Atheists challenging ‘under God’ need to win hearts, not just minds

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Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., July 30, 2012. Photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller, via Wikimedia Commons.

Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., July 30, 2012. Photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller, via Wikimedia Commons.

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If we want to help people truly understand why language like "under God" marginalizes atheists, we need to work with religious people and focus on building relationships with believers.

  • Chris,

    Maybe this isn’t the place for you to share them, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on this campaign. I’m a digital marketer, and an Interfaith-friendly humanist. At first blush, this doesn’t feel like a bridge building effort to me. In fact, I feel like this has a greater likelihood of alienating those who sit out during the pledge, rather than win understanding and support from others.

    I’m torn on this issue. I agree that the pledge probably needs to be changed back, but I believe that the tactics being employed here (and perhaps the overall strategy) are counterproductive. Based on the title, I had hoped that your article would touch on this more.

    Can you share your personal thoughts on this here?


  • The “under God” was added during the Cold War to piss off the godless Russkies, of course, but it was a reckless and ill-conceived change that, as Chris admits, does violate the exclusionary clause. I don’t approve of heavy-handed attempts by my fellow atheists, but simply not participating in the Pledge is not heavy-handed; making others uncomfortable is. Making them think about it is not.
    The time is nearing when gays will become the new African Americans, accepted as being who they must be because they were born that way; the next minority that needs some tender loving care will be, of course, atheists. Every advance we make, religion takes a step back, and perhaps in half a century or so, long after I’m gone, we’ll finally catch up to the European post-Christian agenda. Most importantly, we need to start educating our kids again in the sciences.

  • Larry

    I find no need to win hearts of people who are actively trying to marginalize and deny my existence in the public sphere. People who feel the need to speak malicious lies about my beliefs and insult them without a hint of shame or remorse.

    There is no rational or legal purpose behind “Under God” in public pledges except as a way to give the religious a sense of ownership of our government. Branding public discourse like cattle.

    I am not going to be building bridges with people who want to use the wood to burn me at the stake.

  • Andrew

    On an oppression scale of one to ten, where would you rate “under God”?

  • Larry

    10 being death camps and 1 being the “War on Christmas”

    I rate it a 2 to 2.5.

    Its far too ingrained as a matter of course and lacks so much rationality in its defense to be a 1 Just oppressive enough to cause offense and lead to discriminatory behavior.

    The fact that we have an article about an Airman being denied re-enlistment on this issue shows how seriously it can be taken.

  • Nathan Bonsal

    It’s kind of hard to win hearts and minds when most of them believe that you don’t believe in god because you want to be immoral and evil.
    And that you probably worship the devil in secret and eat babies and practice hedonistic sexual rituals.
    In short, this article is foolish and does not understand the problem. It’s not us.

  • Maybe, I am in a bad mood but how come we have to do all the reaching out and understanding. I know a lot of Christians and they are not in general doing much to understand atheists and the only reaching out they are doing is handing you a track.

    However, I don’t think this is a worthwhile. We should focus on helping all the people who don’t believe in God to realize they are atheists. We should gently nudge those on the fence off the fence.

  • rob

    I think he meant it as a general application to be tried..
    don’t worry you don’t have to ask me over for beer and brautts
    this Friday ..Take a while to think about it .. And save up for some porter house steaks and don’t forget the blackberry brandy. And you can ask me over a week from next Tuesday for that dinner and drinks.. As it fits in better with my schedule..
    Because that Friday I have my best ways to hate a atheist speech to give
    at our local public library..

  • Larry

    As long as I am sure you are not going to soil my carpet or try to baptize my cat (he is a Shintoist and would find such things offensive). The missus is very clear about that when it comes to guests.

    Probably yakiniku (table barbecue) because its more sociable than just standing over a grill and I live in a condo.

  • Fran

    The only time this nation, the USA, or all other nations will literally be “under God” is when God’s kingdom or heavenly goverment is ruling, with Jesus as King, during his 1,000-yr. rule, over all mankind, in the near future.

