As you may have heard on other atheist blogs (or on my own Facebook page — if you haven’t already, friend me!), there was a panel at Netroots Nation today, A New Progressive Vision for Church and State. (Or yesterday, I guess — sheesh, is it after midnight already?) Here is a summary of the panel’s thesis, proposed by panelist Bruce Ledewitz:
The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed — one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like “under God” in universal terms. For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition.
The reaction to this thesis around the atheosphere has been an interesting combination of outrage and baffled head-scratching. But come now, that’s not fair. That’s just a summary in the conference materials. I’m actually here at Netroots Nation; I actually attended this panel; I heard what the people on it had to say.
And I can tell you that my reaction — and the reaction of a whole lot of other people attending this panel — was somewhere between outrage and baffled head-scratching.
I mean — what? It’s okay for the government to endorse GodâŠ because God isn’t necessarily a religious concept? It’s okay for the government to endorse GodâŠ because we can define God in a way that includes atheism?
Okay. I’ll try to be fair here. I’ll try to not go straight for the snark. Having now heard a more detailed explanation of this idea than the quick- and- dirty summary, I’ll try to take Ledewitz’s thesis seriously. I don’t promise to succeed… but I’ll try.
Ledewitz — who is an atheist, I want to make that clear up front — basically says that no, government can’t establish a religion, and it can’t even establish that it thinks religion of any kind is better than no religion. But “God” can be defined very abstractly and philosophically: as, say, the universal essence of goodness and justice. And while the government can’t establish religion, it can — and does — express views on philosophical questions. So if we define “God” as a philosophical concept and not a religious one, that makes it okay for the government to — for instance — put the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or spend $100,000 to engrave the words “In God We Trust” on the Capitol Visitor Center, or display the Ten Commandments in city halls. It’s not really endorsing religion. It’s just endorsing God.
So. Here’s my first response to that.
(That’s my best attempt to depict a blend of outrage and baffled head-scratching. If I had a way to depict “incoherent gibbering and waving my hands in the air like a crazy person,” I’d do that instead.)
Are you fucking kidding me? You can define “God” in a way that isn’t religious? God and gods is the whole freaking foundation of religion. It’s practically the definition of it. And you can define “God” in a way that doesn’t exclude atheists? Do you know what “atheist” even means? Let me spell it out. A-theist. No God. This isn’t Alice in Wonderland; you can’t just make words mean whatever you choose them to mean. (As Jesse Galef of the Secular Coalition of America, who was also at the panel, pointed out on Friendly Atheist.)
Now here’s my serious, un-snarky response. (Much of which I said during the Q&A at the panel. Did you really think I could go to this thing and keep my mouth shut?)
First. Let’s say that we can re-define God to mean something way more vague and philosophical than 99% of the people who use the word understand it to mean. Let’s say you define God to mean the infinite creativity of the universe, or the universal and objective essence of goodness and justice, or something.
So what? As an atheist, I don’t believe in that, either. I believe that if the astronomers are right, the universe is eventually going to run out of steam; and I believe that goodness and justice are concepts generated by our human brains after millions of years of evolution as social animals: more or less universal across humanity, but certainly not generated from a higher source. I believe in an entirely physical, non-supernatural world, guided by the physical laws of cause and effect. Period.
Does that mean that I’m not included in “One nation, under God”? Why should that make me a second class citizen?
Ledewitz’s response to this was that, even if I don’t agree with this “Justice is a universal concept” statement, it is a philosophical statement and not a religious one, and the government is entitled to make it. But I’m not buying it. Again I have to come back to what seems like a blindingly obvious point: It’s God. For fuck’s sake. You can’t make God not be a religious concept just by saying that it doesn’t have to be defined that way, simply so you can avoid painful conversations and difficult political fights. (More on that in a bit.) Yes, believers have lots of different understandings of what “God” means; but 99% of people who use the word understand it to mean some version of “a supernatural being who created the world and/or intervenes in it.” I don’t believe I have to sit here and try to explain why “God” is, by its very definition, a religious concept.
