Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans out there! Given the fact that “godless” is a political insult in the United States, and one recent president actually wasn’t sure if atheists deserved to be counted as citizens, I feel the need to make it especially clear that I love being an American and I care a whole lot about the future of this country. On July 4th, we celebrate our independence from colonial rule by a monarchy, and the founding of a new democratic republic with so many important rights and protections guaranteed to its citizens. Even though I won’t be singing “God Bless America” or pledging allegiance to our nation “under God,” I’m very proud of my country and I’ll be celebrating the holiday too.
American Atheists has arranged to fly aerial banners today, saying “God-LESS America” or “Atheism is Patriotic,” in as many states as they could find pilots willing to do the job. If you read other atheist blogs, you’ve probably heard about how challenging that actually turned out to be.
Justin Jaye of Fly Signs Aerial Advertising, who is orchestrating the flights for American Atheists, said out of the 85 people in the country who fly these sign-pulling planes only about 17 have agreed to fly the messages.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve never run into so much resistance on people flying,” Jaye said. “I’ve had pilots who are actual atheists who said, ‘Justin, I am an atheist and I won’t fly it because I can’t wear a bulletproof vest.’”
Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says the reaction to the organization’s campaign before it takes off shows how much work the group still needs to do. “This is a clear reminder of why we need to keep fighting because the bigotry against us is so thick that a lot of the pilots are afraid to fly our banners,” he said.
Like a lot of American Atheists’ publicity, this banner campaign is a totally reasonable endeavor that’s likely to stir up a lot of resentment and animosity among religious Americans who don’t understand the whole picture. (Really, just the planning for it already has.) Just take the statement, “Atheism is patriotic.” That will instantly be interpreted by most people as, “Theism [i.e., your own religion] is not patriotic.” It’s another attack on real Americans from those godless heathens!
The way I read it, though, this slogan is drawing attention to the fact that so many Americans already think being a theist, and more specifically being a Christian, is practically synonymous with being American. Just look at the frequency with which political speeches end with “God bless America,” and the furor that’s surrounded the fake controversy over whether Barack Obama is a Christian (as though it would obviously be a problem if he weren’t). The banner points out that atheism is just as patriotic as Christianity is. That is to say, the patriotic thing to do is to exercise your freedom of religion, your freedom of thought, your right to learn and question and draw your own conclusions without having some official government religion forced upon you.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of the greatest things about this country. Every time I consider the possibility of moving to another country someday, the First Amendment is what reminds me I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love the American conception of rights as inalienable. I love the importance we place on free expression, free discourse, and free thought. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything magical about national borders and I don’t have that rabid “America first!” enthusiasm some people have, as though their country’s one giant sports team. (To be fair, I don’t really get the local sports team allegiance, either.) But we do have national borders and a shared national history, and there’s a lot about our country that we should be proud of and celebrate. My freedom to be an atheist is certainly one of the things I’m celebrating today.