatives he hasn’t completely convinced yet (or at all, in some cases). A prominent theme of his speech was “us” and “we” and generally trying to get everyone to act as one and not be divided; a good way to bring Christian conservatives around to supporting him and being part of the “us” he’s already collected is to use lots of God talk. Likewise with having Warren there. Obama is a smart politician, I’m sure he’s aware of the colossal expectations people have of him and that he’s likely to disappoint at least some people because of that. So, it stands to reason that having lots of support is basically just preparing for that eventuality.
    I agree that there *should* be a lot less God in US politics, but it’s a very effective political tool still.

  14. says

    If it’s true that 45% of all Americans believe that God created the entire universe in 6 days, then I wonder if, pragmatist that he is, Mr. Obama did what he believed he had to do in order to keep the religious-right at bay and prevent a religious rhubarb from derailing his agenda?
    Having said that, I think right now that the America which for 8 years threatened to become a caricature of medieval Europe is probably (hopefully) going to be more like the America which put men on the moon (and just in time for the 40th anniversary of that event!).
    Still, I’ll never figure out why Mr. Obama picked a wack-job like Rick Warren to open the ceremonies.

  15. says

    Obama is doing the right thing in his constant invocation of God and his grace and so forth … and Greta is doing the right thing in holding his feet to the fire over it. On this and so many other issues, Obama can make baby steps only because we’re here demanding giant steps.

  16. says

    Thanks for posting that Greta, I’ve been getting sick to the back teeth of otherwise rational bloggers tripping over themselves with joy because Obama uttered two words in the middle of a Christ-soaked suckfest. One thing should be made absolutely clear – the president of the USA will ALWAYS pander to the religious, it’s just not worth his/her time to do otherwise. It’s a kick in the sack to be sure but barring some massive shift in attitudes across the entire country it’s not going to change any time soon.
    It didn’t bother me in the slightest because I expected it. I was more pissed off at the fact that Bono made the inevitable appearance at the inauguration celebration, sliming all present with his toxic ego. His Christ complex outshone all the religious dimwits…

  17. says

    Thanks Greta for this post. I was watching the inauguration on TV in Nigeria with some very excited comrades at a Party lunch meeting when one of them commented that even if Obama did not believe in God, he would have to now because this is simply God’s work. While i normally try to hold my peace, of course this was too much of a provocation not to disagree and of course spoil Lunch.
    First, i had to draw their attention to the fact that as an atheist i disagree with that assertion because Obama being sworn in as 44th president of America is not a miracle from God rather credit should be given to the more than 79 percent of American voters that voted him in and of course the system that allows every vote to count and not rigged like we usually experience in my country Nigeria.
    Moreso, if we have to give God the credit for having this black , democratic and progeressive man in the White House today, then i guess we also have to give God the credit for preparing the mind of Americans for change by also holding HIM/IT/HER responsible for the failures of the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, economy breakdown and its hordes of retrogressive policies. God must have simply been paving the way for his beloved son Obama to ascend the throne by making Bush unpopular. Which of course goes to reason that God has been and still is responsible for all the woes just to achieve a good thing albeit in a callous way.
    Seriously, it is important for atheists in an influential country like America to keep pressing for the seperation of State and Religion not only on paper but in practice as well. This can serve as a reference point for emerging democracies especially in Africa. And hopefully, the day will come when even my fellow comrades will stop looking at me like an insane person for not believing their is a God! Meanwhile i take solace in reading your blog and knowing that i am not alone in my lack of belief. Thanks.

  18. dan says

    Perhaps (I hope) Obama put so much religious mustard on the speech to quell the fears of those who still (moronically) believe Obama is a Muslim or whatever. Obama spoke like an evangelical (which annoyed me) to bring those folks under his tent. I’m also hoping we don’t have to hear all that every time he speaks now. We hired a politician, not a preacher.

  19. Bob says

    I’m with you. I loved your post. Other than my status of atheist I experience a lot of privilege in this country in general so personally it is something that can be set aside but it is an affront to the principles this country was founded on a shameful pandering to voting blocks and political pragmatism. I do hope over the next four to eight years the practical needs to appease the religious majority can be actively diminished and we can evolve our government in to the secular representative body it was intended to be.

