July 4, 2002

Not All Atheists Mind the Pledge

By: James N. Markels

I’m an atheist. Right now in America it’s not too popular to be like me. After all, an atheist, Michael Newdow, took the Pledge of Allegiance to court because the words “under God” offended his sensibilities. This caused a huge ruckus when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase made the Pledge itself unconstitutional as a state endorsement of religion. It is likely that the ruling won’t get anywhere–certainly not past the Supreme Court–but the popular view as a result of it seems to be that we atheists are an unusually touchy bunch, as if we’re the religious equivalent of vegans.

For the record, we’re not all like Newdow. In fact, I think it is wrong for atheists to be hypervigilant against every suggestion of religion in the public sphere. However, much of the legal side of the church-state discussion assumes that all atheists are like Newdow, and in fact that we should be treated like him. That perspective will have to change before the courts are able to properly define the line between religion and government.

Judges, for example, seem to think that atheists are an especially immature folk. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, a Catholic, has written in reference to the Pledge that “it borders on sophistry to suggest that the ‘reasonable’ atheist would not feel less than a ‘full membe[r] of the political community’ every time his fellow Americans recited, as part of their expression of patriotism and love for country, a phrase he believed to be false.” The Ninth Circuit agrees, arguing, “To an atheist or a believer in certain non-Judeo-Christian religions or philosophies, [“under God” in the Pledge] may reasonably appear to be an attempt to enforce a “religious orthodoxy’ of monotheism,” and would therefore be “coercive.” Such statements encourage the view that atheists are all Newdows, seeing persecution and coercion everywhere the word “God” pops up. Our delicate minds must apparently deserve the utmost protection as a result.

In truth, atheists generally are not so thin-skinned. People may believe or pronounce what they wish around us, and we’ll happily ignore them or disagree and say our peace. These actions in themselves embody the essence of what it means to be a member of the political community Justice Kennedy speaks of. Only when our voice is stifled by governmental force or threat has our political standing in the community been degraded–that we might have an unpopular or minority view is not enough. Otherwise, should we assume that any position the government takes degrades the standing of all who oppose it? That is folly.

Similarly, the Ninth Circuit’s idea that the Pledge could be interpreted by atheists as enforcing monotheism implies that we’re so touchy as to view divergent beliefs as an invasion of our own. So long as no one is forced to recite the Pledge, there is no remaining aspect of force that doesn’t already permissibly exist in any case where ideas are exchanged.

Courts don’t need to treat atheists like crybabies. One whiff of God isn’t persecution. Atheists know that the vast majority of Americans believe in a divine power of some kind. We’re in the minority. The voice of the majority is going to be louder and will enjoy more favor in government. That’s just reality. What is important is that atheists are allowed to believe and say what they wish without fear of government reprisal, and that the government is not attempting to influence people to become religious or join a particular religion. This requires an approach from the individual perspective that is generally lacking in church-state jurisprudence, which currently focuses more on the state’s actions (via “endorsement” or “entanglement”) to determine where the line should be.

To put it another way, how the individual is affected is more to the point than what the government does. If a given government act does not materially promote religion or limit the free exercise thereof, then it should be constitutional even if it employs religious concepts. Take the inscription “In God We Trust” on our money for example; does it really convince anyone to change their mind concerning religion or prevent them from believing and acting as they wish? Of course not. We atheists are not under religious assault every time we reach for our wallets. This is common sense.

There are many instances of where the government has involved itself in religion, from chapels in the Capitol to chaplains in each house of Congress to the invocation of God to announce the beginning of each Supreme Court session. The Founding Fathers from the beginning would pray regularly in Congress. None of these acts have converted the nonreligious or inhibited the practice of belief. The First Amendment was not intended to force the government to pretend that religion doesn’t exist; it was to prevent religious persecution. Not every public use of religious ideas persecutes the nonreligious. A government that acknowledges via formality the beliefs of the vast majority of people it represents is not always attacking the minority.

So, please, don’t think of atheists as a bunch of Nervous Nellies that cringe in fear whenever we see the “God” word. Part of living in America is being exposed to ideas contrary to your own. That the government has ideas I disagree with is inevitable; that the government allows me the freedom to disagree is essential. Most of us, unlike Newdow, know the difference.

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