Since today is July 4, which is the much celebrated and patriotic Independence Day holiday for us in the United States, I thought it fitting to write an essay on what it means to be patriotic, especially in a naturalist-humanist context. Spoiler warning: it isn’t any different than being patriotic in a God-believing context, or in any other context.
Godlessness and being patriotic has been seen as inherently contradictory for quite some time. Consider the recent controversy over NBC’s airing of the Pledge of Allegiance during the U.S. Open golf tournament held in Washington, D.C. They omitted the words “under God” and received a firestorm. Yahoo News writes:
At the beginning of NBC’s Sunday broadcast of the final round of one of the four major golf tournaments in the world, an introduction aired that included images from the nation’s capital while the Pledge of Allegiance being recited by school children in the background. The problem: Conspicuously missing were the words “under God”
Under God Or Else?
And you can only imagine the backlash. Citizens Against Religious Bigotry was founded as a website and organization to be dedicated to the very claim that “NBC has unquestionably committed an act of religious bigotry designed to offend people of faith.”
Jordan Sekulow, director of Policy and International Relations at the ACLJ, writing for Washington Post’s “Religious Right Now” called the removal “the desecration of our heritage”, and later cited the removal of having “crossed a troubling line and offended millions of Americans by cutting the phrase ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance”. He then wrote:
The phrase ‘under God’ is not a throw-away line, an afterthought. It’s been a critical part of the Pledge for more than half a century – a time-honored tradition.
A petition and letter to NBC from the ACLJ cited the removal of the phrase as “a glaring omission, an insult to the brave men and women who serve our country, risking their lives daily, under the flag you have denigrated.”
Dan Gainor, the Boone Pickens Fellow, the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture, and a frequent writer for Fox News Opinion, recently wrote an article about the incident, opening with “Under God? Clearly, NBC thinks it is over God. Thankfully, the rest of America doesn’t agree” and then writing that “a small, faith-hating cabal of liberal idiots cuts God out of the “Pledge of Allegiance” and NBC is doing what exactly? Exactly nothing”.
He then declared the glory of the phrase in the pledge, stating:
Americans recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” as a sign of dedication and commitment – to show their faith in both God and country. Those dedicated to the values that made America great should make another pledge, one to stop watching NBC and stop patronizing its advertisers until the network fires the “small group of people” involved in this attack on people of faith.
NBC could have used the moment as a reminder of how the Pledge was not part of our founding nation but instead originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892 and not formally adopted by Congress until 1942. NBC even could have told us they were going back to our historical roots by using the original pledge, as the 1942 pledge did not include “under God” at all — instead this phrase was added by Congress under Eisenhower in 1954, a full twelve years later.
NBC even could have made their case on how the inclusion of the words “Under God” is needlessly divisive and discriminatory, since many people in America do not believe in God despite still loving their country.
Patriotism vs. Atheism in Elizabeth Dole vs. Kay Hagan
This NBC issue is not the first time atheism has been seen as the anti-patriotism in the public square. Another case-in-point issue is that of the North Carolina 2008 election for Senate, which pitted Elizabeth Dole against Kay Hagan. Once Elizabeth Dole started to lose, she ran this biting advertisement:
As you can see, incumbent senator Elizabeth Dole connects Kay Hagan to the scary godless Americans as if atheist movements were out to destroy America and Kay Hagan was in on the plans to steal Christmas.
Actually, as this advertisement payed for by the North Carolina State Executive Committee reveals, some people really and honestly did acuse Kay Hagan of attempting to steal Christmas.
Of course, Kay Hagan did manage to defeat Elizabeth Dole and become the Senator for North Carolina. However, she did this not by stating that “Hey, atheists are citizens too and deserve fair treatment and representation” but by expressing outrage that Elizabeth Dole attacked her Christian faith.
George W. Bush on Atheists as Citizens
Perhaps this gets no better exemplified by George W. Bush’s quote about how atheists are not citizens. According to Rob Sherman (also seen here and here) and taken with the grain of salt that no other reporter there reported it, the following conversation took place between him and George W. Bush after he had announced his candidacy for president, where Sherman was invited as part of the Press Corps:
Sherman: “What will you do to win the votes of Americans who are atheists?”
Bush: “I guess I’m pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me.”
Sherman: “Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?”
Bush: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
Sherman: “Do you support as a sound constitutional principle the separation of state and church?”
Bush: “Yes, I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.”
George W. Bush, the very man who later became president of the United States stated point blank that atheists should neither be considered patriots or even citizens of the United States! It’s no wonder America seems to have some sort of barrier that prevents atheists from ever easily becoming members of the US government, let alone President. Pete Stark, the Democratic Representative for California’s 13th district, is the only open atheist in American history to serve publicly.
