Free to Be or Not to Be
on February 6, 2009
Linsay Rousseau Burnett/Special to Oakland North
Regardless of your opinion of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address, there was one seemingly benign statement that made inaugural history: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and … non-believers.” While this line was a much-needed acknowledgement of the religious diversity in this country, it contained one final word that has been absent from most political discourse.
As an atheist, I was never more aware of the influence of government-sponsored religion than when I was in the U.S. Army. Chaplains are fixtures in the military and my disdain for their religious presence solidified when I attended a mandatory suicide awareness briefing while stationed in Iraq and a chaplain stated that those considering suicide needed to develop a stronger relationship with Jesus and pray more. Because I was merely an enlisted specialist, there was no way for me to express my concerns and be critical of the chaplain, who was a high-ranking officer. I was not alone in my frustrations. Some soldiers objected because they were not Christians, but more common were those who, faithful or not, took offense to these religious leaders, who were rarely in harm’s way, talking to them about war, death and morality. So I did the only thing I could, stay quiet. During my Army oath of enlistment I omitted the phrase, “so help me god.” At ramp ceremonies and funerals I avoided participating in prayers because I was the one taking pictures. All other times, when heads were bowed I held my chin up. My one religious success was forcing the drill sergeants to designate a “meditation” room at basic training for those of us who didn’t attend church and were tired of always getting stuck cleaning the barracks in their absence.
I have always been fascinated by religion and spirituality. While I was raised with a foundation in the Episcopal Church, my parents’ careers in the National Park Service resulted in a strong Native American cultural influence in our house. They have always been open minded and progressive when it comes to religion, seeing it as an opportunity for community rather than dogma. There was a time when I was actively involved in church, singing in the choir, a member of the youth group and serving as an acolyte during Sunday services. Ironically, it was my involvement in religious activities that began to push me away from the church. My descent from grace began when I was 16 years old. I was on a youth group trip near Denver, Colorado, working at a summer camp for underprivileged inner city children. Standing under the basketball hoop one sunny day, a camp counselor told the children (ages 6-12) that they, and their families, would go to hell if they did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior. That was my breaking point. I knew I could no longer be a part of this.
I continued to go to church with my parents, but only to sing. Later, as an undergraduate studying sociology and cultural anthropology at the College of William and Mary, I became fascinated by the evolution of spirituality and religion, and spent time living with and studying indigenous peoples in Central and South America. I flirted with a wide range of spiritual practices — paganism, Buddhism, Baha’ism — but nothing felt comfortable. I became increasingly critical of the inherently divisive nature of organized religion, in any form. I no longer saw a need to believe in a higher power. The universe is something tangible and it is the duty of humanity to protect it and each other. We do not need a god to tell us how to act.
While I have a respect for the cultural significance of religion, I am strongly critical of a religious presence in the political affairs of any country. If the United States prides itself on being a bastion of freedom and democracy, why are sessions of Congress opened with a prayer? Any official prayer, regardless of the content or the orator, is inherently discriminating against those who often identify as “freethinking secularists.” The label is simple — it means beliefs should be formed on the basis of reason and logic and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma, and that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion and religious beliefs.
The debate over whether the United States was founded on Christian principles has been heating up for several decades as issues such as sexual education classes in public schools, gay marriage, and abortion emerged into the political stage. If Christianity was in fact the underpinning of our society’s birth, then why were the Founding Fathers so vocally mistrustful of religious intrusion into government? In 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” In fact, it was not until 1956 that “In God We Trust” became the national motto, a byproduct of Cold War communist hysteria.
But meddle the public did. According to a 2006 study published by the American Sociological Association, “Atheists are America’s most distrusted minority.” Accounting for roughly three percent of the U.S. population, Americans rate them below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”
The inclusion of religious ideas and activities in government, no matter how innocuous they may seem, sends a message that those “lacking” faith cannot be just and moral leaders. I believe that the opposite is true. The war in Iraq is just the latest in a long line of examples of how the clashing of religious dogmas (though not operating in a vacuum) can lead to distrust, violence and even war. Would it not be proper to surmise that by removing religion from government, we would be removing at least one catalyst for conflict?
So while the inaugural ceremony was steeped in prayer and religious references, the mere fact that President Obama acknowledged the existence of this small minority of non-believers is a promising step forward in establishing true freedom and equality in this country – the freedom to be or not to be. As the first African American president, his election demonstrates that this country can move past discrimination and prejudice. His speech subtly asserted that it is the role of the government to recognize and protect all minority populations. This gives faith to the faithless that one day, our non-beliefs will no longer be a litmus test for elected office and we will not have to awkwardly look at the ground during an opening prayer.
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