One of the greatest American lies of all time is our claim to whole-hearted acceptance and celebration of our society’s unique diversity. Of course, such words look wonderful on paper as a sparkling testament to America’s brilliant grandeur. In truth, it is merely a fool’s hope based in patriotic ignorance to believe we truly cherish diversity and regard it as indispensable.
Need we be reminded our nation proclaimed that all men are created equal, but took a century to guarantee the basic civil rights of minorities when slavery was abolished? Or that this is the land where generations of immigrants have been and still are on the receiving end of racism and segregation through the centuries?
Religion is no exception to the rule either. There have been many examples of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic behavior in the past and present. But the true religious intolerance within America is in the treatment of atheists and agnostics.
A great myth that has become increasingly popular over the last few decades is that the United States is a Christian nation established in the principles of Judeo-Christian culture. Such an idea is preposterous and bordering on insulting to any American citizen not of that persuasion.
Think of the fact that Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, two men who were enormously influential in the foundation of America, were deists who did not adhere to Judeo-Christian teachings. Thomas Jefferson, the very author of the Declaration of Independence, was an atheist. When Franklin and Jefferson were helping write the Constitution, do you believe they would have stood for their founding principles of the United States to be changed? Neither did I.
This misconception, in turn, has led to the agnostic and atheist presence with the United States to be completely disregarded. We crow rather loudly about religious freedom both in practice and expression. But the idea of not believing in a specific deity, or even one at all, is so reprehensible to many people that they simply overlook the existence of agnostics and atheists.
For members of both groups, religion seems to be so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, in a clear violation of the First Amendment, that it has been made incapable for them to participate in the most basic and patriotic activities.
They cannot pledge allegiance to our flag. Their oath in court means nothing, since they’re swearing to an entity they do not believe in. They can’t even sing along during the seventh inning stretch when “God Bless America” begins. I know because I’m one of them.
Agnostics and atheists are true second-class citizens of the United States. To many, we’re best left to our own devices and not acknowledged. When it comes to us, don’t ask and don’t tell.
In France, there is a new bill with widespread popular support going through their legislature calling for the abolishment of overtly religious symbols within the public school setting. They cite a concern over a perceived increase in religious intolerance amongst students, particularly those believed under the influence of fundamentalist Islam.
It is a move with all the right intentions in mind, an attempt to keep France a secular society, one where religion has no place being forced into the lives of people who want no part of it. It is a page in a book that the United States could stand to read from.
But it is too strong a move in one direction. While this bill grants agnostics and atheists a show of respect, it also eliminates freedom of religious expression. One should be allowed to follow the codes of their religion without government interference, a principle that many nations have been founded upon.
A happy medium needs to be found where the state recognizes the rights of all to worship and express their beliefs as they please, including the right not to believe in anything at all, without making religion such a prevalent force in mainstream society that it alienates its own citizens.
I for one, can’t wait.
Noah Potvin can be reached at Redfloit5@hotmail.com.