    There is no theocracy on earth at the present time since man is ruling over man, with his own rules, laws and regulations, and to his detriment at that (Ecclesiastes 8:9).

  • Fran

    P.S. I’m a Christian and I don’t salute the flag of the US because my allegiance goes to God’s kingdom or heavenly government. I do not say the pledge, nor put my hand over my heart, but I stand in respect. I know that the pledge has the words, “one nation under God”, but you won’t hear me say it.

  • The time is nearing when gays will become the new African Americans, accepted as being who they must be because they were born that way; the next minority that needs some tender loving care will be, of course, atheists.

    Please, can we stop making analogies like this? I understand the desire to compare and contrast the struggles of different groups but the tendency encourages people to gloss over numerous problems that still exist. Black people, as well (as many other racial/ethnic minorities) are still being shat upon by a white dominated culture, government, media, etc. Some things have improved dramatically. Many other matters have not. “Tender loving care” hardly describes the treatment that African Americans are experiencing.

    While the white establishment gives lip service to the notion that black people shouldn’t be judged upon the circumstances of their birth, that awareness hasn’t stopped disproportionate numbers of African Americans from being incarcerated and murdered by police. It hasn’t stopped the policies of a 40 year old drug war that has disproportionately ignored white drug use while tossing brown bodies into jail cells and providing justification for over policing black communities. It hasn’t stopped red lining and various racist, real estate practices. It hasn’t stopped economic policies that gut black communities or the steady dismantling of voter rights legislation.

    As a white, queer person, I don’t face the kind of awfulness that black people face, queer or otherwise. There’s a mountain of privilege that my skin color grants which I’ll never be fully aware of. I benefit from that privilege and my chances of survival in this world, queer or not, are dramatically improved.

    So, can we please dispense with the “gays are the ‘new black’ and atheists are tomorrow’s ‘new black'”? Yes, it can be extremely instructive to learn from the civil rights struggle of other groups but drawing analogies that inadvertently gloss over mountains of current day injustice doesn’t help anyone’s struggle. We all have our respective mounds of crap piled on top of us, black, queer, atheist or otherwise. Facile analogies don’t help much in fostering that awareness.

    There’s a ton of work left to be done. The current struggle against racial oppression, birthed long before most of us on this blog thread drew first breath, still has light years to go before justice can be taken for granted.

  • I think challenging the “under God” addition to the pledge is as good a place as any to bring awareness to the way that Christianity has seeped into culture and government in ways that exclude so many others.

    On the other hand, I’ve always been creeped out by pledging my devotion to a flag, regardless of the country flying the colors in question. Hang up a picture of the solar system, the planet, or the Milky Way. I’ll pledge myself to that instead. 😉

  • jedipunk

    For starters, we can stop referring to it as “removing ‘Under God’ from the pledge” and start referring to it what it actually is: restoring the pledge.

  • Frank

    There is nothing exclusionary about “under God.” Whether you believe in God or not we all are “under God.” God existence doesn’t require anyones acceptance.

  • Pingback: Why I stopped saying America’s Pledge of Allegiance | On Freedom()

  • People who complain only about the two-word deification in the Pledge are strange and completely miss the bigger problem: The pledge is central to the US’s police state and its never-ending spread. The pledge was the origin of the Nazi salute and Nazi behavior (that is one of the amazing discoveries of the historian Dr. Rex Curry, as described by the author Ian Tinny in the book “Pledge of Allegiance and Swastika Secrets”).

    The pledge was written by an American socialist who influenced other socialists worldwide, including German socialists (Hitler), who used the U.S.’s stiff-armed gesture under their flag’s notorious symbol (their symbol was used to represent crossed “S” letters for their “socialist” dogma -another of Dr. Curry’s discoveries).

    Hitler’s symbol was a type of cross, a “Hakenkreuz” (hooked cross); he did not call it a “swastika.” The misnomer “swastika” was used (and continues to be used) to cover up Nazism’s origin in American Christian Socialism, via Francis Bellamy and his cousin Edward Bellamy (author of “Looking Backward” -the origin of the National Socialist movement).