Such a barrier seems to actually be codified in law. While a religious test for holding public office is unconstitutional, seven states still have old laws that remain on the books saying that no atheist can hold public office, such as Arkansas’s Article 19, Section 1; Maryland’s Article 37; Mississippi’s Article 14, Section 265; South Carolina’s Article 17, Section 4; North Carolina’s Article 6, Section 8; Tennesee’s Article 9, Section 2; or Texas’s Article 1, Section 4. Of course, none of these laws have been enforced since the early 1800s, but the fact that they remain is still rather offensive.
The Stained Glass Ceiling
And even when this law does not exist in the books, it exists de facto in the stained-glass ceiling. This is mirrored in repeated polls which show atheists as one of the most distrusted minorities, proclaimed by the public to be completely unfit for office.
As an ABC News story retells, the University of Minnesota conducted a poll in 2006 which found that 47.6% of respondents would disapprove of their child’s wish to marry an atheist, 39.5% said atheists do not share their vision of American society, both higher percentages than given regarding Muslims, homosexuals, Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans.
The article sums this up with a quote from sociologist Penny Edgell, the study’s lead researcher, who says that “atheists are a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years”.
A 2011 poll by gallup reveals that while only 10% would not vote for a presidential candidate who is black, female, Catholic, or Jewish, 22% still would not vote for a Mormon and 49% would not vote for an atheist. Another 2007 poll by Gallup founds very similar numbers and another 2006 poll by Gallup found 84% of respondents saying America is not ready for an atheist president, behind only homosexuals at 91%.
As explained by John Kerry repeating the false “atheist’s believe in nothing” trope:
The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, ‘Well, I don’t believe in anything,’ and you’ll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person. It’s just a fact.
The Flag Pin and Irrational Patriotism Fears
Despite all my lines of evidence establishing the claim that a part of the American public views atheists as unpatriotic, irrational fears about patriotism are certainly not limited to atheism. Consider the uproar surrounding Obama’s flag pin — Fox News reports (fairly, I will concede) that Obama said:
The truth is that right after 9/11 I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism.
But of couse this wasn’t good enough — it was met with a lot of controversy. But why? I think a lot of Americans thought like this:
- A true patriot would wear a flag pin.
- Obama does not wear a flag pin.
- Therefore Obama is not a true patriot.
But of course this is false — true patriots may not wear flag pins. Instead, as Obama advocated, perhaps they would eschew symbolic stances and take and pursue real stands on issues to make America great. Whether Obama actually ended up doing this throughout his presidency is a different issue, however.
This is just Americans using faulty logic — replacing in their minds the substance of patriotism with the symbol of the flag pin, when this is not the case. Being patriotic is a lot more than just wearing a flag pin and can exist without a flag pin as Obama rightly pointed out.
But what is the gap in logic that leads the American public to assume atheists are incapable of patriotism? Why is the belief in God considered the essence of patriotism? Why would Dan Gainor suggest that all Americans use the Pledge of Allegiance specifically to show their faith, dedication, and commitment to God specifically? What does God have to do with patriotism at all? Consider this chain of logic:
- A true patriot would believe in God.
- Atheists do not believe in God.
- Therefore atheists are not true patriots.
Why would people continually insist on the first premise? I think it has to do with the well repeated myth that atheists are not moral or have no reason to be moral. The second statement I do hold to be false, but it is a philosophical (or perhaps scientific) issue of what constitutes morality and will be discussed in a later essay. The reason it isn’t relevant here is because of the first statement, which is also conclusively false: atheists are indeed moral.
I understand the uneasiness about thinking that atheists have no rational reason to be moral and might therefore snap at any moment, but atheists are conclusively moral and patriotic, faltering in these two things no less so than any Christian, even the true ones. But how do we know atheists are indeed moral and patriotic?
What does “moral” and “patriotic” mean? It looks like we’re at risk of applause lights in serious need of unscrewing — these words are things that we merely clap at without understanding their essence. We know people should be moral and patriotic so we clap, but we don’t know what makes a person moral and patriotic… besides belief in God and flag pins, of course. Thus these are terms in need of layman’s definitions, and I will give them such, being only minimally philosophical.
The Meaning of Good, Patriotism, and Apple Pie
So without getting bogged down into the philosophy of meta-ethics and ethics, without invoking game theory or ideal rationality or name-dropping the Prisoner’s Dilemma, without debating whether the font of morality is in actions or virtue, without debating which is the proper formulation of utilitarianism, and without discussing whether moral facts exist and whether they are culturally specific, let’s consider the layman guy on the street; the kind of guy who’s all “philosa-what?” and who thinks Plato is a toy for children. What does this guy think constitutes a good person?
Fundamentally and culturally to how the word is defined, a good person is a hero instead of a villan.
A good person is one who is compassionate — a person who is not only aware of the suffering of others and not only strives to not cause others to needlessly suffer, but actively takes pride and joy in reducing needless suffering, making people happier. Ask any person what they think are the traits of a good person, and they’ll usually list compassionate qualities — “gets along with others”, “shares”, “is nice”, “is friendly”, etc.
