Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 'So Help Me God' Controversy

A number of groups advocating religious freedom have just instituted a lawsuit that would prevent the Chief Justice from using the words 'God' in the swearing-in ceremony for the President at the Inauguration. Naturally, this is being spun up by the press, since religious controversy is always a big draw. The plaintiffs admit that a President can insert the words in the ceremony, but the government official who swears him in cannot. Historically, the courts have taken the position that such words constitute "ceremonial deism" that serves a secular purpose.

Are the words "So help me God" valid in a secular government ceremony? Is this lawsuit a good tactic for secularists to pursue? As a staunch secularist, I have mixed feelings about it. I would rather try to persuade religious folks of the value of secular government, and I don't think that this controversy moves us in that direction.

On the other had, the "ceremonial deism" excuse strikes me as a transparent ruse to weaken the Constitutional requirement of a religion-neutral government. Deism is about belief in a God who doesn't intervene in human affairs. The term is misused here by theists, who feel that God will be more kindly disposed to us if we make every excuse to beg his help.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Solstice Sign--Good or Bad Tactic for Atheists?

I must confess to mixed feelings over the Freedom from Religion Foundation's sign in the Washington state Capitol Rotunda. Nobody detests the unconstitutional lack of separation between church and state more than I do. I understand the feelings and the passion behind it. Whenever a religion tries to use government property as a means of promoting their religious opinions, I am offended. So, if the state government is going to insist on sponsoring religious messages on government property--something that I vehemently oppose--then it only seems fair that an anti-religion group post their own message. The idea is to give Christians a taste of their own medicine, to show them the cost of using the public commons to shove their views down my throat.

Now, what is so bad about a secular sign that celebrates the Winter Solstice? This one was put up for those of us who do not want the government to be seen as pushing the idea that we ought to believe in any god, let alone the god of Christians. The problem in my mind is that most nativity scenes and other Christmas displays do not carry overt messages that one ought to believe in God. That message is somewhat more subtle. The very fact of a nativity scene on public property is a little bit of a victory dance for some Christian groups, and that is why they push for them. But this FFRF sign had the statement: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." Ouch. Yeah, I believe that, but I don't want to shove it in people's faces. Especially not in the holiday season. It doesn't make people stop and think "Well, gosh, I never realized how religious messages on public property must be like for nonbelievers!" It makes them stop and think "Well, gosh, I guess those atheists really are nasty, angry people!" Object lessons are designed to make the message giver feel better, not the message receiver.

That said, I have to admit that the FFRF sign has as much right to be in the Capitol Rotunda as religious symbols. I really do, although I would rather that there were no religious messages on public property. And I'm glad that they made an issue of putting something up. I just wish that they had thought of a message that was a little gentler, a little more in tune with the holiday spirit. After all, I want people to respect my beliefs, and that means I must try to respect theirs.