The Atheists Among Us

Is it possible to identify as both an American and an atheist? It’s a question with deeper roots than you might imagine.

Kristen Wilson
Apr 16, 2015 · 15 min read

The year was 1892 and Francis Bellamy needed to sell flags. More specifically, he needed to sell American flags to public schools. At the time, Bellamy was a writer for The Youth’s Companion, a family magazine bent on instilling good, religious values in children. In an attempt to grow their subscription base, The Youth’s Companion was running a campaign to sell American flags to public schools at a low price, hoping to garner publicity and subscriptions. Conveniently, the four-hundredth anniversary of that one time Columbus sailed the ocean blue was just around the corner and the entire nation was preparing to celebrate it.

At this point in history, Columbus Day was a national holiday because of the efforts of Italian and Irish immigrants who identified with Columbus (and his Catholicism) and held him up as a perfect example of the significant contributions of a European immigrant — if Columbus can be considered such — to the American way of life. By the 1890s, Columbus Day was an American holiday, and it served as a heavy-handed attempt to “Americanize” immigrants and perpetuate a narrative of American exceptionalism.

Ironically, Columbus Day had never been a European holiday, which is surprising considering the fact that all parties involved were European, except the Native Americans that would later be slaughtered, enslaved, and infected (with smallpox) in unthinkable numbers. But the narrative had been decided upon: Columbus was an American hero, despite the fact that he was neither American nor any sort of hero, and Bellamy was prepared to run with it, as were the planners of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, also known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

And so the growing tide of nationalism bore down on Bellamy like a domineering muse, and the American Pledge of Allegiance was born, the third in an eight-step program to honor Christopher Columbus. In an ambitious appeal to every public school across America, The Youth’s Companion published the eight-step program, which was to be performed on October 21, 1892, the day of the dedication of the Chicago World’s Fair.

The Youth’s Companion from September 8, 1892. The original Pledge of Allegiance is in the red box, the third in an eight-step program to celebrate Columbus Day.

The Pledge read as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” Though Bellamy was a Christian and the magazine he wrote for was a religious publication, there was no mention of God in the original Pledge of Allegiance. It was meant to resonate on a patriotic level, not a religious level, no matter how muddled those two became in the future; indeed, even in the original ceremony itself, the Pledge was followed by an “Acknowledgement of God” through prayer or scripture.

However, it is extremely important that religious and patriotic elements were kept separate, two distinctly different steps with the Pledge as a moment of nationalist validation. Bellamy saw his Pledge “as an ‘inoculation’ that would protect immigrants and native-born but insufficiently patriotic Americans from the ‘virus’ of radicalism and subversion,” as Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer report in The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance. In other words, the Pledge was nationalist propaganda, not religious propaganda. Future changes to the Pledge acted as the canary in the coal mine in regards to American nationalism.

Though small and purely grammatical, the first recorded adaptation of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 led to the adoption of “to” in front of “the Republic” so the line would read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic…”

In 1923, The National Flag Conference — a body made up of sixty-eight organizations with patriotic fervor to spare — voiced fears of enemy immigrant agents, leading to the addition of “the United States,” lest these enemy agents actually be swearing fealty to their home nations. The Pledge now read: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” But paranoia persisted, and in 1924 the Pledge was changed to read “…to the Flag of the United States of America…”; the country was covering all of its bases at this point, but the Pledge still had not become a religious declaration. On June 22, 1942, Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance and took over the power of future alterations.

The Bellamy Salute called for the pupils to stand with “right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it.” (Youth’s Companion September 8th, 1892) Congress altered the salute on December 22, 1942, after concerns arose about its similarity to the Nazi salute.

Louis Albert Bowman, an attorney and chaplain, introduced the “under God” clause at a meeting of the Illinois Society of the Sons of the American Revolution on February 12, 1948, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Bowman claimed to have taken the words “under God” from Lincoln’s ad-libbed delivery of the Gettysburg Address, a subject of some controversy to this day. The “under God” clause grew in popularity over the following four years, at which point the Hearst newspapers picked up the story and began the campaign to formerly amend the Pledge of Allegiance.

