Aug 16th 2014

Pray to Jesus -- Or Else

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

I applaud those who retain the strength to fight the never-ending battle against ignorance, intolerance and persistent persecution of rationalists. The latest nonsense comes from Georgia, a state that seems hell-bent on conserving medieval values. A school district in Hall County has allowed a high school football coach "to organize team prayers and promote biblical messages on team documents and pre-game banners."

Coming from Georgia, this is not shocking news. This, after all, is a state absolutely delighted of its efforts to leave the Union of which they are now so proud -- so intellectual inconsistency is hardly surprising. And forget for now the patently silly idea that any god would care about the outcome of a football game. Instead, what has awakened me from my stupor is the odd response to those who objected to the school's, and therefore state's, obvious endorsement of religion. Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) actually accused atheists of "trying to bully" those poor, isolated and tread-upon Christian high school students. Here is the full quote from Collins' Facebook page:

"The liberal atheist interest groups trying to bully Chestatee High School kids say they have a reason to believe that expressions of religious freedom are 'not an isolated event' in Northeast Georgia. They're right. In Hall County and throughout Georgia's 9th district, we understand and respect the Constitution and cherish our right to worship in our own way. This morning, while Chestatee students gathered on their football field to support their school leadership and exercise their rights, unspeakable human rights atrocities continued to happen across the world in places that have no regard at all for religious freedom. It's utterly disgusting that while innocent lives are being lost in Iraq and other places at the hands of radical religious terrorists, a bunch of Washington lawyers are finding the time to pick on kids in Northeast Georgia. I want the football players and all the students at CHS to know I support you, I'm here for you, and yes, I'm praying for you."

This vein of irony is so deep and rich we could be mining this outburst of inconsistencies for years. A Jewish football player would be forced to make some unpleasant choices: leave the team, stay on the team but be singled out as a non-team-playing outcast, or participate in Christian prayer. Who is the bully and who is being bullied? Collins would say the Jew is the bully for questioning his forced participation in prayers to Jesus. According to this worldview, when the overwhelming majority attempts to impose its religious views and practices on a small minority, that majority is exercising its rights under the First Amendment. When a small minority voices objections to the majority's attempt to impose their religious practices on them, the minority is bullying the majority. Irony. Christians can impose their beliefs on others with impunity, such as imposing public Christian prayers, but any effort by non-Christians to express their religious views is a violation of constitutional rights. More irony. Collins' appeal to the Constitution would be laughable if the consequences were not so serious. His support for Christian domination (forced Christian prayer) is in direct violation of the First Amendment rights he so piously cites. Irony yet again.

The deepest irony, though, is the idea that a tiny minority can bully a vast majority. According the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only 4 percent are self-proclaimed non-believers (broken into the survey categories of atheists at 1.6 percent and agnostics at 2.4 percent). A Christian complaining about being under attack when submerged in that religion's ubiquitous presence is like a fish in the Pacific Ocean complaining that there is not enough water. A lone rationalist swimming in the middle of the vast ocean of Christianity would be hard pressed to agree that water was in insufficient supply.

Let me pause here on a tangent and explain why "rationalism" is a more acceptable term than atheism. As I have written before, "atheist" is derived from the ancient Greek adjective atheos, which means "without gods." Defining anybody or any movement as the negative of another is a bad start. I refuse to be defined as an absence of what somebody else supposedly has; I simply cannot be without something that does not exist. I am not lacking what someone else has. The idea is ridiculous. Calling me an atheist is like defining me as a man without a dragon tail, and then denying me my rights because I do not have a dragon tail. I cannot be absent something that is nothing but another's myth. I am a rationalist, and if others wish to believe in an invisible man in the sky with magical powers, we can label themarationalists.

I stand on a soap box about this because of the power of words to impact our perception. Atheism is a pejorative term in the eyes of believers because it is the negative of them (without something that others have), and with that inherent negativity comes implied permission to discriminate blatantly and openly. We can trash that which we do not respect. During the Second World War we called our enemies Japs and Krauts among other degrading epithets in order to diminish them as humans, making them easier to hate, fight and kill. Our cause was just enough without the name calling. Many Christians use "atheists" in a similarly derogative vein. The solution is to abandon completely the use of the term atheist, just as polite society no longer uses the "N" word to describe African-Americans, "Rag Heads" for Arabs or "Wet Backs" for those south of the border. Offensive? Yes, just as is the use of the word atheist.

