Obama's Small Concession to Atheists Sets off a Firestorm of Debate

In an inaugural filled with historic firsts, Barack Obama also broke with tradition and polite political conversation by acknowledging that atheists are people, too.  

Obama's nod to non-believers, tacked to the end of a more standard salute to multiculturalism and religious diversity, came as somewhat of a surprise: after all, his predecessor basically tried to relaunch the Crusades, and atheists remain one of the most reviled groups in America.

At the same time, Obama's unprecedented recognition of non-believers came in the midst of a ceremony overflowing with God stuff: from pastor Rick Warren intoning, "Almighty God, our father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone," to the Rev. Joseph Lowery's closing benediction, which thanked God for the "empowering of thy servant, our 44th president ... "

And USA Today points out that Obama made more references to God in his speech than Ronald Reagan did at his inauguration(!).

In an article recently published on AlterNet, Greta Christina decries the use of religious language and imagery in state ceremonies like the Inauguration, pointing out:

" … when presidents and other official representatives of our country and our government insist that this is God's country, the implicit -- if unintentional -- message is that, if you don't believe in God, this is not your country.
Screw that.

AlterNet readers had a lot to say about Christina's article, so we asked her to respond to your thoughts on politics, religion and atheism. Take a look at Christina's response to your comments at the bottom of this piece.

Many commenters agree with Christina's article, pointing out that religion has no place in government ceremonies in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.

Chance garden writes:

Why do the prayers of a church belong in the single most important ceremony of our state? The simple answer is, prayers do not belong. Period. End of story.

Seppoyank argues that religious belief is personal and should not be imposed on others:

Watching the inauguration was like watching GodTV. I don't care what other people believe. Can't they just shut up about it for a little while?

I'm a second-generation atheist, and I don't run around telling everyone how they need to develop a personal understanding that there is no higher power that is going to save them from anything. I don't do it. Why? Because it is rude. And it is my belief, not anyone else's.

Deepseas also writes that faith should not be forced on non-believers:

I have a problem when we think we have to prove to others we are religious and have faith. In other words, the need to prove that we are good animals.

I agree that religion and prayer has no place in government. It implies that those without a religion, faith or who do not wear it on their sleeves are not acceptable.

Having grown up in the church and graduated from a Christian university, I do not find it necessary to attend church or preach to others what my beliefs and faith are. It's personal.

It is our actions that tell others where our faith is, and they can see that. Everything else is just words to convince others.

jreinhart1 points out that our politicians' need to trumpet their religious beliefs goes against the vision of the Founding Fathers:

The writers of our Constitution and government were not the outward hypocrites of today and fought against empire in their thoughts, words and deeds. This is the best reason to leave specific faiths out of government and why the Constitution was written as it was. Today's "leadership" and population are nothing but hypocrites to the faiths they profess and the reason why the founders wanted religion out of government. It is a personal decision by each person, not a national decision to be blanketed over everyone as casually and hypocritically as is done today.

But other commenters disagree.

Philip Newton writes:

President Obama is a Christian. He believes in God. He chose a pastor to speak who also believes in God.

Imagine that.

The writer of this article doesn't like a Christian president talking about God.

It wasn't her inauguration -- or yours.

Tell you what -- when you get elected president, you can cut out all the God crap.

Sailor50 doesn't buy that argument, pointing out that the inaugural's religious ceremonies had little to do with Obama's personal beliefs:

Most non-believers like myself have a very strong suspicion that Obama is too smart to believe in any supernatural deities. And he is wise enough to know that he couldn't get elected dog catcher if he didn't publicly profess that he is as stupid as the true believers are. We long for the day that humans everywhere will get over their childlike superstitions and, thus, their divisive "them vs. us" attitudes.

Lilykins also argues that forcing religion into public life fosters an "us vs. them" attitude:

… Even though other religions were mentioned, there was no doubt who they believe this country belongs to: Christians.

We will never have peace or equality as long as a religion dominates and claims our land as theirs alone. If anyone in America thinks there is actually is a separation between church and state, they must be blind and deaf. In my opinion, it's only a matter of time before America starts criminalizing "non-believers."