    Francis Bellamy was a Christian Socialist and the Pledge of Allegiance was a small part of a much larger printed program covering 2 newspaper-sized pages and those pages included the phrase “under God,” along with hymns, prayers, and various references to the Bible and “God.” That is why the original full Pledge program is not performed in government schools. That explains why a theistic reference was not specifically in the small chant part.

    The original pledge began with a military salute that was then extended outward to point at the flag (thus the stiff-arm gesture came from the pledge and from the military salute). In practice the second gesture was performed palm-down (the classic Nazi gesture, adopted by Hitler later), not palm up, and photos and film footage show that children would simply point the original military salute at the flag.

    The pledge continues to be the source of Nazi behavior, and that Nazi-style behavior was displayed by the Mayor of Winter Garden, Florida (John Rees) who had a cop expel a man from a city council meeting because the man did not stand for the pledge. No one should stand for nor chant the Pledge of Allegiance. End the pledge.

  • jedipunk

    Unless of course it wasn’t your god.

  • Mike Worcester

    I always liked the idea proffered by former-Rep. John Conyers, who said that if we were going to force students to say the Pledge (which anyone with a rudimentary understanding of U.S. history would know is *not* a founding document of this nation), we should also require them to recite the First Amendment. Of course that idea was heartily endorsed by Pledge advocates……

  • Frank

    He is your God whether you accept it or not.

  • jedipunk

    I have muslims tell me the same thing.

  • John

    Wow, funny how this issue cuts both ways. I can actually appreciate the intentions of the article, but based on the responses, neither sides wants to venture out. Too bad, I guess nothing will change.

  • There is nothing exclusionary about “under God.”

    He is your God whether you accept it or not.

    In which Frank perfectly encapsulates the problematic attitude behind the majority religion codifying its jargon and philosophies via acts of government: “It’s our god, our government, and our laws. So, you can fuck off.”

  • jedipunk

    what part of the pledge was divisive in the original pledge?

  • Hifi

    AHA is doing the right thing to win hearts. It’s not a campaign to educate it’s a campaign to become visible. People who object to “under God” in the Pledge (and it’s not only atheists) will plainly see their family, friends, and neighbors sitting it out.

    My family has been doing it for 10 years now. It’ll be nice to have some company.

  • Hifi

    Zac, you just need to make the analogy with gays or feminists. You don’t get anywhere by staying in the closet. And sitting out the Pledge is probably the most non-confrontational action I’ve ever heard of from any advocacy group.

  • Hifi

    Carolyn, I disagree completely. The “under God” in the Pledge is central to the place and power of religion in America.

    You think generations of kids indoctrinated that patriotism and religious belief go hand-in-hand hasn’t had a lot to do with keeping people on the religious side of the fence?

    “under God” in the Pledge is the last foothold of religion in the public schools for Christians. In fact, there are so many things wrong with the Pledge itself for a free people that, if it weren’t for that phrase, the Tea Party would have had it thrown out years ago.

  • Hifi

    Hear, hear!

  • Hifi


  • Frank

    You’re one that told God to F off not me.

  • Frank

    They are wrong.

  • Larry

    Meaning it is a gross violation of the separation of church and state, Glad you were so upfront about how improper it really is.

    Government is not in the business of endorsing religious belief of any type. Simply standing aside while people believe what they want without being compelled to.

  • Larry, you might be right. I am not married to this position. I just worry that this will backfire, making Christians more angry that we are taking away something important to them and making them more distrustful of us than they already are. Perhaps, I am being cowardly. I do don’t really want this fight, even if we win I fear it will be a pyrrhic victory.

  • Larry

    Christians are going to look for excuses to be hostile atheists no matter what they do. They are encouraged to do so.

    Christians are so used to getting their way that it is high time they get angry over losing some privilege culture has granted them. They don’t appear to respect “the high road”, nor are willing to compromise in a meaningful way. If anything they have taken such things as signs of weakness and pressed onward. Finding new and interesting ways to marginalize atheists.