  20. ZombieWoof says

    I had to walk out of the room when Warren was blathering, but I’m really not too worried about Obama. I’d love to see a day when there was no religion left in our government ceremonies, but that day is still a ways off.
    Obama is smart enough to know that he needs to reassure the masses that he’s a good christian, because if he didn’t, they’d reject his ideas on principle. “He’s not a good chrstian, therefore nothing he does is good”. That’s how Bush go away with so much. “Jesus tells him what to do, so anything he does must be good.” He even believed that himself, which accounts for the horrifying lack of self doubt.
    But i see no evidence whatsoever that Obama’s policies are based on anything other than reason, evidence and science. And that’s what matters. I’ll let him get away with dropping a few g-bombs here and there, as long as he’s keeping his policies based in the real world.
    And thet’s really where I think we need to focus the energy of our fight. Primarily in the area of justifying policy. First we get it out of legislation, then we get it out ceremony.

  21. vel says

    Unfortunately, my cyncism about Obama and any politician was proven correct by the speech. Sorry, but God has had nothing to do with any event in the US’ history. It has been the hard dirty work by men and women, not some invisible friend. Obama is just as much a hypocrite as Warren or Lowery.

  22. says

    Unfortunately, all of this civil religion not only makes us feel excluded, it also feeds into the lie that this is a “Christian nation” and thus emboldens those who want to make our laws reflect their religious beliefs.
    Not that I expect to get rid of it overnight, but I think it is worthwhile to let the new administration (and perhaps Dianne Feinstein, who was the head of the inaugural committee) know that it’s inappropriate to seat the secular head of a secular government at what amounts to a church service.

  23. Evan Schenck says

    I think Obama’s reference to non-believers was more in the way of a bone thrown to supporters. Polling data specifically drawn from nonbelievers is practically nonexistent, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that we went very heavy for Obama. Obama is a savvy politician, and he knows that electoral domination of a sizable minority group is valuable.

  24. Elaine says

    I also find all the god-bothering offensive and pointless. However, I do believe that Obama is an agnostic, if not an atheist, and is wrapping himself in all of this stuff in order to placate the religious Reich. There’s a lot of power in those pulpits and its wise for him to do the ceremonial crap in public to keep the drooling masses happy and then do his actual job when not in public. He also wears that flag pin and has said he does so so that people don’t make an issue of it.
    As for the god botherers, one surfaced on my facebook. I looked at her wall and all of her conservative friends firmly believe that they are currently being persecuted and harassed and are going to lose all of their civil rights while “that Muslim” turns the US into a “socialist” country. (Quotey quotey!) I posted the URL to the wikipedia entry on socialism with a helpful note suggesting they actually read about the system that they allege we are heading into.
    The whole “we are being persecuted” stuff is so grade school girl. I rememeber girls lapping up stories like Cinderella where they are so worthy and so put down, but some big man and a magical thing is going to rescue them. I think they want to be persecuted, so they can complain more loudly. It will be funny when, four years from now, they will still be able to get guns at the local gun shop and their churches still will not be paying tax.

  25. Phil E. Drifter says

    Greta, you have to realize that religitards make up the majority of this country’s population. He needs their support as much as he needs us atheists.

  26. uncle brub says

    Thanks to all for very perspective comments.I also was disgusted by Rick Warren(todays Elmer Gantry) among other Joseph Goebbels spewing the God Big Lie. But in retrospect, the inauguration of another American president just had to have the obligatory paeans to God. Too bad Reverend Wright was not asked to speak.

  27. says

    Those of you who are saying “He has to say this God stuff to govern effectively/ get re-elected” have a point. However:
    a) Even if I accept the extensive presence of God references in state ceremonies… they don’t have to quite as nasty and exclusionary. I can probably live with a bunch of generic “God bless America”s; I have a much harder time with the “All good things come from God” and “We as a country should stand true to God” and “Please forgive us for ‘forgetting’ God” stuff. The stuff that specifically disses non-believers. (Not to mention the Christian- specific stuff, which specifically disses not only non-believers but anyone who isn’t Christian.)
    b) Yes, the Christian Right is creating a political situation in which politicians feel like they need to talk very publicly about God. So non-believers need to keep putting on the heat in the other direction: let politicians know that we want church separated from state, and we don’t appreciate being treated like we don’t belong in this country. Speaking up is how we’ll get this stuff dialed down.

