Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Under God" should go back where it came from

I know that even some fellow atheists are arguing that banning the "Pledge of Allegiance" from schools, as Michael Newdow's court case attempts to do, has been pooh-poohed as the wrong battle at the wrong time.

But this is not the same as having a reference to god on our money. The pledge is recited in schools each day, which means that children who don't believe in a god face harrassment.

I know I did. I was in elementary school in Cleveland when Eisenhower stuck "under God" into the pledge and I was ridiculed daily for refusing to do so.

By middle school, we had moved to the country and the issue became my refusal to say the morning prayer that the principal led over the PA. (In Burton, Ohio, in the 1950s, it apparently didn't matter what the Supreme Court said.)

I can still hear the principal say, "Little Bonnie doesn't believe in God. She and her parents think she will be harmed to hear these healing words of prayer. So we will ask her to step outside until we are done seeking the Lord's blessing." How Christian of him.

It wasn't yet an era when you could raise a clenched fist in support of Atheist Power. (Come to think of it, it's pretty dangerous to do that now.) I sure wanted to do something to rebel against his self-righteous, smug and superior tone. But usually I was just too busy running for my life.

The fact is, when we talk about religious toleration in this country, the baseline standard often seems to be that everyone believes, but maybe not in the same sky god. The reality, of course, is that there are actually lots of people like me here who don't believe -- atheists, agnostics, ignostics (I don't know what you mean when you say god, so I don't know whether I believe what you believe or not), freethinkers (think Tom Paine) and The Brights (kind of atheist-lite or atheist but more wholesome and friendly).

Throw in a few existentialists as well (It's those pesky French again).

The problem for many of my peers back there in Ohio was that to them, an atheist was immoral, maybe even a Satanist. As one young red-faced boy shouted at me years ago, "You just don't believe in nothing so what would stop you from killing and stealing." Not as eloquent as Albert Camus quintessential question perhaps - "without god, who can say that it is better to nurse lepers than burn Jews?" But I found comfort in Jean Paul Sartre's challenge that each of us must construct our own meaning against the backdrop of a cold and uncaring universe.

For those of us who have struggled to create our own beliefs and rituals to support them, the idea of an off-the-shelf set of beliefs based on garbled utterances of self-anointed prophets in agricultural societies thousands of years ago seems far more peculiar. My modest credo -- that humans should strive to support the best possible quality of life for all living creatures -- seems all the more appealing because of the process required to develop my own values.

But requiring school children to pay obeisance to a god, any god, whether it's in the Pledge of Allegiance or school prayer does what it has always done - which is invite expressions of intolerance against those who don't agree. Most of my peers received little or no spiritual nourishment from repeating the words "under God" in the pledge -- most paid little attention to what they were saying. But the ritual of invoking a god in school contributes to perpetuating the myth that people like me don't exist or don't deserve to.

1 comment:

Viva la revolucion! said...

Thank you.
That was a very eloquent account of the problems that us aetheists face in school. I was also forced to repeat that stupid prayer in school and had to listen to other students' crap about god and such- I, however, being an anarchistic little devil would refuse to even stand during the pledge and one time I said, loudly, "under the almighty Beyonce" instead.

I honestly don't like Beyonce, but that's pretty much the only god that was at all worshipped in my school.