Should We Sit Down for Humanism?

May 13, 2010

What should humanists do when they find themselves at a public ceremony that is religious or quasi-religious? Protest loudly? Protest quietly? Or go with the flow?

Two recent events made me think of this issue. My wife, who is a teacher, received an award from Fairfax County, Virginia. The award was bestowed at a meeting of the school board. Before the awards ceremony began, the board chair asked everyone to rise to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I was in the middle of the auditorium with my wife’s colleagues nearby, so I could hardly exit quietly. I decided to stand but keep my arms at the side and remain silent. I was not going to take part in a mandated pledge of fidelity to a nation "under" an imagined deity. I wonder only whether I should have remained seated.

I did remain seated at another recent event. I am not a big sports fan, but I do attend an occasional ballgame, although apparently not often enough to be aware of a practice that has been adopted in the Major Leagues. Baseball fans will know that at the seventh-inning stretch, those in the stadium are supposed to stand; they are then invited to sing some traditional tune, such as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." But the music menu has changed. At the recent game, the announcer told everyone to sing "God Bless America." I declined and sat back down. A few hard glances in my direction were all that resulted. (By the way, someone informed me afterward that the Major Leagues had adopted this practice for all games sometime after 9/11, but I have not been able to verify this.)

Some may think that I am making too much of events that are essentially meaningless. No one really cares who participates in these ceremonies. And "God Bless America" is only a song, after all. Some atheists sing gospel songs or join choruses that perform Handel’s "Messiah." Ceremonies that contain references to God are a non-issue.

I disagree. Words have meaning. Symbols have significance. The importance of symbolism is underscored by the fact that many of the religious fight tenaciously to keep religious symbols on public property. The Supreme Court does not rule on the constitutionality of crosses in remote national parks because nobody cares.

And what nonbelievers voluntarily do is an entirely different matter than what nonbelievers are pressured to do. You can hum a hymn in the shower and still resent being told to bow your head at a city council meeting. Incorporating God references into public ceremonies in which everyone is expected to participate is a not very subtle reminder that belief in God is considered the default view. It’s what every American should believe. Atheists may be tolerated, but they are decidedly second-class citizens.

Moreover, if we simply shrug our shoulders and participate in these ceremonies, we feed the myth that no one really objects to these ceremonies, except a few "militant atheists." Perhaps if more of us remain silent and/or seated, others will begin to realize these ceremonies serve to exclude, not unite.