  28. says

    I’m with you on this Greta. I live in Sacramento, not far from Michael Newdow. Hence, he’s in the news a lot, and every time another story pops up, I hear dissension all around me. Frankly, I’m surprised at the number of atheists, even, who think he should sit down and shut up. I, however, think he’s on the right track and applaud his bravery in plowing forward.
    If you or someone else hasn’t already, you or someone else should send this entire post to the White House…comments and all.

  29. Katiya says

    I for one was disgusted at the god show at the inauguration the other day. I think even the Founding Fathers would be horrified at the spectacle. I really don’t have a problem with the ignorant masses as a whole since it would take every waking moment to dispel their fantasies. I’m not sure Obama is agnostic or atheist, that’s not my concern. My concern is getting ourseslves out of the mess the god lovers have foisted on us. I must say it is amazing how agnosics and atheists can get along so well but the religious types spread so much hate and discord that the world is hell in a handbasket. They don’t see the error of their ways. Delusion pure and simple.
    Obama keep religion out of the business of running ths country please.

  30. Claire B says

    Okay, total tangent and probably nothing really to do with anything, but… one thing I’m thinking is, how come the religious people get all the pretty imagery? Okay, not all, but a lot of. I mean, I don’t know if this makes me pathetic or what, but beautiful language moves me. And there is some quite lovely stuff there. “Lest, our heart drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee” is just gorgeous, or at least I feel it to be so.
    So I think there should be some pretty language for atheists as well. And I may not be the best person to provide that, but if I can get the ball rolling, maybe someone better will go, “Hey, I could improve on that”. And then do so.
    So anyway. I always liked the idea of the Blasphemy Challenge, but I never got it together to actually do a video for it. And I came up with something. Here it is:
    The Blasphemy Challenge Hymn to Rationality
    I believe in wonder, and I believe in love
    I don’t believe in spirits, nor yet a God above
    And I don’t believe in Judgement, and I don’t believe in fear;
    If you start to preach or sermonise, then I am out of here.
    And I deny the Holy Spirit.
    And I am not afraid.
    I believe in rainbows, and I believe in stars
    And in every single atom in the great red rock of Mars
    If you try to show me midnight I will still believe in dawn:
    Let the world throw all it can at me, and I will still go on.
    And I deny the Holy Spirit.
    And I am not afraid.
    I believe in human hearts, and human minds as well;
    I don’t think we need a Heaven, I don’t think we need a Hell.
    The only thing I think we need is just to learn to say:
    I will face the truth full-face, and I will not turn away.
    And I deny the Holy Spirit.
    And
    I
    Am
    Not
    Afraid.
    So anyway… if anyone’s got ideas for more verses, or better verses, or just a better atheist hymn in general, that would be really cool. Maybe we could end up with a Atheist’s Hymnbook.
    Er… I realise I’m using your blog for this and that may not be okay with you, Greta. Feel free to tell me to sod off and get my own blog to try to launch atheist’s hymnbooks off of.

  31. Donna Gore says

    There was way too much prayin ‘n preachin in this inauguration.
    I like Obama and am hopeful for his presidency. I think he will move us in a more progressive direction. BUT I have heard many people talk about him the same way they talked about George Bush, as if he were personally appointed by God. If the one who says this is talking to me, or my group of people, I always make a point to say “That’s exactly what the Bush fans said about HIM. Personally, I want my leaders to make decisions based on science, history, and reasoning, not on what their invisible friend tells them to do.” It’s very unsettling and creepy.

  32. says

    What makes my skin prickle most of all is the “this is all the will of God/Obama is God’s servant talk.” I don’t think many of the people saying that believe God appointed Bush as his servant…and vice versa for those who thought Bush was the anointed one.
    I was reading a wide variety of blogs before the election, possibly because I just like to be annoyed). In the days, leading up to the election I saw many posts from conservative Catholics and Protestants saying they were praying to God, particularly for all the unborn babies who would be murdered under an Obama administration, and they were sure His will would be done as always. After the election….silence. I guess that’s when the “God works in mysterious ways” card comes into play.

  33. Trevor K says

    Greta, I only saw the actual inaugural oath and address, so I was pretty much happy with it. The nod the non-believers was a HUGE step from GHWB saying we shouldn’t be considered citizens.
    But speeches and pray-leadings from preachers twice during the event? We should sue on the basis of a government endorsing religion, but I doubt we’d go anywhere. Especially since suing Obama is not something I would want to do and since I don’t know if the inaugural committee is a gov’t organization.

