Afternoon InquisitionReligionSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition, 2.20

Michael Newdow, who you may remember from the lawsuit he filed to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, is continuing his efforts to keep church and state separate. Newdow recently filed a lawsuit to exclude the religious elements of Obama’s inauguration and although the preliminary injunction was denied, Newdow is now looking for 1,000 for individuals to join him as plaintiffs in his suit. Newdow’s lawsuit charges that Chief Justices do not have the right to add religious phrases (such as “So Help Me God”) when administering oaths.

Do you think Newdow’s suit is ‘worth it’?  Are there other areas of the law that the secular movement’s time is better spent (such as combatting faith-based initiatives or keeping anti-abortion laws off the books)? Or, is it just as important to work to change the religious language that is so often cited as a evidence that America is a Christian nation?


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I think there are much better places to apply my energy. On the other hand I would never tell anyone else what to do with their time. I say Godspeed to Michael Newdow and the Jerry Lewis telethon for that matter, although I think both of them are wasting their time and resources.

  2. I think it’s an important issue and a valid argument, but I agree that there are better and more urgent areas that need our attention right now -especially with the news out of North Dakota.

  3. While I would love to see him suceed, I just don’t think he can the more you try to force people to change the more resistant. I would rather see this type of effort go into education, that’s the only way to rid the world of silly superstitions.

    Just my opinion.

  4. I think Newdow is doing something important by trying to wedge cracks in the foundation of religious deference that has settled deeply in the laws and practices of this nation. Although on the face, it might not seem effective, the same sorts of defiance of the status quo that were scoffed at in days gone by were that which eventually led to integration and suffrage.

    Reacting to Newdow as if anything he is doing is negative or a waste of time seems to be parallel to accusing Rosa Parks of having wasted time fighting against a system so well-established and fundamental to American life.

    I am proud of someone who has the time and energy to fight the religious influence over law. Imagine if there were a thousand, ten thousand, a million Newdows what could be accomplished.

  5. In any movement – and skepticism/freethinking/whatever is certainly a movement – it’s important to have some people who are just really angry. And it would be wrong to deny them their anger. Calls to “be more moderate” and “just be patient” have been heard by every civil rights movement, but in the end it was angry people that got the nation’s attention.

    That said, I don’t think our national community is in a place where “stunts” like Newdow’s are going to be particularly effective. Worse, I worry that they shape public opinion against anyone who dares label themselves as a skeptic — or, FSM forfend, an atheist.

    It’s Newdow’s time and money, and he can do as he please, but I do wish he’d focus more on real and systematic bigotry than on these “big news” items.

    I still think the best thing atheists and skeptics can do right now is to just be decent human beings, and be “out”. If that results in unfair treatment at the hands of educators, government, employers, etc., then use the courts and the media, of course — but otherwise let people see that their caricatures of atheists are all wrong.

    Sadly, Newdow’s stunts only solidify the caricature.

  6. I agree with what others have previously said. I think the skeptical community is better served dealing with issues that are more easily addressed with facts and science rather than areas of religion and philosophy; which by their nature often operate outside the realm of rational thought. Exceptions being when health and safety are at risk.

  7. If Obama was forced against his will to swear on a bible, he might have a point. But as it is, this case just makes atheists look like dicks. It does more harm to the cause than good.

    Even for the pledge and coin motto suits where I think he is right, it may not be strategically wise.

  8. @SkepGeek: I’m in agreement with you on this one.

    Autotroph, I don’t know about the “angry ones”. Yes they are ofter a part of just about any movement, but think they rarely do more good than harm. And most of the time, it’s more harm in that it damages the groups reputation with the people who you’re trying to influence.

    In this case, it’s not dissimilar to the guy trying to sue bars for discrimination over “Girl’s Night” events. Most people will say wtf and why does this matter and eventually tune it out. They’re already think Newdow’s off his rocker and that doesn’t help the athiest case at all.

    The billboards and bus ads have been a much better battleground in that they’ve gotten average people talking and thinking about these things.

  9. Having been through this (viscerally) here in San Diego over the San Diego Easter Cross (drr…Mt Soledad War Memorial, whatever) the past few years, I can say that all the efforts did was piss off people and unite the Christians here. And, it failed miserably, to boot. We’d be better off just being good people and demonstrating that we’re good instead of trying to step on every ant we see.