Pastor George MacPherson Docherty and President Eisenhower on the morning of February 7, 1954.

On the morning of February 7, 1954, the recently baptized Presbyterian President Eisenhower was listening to a sermon by Pastor George MacPherson Docherty of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. In his sermon, Docherty argued that the Pledge of Allegiance was missing “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life…in fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity.”

The struggle between the United States and Soviet Union, in Docherty’s mind, was not a mere struggle between “two economic systems [but]…Armageddon, a battle of the gods. It is the view of man as it comes down to us from Judeo-Christian civilization in mortal combat against modern, secularized, godless humanity.” The epic proportions of this “battle of the gods” is matched only by the heroics of “Judeo-Christian civilization” in the face of the threat of “godless humanity.”

To Docherty, the only solution to the crisis of identity in post-World War II America was to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, given that “an atheistic American is a contradiction of terms” and life as an American “is defined by a fundamental belief in God.” However, he makes it clear that “God” serves as a placeholder for any deity, given that the United States of America doesn't persecute faith, even if it differs from the Christian religion.

However, the fact that “God” is the placeholder indicates a strong bias towards the Christian faith and the anti-communist fervor that now went with being a good Christian American. The association of atheists to communists and vice-versa was no less than an attempt to take two groups of people that Americans did not understand and combine them under a single banner of menace, one which could be repulsed and eventually defeated with the “Christian kindness” of a post-war America.

In late 1952, a little over a year before Docherty’s sermon, and before Eisenhower was baptized or inaugurated into office, the President-elect said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion where all men are created equal.”

Though not yet a church-going man, Eisenhower was convinced of the essential nature of religious faith to American governance and freedom, looking over the fact that religious Americans had “judiciously” denied the rights of African-Americans since before the country even existed, among other transgressions upheld by religious sensibilities that explicitly prevented all men from being equal. The arrogance of Eisenhower’s comment is aggravating when one considers that it was made a full twelve years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the first modern strives towards repairing the broken system that denied African-Americans their rights, but still did not do the full work of establishing African-Americans as equal members of society or addressing other oppressed groups.

But President Eisenhower was sold on Docherty’s conception of America as a Judeo-Christian utopia, the last bastion of human freedom from the godless communists. The very next day, President Eisenhower had Rep. Charles Oakman introduce a bill to Congress to amend the Pledge of Allegiance, and he signed the bill into law a few months later, on June 14. It was Flag Day.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that atheists were distrusted more than Christian, Muslims, and rapists. In response, atheist blogger Hemant Mehta said, “We have to let people know that we’re atheists. People think poorly of atheists because they don’t think they know any.”

The question then becomes if an atheist can ever identify as an American, if such an integral part of being an American is a connection to a divine figure. If the Pledge of Allegiance, recited every morning by children across the nation, assumes the belief in a divine figure (with a strong bias towards the Christian God), then how can one claim a patriotic affiliation to the United States without asserting a spiritual belief? An atheist can mumble over the words, cough conveniently, or dissemble in some other way to avoid saying the entirety of the Pledge of Allegiance, but the fact that an atheist has to make this extra effort is nothing less than a clear statement by the nation — you are not welcome.

Pete Stark, the first openly atheistic member of Congress. Since his retirement in 2013, there haven’t been any sitting atheists in Congress.

In a poll by Pew Research Center published in June of 2014, 49% of polled Christian Americans said they would be unhappy if a relative married someone who doesn't believe in God. A 2012 Gallup poll found that only 54% of polled Americans reported they would vote for an atheist for president. On a related note, there are currently no atheists serving in Congress. Pete Stark, the first openly atheistic member of Congress, served as a representative of California’s 13th District from 1973–2013. Representative Barney Frank served for the 4th District of Massachusetts from 1983–2013 and was the first openly gay member of Congress, but he did not reveal that he was an atheist until August of 2013, after he had left office.

