Atheists Tune in 'God Bless America'

From: Technotranscendence (
Date: Mon Nov 05 2001 - 12:18:31 MST

From: George H. Smith
Sent: Sunday, November 04, 2001 5:20 PM
Subject:My op-ed for Newsday

The following op-ed was published by Newsday. A shorter version was also
published by "The Oregonian" and possibly other papers, which will sometimes
edit a piece they get from another source for reasons of space.


Atheists Tune in 'God Bless America'

By George H. Smith
George H. Smith is the author of three books on atheism, including
"Atheism: The Case Against God."

October 30, 2001

A TRAGEDY of the dimensions of Sept. 11 can bring a search for scapegoats in
its wake.

On the political left we find some who blame the supposed evils of "global
capitalism," while on the political right we find some who blame the
godlessness of American society.

Although the particulars differ, both camps suggest that the victims were
complicit, whether directly or indirectly, in their own destruction. And
thus is any concept of authentic innocence swept aside.

The Cold War is a thing of the past, so the religious right can no longer
target godless communism as the source of our woes. The terrorists
responsible for the Sept. 11 massacre were not atheists at all but religious
fundamentalists of the most extreme type, so the blame is placed on domestic
rather than on foreign godlessness.

If it is true that Americans put their differences aside in a time of crisis
and rally around their common values, this might help to explain the recent
proliferation of "God Bless America" signs and banners throughout America.
It might be supposed that Americans are returning to those religious values
on which this nation was founded.

There are several problems with this interpretation, however, not the least
of which is that America was specifically established as a secular nation,
not a religious one. There is no mention of "God" in the Constitution. And
when Thomas Jefferson mentioned God in the Declaration of Independence, he
was referring to the God of deism - that rationalistic creator, popular
during the 18th-century Enlightenment, who did not communicate with human
beings or otherwise intervene in human affairs.

Many of America's most influential founding fathers - such as Jefferson,
James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine - were deists highly
critical of Christianity and other revealed religions. Paine (whose pamphlet
"Common Sense" was the sparkplug of the American Revolution) claimed that
"the most detestable wickedness, and the most horrid cruelties, and the
greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin
in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion." And Jefferson
followed suit with his observation that the God of the Old Testament "is a
being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."

Paine, Jefferson and other deists lamented the intolerance and persecution
that were common features in the history of Christianity, Islam and other
revealed religions. In their view, people who believe they have an
infallible lock on divine revelation will often feel justified in using
violence and terror against dissenters and unbelievers. Reason, not faith,
is the philosophical foundation of a free and tolerant society.

Atheists are a distinct minority in our society, so we might wonder how
American atheists react to the "God Bless America" signs, posters and
banners that seem to have popped up everywhere. Do atheists feel excluded by
this outpouring of religious sentiment? Do they feel they are being told
that only those who believe in God can be good Americans?

I recently posed this latter question to a large group of atheists on the
Internet, and their responses were nearly unanimous. Virtually no atheist
felt in the least troubled or excluded by the public enthusiasm for "God
Bless America" - so long, that is, as such expressions were by private
citizens and not sponsored by government.

Although this reaction may surprise some people, it is identical to my own.
For many people, "God Bless America" is not so much about religion per se;
rather, it expresses a deep, heartfelt sentiment for American ideals and
values, which were gravely threatened on Sept. 11.

Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so meaning lies in the
intent of the speaker. And in most cases the sentimental intent of "God
Bless America" is something with which I and most every other American
atheist can heartily agree.

It so happens that "God Bless America" is the title of a beautiful and
inspirational song by Irving Berlin, and this undoubtedly helps to explain
why this expression tugs at the heartstrings of so many Americans. The song
and its title have become part of American culture. Only the most jaded
atheist could fail to appreciate what these have come to symbolize - namely,
a tribute to this land and the best in those who inhabit it.

Some religious believers may take great pleasure in the exclusionary
implications of "God Bless America," as if atheists are somehow less than
legitimate members of American society. But for me tolerance and
understanding are part of being an atheist, so I refuse to judge a belief on
the basis of its worst representatives.

I will therefore continue to judge the recent popularity of "God Bless
America" in the most benevolent light possible. I will take it for what I
believe most Americans intend it to be: a tribute to the ideals of freedom
and tolerance on which America was founded.

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