But several commenters make the claim that atheists' denunciation of religion is over the top, and is in itself divisive:

Prophit writes:

Didn't they have others not of a Christian faith there as well? I heard they did who also gave prayers??

I am amazed at the paranoia that is evident in those who do not believe in God. The fear level is palpable.

What do you think is going to happen if prayers are said for the 93 percent of Americans who believe in God??? Do you think they are going to come for you??? Do you think you will be forced to believe in God?

I have no problem with those who believe in any religion or with those who are atheists, and they can say, in a free country, whatever the hell they want to say, and it doesn't affect me at all. So, how is this bad for you? How does this justify repressing free speech because "you are uncomfortable with it" ... my goodness.

Pilgrim also writes that often atheists undermine their arguments by denigrating the faith of others:

Why can't atheists keep their incessant whining to themselves instead of continuously denigrating believers who outnumber them?

I personally don't give a hoot what atheists believe, and I wish they would just shut up and stop belittling those who don't see things the way they do.

Things are not going to change because of their continuous grousing and ridiculing.

2thepoint points out that the religious ceremonies in the inauguration are harmless:

Atheists -- chill out. No one asked that you believe in anything. This has been a tradition that has taken place as long as we have been electing presidents.

First, the nation is not an atheist's nation. Most of the nation believes in a god. And 15 percent of the nation are atheist's?????? sounds questionable!

Second, it's predominately a Christian nation or a nation of Christians -- did anyone pick up the "Our Father."

Thank you Obama for not breaking with tradition.

But many commenters argued that religious ceremonies are not harmless traditions. Rather, the prominent role of religion in public life has caused much suffering over the past eight years – and, for that matter, the past thousands of years.

Dustdevil writes:

We are just mad as hell because we have just gotten rid of a president who has murdered hundreds of thousands with what he thought were the blessings of God. He even indicated he thought God was encouraging him to attack Iraq. Bush "wasn't listening to his father (GHW Bush), he was listening to a higher power."

We've had enough of this bullshit.

Folkie agrees, and points out that Obama's promise of change does not mesh well with religious belief:

If there is to be hope and change, the tradition of thousands of years of religious strife resulting in millions of needless deaths needs to be broken with.

Greta Christina Responds

Thanks to AlterNet for letting me reply. I've been asked to keep it short, so here goes.

I have no problem with Obama being a Christian or talking about God. My problem is with talking about God at an official state ceremony -- the most important state ceremony we have. And I have a huge problem when speakers at a state ceremony tell us that our rights come from God; that Americans owe God our loyalty; and that not believing in God is a sin that needs forgiveness.

This isn't about wanting Obama to not believe in or talk about God. It's about separation of church and state.

I'm not advocating a legal ban on religious speech at inaugurations. Obama has the right to say what he wants in his inaugural address and to invite any inaugural speakers to say what they want. But I have the right to say that I don't like it. I am exercising my right and duty as a citizen, and telling our leaders what I want from them -- which is to remember that many Americans are non-believers, and to respect the principle of the separation of church and state.

Yes, the majority of Americans are Christians. Since when does the majority decide what's right? If inaugural speakers had said that being Jewish was a sin that needed forgiveness, would that have been OK because most Americans are Christians?

People of all religions -- including none -- are equal citizens, whether they're in the majority or not. Our state ceremonies should recognize that and respect the separation of church and state.

And yes, religion at inaugurations is a tradition. See above. Tradition doesn't make something right, any more than the majority does.

Finally: I never stop being baffled at believers who think criticizing religion is the same as insulting it, and that speaking out about anti-atheist bigotry and separation of church and state is just whining.

And I never stop being baffled at believers whose primary argument against atheists is, "Shut up."

I do wish some atheists would be better about critiquing religious ideas and behavior, instead of insulting people. But that's pretty common in the blogosphere, and I don't see why religion deserves special treatment. As commenter Lynet wrote in another blog: "People are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout."

The newly vocal atheist movement is part of a proud American tradition: a tradition of dissent, of speaking out against a powerful majority, of marginalized minorities demanding full participation in society. Would you ask any other movement for social change to shut up and stop whining? If not, please don't ask atheists to do it.

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