Second: To say, “when we say ‘God,’ we’re including whatever the heck it is that atheists believe,” is like saying, “When we say ‘man’ or ‘men,’ of course we’re also including women.” It’s patronizing. It’s dismissive. It’s relegating us to second-class citizenship, while pretending that if you close your eyes and pretend real hard then that’s not really what you’re doing. (Kudos to Ingrid for coming up with this argument.) Again: Yes, believers have lots of different understandings of what the word “God” means. But whatever you think it means, atheists don’t believe in it. Again — by definition. A-theist. No God. If God is in official government language and documents, then atheists, by definition, are being left out of it.
Besides, I completely fail to see how this argument is a defense of the Ten Commandments being displayed in government buildings. The Ten Commandments don’t just refer to some nebulous generic God that can be defined almost any way you want it to. The Ten Commandments refer to a very specific God: the God who demands that we have no other Gods before him, that we not take his name in vain, that we not make any graven images, that we keep the Sabbath holy. Even if you buy the argument that the God in “In God we trust” doesn’t have to be a religious God… how is the God of the Ten Commandments anything other than the God of very specific religious beliefs?
And as Witold “Vic” Walczak of the ACLU pointed out (he was one of the panelists: there were four panelists, two of whom were vehemently opposed to Ledewitz’s proposal):
This approach is deeply dismissive and insulting of religious believers. As much as it is of atheists, and in some ways more so. It basically says to believers, “One of your most treasured beliefs about the very nature of the Universe? Your government is defining it as just this vague philosophical concept about creativity or goodness or something.” Isn’t it more respectful to say, “You can believe whatever you want to about God — and your government is going to stay the hell out of it”?
Furthermore — again, as Vic pointed out:
The insertion of God into government language does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a concerted attempt by the hard Christian right to turn our country into a theocracy. It is part of a concerted attempt by the hard Christian right to shove their religion down everyone else’s throatâŠ and to do it using the government that supposedly belongs to all of us. We can’t take this question out of its political context. We can talk all we want to about how “God” can mean a nebulous philosophical concept of creativity and goodness… but that sure as shit isn’t what the religious right means by it.
(Quick tangent: Vic was one of the people working on the Dover case about creationism in the public schools. I was gobsmacked to even be in the same room with him. Did you ever know that you’re my hero?)
Now, I will say this: As priorities go, this isn’t a high one for me. I care a whole lot more about health care reform and global warming than I do about whether the Pledge of Allegiance has the words “Under God” in it. Even on the list of atheist and “separation of church and state” issues, this one isn’t that high for me. Creationism in the schools, theocracy in the U.S. military, job and adoption discrimination against atheists, threats and violence against atheist activists… I’m a lot more worried about that stuff than I am about the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s completely legitimate to say, “This is wrong, but it isn’t where should be focusing our energy right now.”
But I am adamantly opposed to the accomodationist line that we should just go along with this crap — and not only go along with it, but actively help it along — just to avoid being divisive. I understand the wish for diplomacy and forging alliances with believers, and I think that, at least sometimes, that’s both desirable and achievable. But I am not going to quietly lie down and let myself be openly treated as a second-class citizen by my own government in my own country, just so I can avoid painful conversations and difficult political fights. I’m sorry if Bruce Ledewitz is upset by the divisive culture wars over religion. But suck it up, dude. We have real differences in this country. We are not going to resolve them by pretending they don’t exist. We are not going to resolve them by letting the religious right dictate the terms of the debate. And we sure as hell are not going to resolve them by re-defining our language: by saying that black is white, war is peace, and God is not a religious concept.
P.S. I also want to say this: I was deeply surprised and gratified at how many people showed up at this panel in a state of outrage and baffled head-scratching to say, “What the hell are you talking about?” I was kind of worried that I’d be the only godless agitator in a roomful of “Why can’t we all just get along?”ers. I shouldn’t have been.