say what you mean

A few atheist and humanist organizations want the phrase “so help me God” removed from Obama’s inaugural oath, and are suing for it’s removal. Their contention: “There can be no purpose for placing ‘so help me God’ in an oath or sponsoring prayers to God, other than promoting the particular point of view that God exists.”

As concerns the oath,  though, the purpose is not to endorse the factual existence of God, but to express belief in his existence – namely, Obama’s. While Obama will swear an oath to the American people, it is reasonable that his notions of honesty and obligation are informed by his faith. Insofar as the phrase allows Obama to articulate an authentic, meaningful sense of what he takes himself to be doing in swearing the oath, it serves an expressive function, not a promotional one.

Nonetheless, I have qualms about publicly siding against my fellow non-believers. Religious friends often ask me about issues like this, commandments at courthouses, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. By and large, they ask because they want reassurance that these things aren’t “actually” offensive, and that they are justified in thinking such complaints trivial. But anyone who is part of a religious minority knows that the constant reminders of one’s deviance and purported inferiority can be just as alienating as the rare instance of overt discrimination. I never liked saying the Pledge of Allegiance in high school because I did not believe that our nation was “under God” in any meaningful sense.  And I still don’t. It’s degrading to be made to express as truth what one does not believe.

If the Christian majority gave some thought as to why expressions of faith matter so much to them, they might gain insight as to why everyday exhortations to spiritual conformity strike non-believers as alien and degrading. Unfortunately, the ability to express faith is accepted as a privlege stemming from Christianity’s historical and demographic dominance. It’s true value goes unnapreciated by those who can take it for granted. For their part, atheists could do to reflect on what it is they surrender in terms of authenticity when they conform against their will, and ask whether they are demanding similar capitulation from Christians. Both sides are far too comfortable asking one another to betray their conscience.

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~ by staticandme on January 3, 2009.

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