Archive for January, 2009

America and the ‘A’ word

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Jan 25, 2009

On January 20, the 44th President of the United States, in his inaugural speech, became the first President ever to acknowledge the existence of “non-believers”—atheists. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers,” he said. Caused a bit of a ripple. All American politicians have been in denial about the fact that a large number of their countrymen say they are not affiliated to any faith: as much as 16.1 per cent, according to a Pew Centre study. That’s 48 million people. But every member of the Congress is a believer, or claims to be. Atheism—or even the mention of atheism—is clearly considered one-way street to a career dead end.

“God” has been mentioned 78 times by American Presidents in inaugural speeches. Before Obama, the word “Christian” or “Christians” has been used by six Presidents, among them George Washington (1789), Thomas Jefferson (1805), Abraham Lincoln (1861) and George W Bush (2005). “Muslim” has been mentioned once, by Bush (2005 again), and no one ever mentioned Jews or Hindus. (Irrelevant trivia: “confusion” three times, including, understandably, Woodrow Wilson in 1917, and FDR in 1933; “mad” or “madness” twice, by Grover Cleveland in 1893, and FDR again, in a very Obama-esque situation, in 1933; and “war” 168 times—James Monroe used it 16 times in his speech in 1821.) In his address, Obama invoked the Almighty five times.

Thus, “… the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” “This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

“… with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” And, ending his speech: “Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

But Obama has mentioned “non-believers” twice before in his campaign, in a clear nose-thumb to conventional political wisdom. In a 2007 speech, he said: “Whatever we once were, we’re no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers.” In 2008, he delivered a speech on religion-based charity programmes. “While these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all.”

I can honestly call myself an atheist. I don’t care whether Obama mentioned “non-believers” because he believes in true inclusion, or whether he read the Pew report and targeted a substantial but neglected voter base. I would think the first is true, since his mother was a freethinking rebel, and he was baptised only at the age of 21. But I don’t care. What I care about is the use of the terms “non-believer” and “people of no faith at all”. “Belief” and “faith” have many deep positive life-changing connotations. “Just know that I believe in you.” “Don’t ever lose faith, and I’ll always be there for you.” Does belief mean only religion, does faith monotone only acceptance of a higher entity? “People of no faith at all”? I find it insulting. What’s wrong with a neutral term with sturdy Greek roots: “atheist”? Obama can’t go that far?

Last year, commentator Christopher Hitchens (one of a trio of the world’s most vocal atheists, along with philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) threw the world an open challenge: “Let (someone) name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a non-believer. And here is my second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first—I have been asking it for some time—awaits a convincing reply.”

Notice, Hitchens uses the word “non-believer”. Perhaps he is going by Webster Dictionary’s entry on “atheism”: “the disbelief in the existence of a deity”. However, disbelief is also belief, meeting all the necessary criteria, and it is true that the religious consider God to be above human logic, and see atheism as a dangerous belief system. By their own logic then, atheists believe, right? Obama could have been bolder and used the A-word. Atheist.