Saturday, January 28, 2012

Faircloth's New Atheist Strategy: The Pledge and the Motto


So far this year I have been discussing Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy.

A part of that strategy involves focusing on those issues that create stories with a deep human impact, and shifting away from those issues that involve mere symbolism. He distinguishes protesting a home depot manger with a plastic Jesus on the courthouse lawn from protesting laws that block stem cell medical research and the benefits that may come from it. He asserts an important difference between protesting a cross on government property with concern over the dangers that children may face in unsupervised religious day-care facilities.

In making this distinction, he puts the issue of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as the national motto in the 'symbolism' category.

I disagree.

From the time a child enters grade school, he or she encounters a very strong anti-atheist message. The pledge of allegiance tells her that people who do not support a nation "under God" are to be thought of the same way as those who promote rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. If she looks at her money - when she learns to read the message printed there - she learns that if she lacks trust in God then she does not qualify as "one of us". "We" trust in God.

Furthermore, in a young child's mind these are not mere propositions to be accepted or rejected as true or false. These messages reach into the emotions - into the evolved need that children gave to being accepted and valued - because the child's survival depends on this. It makes trusting in God and supporting a nation under God comfortable and safe, while rejecting God and God's rule is dangerous and frightening.

Young childhood is when social forces have their greatest power to affect our moral character. The shaping of character does not involve getting the child to hold certain beliefs - like teaching them that 2 * 2 = 4. It involves teaching them to have an emotional attachment to being a "good boy" or "good girl". It goes to shaping the child's likes and dislikes - a desire to help others and to share, and an aversion to lying, cheating, and doing harm. The character the child learns will affect her whole life.

The function - and in the eyes of many who support these practices, the purpose - of the Pledge of Allegiance when originally created was to give a child a moral aversion to aversion to rebellion, treason, and injustice. In the 1950s, the government added a moral lesson in the wrongness of atheism.

We have clear evidence that this effect exists. We have poll after poll showing us that Americans view atheists as the group least likely to share their American values. Of course Atheists are not true Americans. They neither trust in God nor do they support a nation under God.

We now have polls that put atheism on the same level as rapists when it comes to public trust. At the same time, we have a Pledge of Allegiance that puts atheists on the same level as rebels, tyrants, and the unjust.

We have a substantial body of empirical evidence on the effects of these types of practices. Take any group of children and divide them randomly into two groups. Identify one group as the "in" group and give them praise, while the "out" group is excluded from praise. The children in the "in" group become dominant, assertive, and self-confident. The "out" group becomes timid and passive.

In this way, the Pledge and the Motto are a clear invitation to school bullying by their peers, and even to abuse from teachers who also come to view the “disruptive” atheist student as a problem student. A teacher can be made to "feel" that the atheist paper deserves a B and then search for features in the paper to justify this feeling, and equally "feel" that the religious student deserves a special letter of recommendation to some opportunity or program.

We see the same effects in the United States as a whole. We see a religious community that trusts in God and supports a nation under God that is dominant, assertive, and self-confident. And we see an atheist and secular community that is timid, passive, and politically ineffective.

It is no wonder that the "in" group is so defensive of these practices. As long as it holds this ground, everything else is mere window dressing.

Other groups have had to deal with the effect that social conditioning has had on their political status. Women's liberation groups responded with assertiveness training to shake off a culture that taught women passive obedience. The homosexual community responded with "gay pride" to give homosexuals an effective political voice. Both groups condemned the forms of social conditioning that made this response necessary. Black and Jewish groups have organizations specifically devoted to hunting down and squashing racist and anti-Semitic messages that may have a detrimental effect on black and Jewish children.

Yet, somehow, we are supposed to believe that a childhood steeped in the message that all good Americans trust in God, and all patriotic Americans support a nation under God, is of no importance.

I have had many people respond to this that the Pledge does not bother them. They simply mumble past the words "under God" or substitute words of their own choosing. Yet, I have to ask, "Why is it so important to you to give the illusion that you are pledging allegiance to a nation under God. Are you not treating your atheism as a blemish - something to be hidden from public view?"

When an atheist can remain seated, without any hint that this lowers the opinion that anybody else may have of him, then I will accept the claim that "under God" is of no real importance.

Tell me that you think that a major candidate can refuse to sat the Pledge and get elected.

Seriously, what effect can it be expected to have on a candidate for public office that one candidate refuses to pledge allegiance to "one nation, under God"? At least one of the Republican debates started with the Pledge of Allegiance. It was obviously a form of religious test for public office. It conveys a clear message, "We will tolerate no atheist in the office of President."

As long as "under God" remains in the Pledge, atheism will remain a near fatal political liability.

If we are going to divide potential issues that the atheist and secular communities are involved in into "symbolic" and "deep human impact," then the social conditioning of children, and the prejudicing of Americans against atheist citizens in general and atheist candidates in specific, need to be put in the category of deep human impact.

Furthermore, they have to be fought as practices that have a deep human impact.

Part of the problem with the way the secular and atheist community has fought this issue is that they have treated it as merely symbolic. This has made the challengers look petty and mean-spirited. Faircloth is correct to hold that one gets more political traction with issues that have a real human impact. Not only do these practices qualify, they need to be fought as practices that qualify. The subject does not need to change, but the form if argument does.

In the case of the Pledge and the Motto, the focus should be on the human impact of government practices that socially condition children and prejudice all Americans against atheist children, atheist citizens, and particularly against atheist candidates.

These are NOT merely symbolic practices having no human impact.

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