Alana received $200 from FFRF for her essay.
The recent surge in Americans pointing to references to god in our national documents and proclaiming them as evidence of a “Christian nation” is indeed a legitimate threat to the freedom from religion. There’s also a disturbing claim by the historical revisionists that when we see or hear about “god” in any number of public contexts, that we are not hearing about “god” at all.
This non-god has been explained away as a transcendent force to revere in moments requiring solemnity. It is part of “ceremonial deism” instead of “public worship.” It is alleged to unite Americans for the grand purposes of the nation.
This non-god also requires a number of public servants to swear on books dedicated quite explicitly to named deities. It appears in nearly all state constitutions. Most notably, it is virtually unknown to the majority of the American public whose varying combinations of ignorance, apathy and faith-based hostility make them understandably believe that this non-god is exactly what his nametag says: God.
This movement poses two considerable threats to nontheists: The deceptive claim of inclusivity — alleged to be inclusive because no particular religion’s deity is being invoked by the word “god” — and the demonstrably false narrative that the word has a nonreligious meaning in our national documents.
Michael Novak claims that words like “god” in these contexts are “like pointers, which each person must define for himself. Their function is to protect the liberty and conscience of all, by using a symbol which transcends the power of the state and any earthly power.” Catholic scholar William T. Cavanagh says that “god” here is not a deity but a placeholder, “swept clean out of reverence for the transcendent.”
It is a testament to the total saturation of religious dogmas that the virtue of subservient humility to some invisible force (Nature, Wisdom, the Golden Rule) is so prevalent that even those without strong religious convictions are aghast when atheists refuse to submit.
In the courts, a similarly ludicrous claim that “god” is not religious has held up for nearly three decades. In Lynch v. Donnelly, for example, courts claimed that these words “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
Decisions to keep god in the Pledge of Allegiance and in the national motto are egregious examples of judicial doublethink. It is either meaningless because of rote repetition or imperative to solemnize national occasions, but it cannot simultaneously be both. If the word is so rote as to have lost religious significance, then its removal to eliminate a threat to the Establishment Clause is clearly a more compelling interest than avoiding the inconvenience of editing the documents.
Repetition is precisely what has given it religious meaning. Its deep saturation in the national language causes ordinary citizens to believe that it is an essential thread in the fabric of our national identity and, by extension, that those who reject god are un-American.
The truth is, god arrived in a number of these places much more recently than those defending his presence will acknowledge. It is no coincidence that the additions occurred in the 1950s, one of the most regrettably reactionary decades in American history, in reaction to the perceived threat of “godless communism.”
A lack of foresight from the authors of state constitutions and the frenzied zealotry of the Red Scare are mistakes I can forgive. But the continued denial that there was any mistake in adding “god” to a secular nation’s documents is intellectually dishonest and constitutionally unsound, particularly as the number of self-identified unbelievers grows. The courts cannot continue to claim that these objections are only unreasonable nitpicking by a whiny intelligentsia.
If we ever hope to claim that we are a country willing to do whatever it takes to let people of all religious identifications in on freedom of and from religion, then we must be willing to write god out.
Alana Massey, 26, has a bachelor’s from New York University with a history major and African studies minor. She’s in her second year of a Yale University master’s program in religion and has also started coursework in development studies at Yales. Alana writes: “Although the setting of a divinity school may seem an odd place for an atheist, I have found that studying religion amidst future religious leaders and similarly academically oriented nonbelievers to be instrumental to a robust understanding of the many dimensions of religious belief that dominate the country. My nonacademic interests include cycling, activism, exceptionally bad action movies and even worse pop music.”