10 July 2011

One Nation, Indivisible: a godless perspective on America's heritage

"We must, indeed, hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." - Benjamin Franklin

I had originally started this a week ago as an "atheism and patriotism" Independence Day post; as I continued writing and fleshing out ideas, it became something different.

Just over 235 years ago, a group of colonial elite first declared the U.S. as an independent entity from the British Crown. The armed insurrection had started over a year earlier, and this Declaration gave it legitimacy and a united sense of purpose. People from the various colonies had their own (sometimes conflicting) motives and their own ideas of how they should be governed, but they all agreed that monarchical British rule would not be part of their future.

The story of this country's birth is a fascinating one, albeit overly romanticized in popular culture. I know that it is irrational to have pride in something so circumstantial as being born within a country's borders, but it's an emotion I can't help but feel; chalk it up to a sentimental attachment to my homeland and the people in it. Our system may have its inherent flaws and checkered past, but it's less wrong than many of the abysmal alternatives we've seen throughout history. Reason can flourish here, even if it must occasionally struggle against ingrained ignorance for survival.

The wisdom of separating church and state

The men we know today as the country's Founding Fathers had the benefit of hindsight when they built a new government. Centuries of European history in hindsight showed that where church and state intermingle, both are corrupted, spawning a terrible monster that censors, persecutes, and slaughters to keep itself alive. Even the theocratic colonial villages established on this continent a century earlier employed arrest, torture, and capital punishment against heretics and accused witches.

The Constitution doesn't even mention a God, Creator, or any higher being; the only authority it cites is "We the People".  This is as it should be; we are a nation of laws and not a nation of human whims, and establishing a "nation under God" leaves us subject to the whims of humans who claim to speak for God.

Whatever their views on Christianity's role in their personal lives, the framers of our Constitution (a group which, notably, did not include the skeptical Jefferson) made it clear that religion was to have no institutional role in government.  Article VI requires public servants to swear their allegiance to the Constitution alone and specifies explicitly that no religious test can be required.  The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights gives citizens both freedom from state religion and freedom of personal religion.  You can't have one without the other; take the example of Pakistan, which has has "freedom of" without "freedom from", and see how free non-Muslims are to practice their faith.

Self-evident truths

The Declaration of Independence, unlike the Constitution, was not godless. It appealed to the authority of "Nature's God", and that of a "Creator" who had endowed all humans with unalienable rights which the colonists believed the monarchy denied them.

Nature's God. Creator. Those seem like the words of a deist, metaphorical allegories to the imaginary "watchmaker" who assembled the universe, set it in motion, and left it to their own devices. Christians tend to use more personal terms to describe their personal God, words like "Lord" and "Savior" and "Heavenly Father".  Perhaps using abstract terms for the divine was fashionable among the intellectuals of the late 18th century, but the choice of words makes me wonder.

Even the doubters of the Christian God's existence didn't call themselves atheists or agnostics back in those days; science hadn't yet begun to explain the universe's origins and workings to the point where people could conceptualize nature without a "Nature's God" behind it.

The men who signed the Declaration were predominantly Christians, though some of them (such as Jefferson, as evidenced in his writings) were seemingly deists who nevertheless lived their lives by moral lessons they extracted from the Christian religion. I'd say that they were selectively interpreting the religion to suit their own ideas about a free society (the same Bible, after all, was used by the monarchs of Europe to justify their tyranny!), but I can't fault them for clinging to the religion given the period in which they lived.  They believed in liberty first, and imagined a God who believes in liberty too.

Looking Forward

Photo Credit: Robert Scoble

We've come a long way since the late 18th century. Science has given us solid explanations about the formation of the cosmos, the origin of the world we inhabit, and the evolution of the diverse life upon this rock. More and more people are stepping away from religion as science continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  Even people who maintain their religious identity have learned to reconcile their beliefs with the facts, regarding their faith's fables as metaphors from which to draw moral lessons.

Of course, it's not all rainbows and flags and American heroes riding rockets to infinity and beyond.  We have people worshiping the words of the Founding Fathers like they were prophets who foresaw solutions to the problems of the 21st century.  People are speculating about two-centuries-old thinking in order to make conclusions about everything from science to civil rights.  Others are pushing a policy of stagnation, trying to appease the masses by continuing pumping money into entitlements while avoiding rocking the boat with reforms.  Our politicians squabble about what the Founding Fathers would have thought about gay marriage and target science funding for budget cuts.

The best quality about our Constitution is that it was made to be a living, evolving document.  It provides a strong foundation for a system of government, but it was not the be-all and end-all system that will carry our society forward.  It can be amended when the people find that the framers were wrong about something, or when a policy that made sense in 1789 no longer makes sense today, or when it doesn't provide an answer to a question we ask today that would never have crossed the framers' minds.

Here's hoping that our nation can come together to think about the future, instead of pining for the past or maintaining the status quo.

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Creative Commons License