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Much ado about nothing (Scripps Howard News Service) November 15, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Lately there has been much ado about atheism — a belief in nothing religious — in our national live. Since atheism is hardly new, one wonders why all the attention and what it means for American public life?

Consider these recent headlines:

Federal Court Finds “Under God” Pledge Unconstitutional — An atheist brought a lawsuit because his school-age daughter was required to listed to the pledge of allegiance with the words “under God.” Astonishingly, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed and only a stay of the decision pending review and appeal allows God to remain in the pledge in that court’s western states until the decision is inevitably overturned.

Atheist Challenges Boy Scout Dismissal — Then last week, a 19-year old adult leader in the Boy Scouts was dismissed because he did not recognize a higher power as required by the scouting organization. He is appealing his dismissal internally and, of course, litigation is always possible. Only two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Boy Scouts could exclude adult leaders who are gay.

Godless Americans March on Washington — Not to be outdone by civil rights groups and Promise Keepers that have staged huge events in our nation’s capital, the American Atheists organization scheduled a rally in the city earlier this month. Do not picture the million man march, or the throngs around the reflection pool as Martin Luther King spoke from the Capitol steps: Only about 2000 atheists, humanists and even Satanists participated.

Beyond these national headlines have been lesser stories. Last month was the National Rally Week Recognizing Gay and Atheist Scouts. The month before, an atheist rally was advertised at the University of Alabama, except that on one — other than the media — attended. Even though the most recent American Religious Identification Survey shows nearly 13 percent of Americans have no religion, those folks apparently are not big on attending rallies.

Sir Isaac Newton may have explained this recent spate of atheist headlines as well as anyone when he said that, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Atheists have been concerned to see President Bush drawing upon religion and prayer in helping lead America through the events of Sept. 11. They actively oppose the president’s program permitting faith-based organizations to receive federal funding to deliver social and other services. In short, atheists believe religion is gaining some traction in the public arena, and they are pushing back.

But it will be a difficult battle for atheists to sustain. For one thing, there is no core philosophy to atheism and it has no natural constituency. As my college religion professor pointed out, the root words of atheism are “a,” or without, and “theos,” which sometimes translated “God” but really means “your highest priority.” Yours may not be a divine spirit, but you doubtless believe in something. A political movement simply opposing what most Americans accept will be a tough sell. It will also attract some awkward bedfellows, like the Satanists, who were included in the Washington rally.

Furthermore, the atheists are fighting centuries of practice in American public life. God is in the pledge of allegiance and on our currency. A review of the three branches of government shows the Ten Commandments displayed at the Supreme Court, the president’s hand on a Bible when he is sworn into office, and the Senate opening every session with prayer. When the federal court ruled “under God” to be unconstitutional, the decision was denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike, and members of Congress assembled on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge, including the “under God” provision.

Finally, the atheist message itself is flawed. One speaker at GAMOW (Godless March on Washington) reportedly brought the crown to tears when he described the discrimination he experienced because a religious organization refused to hire him. Religious organizations have an absolute right under federal law, and often a divine responsibility, to do just that. It is the same with the Boy Scouts — if they believe that faith in a higher being is an important part of their program, it is their right as a private organization to exclude leaders who do not share that commitment. The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, not freedom from it.

The overwhelming majority of Americans is supportive of some role for religion in public life, so long as a reasonable separation between church and state is maintained. The atheist political agenda is truly much ado about nothing.

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