    The cause is not particularly significant, but at this point there is nothing to lose here. Might as well press onward.

  • No Frank, I’m referring to whomever has the majority belief system in a country/culture in a particular era telling others who have differing religious perspectives and belief systems to fuck off when those minorities object to being excluded from the larger culture and its laws and governmental proceedings. Who’s in the seat of power can shift between geographic regions and historical eras. Anyone can fill that role, given enough influence, power, and numbers.

    Besides, I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist. Cosmically speaking, I’m not sure who or what I’d tell to fuck off and I’m not sure whether I’d be talking to myself or something beyond myself if I actually thought it was necessary to do so. Furthermore, I’m not sure anyone would bother listening to me even if there were someone or something capable of receiving that message.

    So, there’s that.

    Mostly, I just like hanging out in nature where I can escape the daily phenomenon of human beings telling each other to fuck off via social power games and violence.

  • And of course, atheists don’t believe there’s anyone to tell “fuck off” to in the first place, and thus they don’t bother. So, your response is kind of silly.

    But I get it, Frank. Your god is a jealous god who can’t countenance anyone directing their attention anywhere else but toward it and thus, gets really pissy when people ignore it or don’t believe in it. Thus, “telling god to fuck off” only requires a form of non-belief or non-worship before the pissy divine attitude starts.

    Sounds like a big cosmic toddler to me but if you want to believe in such things, have at it.

  • Allison

    Carolyn, I think this may be worthwhile on the visibility front. I would look at it as the goal being quiet visibility rather than the goal being eliminating “under God” in the pledge. The default is for people to assume I’m Christian. If I don’t say anything, it takes years for people to figure out that I am, in fact, an atheist. If we can be visible and people can see that the variety of people who are actually atheist is far wider than they think, I think it could help. It’s going to need people standing up with us and for us, and there are going to be times that it can be unpleasant.

    One of the things that keeps nonbelievers closeted is the worry of losing friends, relatives, and social ties, as some people distance themselves once they learn you don’t share their beliefs. If you really want to show people they’re not alone, though, it’s going to require living openly. Just saying “you’re not alone” and then not connecting is simply not enough.

  • This gets us a bit off topic but I do want to say something about it.

    I just went through a journey of losing my faith after years of being a dedicated Christian. I am very grateful for the friends who have remained friends through it, but I have lost most of my friends. When you lose your faith in God, you realize that the only thing you ever had is this community, the relationships you had. And even if you don’t really want to those relationships just fall away, either because people are hurt or they just don’t know how to relate to you anymore. That’s really difficult, and while it’s not an option for me (I greatly value my integrity), I can understand why people stay just for the community.

    I was especially hurt when I learn that there were others who were trying to keep the friends that I do have away from me.

    I think the only choice of course is to be visible, to wear the scarlet letter proudly. Of course, it always offends. I think it’s because Christianity can be such a commitment. It requires so much for the believer, and here you are saying, I don’t need any of this. I can do without this. In fact, I am better off without it. Even if you don’t say anything just going about your business not being a Christian is disturbing.

    I am pretty vocal, through my writing, but I really think the real battle is in that continued quiet presence with our neighbors. Yes, I am an atheist. I am not going to kill your cat, rob a bank, etc. We probably have the same ethics because it stems from our humanity. People will eventually see that and they will come to understand even if they don’t agree.

  • Hi Hifi,

    Thanks for the reply. Maybe it’s different in your part of the country. I’m in the midwest, and people in our community are still highly patriotic. I’ve seen many a man have his hat snatched off his head by another for forgetting to remove it during the national anthem. Sitting down during the pledge would likely create a confrontation in my world, and it doesn’t seem likely to begin a meaningful discussion on the point.

    The first act of communication is me disrespecting something meaningful to someone else. How then could I expect them to hear me out?

