Monday, December 29, 2008


One nation, under...?

Yesterday, I was in a discussion about belief in God. I was the lone atheist in the discussion, and, while others’ opinions on the matter differed, as the one with the most extreme view I found myself the recipient of many of the questions. I had to fend off several of the usual things: claims that I’m not really an atheist (though at least no one pulled out the “atheism is just another religion” argument), claims that the beautiful sunset we just saw was proof of God, and so on.

An argument that I’ll never understand, but that keeps coming up, is the one that says that everything has to have been created by something, and what created everything around us is what we call God. I’ll never understand the argument because every instance of it has two failures that its proponents can’t explain:

  1. If everything has to have been created by something, what created God? If God is an exception, why does that make any sense?
  2. Why is there a need to assume that what created everything was sentient?
Anyway, as is usual with these sorts of discussions, it was interesting, and no one’s view was changed as a result. What I hope from it is that some of those participating now better understand my points, and make fewer invalid assumptions about what atheists — at least some of us — think.[1]

As the conversation veered into related areas, it went to the inevitable political corner, and, in particular, we had to cope with the argument that the U.S. Constitution was written by Christians, and they never intended us to be other than a Christian country governed by Christian laws. After quickly doing away with the misinformed “Why else would we have ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God we trust,’ on our money?” stuff,[2] there were two main points to address.

Point one:

No one cedes power completely. The Christians who started our country would never have intended to give up all their power to someone else.
I found this one hardest to argue against, because it made little sense to me to start with. Whether or not those men were Christians (and there’s a lot of historical debate about that elsewhere), it’s clear that they weren’t religious leaders, and did not get their power from their religion. They set up a secular system for running the country, and, yes, they did that on purpose. That some of them — most, perhaps — believed in God is certainly in evidence with some phrases in the documents, especially in the Declaration of Independence. But nothing in the description of how to make laws and how to run things gives any indication that they wanted religion to play a part in government, nor that they needed it to in order to maintain power.

Point two:

Shouldn’t the majority rule? 85% of the people in the U.S. are Christian.[3] Why should the other 15% impose their will on the majority?
The problem with this argument is the assumption that a significant portion of the “85%” want government based on Christianity, and it’s the “15%” who are stopping them. Indeed, if that many Americans really wanted it, they could certainly effect it. But the point is that the vast majority of American Christians no more want to turn America into a theocracy than Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the others did in the 18th century. People like Mike Huckabee (“And that’s what we need to do, is to amend the constitution so it’s in God’s standards [...].”) are an the extreme minority. It happens that some of them are in positions of power, and that some have had access to the presidency, of late. It also happens that many people with opposing views are also in positions of power, and through the ebbing and flowing of the waters, we continue to maintain a mostly secular government.

[1] One of the important points to get across was that there is no common set of atheist tenets — that, apart from not believing that any gods exist, each atheist may have unique views on life, the universe, and everything.

[2] The Pledge of Allegiance did not exist at all until 1892, and congress added “under God” to it in 1954. “In God we trust,” first appeared on money during the Civil War, and became the official national motto in 1956. Both actions in the 1950s came from increased attention to religion in response to worry over “Godless Communism”.

[3] There was no need to quibble with the numbers in the discussion — correct numbers weren’t really relevant, and wouldn’t have changed anything. But for the record, according to the CIA World Factbook, 78.5% of Americans identify as some sort of Christian (51.3% Protestant, 23.9% Roman Catholic, 1.7% Mormon, 1.6% other Christian).


Laurie said...

A beautiful sunset around here is usually proof of smog.

James said...

"They set up a secular system for running the country, and, yes, they did that on purpose."

They most certainly did. Keep in mind that many of the people who came to live in the American colonies in the early days were trying to escape religious persecution by the governments of Europe. In England, from which they finally broke, the King is the head of the state Church. Our founders were acutely aware of the dangers of such a situation. They most certainly did not want a state religion.

"Shouldn’t the majority rule?"

Of course not. How is the tyranny of the majority any better than the tyranny of an individual? Our government has checks in place to prevent a majority from oppressing a minority. That's why we have a bill of rights and judicial check on legislation.