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Saturday, October 8, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Religious Norms? Part 2




We return to a topic I thought could’ve been done in a single week, but there’s clearly more norms than I realized and I could talk about more if people have suggestions in a future installment. Last time, the issues were fairly clear cut. Religious studies as an academic discipline separate from divinity and ministry studies is well established and has usefulness beyond just understanding religions, even if you don’t believe in them personally. Religious holidays have had secular alternatives to them for many decades, so religious people need not think atheists are trying to steal from them, since corporations already have in utilizing such things as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. And it goes without saying that virtually any judge in the country would affirm an atheist’s right to make an affirmation and not require any use of a bible or oath to establish that you will tell the truth under penalty of law. This time, we talk about people’s established superstition(s) regarding sneezes and the delusions of many Christians that God either favors America or America is meant to favor God.

Something we don’t think about much with regards to atheists and religion in America is the tradition that has survived through germ theory and other medical advances: saying “God bless you” when a person sneezes. From what little I understand of the history behind it, one of many popular ideas was that when a person sneezed, it was believed they were in greater danger of demon possession. Another explanation goes back to Pope Gregory I in the context of the bubonic plague. Sneezing was thought to be an early indicator of the disease, so people placed God’s blessing on you for protection. When you sneeze, it’s sometimes said, with alleged scientific backing, that your heart stops beating for a miniscule amount of time, which is patently false. But even if that was true, it doesn’t mean anything in terms of demon possession, since that’s related to the state of your soul (whatever that is), not your body. In short, if people knew any of the various explanations behind this practice, they wouldn’t do it except out of a compulsive habitual tradition with no basis in reality. I think there’s a number of responses to people using this antiquated expression, but perhaps there is no perfect way to directly critique people’s use of this saying any more than trying to discredit prayer, which would only cloud the issue with people getting offended and obstructing the real issue. The best expression to spread in contrast to what is an archaic saying from medieval times is “Gesundheit” which is German for roughly “To your health”. It’s non sectarian and non religious by nature and yet expresses the same sentiment that you hope the person is not sick or will become better if they are without wishing eternal life on them. I don’t see any reason to say anything when a person sneezes, since it’s just one of many noises we make when sick anyway. You don’t see people trying to bless me when I cough, do you?

The second issue is an extended one in that it relates to believers as well as nonbelievers: the respective religiosity or secularity of the United States. The alleged theistic basis of the United States, manifests in the use of “In God We Trust” as our national motto since the 50s, the imprinting of “In God We Trust” on our money, as well as the expression and song “God Bless America” by patriots. The secular foundation of the country desires to keep religion and government separate by nature, neither favoring solely religion or government, but possessing the dual loyalty many Christians seem to forget they can have without needing a hybrid in Christian nation revisionist nonsense.

The more difficult thing to deal with consistently is not so much a notion of separation of church and state with Christians, but the selectively Christian-centric idea of history they may possess. Most don’t even have that nuanced view of how religion and government should interact. There is always that myth that remains that our national motto is “In God We Trust” when any person with any significant knowledge of American history would tell you that is only by official decree of Congress. Our original, yet unofficial, motto that existed for far longer than the 50+ years this  new and divisive saying has polluted the original unifying spirit of America is “E pluribus unum”. For non Latin speakers, it’s basically translated “Out of many, one”. I may have said it before and I’ll say it again; this expresses everything about the state of religion, politics, race and culture in this country. We bring together so many things from our cultures and families and share ideals that remain in spite of not all believing in a god or other things. To say that our national motto should focus on God like many theists seem to believe reflects a still surviving paranoia against atheistic communism. While there may have been some real danger of infiltration by Russians at the time, American theists had no sound justification for changing what is an expression that might seem to be communist or socialist at first glance, but is not antithetical to American values of diversity and tolerance alongside individual convictions. Communism may be against many American values, such as the free market, but socialism is not entirely something we lack, since its basic definition is providing for those less fortunate in the greatest number possible. While it may have economic setbacks, is it in any way a bad thing to provide for those who have less if you have more than you need? Atheists are explicitly excluded by the motto in terms of patriotism, as well as the pledge of allegiance, changed within the same decade as the motto.  To say we are one nation “under God” indivisible is blatantly contradictory. If we are under God, which God is it? It only further divides people into denominations when you say we are under God and some take it so seriously as to focus on God’s nature. If it was removed and we focused on similarities and unified ourselves, then America could still be something worthy of respect, which I feel it has lost in its shameful attempt to self aggrandize and stand out as “Christian”, when that in no way makes us superior.

The secularity of America is more problematic to bring up, since you have people saying that God in some way blesses America and reinforces this myth with the song by Irving Berlin, a Jew, ironically, to say that the Christian God cares in any way about our country or any country at all. Perhaps people misunderstand what is meant by secularity. Separation of church and state isn’t so radical that there is not any allowance of religious expression, but it is within limits of propriety and pragmatism. Is it not better for a religion to manage itself instead of the government telling it what it can and can’t do? And do religious people need to use their positions of power to try to influence the state’s relationship to their religion if it stands on its own merits? If religion ceases trying to legislate constitutional amendments at state or federal level to change the definition of marriage, then they can believe their own definition and bless or not bless whatever union asks them in a legal status that in no way depends on the church except by traditional association. The government doesn’t need religion in order to manage itself any more than we need religion to manage ourselves as ethical people. Shouldn’t the government be free of religious partisan disputes and begin Congress with a moment of silence instead of a prayer? Chaplains can exist in the military, not to evangelize, but to counsel members of various faiths. I don’t have a problem with you believing your religion, I have a problem with you making it so public that it borders on obnoxious and obfuscating in saying that all people have a right to practice their religion, but Christians are somehow more entitled to practice in public and get special treatment because of the historical presence of their religion. It doesn’t work that way and even if there were more avowed atheists throughout the American epoch, I would not say that I get to be an outspoken atheist and Christians must be in the closet. We should all be able to speak openly about our beliefs without being divided about who is a true American and who isn’t.

I am offended by all of these ideas, including those I spoke about last week, but I do not mean to use physical/legal force to make my point. Education and understanding can both solve the problem better, though sometimes being forceful in words is a way to get a point across more explicitly. Many moderate Christians know that atheists are not precluded from studying religion academically, can celebrate religious holidays with just as much fervor in the fellowship of humanity and do not have to swear on the bible. They also know that sneezing is a natural bodily reaction and has nothing to do with the state of your soul and they know that God by any stretch of basic theology respects no nation and thus has no concern about people blessing or cursing it. And they most certainly don’t believe that atheists are in any way less patriotic than theists. Those minorities don’t speak out for fear of being isolated by their peers, but I speak out even at the risk of losing newly added family friends on Facebook. I will not sit idly by and let these religious norms rule my life. Christians do not get to dictate what I can and cannot do. They have every right to believe I am a reprobate apostate heathen and am going to hell (whatever that happens to be), but they can only go that far and will not make me sit in silence as they try to change America to anything that gives them favor because they have history behind them. History does not go solely to the victors, and the majority does not always rule. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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