The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 4.
The recent episode with Judge Thomas Moore and the Ten Commandments monument in Alabama has garnered international attention. However, it is interesting to juxtapose Judge Moore’s staunch defense of his right to place a five-thousand-pound monument in the rotunda of the courthouse, as an expression of his constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom, with another, albeit less noticeable, case involving personal displays of religious freedom.
For sixteen years, up until last spring, Florida resident Steven Miles had a vanity license plate on his car that simply said “ATHEIST.” One would assume that such a plate is protected by the First Amendment. After all, many people express their religious convictions with vanity license plates all across the country. The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, however, saw it differently and informed Mr. Miles that his license plate was being revoked because twelve people had drafted a letter in which they complained that they found the license plate “offensive.” A five-thousand-pound concrete rendition of the Ten Commandments in a public courthouse or an 8-x-12-inch license plate on a personal automobile—which is more offensive? And, which is most likely in violation of the constitutional guarantee of a separation between church and state? Thankfully, the Florida DMV relented, after being threatened with a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mr. Miles was allowed to keep his license plate.
Episodes such as these make me wish that there was somewhere to escape the religious fervor that appears to be gripping this nation, from the White House to the schoolhouse and everywhere in between. Secular humanists and atheists such as myself are beginning to feel overwhelmed and a bit worn down, as it appears that a vast majority of Americans have cast aside reason in favor of superstition and are doing their utmost to make sure that these irrational beliefs become intertwined with every aspect of public life. Even more troubling, voices of reason and rationalism are often met with disdain and scorn, both by the general populace and those in positions of power. Atheists, it appears, are the only group whose debasement is generally tolerated and even encouraged.
I once talked to a Jewish friend of mine who had moved to Israel and had returned to the United States for a visit. I asked him how he liked living in Israel, where the constant threat of random acts of violence seems overwhelming. He replied that, despite the instability in the country, he loved living there and had no plans to return to the United States. When I asked him what he liked best about living in Israel, he replied, “Being Jewish is not an issue there.” Almost everyone is Jewish, he said, and as such he didn’t have to think about it the way he did when he lived in the predominantly Christian United States.
I have been thinking about my friend’s response more and more lately, and I have realized that I want what he has in Israel: I want to live in a country where religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) are not an issue. In short, I want an atheist homeland, a place where my lack of belief in a “supreme being” or organized religion does not put me at odds with 90 percent of the country and its most powerful political leaders.
I would like to live in a country where the response to a major terrorist act is not to go around mindlessly repeating “God bless America” and pasting American flags on our SUVs, but one in which a serious dialogue concerning foreign policy issues and a perennial addiction to fossil fuels could take place.
I would like to live in a country where religious leaders do not blame terrorism on homosexuality and abortion (as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell did shortly after 9/11), but rather where secular leaders would assign blame to the true source of much of the terrorism in the world today: religion itself.
I would like to live in a country where doctors who perform legal surgical procedures are not harassed, intimidated, and even gunned down in their homes by people claiming, ironically, to be protecting the sanctity of human life. Viewed as heroes and “instruments of god” by some, the only thing that separates their acts from those that occurred on 9/11 is the number of victims involved. The perpetrators of both acts believed to know the “truth” and to be guided by the hand of god.
I would like to live in a country whose president does not propose an office of “faith-based” programs to be located in the White House, in which public monies would go to support religious indoctrination, in clear violation of the Constitution. Moreover, it is ironic that in this country, which was founded in part on a separation between church and state, that an atheist could never be elected president. Pundits muse as to when the country may elect its first Jewish, Black, or female president. No one, however, speculates as to when we may have the first openly atheist president. That, I think, has about as much chance of happening as the country electing an openly gay president. Maybe less.
I would like to live in a country where our children are not coerced into pledging allegiance to “one nation under God” and where the idea of removing this phrase from the Pledge is not met with the response of potentially adding a constitutional amendment to ensure its continued use.
I would like to live in a country where we do not have “In God We Trust” on our currency and where it is not common practice to swear with one’s hand on the Christian Bible before testifying in a court of law.
I would like to live in a country free from the rancorous debate between science and religion. There, school boards would not try to ban the teaching of evolution in schools nor would they sticker science textbooks with warnings about the “controversial” theory of evolution while simultaneously trying to reinstate school prayer.
In the country of my dreams, there would be no creation “museums” with displays showing dinosaurs and humans coexisting or religious groups that organize “biblically correct” tours of public museums and zoos, twisting science to fit their personal creation myths. There, no one would pry the “Darwin fish” off the bumper of my car and replace it with a sticker that says “Smile, Jesus Loves You” as someone did to me last year, apparently unaware of the Christian philosophy that implores us to turn the other cheek.
I would like to live in a country where a football player who has just won the Super Bowl doesn’t attribute his success to “his faith in God.” As if God, if one existed, would give a damn about the outcome of a football game.
I would like to live in a country where when I sneeze someone near me does not say “God bless you,” as if I must certainly believe in their god and require his blessing.
But most of all, I would like to live in a country where I do not feel like a second-class citizen because of my lack of religious beliefs, where I would not be viewed by its president and attorney general as a sinner and a heretic. In short, I want to live in country where an atheist could be elected president, where science is unquestionably taught in science classes, and where we would not have to work so hard to keep religion from where it doesn’t belong.
But, alas, there is no such place, and there is not likely ever to be one. The founders of this country left Europe and crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution. But for us atheists, there are no oceans left to cross, no promised land beckoning us with the hope of freedom from religion. There is no atheist “Zionist” movement, such as Israel had when founding a nation where an individual’s “Jewishness” did not matter. We atheists are on our own, with only the thin paper of the Constitution to protect us from the never-ending onslaught of the religious Right. And, remarkably, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, that paper appears to be wearing thin.
Christopher Duva is in the Department of Religion at Boise State University in Idaho.