  • Allison

    In some ways I had an advantage while growing up, as I was raised by atheists. I didn’t have to go through that experience of losing so many friends because, well…people who couldn’t handle it stayed away from me to begin with, you know? It does happen some when I move to a new place and people assume things about me or when I come to a new job. It seems to be different if people have assumed things about me for a good long while — it’s taken more as a breach of their trust.

    Overall, there are Christians who are open to working with us and to close relationships. It’s not all of them, of course. But you know how it is…when you have the stereotype of wanting to fight against every possible religious expression and of thinking people are idiots for believing, the only way to breach those stereotypes is repeated exposure. It’s wearying, but the solution will be generated from within our community, not the Christian community.

  • Allison

    I also wanted to say that I’m sorry you went through that. Having former friends trying to keep other people away from socializing with you has got to be painful. 🙁

  • Carolyn Hyppolite

    Yeah, it sucks. But I also have great friends.

  • Hifi

    What about them disrespecting you by using government to throw their god in your face, over and over, again.

    If it’s important to them, they can engage in their god-worship at home or church.

  • Frank

    Speaking of an immature view….

  • Hifi

    Let’s hear from another POC comedian, who happens to be the producer of the the show where Bell made this joke.

    Chris Rock “If you’re a Black Christian, you have a real short memory.”

    Despite the community benefits of religion for POC, they have so much more reason than whites to reject it (at least reject Christianity).

    To POC, “How much longer do you want to suck?”
    Watch POC, atheist, and one of the most brilliant guys around, Neil deGrasse Tyson, ask you about it. How religion keeps entire cultures down!

  • Hifi

    This was in response to a post by rfair404 that seems to have gone missing. I think it is pertinent, so I am going to paste it back in here from my email notification.

    “The American Humanist Association needs to STFU with their atheist privilege. Many people who believe in God are POC. As noted critical race theorist W. Kamau Bell has shown, atheism is the highest form of white privilege and POC actually NEED to believe in God otherwise they would be unable to get out of bed in the morning. If God is removed from the pledge, then you are telling these people that they are not Americans.

    This campaign is WRONG and a manifestation of white cis male privilege.”

  • Yes Frank, many would consider my act of replying to you via cutting, sarcastic humor to be immature. *shrug* But many would also consider your responses in so many comment threads here (and at Religion Dispatches, if you are the same Frank who responds over there) to be a series of neener-neener, fuck you responses. So, we have each other’s immaturity to share in. I am hardly alone.

    However, none of that changes the fact that the god so many conservative Christians worship is portrayed in ways that sound like the id-driven mentality of an all-powerful, supernatural child. The impetuous, hateful, abusive behavior of the deity conservatives tend to embrace looks a lot like a spoiled, out-of-control bully… the kind that relishes beating up the weaker kids on a school playground.

    One thing I’ve observed over the years is that conservatism usually comes laden with a worship of hierarchy, particularly a system of social power that is riddled with the abuse of the least powerful members of society. That conservatives find abusive behavior endearing in their deity is hardly surprising.

  • What really can devalue a somewhat timid marriage is a bad sexlife. Just try to find your path.

  • Kristina

    Fran, I think that most people who support excluding the words “under God” (whether they are atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindi, Unitarian….whatever) would strongly support your right to “sit out” the Pledge. Really….it doesn’t matter WHY you may not agree with it….it’s simply your right as a human being in the US to NOT say something that is untrue to the beliefs which the individual holds.

    I am an atheist, but stopped saying the Pledge several years ago, for a different reason. I went through a nasty battle in family court with my ex husband, and after becoming more familiar with our messed up judicial system, I realized that there is no such thing as “justice for all” in the US. I’ve always been an honest person that has a strong distaste for untruthfulness.

    My husband says that the Pledge is simply a statement of the ideals for our society….saying it doesn’t mean that you necessarily AGREE that we are abiding by the words. I see his point, but don’t necessarily agree. It’s his right to stand and say it, just as it is our right to politely decline….for whatever reason.