  10. @Athos: “The billboards and bus ads have been a much better battleground in that they’ve gotten average people talking and thinking about these things.”

    Great. It’s nice to have average people talking and thinking.

    Then what? What’s the next step? What are average people going to do next to improve the situation for freethinking, science, sex ed, secularism? Talk and think some more?

    If the next step isn’t challenging religious ideology in court (like in all the vs. Creationism trials), then what is the next appropriate step? (“Legislation” is a good answer here, but the average person doesn’t legislate — the average person barely votes). Or do you think there shouldn’t be any next steps at all. Is talking and thinking the end of the road?

    You know, the people who create religious based laws/blue laws didn’t just sit around and talk and think about things. They acted on those thoughts, and to counter such action, we need reaction. So, what’s the reaction, and what, specifically, is Newdow doing that is “harmful”?
    (These are questions to everyone)

  11. Oh…the moral dilemma. Is it a point of contention, yes. Is it worth arguing? ….that’s a little harder to answer. Would I like them to stop using the bible to be sworn in, sure. Would I like “so help me god” deleted from the oath of office, absolutely. But, I think this falls into one of the more gray areas. I think Mr. Newdow is falling into the “angry atheist” stereotype, and we need more “friendly atheist”s.

    But, face it, every move we make will raise the ire of the religious. When the christmas sign was out, they said “not around christmas”. When the busses came out, “Well, that’s disrespectful”. You just can’t win for losing.

  12. Given a finite amount of resources ($$, time), I think the money spent on this case would be better spent fighting more hard-core and winnable cases of religious intrusion into the public sphere. The “Evolution vs. Creationism” court case are an excellent example. Also cases of anti-atheist discrimination in the military. Find a victim of discrimination that people can sympathize with and you’ll get a lot farther toward the desired outcome.

  13. @SkepGeek: I dont think this is about people being forced to swear to god, or on the goddamn bible. The issue for me is that when a government official asks someone to swear to a god they do not believe in, in a public ceremony/court/bathhouse/whatever, that person is put in the awkward position of having to choose whether to go along (swearing an oath they do not believe in) or make a spectacle of themselves by objecting. I have no problem with theists adding “so help me god” if they so choose, but it should not be part of the official script.

  14. 30 years ago I refused to “so help me god” at the end of my enlistment oath and nobody batted an eye. Not a problem. My kids weren’t required to repeat certain parts of the Pledge either as long as they stood up for their (non)beliefs beforehand.

    Are these people required to say those parts of the oath or do they choose to? Maybe it’s a non-argument.

    If the man chooses to tilt at windmills so be it. That’s his waste of time.

  15. @Procrustes: “Then what? What’s the next step? What are average people going to do next to improve the situation for freethinking, science, sex ed, secularism? Talk and think some more?”

    Actually, to a certain degree…yes. Remember, we’re in the minority here. It’s important to remember that we’re at a disadvantage in numbers and we have to pick the right battles. Unless we elect a Buddhist to the presidency and he is forced to say “under god”. It’s really hard to convince people of any kind of moral high ground.

    Personally, the Pledge of Allegiance or restoring E Plurbis Unim to the coinage are better points of attack. History and the Constitution is on our side. But, we’ve got to convince people, not alienate and anger them. Or worse, become ignored and an object of ridicule and that’s what Newdow is risking.

  16. I agree with davew, SteveT,
    These suits are more likely to create more smoke than fire, as the saying goes. I think we’re better off (at least I am) putting our energies to more useful tasks.

  17. I think that this is a legal area worth perusing. So many people insist that the US is a “Christian nation,” and they base their statements off of this sort of established God-speak. They say, “We’re a Christian nation because God is on our money and in our pledge and must be evoke during our important ceremonies.” Likewise I’ve heard the religious argue that an atheist should never be allowed to serve in public office because they deny the God our country was “founded on.” These false opinions need to be checked. If nothing else, it could help bring an end to the descrimination atheists in the public eye face.

    It’s going to take a long time to chip away at these national nods to God, but I think it’s worth working at. As a country, we need to reestablish clearly our secularism.

    Who cares if it makes Christians angry? They’re angry all the time anyway. They’re angry that atheists even exist. Nothing we can do will make us look more “friendly” to them, because they already believe we are corrupted by the devil.