Bad people are the opposite — bad people are villans; people who not only fail to be compassionate, but instead are often actively anti-compassionate. Villans are always out to get the best for themselves, regardless of how many people they have to hurt to get their way. Villans don’t take pride and joy in reducing needless suffering; they take pride and joy in causing people to suffer needlessly. Ask any person what they think are the traits of a bad person, and they’ll usually list anti-compassionate qualities — “hurts people”, “steals from people”, “is mean”, “is selfish”, etc.
You Can Be Good Without God
So where does the atheist fit into this? Are atheists heroes or villans? Are atheists compassionate or anti-compassionate? Do atheists steal and hurt, or do they share and help? I hope the answer is obvious.
Consider any atheist acquaintances you may have: they are indeed compassionate, friendly people who get along with others. Consider surveys of the prison population — only 0.2% identify as atheist.
Consider that the countries in which atheism is highest — such as Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark — are some of the happiest and most stable democracies in the world, whereas countries where atheism is the lowest — such as Bangladesh, Egypt, and Indonesia — are not quite.
Now I don’t mean to say that atheists are more moral or that atheism is the recipe for the world’s happiest and most compassionate society. What I am saying is that religion is no marker of compassion — when we survey the people we know, we find many secular heroes and pious villans. Therefore, it is very clear that religion does not make anyone moral, it’s adopting a compassionate character that makes people moral, and humanists do this just as well.
But what of patriotism? What is the meaning of that word? Well this one is a bit more vague, and could even be a characteristic that we don’t want people to have. When patriotism becomes some tribalistic blind devotion to “my country, right or wrong”, we enter a territory of unjustified torture, imperialism, warfare and cause of needless suffering that no one ought to advocate or defend.
But when patriotism becomes a commitment to the ideals of a respectable nation, such as a nation that stands by the ideals of justice, freedom, and democracy, we have a characteristic worth having. Any compassionate person would see that justice, freedom, and democracy are utterly essential to any nation truly worth living in.
The facts of the world do demonstrate again and again that justice, freedom, and democracy lead to a lot less needless suffering. Truly, a world in which people can argue over the value of ideas in a free and open forum is a world in which progress can take place, and any nation that wishes to subvert and censor these ideas is a nation that wishes to cut off progress.
Interestingly, this isn’t just a religious dream, but it’s a dream that is codified in the very essence of humanism. It’s a dream in which humanists not only can take part, but do take part, fervently and passionately. Humanism is not about tearing religion apart for the sake of doing so, but about building a common world in which democratic ideals can flourish and people can pursue happiness. Humanists are very much friends of patriotism.
The Fourth of July
When it comes to the fourth of July, we have good reason to recognize that America, while it honestly has been in the wrong in the past, is still a nation committed to truly great ideals. We still have very good reason to love and celebrate what America stands for.
Whether Under God or not, we are still “indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all”. And whether or not these rights come from a divine Creator, we are a nation that recognizes “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and that we all people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Atheists, just as much as homosexuals, females, and African Americans, are fully capable of celebrating and taking place in our nation’s wonderful political process. Those who, like Elizabeth Dole, seek to cut the godless out of our nation are the ones who are the villans of this story, those who seek to cause needless suffering to the millions of nonreligious are truly anti-compassionate.
Those who, like George W. Bush, seek to tell the nonreligious they aren’t capable of citizenship nor patriotism, are the ones who themselves are being unpatriotic, not endorsing that all people have unalienable rights.
Those who seek to deny rights to any American, whether it be an atheist or a devout believer, whether it be someone straight or gay, whether it be someone black or white, whether it be someone male or female — these are the people we ought to condemn and call out for being unpatriotic.
I would never go as far as saying people like George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole are unamerican, enemies, or not deserving of citzenship — they don’t even deserve the brunt of their own attacks. But they ought to be ashamed of their circumvention of the American dream, their denial of voice to valued citizens, and their wielding of patriotism as a weapon to attack those they don’t like.
So, when it gets down to it, America is not about being Under God and patriotism is not about wearing a flag pin. Patriotism is not a weapon to deny political access to those minorities you don’t like. Instead, America is about patriotism, and being patriotic is about upholding the ideals in our Declaration of Independence and the notions of the American dream.
America is about rising up; and no matter your creed, color, sexual orientation, political orientation, or theological affiliations; coming together to take place in a common political process where we can seek to be free, celebrate justice, and engage in democracy — all to make the world a better place for life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. America is the idea that we, as a nation, are all in this together — whether we’re a Tea Partier or a latte liberal; whether we’re godless or godful; we’re all in this together to make this nation a better place.
This Fourth of July, let’s remember that. We are one nation, indivisible — a nation that includes and celebrates both those under God and those who aren’t. Good bless America!
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