September 19, 2005

Blaspheming Atheism

by PG

Though Will Baude's conclusion that "Metaphysically and legally, atheists are and ought to be just like everybody else for establishment claims" hit upon one of my objections to A. Rickey's post on why atheists who don't like "under God" in the Pledge are whinier than Christian fundamentalists who don't like evolution in science class, Baude misinterprets Rickey's use of the phrase "injury in fact." The latter says, "But injury as 'violation of a right' is different from injury in the sense I'm considering, the actual negative consequence of the pledge being stated by a state actor in front of an atheist. Here I become less certain of the problem." His whole argument is based on the fact that because atheists have no gods to offend, they are only nicking their own "egos" when they are compelled to mumble "one nation, under God," whereas those who believe in some supernaturalism beyond themselves may fear punishment at its hands if they fail to obey its commands.

However, I think this thin conception of atheism underestimates the atheist's potential sense of violation to his soul -- yea, a soul without a deity -- when his daughter is pressured by the chorus of her classmates and disapproving gaze of her teacher into joining the theistic horde. As the post before this one notes, the consequences of being a minority can be quite real, not only for atheists but also for Mormons and Catholics. Having grown up Hindu in fervent Protestant country, I was often asked by other children in my public school why I didn't believe in Jesus (my standard reply was that I knew Jesus existed as a historical person, which tended to confuse them into silence), and was once driven to tears by a classmate's mockery of a religious symbol I wore. Exacerbating these unavoidable discomforts by making religiosity institutional by state command, and demanding that children in the minority have the courage of their convictions in the face of them, seems to me an excessive bow to democratic preference. Having to sit in a classroom while a teacher half-heartedly mentions a theory about how life developed on this planet may send the kid home to have her confusion untangled by creationist parents, but it's unlikely to result in the kind of playground harassment that being the only kid not saying "under God" entails.

Rickey's post seems to be more about politics and theology than legal standing; he doesn't explicitly argue for a second-class citizenship for atheists in Establishment Clause cases, only for a skeptical view of their motives. Still, I protest the idea of valuing people's preferences by how angry a god they have, as it would privilege fundamentalists over moderates, which doesn't seem like a wise move for a peaceful society. After all, even somewhat moderate Hindus are sincerely convinced that Lord Ram was born -- actually and physically born -- at Ayodhya, whereas Muslims only have the weight of the last half millenium in being distressed over having their 16th century mosque at the site torn down. Should the Hindus' greater belief in the specific holiness of the ground mean that a secular government (as India's is again in fact as well as theory after the last election) should hand the site over to Hindus? On the other hand, in my experience there's no Hindu fatwa or jihad and it has a fairly negligible hell, so should the existence of more stringent tendencies in Islam make it the more important religion?

UPDATE: This post was written before Baude's update to his post.

September 19, 2005 09:01 PM | TrackBack

Of course, nothing I wrote would allow one to make a comparison between two theistic faiths. Rather, I was pointing to the exceptionalism of atheism as a belief structure. The concern about the relative likelihood of a deity to be perturbed is irrelevant in the case in which there is no deity to annoy.

Posted by: A. Rickey at September 19, 2005 10:37 PM

Similarly, it springs to mind that you're worried about the veto of the angrier God, but not particularly concerned about the veto of the playground bully. If what you're really worried about playground harassment for kids who are different, is the problem really that we require kids to listen to "under God," or that we don't teach our children not to be playground bullies? Why is the heckler's veto only an issue for you if it springs from the inanimate?

Posted by: A. Rickey at September 19, 2005 10:40 PM

I attended grade school in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Boston's Roxbury district. At school assemblies a proclamation from the MA Governor would be read by a student; each closed with "God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts", read with different emotings, depending upon the student reader. As a Christian, although inactive, I questioned why God's focus should be on saving Massachusetts, as opposed to the then other 47 states or the many nations of the world. I have over the years used the familiar expression "There but for the grace of God go I" in lamenting bad things that happened to others. Now, as an agnostic leaning towards atheism (hedging my bet?), I have modified this substituting "nature" for "God". But does "nature" have grace? Does God? Or only (some) humans? But I do care and I am glad it didn't happen to me.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at September 20, 2005 06:47 AM


Some parallels to Scalia's opinion in McCreary. Scalia's dissent "suggest[ed] a dividing line (endorsement of monotheism is fine, endorsements of specific monotheistic religions is not), argue[d] that this line is supported by original meaning and history, acknowledge[d] that this may offend people who adhere to nonmonotheistic religions, but argues that this shouldn't pose a constitutional problem."

The problem, of course, was that (for example) Hinduism is not a really theistic (sp) religion. In the conception of many Hindus, God doesn't really exist outside of your soul. It's something that everyone aspires to through the karmic process. In this sense, Hindus and atheists can be grouped together. Neither believe in a Juedo-Christian conception of "god".

More importantly, the differnce between judeo-Christians and non-theists for this purpose is not a meaningful one. There's no reason to say that atheists should be considered whinier than Christians.

Posted by: BTD Venkat at September 23, 2005 03:52 AM
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