    I’ve tried to present all sides of this issue to my children, and I support whatever they choose. My oldest sat it out…youngest 3 choose to say it. I think it almost says MORE when people know that they do not HAVE to participate, but freely choose to. It demonstrates a level of sincerity, as opposed to just parroting others, without truly understanding the meaning behind the words and gestures.

    Thank you for sharing your personal reasons for not reciting the Pledge….yours is definitely a different viewpoint than we usually hear from the opposition. But your explanation clearly shows that there are different and widely diverse reasons that some choose to “sit out the Pledge.” I wish that people who try to force its recitation upon others would listen and consider all of the perspectives….if they did, they may not be so quick to demean or pass judgements on those who consciously choose non-participation.

  • Kristina

    Frank, You have every right to your personal beliefs and to speak them as well. However, with that right, you must also accept the equally important rights of your fellow citizens who do not share your beliefs. Thousands of years of history demonstrate what happens when governments impose religion upon citizens…..and it’s NOT pretty. Millions of human beings have been exterminated when the populace passively accepts such government imposition.

    Also, remember that clear separation between church and state ALSO protects churches and their followers. Many European Christians fled to “The New World” to escape persecution from their fellow Christians….which went FAR beyond Catholic vs. Protestant. Seemingly SMALL disagreements in Biblical translations (one obvious example is the manner of dress) were enough to force people to leave their homes and families, get on 17th or 18th century boats for a very dangerous, several month long, uncomfortable ride across the Atlantic ocean….only to arrive in a strange land, most having next to nothing (if they were lucky enough to have survived the journey). That has to give you at least SOME pause for thought….let’s just say you are Baptist, and 75% of people who lived within a 200 mile radius of you were Pentacostal. So what COULD happen if the 75% seized control of local government, and it was endorsed by the law. The Pentacostals could still make your life pretty miserable (regardless of the fact that you are also a Christian). I would imagine that it may not be easy for you to toss aside your faith and likely the faith of your family and ancestors, because the larger sect told you to do it or lose your home, face threats of violence, and possibly imprisonment. These things STILL happen all over the world.

    Separation between church and state also protects churches in more practical ways. If this line is continuously blurred, then the day COULD come where churches were forced to pay taxes, perform gay marriages, or participate in other functions, mandated by the government. And it’s NOT the atheist/non-religious community who is pushing for ending separation between church and state….it’s mostly the majority Christians, who want to have more control over the government, but does not want (likewise) to concede any of their power over to the state. Things simply do not work this way.

    If churches want to continue to be independent, autonomous, tax free entities, then separation of church and state is VITAL….in fact, considering the rapid rise in the numbers of non-Christian Americans, this separation will be key to the churches survival.

    This is one of those “watch what you wish for” issues….as responsible, thoughtful citizens, we MUST consider ALL possibilities before pushing for or against any agenda.

    For now, I (and most other non-Christians) support your churches’ right to autonomy. However, this support may not last much longer if our rights to be free FROM religion continue to be disrespected and decimated. Our numbers ARE rising, and this is something that you likely will not be able to control. Think about how YOU and your congregation would like to be treated if you become the minority.

  • Fran


    Yes, I agree with you that it should be a matter of free will to salute the flag or not. I am just not politically inclined at all nor nationalistic. There are many people, however, who are, and they feel compelled to salute.

    There have been legal cases where students were suspended from for refusing to salute the flag. The courts decided upon returning the students to school and granted their right to not salute.

    I have never saluted the flag in my 60 years of life; but one never knows if the freedom to do so will ever be taken away by governments. In that case, I would still refuse to do so, even if threatened with arrest.

    And by the way, I also agree with you that our judicial system can very many times be “unjust and unfair.” We have had some judges locally accept bribes for favorable judgments, and I am so sorry that you had a terrible experience with such an unjust system.

    Fortunately, the upcoming rule by Jesus as King of God’s kingdom or heavenly government will be perfectly just, compassionate and righteous (unlike our judicial systems today). (Isaiah 11:1-5)

    I gladly pledge my allegiance to that government instead and also what it will accomplish, “with liberty and justice for all” mankind on earth.

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