Remind me to tell you later what happened when my supervisor found out the subject of the book I’m writing. Too tired to discuss it now.
I’ve been all over this book, from beginning to end, adding a bit here and a chunk there. Here’s one inspired by you lot, which I hope will meet your approval:
CONFUSION #13: IT’S FREEDOM OF RELIGION, NOT FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
This is one of those canards that American Christians trot out when they want to justify denying atheists their freedom of conscience. They think it denies atheists any rights at all. There’s a reason why this is such an uphill battle.
Since so many Americans don’t even know what’s in the Bill of Rights, let’s have a look at the First Amendment together. It’s important to know what it says, because it protects some of our most cherished freedoms:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Whole books have been written on exactly what freedoms these little sentences cover. We’ll just take on the ones pertaining to our discussion here.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This means that our government can’t declare one single religion as official, or favor one religion over another. If the majority of Congress voted to make, say, Hinduism the official religion of the United States, that law would be struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The same thing would happen if Congress attempted to pass a law establishing any one sect of Christianity, or even a generic interpretation of Christianity, as America’s religion. And, for the purposes of the courts, I’m pretty sure atheism would be treated as a “religion.” Our Founders wrote the Establishment Clause this way because they didn’t think belief – or lack of it – is something that can be legislated. Our government must remain officially agnostic and wholly secular in order to protect the next bit of the Bill of Rights.
“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” You are free to be a practicing Christian. With a few extremely narrow exceptions, the government cannot outlaw your church attendance, your worship services, or your beliefs. When religious beliefs conflict with the law, the government has to be careful about prohibiting your religious practices. If you, for instance, decided to follow the Old Testament’s order to stone unruly children to death, the government can and would step in to protect your children, because society’s interests in keeping those children safe, healthy and alive override your belief that disobedient children must die. But the government can’t willy-nilly proclaim that your religion as a whole is illegal, and you have no right to practice it.
On the flip side, and emerging naturally from that, the government also can’t compel you to go to church. It can’t force you to worship. That’s where atheists come in: we may not be a religion by definition, but we can’t be forced by the government to believe in any religion, either. In that sense, yes, the Constitution does indeed provide for our freedom from religion. But that’s not all.
“…or abridging the freedom of speech…” This covers all speech. My speech, and yours. I can talk about atheism. You can talk about Christianity. It has nothing to do with religion: speech is protected whether it’s religious, debunking religion, political, artistic, or just plain boring.
“…or of the press…” You can publish a Christian newspaper, and I can publish an atheist newspaper, and both are equally protected. Freedom of the press, of course, has extended beyond the printing press, but you get the idea.
“…or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is certainly not limited only to religious people. Atheists are just as free to assemble and petition as any believer.
What all of this taken together adds up to is a freedom not spelled out by name, but one that the courts have recognized as the logical conclusion from the freedoms enumerated and what our Founders said about freedom: we have freedom of association. While there are some limits on that right, as there are with any right, there is no exclusion for the non-religious. Atheists are just as free to associate with one another and exercise their rights as are debate clubs, hobbyists, political activists, and church groups.
The Constitution also prohibits a religious test for office. Here’s Article Six:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
No religious test means that Congress can’t establish the requirement that someone have a religion in order to serve their country in office. All an atheist has to do is affirm his or her commitment to support the Constitution.
All of this adds up to a clear intent by our Founders to establish freedom of conscience. Nothing supports the notion that citizens of this country are forced to have faith. And that’s a good thing indeed, because I doubt many of you would like the result if government had the power to choose your faith for you.
Long. Yeah. But it’s one of those hard-to-explain-in-a-soundbite subjects.
I also attacked belief in chairs. Steve, Howard and Woozle will be pleased.
Fellow NaNo sufferers: we have all day. We’re going to make it across the finish line. Even though we may feel like we’re going to die of a heart-attack two feet away from the tapes…
Going to bed for a few hours now. argharghargh.