  34. evolved says

    Well seems we may be ready for a black President, but not a godless one, so maybe I’ll be like my grandma and be amazed one day….

  35. gruntled atheist says

    –and nonbelievers.
    That is a dog whistle. He is really one of us but for now he needs to keep the Jesus people off balance.

  36. says

    I kind of like how one wag on metafilter put it:
    Remind me, when I’m president to thank the people of this nation of atheists, agnostics, — and non-freethinkers.

  37. says

    I know, I think having the prayer at all is about the (fundamentally discriminatory) sentiment “we have to pray together to work together.” I don’t have any illusions about that.
    OTOH, I can’t help but wonder what would have been the effect on the Christian majority in the U.S. (including both his supporters and his detractors) if he’d said, “Okay, we’re going to break tradition and skip the prayer this time because we really don’t need to invoke God at a civic/secular event.” For myself, I’m kind of leaning towards a “choose your battles” attitude since we’ve got some big problems to work on.
    Meanwhile, the country is secularizing pretty rapidly, so if people (like you! ;^) ) keep demanding to be treated as full citizens, it will happen — and probably not in the too distant future. Keep up the good work! :D

  38. Buddy says

    I don’t want to sound condescending, but I view the religious as children who will one day grow up and no longer believe in invisible friends. We (the adults) have no choice but to be patient with the religious; otherwise they will become defensive and even more uncompromising in their beliefs.

  39. Angus says

    Great entry, Greta. If only there were more of us to enunciate this perspective and (who knows) have it recognized and respected…. But I doubt it’s gonna happen in my lifetime.

  40. Xinosaj says

    I think Greta is making a category mistake. “Atheism” is not a thing in any positive sense. It’s just the denial or lack of a particular belief. The point of the inauguration is to bring the various factions of the country together in a positive way; if you can’t be identified as anything, you’re probably not going to get a shout-out. To engage culture in a meaningful way, you have to assert a fully-formed world view. I don’t have any trouble inviting secular humanists or representatives of other kinds of materialistic philosophies to give readings, reflections, or poems in addition to various people’s prayers. We can schedule you between the Hindus and the Jews.

  41. says

    I hear ya! I blogged about this before the inauguration: http://blog.jakemarcus.com/2009/01/19/i-still-cant-be-president/ Why do we forget the other words of Thomas Jefferson: “Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion makes the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

  42. says

    In reply to the original post, let me just say this:
    Word.
    I wonder what we could do if we cut out the pointless bloviation at these events — believers already have churches to go to every Sunday, after all — and filled the time with, say, history lessons instead.

  43. TomL says

    The reference to God by our Founding Fathers and throughout our American history is a common theme.
    I suggest that you move to a country such as China where God is not mentioned.

  44. says

    Great suggestion, TomL. Remember it when atheism becomes the majority religious preference and the great groundswell of opinion demands that the goddies leave the country.
    What we are looking for is for people to be free to believe whatever they want, and for government to stop subsidizing irrational scams by freeing them from taxation. The founders also believed in principle. It’s just that, had they come right out and said “there is no God” the enacting of those principles would have been much tougher. Jefferson was pretty clear on what he was trying to do, which was get the priest out of the power structure that allowed them to exercise undue influence over the government. That’s the opposite of what the religious right has been trying to do, with some success, since Reagan.

  45. George F. says

    Two thoughts about religion and civil ceremonies:
    1. Non-believers. This word disturbs me. I believe in lots of things, like “humans are born good”. I just don’t believe in other peoples’ gods and dogmas. The term “non-believers” should be changed to represent something positive, a like love or beauty or wonder, rather than the lack of something, maybe “serene believers”.
    2. When people invoke “god’s will” and claim everything is due to “him”, then whatever their actions, particularly destructive and bad actions, can be excused. They don’t have to take responsibility; when bad things happen because of people’s actions, they just say ‘that’s the way it is, live with it.’ Why is it that almost all waring nations claim that “god is on our side”? I’m for throwing the god concept out with the dirty bath water.