On April 3rd (just a month ago) Barney Frank said of atheism in politics: “Well, the problem with atheism politically starts with the phrase. I have advised people who are themselves non-believers, not to use the word atheist; it has a harshness to it. It is a repudiation, not necessarily literally, but it comes across as a repudiation of religion and religion is very important to many people…America’s history has given religiosity a greater role than some other places. And from the politician’s standpoint the question is why pick a fight that doesn't have to be waged?”

The real question should be why it is a fight that should have to be waged at all, why religion or lack thereof should be any indication of a person’s ability or inability to do their job, especially given that Frank was a key figure in championing the rights of LGBT citizens to enter into politics. Why is it any different for atheists? Why shouldn't open atheists enter politics? But there has been hardly a whimper of dissension to Frank’s advice, even among atheist groups, largely because the word “atheist” is so hated and feared in American society.

In American politics, “atheist” is just about the dirtiest word a politician can sling at his opponent. To admit to being an atheist is akin to political suicide, and so our politicians default to the extreme and are almost uniformly of a generic Christian denomination and throw out a “God Bless America” every time they come within close proximity of a microphone. Atheists are virtually unrepresented at every level of governance in a Republic built on the entire concept of representation — how can one be an American if they feel that they are not only misrepresented in their government, but wholly unrepresented? Religion is not the only marker of representation, but it certainly seems to be a valid one to the 43% of Americans who wouldn't vote for an atheist for President. The sentiment of the nation rings true: you are not welcome.

Currently, the state constitutions of seven US states (Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) prohibit atheists from holding public office. In addition, Pennsylvania’s state constitution goes out of its way to say that religious persons will not be barred from holding public office, saying nothing of such protections for non-religious persons. Section 1 of Article 19 of the Arkansas state constitution reads as follows: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.” All of these prohibitions were rendered nonenforceable by the Supreme Court’s 1961 ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins: “We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’” This, at least, is a wonderful step in the right direction, though the prohibitions remain in the constitutions of those states, unappealed even if nonenforceable.

American politicians are sworn into office on a Bible and American witnesses are sworn into court on a Bible, though the Constitution would be entirely more appropriate, given there is no official state religion and the proceedings are related to governance, not religion.

The experience of an atheist in America is subtly different than that of any other minority group. Religion, unlike race or gender, is not usually something that can be seen; though complications do arise when visual cues of race and gender are misread, as they often are, they are far more visually conspicuous than religion in most cases.

Religion is, fundamentally, a choice. Even if one feels that they have personally felt the presence of God or another deity, or that the most compelling argument is that of atheism, it is still a choice, a conscious choice, to enter into a faith or to refrain from faith. Unlike the vast majority of other markers of identity, religion is a choice, which is part of the reason why atheists are so hated — they were not born atheists, they became atheists and actively choose not to engage in a belief system. It is much easier to hate someone for what they choose to be than what they were born into. Many people seem to forget that no one is born into a religion either, that the process of becoming a religious person is also a choice.

Another difficulty comes from the inability of many people to see spiritual identity as more than a series of categories, but rather a spectrum. To some people, spirituality is essential to their conception of themselves (either as the believer or nonbeliever), but to others, it simply is not. There are some people of faith that do not actively practice their faith, who rarely attend faith-based ceremonies or events and do not engage with the world on a spiritual level. There are some atheists whose fundamental make-up relies on the fact that they are non-believers, whose perspective on the world is defined by an absence of a grand architect; however, a 2012 study by the Pew Research study found that 14% of self-identified atheists believe in a “universal spirit.”

The spectrum of atheists is as varied as the spectrum of religious folk, all choosing to think about the same concerns and questions in slightly different ways that create shades of differentiation that defy clear definition. Atheists do not think about life and the universe in the same way as other atheists do, just as Christians denominations think differently about various episodes in their religious texts, and it is wholly incorrect to think of atheists as a single group with concrete goals or ideas, let alone to lump atheists, agnostics, and the irreligious into a single group.

However, because religion is usually “invisible” to the eye, an atheist can “pass” fairly easily, especially since the average atheist in America is a young, educated, white male who is also often wealthy — an individual perhaps least likely to face any other sort of discrimination and for this reason endowed to speak from a position of privilege, least likely to be challenged on matters of faith. Unless he enters politics, of course.

