American Atheists sent out a press release yesterday that read in part as follows:
Statements made earlier this week by President George W. Bush, including the claim that he does not “see how you can be president without a relationship with Lord,” are divisive and insult millions of Americans who do not believe in religious creeds or a deity charged an Atheist civil rights group.
Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, added that Mr. Bush’s interview with the Washington Times newspaper “demonstrates clearly that he does not respect the diversity of the country, and the fact that nonbelievers and so-called ‘seculars’ are one of the fastest growing segments of American society.”
“He just doesn’t get it,” said Johnson, “and he seems to ignore the fact that in our Constitution we do not have a religious test for those seeking public office.”
I think Johnson may be overreacting. There’s a difference between what Bush has said here and what his father said a few years ago (“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”). Junior seems to me merely to be saying that with all the stress and hardship that goes along with being president, he doesn’t see how anybody could manage it without a belief in God. His dad was actually questioning the rights of those with no belief in any god. It’s as if G.H.W. Bush would have stripped atheists of their rights, while G.W. Bush simply can’t imagine that someone could fill such a difficult role without faith as a ballast, much as some might suggest that taking on such a role would be made less stressful by a few good stiff drinks in the evening. I may disagree with G.W. Bush’s statement, but I wouldn’t vilify him for it, and I worry that the AA statement makes atheists look like reactionaries and whiners, as if there wasn’t already enough negative sentiment toward them.
AA sent another press release yesterday pertaining to a decision by a U.S. District Judge to toss out a case brought by Michael Newdow (the infamous California pledge in schools guy) to remove prayer from the presidential inauguration. I’m more in line with AA on this issue. It’s not appropriate, in an official ceremony, to worship a particular sect’s god. This comes much closer to establishment of a religion than does a pretty harmless (ie, a non-citizenship-threatening) statement of opinion by the president. If the government would tolerate the drinking of ram’s blood at the inauguration by a pagan president or compelling the audience to bow to Mecca at the inauguration of an Islamic president, then perhaps Christian prayer at the inauguration would be acceptable. But as it is, this practice comes very very close to the establishment of a particular religion, and it should be carefully evaluated and possibly stopped. The president may pray privately with his family and friends all he wishes at no detriment to the political or governmental process.
Finally, there’s been some todo lately over evolution stickers in textbooks. Our old friend Gervase Markham is at it again with his question about the hubbub surrounding evolution stickers. The reason these stickers can be considered unconstitutional is that their use is based solely on the beliefs of a sect of Christianity. That sect disagrees with the theory of evolution and on that basis wishes to challenge it by having the government question the theory. This amounts to the government’s acknowledging that that sect’s viewpoint is valid in spite of the fact that it is at total opposition to science. If fundamentalists were insisting that stickers warning about credulity with regard to the theory of relativity and other theories, they might have a leg to stand on. In fact, good scientists, ever pushing for an emphasis on critical thinking, would probably favor not stickers, but whole chapters devoted to questioning established ideas in the name of increasing our knowledge. But it’s a one-issue deal, which relegates it to the realm of dogma. And for the government to endorse a particular dogma comes perilously close to its establishing the religion that purveys that dogma as the state religion.
Gervase suggests that the U.S. government overreaches its obligation to make no law respecting the establishment of religion and thus stands to violate its second constitutional obligation to make no law prohibiting the free practice thereof. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that nobody’s trying to keep people from having their kooky beliefs. Believe whatever you want; practice whatever you want. Just don’t try to force it on my kids or on me by having the government adopt your religion as the one true faith. Prohibiting the use of these stupid stickers doesn’t in any way prohibit the individual practice of a given religion.