  46. bob says

    Ok. Why do Atheists even care? I mean if they don’t believe they why does it matter that the rest of the country does? God is just a word to them which could be interchanged with any other noun, say Soup for example.
    Last I checked there are no laws on the books excluding anyone who doesn’t believe god. Sure there are lots of god words in various parts of our government but again they’re just words to Atheists so it shouldn’t matter. Just because the rest of us attach meaning to those words shouldnt irritate the non believers.
    frankly all this article does is bitch about the rest of us believing in something that some others don’t.
    Get over it.

  47. Xinosaj says

    This is bit off-topic, but here’s something that atheists seem to miss: religion serves cultural and social goals. Did you ever wonder why so many people remain loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, to the point of expressing hate towards Protestants, but they use birth control, grab MickeyD’s on Fridays during Lent, and can’t correctly recite even basic church dogma? Or why people go to right-wing evangelical churches, but don’t practice any of the stuff their preacher says about putting the man in charge of the home? People want to be part of something, to belong to some kind of identifiable community. The evangelical churches got so strong precisely because they met this need, turning their churches into 7-day-a-week community centers with “focus groups” for every conceivable age/gender demographic.
    I wonder what atheists plan to put in religion’s place to meet the need for community and social interaction. Without some accumulated trans-generational wisdom about how to manage a community, these new substitutes might easily turn into something diabolical. (For example, not all cults are religious – there are political cults and even direct-marketing cults.) Most atheists I know tend to be socially-disconnected loner types. But most people aren’t like that.

  48. says

    bob: Are you aware of the history of religiously-motivated violence and discrimination in this country and others? Are you aware of the important reasons for government to be neutral with regard to religion? It’s not just words.
    Did you know that 53% of the people in this country say they would not vote for an atheist, even if they shared their political views? It’s not just words.
    If all the God references are just words, why do you care so much about making sure they stay?

  49. pansies4me says

    bob: Are you not aware that words only have meaning because of the tangible concepts which they represent? I don’t believe in the concept represented by the word “God”, which has real consequences in my life. Like being told to “get over it” when I complain about being excluded by society at large for not believing in that concept. God and Soup are not interchangeable. Imagine the reaction from people like you if our money said In Soup We Trust.

  50. says

    @ Greta – I did get excited when he paused and said “non-believers.” I’m not going to quibble over use of that term; just the acknowledgment is a great start. I rhubarbed (plplplplpl) every utterance of the g-word in Obama’s speech; I muted the invocation & benediction, so never heard ‘em (I’ll get around to watching ‘em on youtube this weekend, I guess). Tues. night, I attended a local Dem party inauguration dinner. They were video-taping attendees’ responses to “What does this day mean to you?” for local cable broadcast. I took advantage of that opportunity to share that, as a non-believer, I was gratified to be included in Obama’s recognition of all Americans and his call to service, ’cause I’m an American, too. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get edited out by the organizing committee, which had a minister do an invocation… oh well, I tried.
    @ Claire B. LOVE YOUR HYMN!

  51. Kagehi says

    Actually, the majority of believers tend to either fail to consider the logical consequences of their views, like the ones that imagine it would be great to ban abortion, but never once considered what to do with people that got one illegally, or are badly misinformed about subjects, leading them to side with the people that “seem” the have an authority on various subjects. The Atheist/Agnostic/Deist side is *roughly* the same size as the Evangelical/Literalist/Creationist side at this point. Our side seeks to “discover” things, the other side seeks to “reveal” them, where “reveal”, means to literally take the Bible as absolutely accurate, and just make shit up that sounds plausible from that perspective (i.e. lie), when they can’t find specific Biblical explanations.
    So, the “real” problem is not that politicians need to pander to religions, its that the thing the founders feared, when creating the electoral college, is as true today as it was then. The major population is simply ignorant about too many things to make rational decisions about them. And, since they equate religion with good, they are far more likely to side with people that **claim** to know what god wanted things to be like, than with someone telling them the uncomfortable truth that the world simply doesn’t work that way.
    The right wingers **know** this is true, hence the statements made by everyone from Catholic priests to members of school boards that get themselves elected to them to undermine public education, “The better educated someone is, the less likely they are to believe our bullshit (the claims of Biblical literalism and god as authority over everything), therefor, to preserve religion, we must *prevent* people from having an education.” This is stated, over and over, by the far right, in variations. Knowledge leads to disbelief in literalism and revelations.
    So, yeah, the key problems are not with the “existence” of religion, per say, ***but*** it is the goal of our opposite number to do everything in their power to undermine and prevent the average church goer from having a damn clue about how the world really works, since if they did, they would side with *us* instead of them. So, in a sense, pandering to religion on the level we have in the US, and during this speech, unintentionally hands leverage and power to people that want to be as ignorant and clueless about the world as Luddite societies, who reject all modern knowledge, while still “keeping” all the technology they have. At least Luddites know you can’t fracking have both, but the far right, thinks you can, and that the way to get there is to constantly “imagine” being able to build better cars, while simultaneously disparaging people that know how to actually fracking build them, and why going back to the level of understanding of the world that included Alchemy, Phrenology and Astrology, won’t get you one.
    And, here is the key point. They are so vested in this world view, that unless something hits them like a lightning bolt, most “never” grasp how wrong they are, and are totally impervious to fact or evidence. So, while the best solution is to make everyone else smart enough to laugh there asses off at the BS they are selling, in reality, you can’t even get to that point, unless you fight the extreme religion itself *first*, and discredit it at the source. They make entire careers of undermining factual data. We spend all our time figuring out what those facts are. To truly compete with them in the same arena, we would have to halt “all” scientific progress, completely, for the next 50 years, and spend as much time, or more, fighting back with the same level of effort.
    We are not out numbered, we are out timed. They spend all theirs undermining us, and we simply don’t have the time to fight back, and still make any kind of progress at all. And, the irony is, in nearly all cases, so far, they are “still” losing. But, that is kind of what you get, when you show up some place where there are 500 new “technologies” being shown off, and all you have is a bag of “magic beans”. ;) lol
    BTW.. The latest patch to Firefoxes “noscript” is leaving typepad “unusable”. It won’t post without login to typepad, and trying to do so generates an error, instead of posting. Having to do this in “IE Tab”. Sigh…

  52. llewelly says

    The fact that the oath of office was sworn on a Bible, and concluded — unrequired by the Constitution — with the words, “So help me God.”

    The real oath of office – (the one with the word ‘faithfully’ in its proper place) – was taken without a bible.
    (C’mon, go with it – the right-wing nuts will try to use that fact to prove Obama is a Muslim, or a Reptoid, or not really president, so why can’t we pretend it was really another shout-out to atheists? I mean, I agree with you and all, but I’d like to believe atheists got two shout-outs instead of just one.)

  53. sav says

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. I’m a little late to the show here and may just be writing to myself, but I wanted to comment about numbers of atheists in this country. You said:
    “Everybody except you and the roughly 15% of Americans who don’t believe in God.”
    I have no basis whatsoever to argue with that number. I’m sure you did your research, and I’m sure that’s the best number we’ve got to go on.
    What I want to bring up is this: We live in a country addicted to polls of one type or another. And polls are very black and white. The numbers that are out there as “evidence” of Americans’ belief or non-belief in a higher power don’t take into account the people who say they believe in God because they are too scared or too superstitious to say that they don’t, or those who say they do but really just don’t care, or those who say they do but practice no religion whatsoever in their daily lives, or those who just haven’t given the question of a God or gods much thought at all.
    I find it important to keep this in mind when talking numbers. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, not by a long shot.
    I know that you were using that statistic to make another point. I just cringe over the whole numbers game. We could all write a whole piece about numbers, and maybe you already have.

  54. jk says

    I’m going to have call bullshit.
    What does that mean, you’re “done” with it? What’s ending, exactly?? What an utterly empty sentiment. Sure, you’re done with it – just like I’m done with stupid generalizations about my background, religion, community, gender, whatever. That does not mean reality is just going to disappear. And the reality is that there are a lot of people out there who know nothing about a lot of other people. And because this is a condition, it is also a condition that a lot of people are not accepting of what and who they do not know.
    So when you’re “done,” what happens? Fucking NOTHING. Because it’s all talk. All preaching to the choir. All about gaining approval from your anointed group. It must feel pretty good to get all that validation, but you miss a hell of a lot anyway.
    First of all, Obama happens to be a fairly Christian person. People miss this a lot about him, and it’s not something the media covers, or maybe even knows how to cover. But look at his church, his mentors, his beliefs, look at what he claims for himself. He says he believes in the power of prayer, and that he became a Christian as a young man. Note, as a young man. His mother was far from being an indoctrinating type. He came to it himself. So when you talk about him being YOUR servant, and mine, you manage to completely ignore what else the man might consider himself subservient to. And of course you manage to overlook the reasons he might have in even including people like Rick Warren and Rev. Joseph Lowery, who are really two opposites on a spectrum of faith, a fact which no one should ever overlook when analyzing the inauguration. It was a matter of strategy, of political outreach, and propaganda, all timeless aspects of leadership.
    And who are you to judge, really, what lyrics Rev. Lowery chooses to include in his benediction? Let that symbolism from the Negro National Anthem stand to the people to whom it was spoken, and for once, don’t make everything about you.
    And to someone who feels her marginalization as keenly as you, I know that is going to piss you off to hear. This whole post was about breaking down the inauguration from the atheist’s perspective, but it’s so darned blinkered in some key respects that it is positively tiresome.
    The truth is, that really was for them, not for you; other than Obama’s casting of atheists in the oppositional term “non-believer,” which to my mind was just not good enough.
    You latched on to all the symbolism, which to you is a lot of hot air. Which to me, makes your analysis a lot of hot air. The real issue here, the separation of religion and state, will forever get trampled under the emotional, angry mobs you incite with all this bloviating.
    People should be doing things in their local school boards and communities to uphold the impartiality of textbooks and education. People need to be engaging their local politics, communities, businesses, to break down barriers. People need to get involved to stop the use of government money for religious institutions, or the worse alternative, demand government money for ALL religious/belief-based institutions. Democracy and freedom are maintained bottom up, not top down. If you don’t like what’s up top, change what’s below.

  55. Maria says

    jk… what’s wrong with fighting things BOTH from the bottom AND the top?? If Greta wants to do things this way, it’s not like that is going to stop everybody else from working towards the same goal in THEIR way. Different approaches from several directions at the same time would seem to me to be the most effective in the long run.

  56. Bruce Gorton says

    jk
    Well, lets see:
    In the 1950′s there wasn’t a significantly “angry” atheist movement. Atheists were, well Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Azimov, not the militant firebrands of later eras.
    God got added to the pledge of allegiance, and atheists got demonised as being communists.
    In the 1960′s, O’Hair rose to being the most hated woman in America. Because of her, schools could no longer force kids to pray, and it was during the 60′s that atheists got to sit on juries. All was relatively okay through the 1970′s.
    In the 1980′s, the atheist movement began to quiet down as O’Hair lost steam, ending the decade with a president who declared atheists neither citizens nor patriots.
    In the 1990′s, O’Hair was murdered. During that era the evangelical movement experienced a resurgence, and began to move heavily into the US military.
    The era ended up with various anti-gay measures such as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and with GW Bush, a guy who thought God spoke to him, in power. The religious right had gone from being a fringe group to being the most powerful element of the Republican’s base.
    Now, we have Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, New York Atheists, Dan Dennet, Greta Christina, the (not entirely) Rational Response Squad etc…
    And now atheists are back to being recognised as citizens of the United States of America.
    Frankly, I think that judging on history, people who have spoken up have actually done more for atheists than the moderates ever did. Why?
    Because silence equals consent – and a lot of atheists simply do not consent to being considered second class citizens.

  57. Bruce Gorton says

    Oh, and as to the argument “Well it wasn’t for you.”
    The presidential inaugeration was for the people of America – all of them.
    How dare you claim that doesn’t include atheists?

  58. says

    Greta, yes! The 15% who are atheists may have been offended, but even a greater number of us who have spiritual viewpoints were dismayed at the simplicity of the constant religious expression at the inauguration of one who is supposed to be so bright. Pastor Rick is dumb, dumb, dumb. He didn’t belong there. Just leave it all for the prayer service on the following day, please!

  59. Adele says

    @Xinosaj:
    “I wonder what atheists plan to put in religion’s place to meet the need for community and social interaction.”
    First of all, we don’t intent to replace anything. You are perfectly free to continue worshipping whatever you wish to worship – just don’t foist it on us, our schools, or our government.
    “Most atheists I know tend to be socially-disconnected loner types. But most people aren’t like that.”
    Don’t generalize an entire group by the actions of a few. Many of us are in no way “socially-disconnected loner types.”
    Your comments show a deep ignorance of atheism and atheists in general. Get to know us before you make such sweeping generalizations about us.

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