If there is no advantage to publicly claiming to be an atheist in American society and several notable disadvantages, why would an atheist do so? It is perhaps the easiest of all identity markers to lie about, especially since there is an intense, pervasive subtext in America one can simply call “the assumption of religious belief,” regardless of whether one actually attends a religious institution or not.

Belief (or disbelief) is an easy thing to lie about, given that it leaves no physical trace, a huge part of the reason why the public perception of atheists is so skewed — the vast majority of religious Americans don’t think they know an atheist personally, likely because at least a few of their own family, friends, and admired public figures are closeted atheists who see no advantage to making this fact known in a society wholly intolerant of their lack of faith. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that 2.4% of Americans identify as atheists, falling under a broader category of 19.6% of Americans who identify themselves as unaffiliated with any particular faith, and both percentages are only rising.

But the outdated stereotype of the “godless communist” persists, someone who would trade their own child away to move up in the bread line rivaled today by the emerging stereotype of the aggressive atheist actively working to bring about the fall of organized religion through a concentrated campaign of television and radio appearances and scientific breakthroughs. Atheists remain the boogymen of American society, even after the specter of communism has passed out of the public conception, and the lingering distrust and hatred in our society for atheists is evidence for their past association with the “Muscovites,” as Docherty put it. It is an easy thing to tell atheists that they must have the courage to make themselves known to their friends, families, and public followings, but the risk of alienation and the loss of one’s friends, family, and professional status is very real, especially in communities where faith and church is at the heart of all social relations.

All of this seems to indicate one thing: Americans don’t understand atheists.

The roots of this misunderstanding, stretching so far as the Columbus-inspired Pledge of Allegiance and Docherty’s tirade against the encroaching communist threat, all trace back to the United States of America’s understanding of itself as the sole permanent occupant of the moral high ground. If the very definition of “Americanness” rests in the text of a divine figure who literally decides what is right and what is wrong, how could Americans believe that — as a nation — we could ever commit morally dubious if not morally reprehensible acts?

The instinct to maintain this illusion of perfect blamelessness as the instrument of God on Earth is a destructive one, and it goes far beyond the discomfort of Americans with the only group of people who threaten the divine myth of America by their very lack of faith in a divine being. If not everyone believes, the worry looms that the divine being is not real after all, and with it the moral high ground disappears. And so atheists are cast as people wholly without morality, heathens with no holy book or series of future rewards and punishments to guide their behavior, though the question Americans should be asking themselves is if religion ever had the moral high ground in the first place, given how many atrocities (the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the “Removal” of Native Americans, etc.) religions have been used to justify in the past; as with anything touched by humans, religion and the teachings one can draw out of religion are equal parts beauty and calamity, requiring constant questioning to keep its calamitous side at bay and moral compass squarely pointed due north.

This is not to say that atheists are perfect beings of reason and unfaltering morality; they aren't. Atheists are human, just as religious folks are, and the threat of confirmation bias is both so real and so dangerous that both groups have a lot to learn from each other, lest atheists continue to perpetuate stereotypes of religious folks as brainless sheep and religious folks of atheists as heartless monsters.

The issue with atheism in America today is one of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Atheists and religious folk have overwhelmingly more in common than they do not, and both should have equal claim to the identity of “American.” They offer each other chances for growth and healthy debate, as perverse as that seems to some, and a refusal to acknowledge the humanity of atheists is little more than a refusal to engage in necessary introspection about non-Christian modes of thought. The United States of America is overwhelmingly composed of people who identify as Christian, which allows for the perpetuation of prejudice through religious intonations and government sanctions in a vicious positive feedback loop that shuns alternative opinions even before they are voiced. This lack of respect and consideration for non-Christian voices only serves to increase divisions within American society, furthering prejudice in order to justify modern patterns of oppression and violence, both within the borders of the United States and without them.

Let’s take a long, hard look, America, believers and nonbelievers alike. A little introspection never hurt anyone, and atheists aren't big bad wolves intent on blowing your houses down.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Michael Mark Cohen.

Kristen Wilson

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Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley