“God Doesn’t Have to Mean Religion”: Accomodationism and the “Church and State” Panel at Netroots Nation


In-god-we-trustIs it okay that there’s language about God in the U.S. government… since the word “God” doesn’t have to be religious?

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.

ConfusionThe 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 God
 because God isn’t necessarily a religious concept? It’s okay for the government to endorse God
 because we can define God in a way that includes atheism?

Huh?

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.

Pledge_of_allegianceLedewitz — 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.)

Humpty-dumptyAre 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.

UniverseSo 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.

Rights of manSecond: 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.

TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitolBesides, 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:

One nation under godThe 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 throat
 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.

Comments

  1. says

    ‘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.”‘
    While this is surely true in one sense, in another, I think it misses the mark.
    The statement about men and women is all that you say it is (and annoys the heck out of me when I notice it), but the attempt to include atheists in “those who trust in God” is in some sense a bigger error, because men aren’t the antithesis of women.
    It is to deny the one thing that makes atheists different from those who can in any sense ‘trust in God’.

  2. says

    Actually, your post brings up one of the points that drives me completely bonkers in discussions with theists: the way the notion of “God” tends to become so slippery. In one sentence, God is this vaguely deist concept (such as when they want to make a ‘first cause’ argument, or the ontological argument), and in the very next sentence, the entirety of a specific belief system is slipped in the back door (e.g. not just the Ten Commandments, but Jesus, the Trinity, transubstantiation, virgin birth, …).
    I have come to refer to it as “theist bait-and-switch”.
    [I like to respond “Please explain why the deist figure you were discussing a moment ago implies the characteristics of your particular god rather than any other omnipotent being.” … and lately I also tend to find myself saying at the first mention of God “Please define what you mean when you say that, so that we both know what you’re talking about”… but that request is usually ignored; I think the reasons are obvious.]
    It looks like I may have to stop calling it “theist bait-and-switch”, though. If accomodationists are using the same style of lame argument, I may have to come up with a different name for it.

  3. Sparky says

    Holy linguistic gymnastics. Make the word god not sound religious? I’m a theist – and to me that just seems convoluted at best. While you can try to define god extremely vaguely, it won’t change what the real, actual and established definition of god is. And no matter how much he tries to define god like this – when government uses it you can GUARANTEE they mean “Judeo-Christian god.” It’s frankly a damn stretch to make “under god” include other religions, let alone atheism. I can go around insisting that “dog shit” means “doughnut” but that doesn’t mean ANYONE ELSE and, most importantly, the people selling me sugary treats are going to go along with that definition.
    And proposing policies based on religious belief? Nononononono. That door leads to some severe toxic badness.
    When the government uses the word god they are endorsing religion. Seriously – there is no element to the word god that can be applied to anything but religious faith/belief/position/etc. And when government invokes god it is NEVER inclusive. Dancing around that is just living in denial (along with the “separation of church and state has failed” which, to me, screams “waaah bring them back together!!!!” This isn’t an attempt to heal the culture war – this is an attempt by the religious dominionist to WIN it. He may be an atheist but this is the kind of position the religious right dreams of.

  4. Richard says

    Doesn’t “God” necessarily exclude religions which believe in “gods”?
    Even if I agreed with him and said, “Fine, universal justice is a ‘god’,” then what about the Goddess of universal hope? Or the spectacled God of human intuition?
    I feel like we need a polytheistic branch of the church of the FSM.

  5. DSimon says

    And lo, the Flying Spaghetti Monster spread forth his various noodly reproductive extremeties, and gave birth to the Pasta Lords of All Creation:
    – Linguinitron, Pasta Lord of technology and painful blisters
    – Ravioliwoli, Pasta Lord of creativity and hissy fits
    – Macaronixta, Pasta Lord of politics and poor grammar
    – Spaghetcetera, Pasta Lord of whatever the other Pasta Lords forget to be Pasta Lords of
    And the many Pasta Lords were thus born, and it was really quite good indeed. Ramen.

  6. says

    I have a feeling that what’s motivating Ledewitz is that he really, really doesn’t want to have to argue with religious people, and he’s hoping he can redefine the term “God” so that everyone will be happy with it and nothing needs to be debated or changed.
    Sorry, not gonna happen. The record is clear that this language was injected by the religious right into our public institutions specifically to belittle, exclude and demonize atheists, to show that they’re second-class citizens and that people in America believe in the Christian God. It’s way too late to whitewash this history by imagining that these verses can be retroactively altered to mean something different. I don’t believe in God, and I think it’s offensive both to atheists and to believers to try to get around this by redefining that word to make it so mushy as to be meaningless.

  7. Ramel says

    A little off topic, anyone know a good clear explanation of the ontological argument, I’m not sure I’m understanding what the theists are trying to do with this one. It looks a lot like a ‘god exists because I said so’ argument, but I’m hoping something that has been discussed by phillosphers for a long time might have more to it.

  8. says

    See the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article:
    Ontological Arguments
    As a further off-topic, the SEP is a great way to waste, er …, spend a lot of time.
    As a further not-so-far-off-topic, I did my HS senior english paper on St Anselm’s Ontological Proof. Although that was over 40 years ago, I remember it more as a “God exists because the nature of a perfect being (God) would have to include existence.” I can see this being appealing to the fundies since it is essentially, “By definition [of the terms], God exists.” BTW, I was already fully an atheist by then so I enjoyed the irony in choosing my topic from something in English history.

  9. says

    If Ledewitz truly believes this, he’s a fucking idiot.
    I suspect he just gets his jollies provoking outrage.

    Actually, Tommy, he’s neither. He’s a smart guy, and he’s definitely not a troll. I think Ebonmuse is closer to the mark. My impression from this panel is that he’s profoundly disturbed by the hostile, hateful, divisive culture wars — as most of us are — and he thinks this is a way around it.
    I just think he’s intensely and profoundly mistaken about that. (Or, to put it another way: He is not a fucking idiot. It’s just that his proposal is fucking idiotic. :-) ) His proposed solution is a Band-Aid on an axe wound… and it’s not even a real Band-Aid. It’s a picture of a Band-Aid.

  10. says

    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.

    Absolutely right. I know a good number of conservative Christians, and many of them really believe the “Christian nation, one nation under a Christian god” crap. They vehemently oppose removing the offensive phrases because they believe such removal is removing their God from American life and culture.

  11. exrelayman says

    @ DSimon & Val
    Please cease your delusion. The ‘eat me’ meme was utilized by Christianity before FSM. And others before Christianity – and the beat goes on.

  12. Ben says

    Even if “god” can mean something other than god, that’s not how people—theocrats, garden-variety Christians, assorted government types—use it. When they say “God,” they mean “God,” not “goodness” or “justice.”
    So what good is the statement “God can mean different things from what we all think it usually means”?
    Silliness.

  13. says

    Slippery slope.
    Big Brother.
    War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.
    If the government is allowed to use a convoluted, arbitrary, re-defined version of the word “God”, then what’s to stop it from doing the same with other terms? Changing a term so as to neutralize its political bite is tantamount to suppressing dissent. In other words, if “God” is altered to mean more or less nothing, then people can no longer argue about it, and the government is free to inject into it whatever political poison they desire. The next step is easy: redefine “war”, and now no one can speak out against any conflict the nation enters into. Redefine “freedom”, and… oh, wait, that’s already been done. Redefine “ignorance”, and presto! It’s 1984.
    I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist nutjob, and in fact I’ve done so intentionally. My point is that even a far-fetched argument like the one I just made still seems to carry some weight against Ledewitz’s outlandish proposal. Creating a new meaning for the word “God” is just a bad idea any way you slice it.

  14. J. J. Ramsey says

    “The record is clear that this language was injected by the religious right into our public institutions specifically to belittle, exclude and demonize atheists, to show that they’re second-class citizens and that people in America believe in the Christian God.”
    Errm, I thought that it was injected before there was a religious right as we know it. The modifications to the Pledge, for instance, date from the 1950s and were meant as a slam against the godless Commies.
    BTW, on the ontological argument, there’s a quote from Flew before he turned deist that sums up what’s wrong with the argument quite well:
    “Say, if you like, that by the word God we are to mean ‘a Perfect being'; and then go on, if you must, to gloss this Perfect as itself meaning–among other things ‘possessing the perfection of existence’. Manoeuvre how you wish and for as long as you like with the definition. Still you will not have taken one single step towards establishing that there is actually any being such that this word so defined can there correctly be applied.” (God: A Critical Enquiry, 4.10)

  15. WScott says

    The statement about men and women is all that you say it is (and annoys the heck out of me when I notice it), but the attempt to include atheists in “those who trust in God” is in some sense a bigger error, because men aren’t the antithesis of women.

    Interesting point. In the same vein, it could be argued that there is a history of using man/men to refer to the human race as a whole. (I’m not defnding it – just pointing it out.) I’m aware of no such history of a non-religious use for the word god.

    anyone know a good clear explanation of the ontological argument

    Actually, Skeptico just did a good piece on it: http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2009/08/ontological-argument-for-god-rebuttal.html

  16. Solar Hero says

    C’mon y’all, even Dawkins has said he accepts Spinoza’s God…which is really nothing more than Wittgenstein’s definition of the world: everything that is the case.
    If you are a rationalist, you believe that the universe can be figured out rationally, and the fact that that is so could be called a “god.”
    What is interesting to me is that certain branches of Buddhism is atheistic — is this, then, not a religion?

  17. says

    If you are a rationalist, you believe that the universe can be figured out rationally, and the fact that that is so could be called a “god.”

    Could be called a god. But isn’t, by the overwhelming majority of people who use the word.
    You could call shit “ice cream,” too. But I don’t think the government should rewrite the FDA regulations accordingly.

  18. Jon Berger says

    Completely off-topic, but the business about “When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less” is from “Through the Looking-Glass,” not “Alice in Wonderland.” It get cited a lot in legal briefs and court opinions.

  19. teammarty says

    He is deeply disturbed by the culture wars and his answer is surrender. “Sit down, shut up, and pray or else” sounds no less disgusting when coming from an Atheist.

  20. Bill Baker says

    Greta says= “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”
    That’s a false presumption and a strawman. There are atheistic and agnostic religions. And to believe in God does not mean belief in religion. I am as irreligious and freethinking as they come, and…I believe in God, a minmialistic Deiestic one of course, and not with 100% certainty, but I do believe in it{I call myself an Anti-theistic Agnostic-Deist}. This is a common sign of the ignorance of many atheists, agnostics, deists and other rational freethinkers to assume God and religion are neccaserily tied together and that religions neccaserily are god based, it’s a mistake that anyone who actually took even a small look at how many religions there are and have been and how many have no gods, and how deism is a non-religious viewpoint…. Read More
    Anyways, other than this point I agree pretty much all else that said and I stand with her on it, God{not even a deistic one, and not even one that is just a term for whatever the fuck a person wants to lvie by or worship- ie: the idea that whetver you base your life in is your god- BULLSHITE!} does not belong in national documents, pledges, secular institutions, on money, and so on. We’re in 100% agreement on this fact.
    In Reason:
    Bill Baker

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