Atheism is pejorative because of the inherent negative assumption (we lack what others possess) embedded in the word. African-Americans were once called "Colored" when civil rights were a distant dream. That word is offensive because of the implication that all others must be compared to the pure "standard" of White. If black skin was considered the standard, all Caucasians would be properly called "a-pigmented" or "uncolored." Likewise, the word atheist implies a standard of religiosity in which belief in god is somehow the measure by which all others must be judged. Religion is no more legitimate as a standard than is white skin.

With that understood, while Christians like Collins complain of being bullied, the real victim is rationalism. In our modern world, nowhere is there more blatant and overt discrimination than that against rationalists. Surely, race discrimination is rampant and real, but it is largely hidden under a veneer of civility in polite company. Blacks cannot overtly be refused office because of their skin color; yet rationalists are still discriminated against based on nothing but their fidelity to logic and reason.

You may think I'm exaggerating or a bit hysterical. If so, you may be shocked to learn that elected officials in North Carolina are constitutionally disqualified from office if they "deny the being of Almighty God." Yes, you read that correctly. But let us not pick on the ignorant bias of the Tar Heel state, for they are not alone in primitive thinking appropriate to the 1600s. Arkansas, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas all deny atheists the right to hold public office. Here is the wording typically found in all of these state constitutions, this one from Arkansas:

Article 19, Section 1: No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

Imagine the outrage if the same ban applied to Jews, Muslims, women, blacks or gays. Yet somehow it remains acceptable in our society to blatantly discriminate against someone based on a personal conviction that Santa Claus is not real.

Never mind that the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1961 that the U.S. Constitution trumps such outrageous religious discrimination through the supremacy of federal law. That particular invocation of the supremacy clause from our Supremes came about when some poor guy in Maryland by the name of Herb Silverman (now a Huff Post blogger among many other hats he wears) could not be appointed as a notary for his crime of not believing in god. Herb spent eight years claiming a right that any other American would take for granted without a second thought. In other news, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Catholics can run for public office. Don't touch that dial.

State sanctions applied against one belief system in favor of another are an abomination, a stain on our society, and in direct contradiction to everything our Founding Fathers wished for our great country. Consider the deep irony of a conservative group of people who claim a unique fidelity to the Constitution while they actively undermine the document's most important principles. To understand how outrageous these prohibitions against rationalism really are, just substitute "Christian" everywhere atheism is mentioned in the offending state constitutions. Let's prohibit Christians from becoming notaries or holding public office. Absurd? Why is that not acceptable but somehow discrimination against rationalism is so mainstream as to be codified in state law?

Discrimination against rationalism makes no sense on multiple levels. First, rationalism is a worldview not a religion, and therefore an odd victim of institutionalized bias. The absence of dogma is not another form of dogma; the commitment to rational thought is not another form of belief along the spectrum of religious doctrine. My worldview is available for disproof; religion is not. Second, the establishment clause in the First Amendment is unambiguous of intent. Third, the label of atheism is itself invalid, and therefore an invalid subject of discrimination; atheist is an idea that allows others to conveniently confuse rationalism with religion, and confounds the baseline from which people's views can be measured.

The latest dust up in Georgia reveals an ugly truth in modern America: our commitment to the founding principles embedded in our Constitution is in jeopardy. Paradoxically, efforts to undermine our most cherished ideas are couched in terms of patriotism and respect for the rule of law.

Fellow rationalists, we have our work cut out for us. We live in a secular country in which the vast majority of citizens incorrectly believe the United States is a Christian nation. We live in society in which a Christian majority exceeding 78% claims to be a victim of discrimination. We are singled out in state constitutions as particularly unworthy of holding public office. We witness a Supreme Court Justice that believes surrealistically that the Christian cross is representative of all religions - and rationalists. Let us, finally, reject the false inevitability of creeping religiosity in American politics. We are a small minority but have on our side facts in place of fiction. The atrocity of stupidity in Georgia is a call to political arms.

As we approach the year 2015, the United States owns the dubious distinction of being the only western country in which a candidate's qualifications can be challenged because he does not believe in god. Do we really want to emulate the theocracies of the Middle East? The citizens of Georgia, North Carolina and their brethren who support the imposition of public Christian prayer on all, and who support the constitutional discrimination against rationalists, are more like the radical Muslims they apparently have such disdain for than they could ever possibly imagine. I hope we can do better than Iraq or Iran. But officials like Doug Collins keep dragging us back to the Dark Ages.

The South lost the war; but perhaps the time has come to grant them their earlier wish and cut them loose from the Union. They can form a confederacy of Christian states. Their theocracy can act as a magnet for all those in the north who find that attractive. Then the rest of us can be left to govern by reason and logic. Hey, we can always dream.



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