  18. Regarding the more important topics like keeping creationism out of schools and ending religious discrimination in the armed forces, wouldn’t it make it easier to fight those battles if the many references to God within our government were removed? Atheists in the military are discriminated against exactly because all of these references give the false illusion that country is founded on the Christian religion. Is it surprising that a Christian nation would have a Christian military? No. But we have a secular country, and we should have a secular military. The fact needs to be made clear, and that can only be done by removing the references to God that are currently so entangled in our government.

  19. @orDover: Although it might indeed be easier to fight the creationism and discrimination battles if the many references to God in government were removed, that really seems (IMO) like a much less likely order of events than the other way around, in our current society.

    And I’d also like to point out that not all Christians are angry, atheist-haters. I am a practicing Christian with many atheist friends. In neither hate nor mistrust them. I respect them. I know that in my own church, I have made good progress in altering the ignorant views of many people on the subject of atheists/atheism. People like Newdow make my work more challenging.

  20. But why does Newdow make your work more challenging? Why does an atheist expressing their views upset Christians so much? I have yet to see Newdow do something directly bitter or hateful. He isn’t filing a lawsuit that Christianity be made illegal or anything hostile, he is merely attempting to make our country more inclusive. Why does asking for inclusion instead of exclusion cause anger? I think his actions are not at all inflammatory (in fact, they are technically conservative, attempting to restore the country to the principles it was actually founded on), and yet you yourself admit that Christians have a big problem with them.

    Yes, I was making generalizations when I said that Christians will always be angry with atheists, but it has a large element of truth to it. Any outward signs of atheism in this country have been met with rancor, regardless of how mild the tone.

  21. @orDover: As others have noted previously on this thread, Newdow seems like sort of of a dick. When the few really public atheists mostly seem to be unpleasant people, it’s hard to disentangle the people from the philosophy. As the public face of atheism, I like people like Neil deGrasse Tyson a LOT better than Newdow. The message may well end up being the same, but Neil is going to have a lot more success with the message than is Newdow.

    And I don’t deny for a moment that I am in a minority of Christians. I wasn’t trying to argue that your generalization wasn’t valid. Just offering myself up as a counterexample. The public reviling of atheists by Christians revolts me. If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure that if there is ever a Fundamentalist Christian takeover of the US Government, I likely wouldn’t be far behind you in the line to get on the prison bus.

  22. Regarding Newdow being a “dick,” do you think that his general message would be better accepted if he always had a smile on his face? Or do you think that Christians would still be very upset (and even angry) about an atheist attempting to remove references of their God from the government, regardless of how nice of a person the atheist seemed to be?

  23. Even if every atheist (prominent or retiring) were pleasant and helpful and kind to children, puppies and the elderly, I am skeptical that it would make a huge dent in the public perception of atheists/m. We’re explicitly anti a thing that many folks see as an integral part of their identity.

    For me, this question winds up in the same place as the debate about whether Dawkins’ vocal anti-religion advocacy helps or hurts. I think every movement needs its agitators as much as it needs its compromise-makers. Real change can’t happen with out a little bit of both, IMHO.

    Or, alternatively, with a strategic nuclear exchange. That would change everything right quick.

  24. If you have to go into battle, would you rather fight a battalion or would you rather fight the commander?

    It is logical to think that attacking the oath and the Chief Justice of SCOTUS is awkward, stupid and fruitless because the task at hand seems like small potatoes. But, it isn’t. It is a pointed attack on the commander in the battle for a secular society. If Newdow were to point his weapons solely at the battalions of “faith-based initiatives”, he would be one person attacking thousands. Instead, he is a sniper who has focused his efforts on the leader of the organization. If you take out the leader, the body of the organization becomes disorganized and ineffective. This is how we want religion to be: disorganized and ineffective. Unfortunately, that’s how atheists and secularists are right now: disorganized and ineffective.

    I don’t think that Newdow’s sole mission in life should be to take out the commander in the fight for a secular society, but you have to start at the top. You don’t kill your enemy by shooting him in the leg — you will only wound him and he will live to fight you another day, just later. A direct hit to the head means you won’t be seeing him again. It also gives great pause to those around him that they may suffer the same fate if they stick their heads out too far.

    Where else does religious indoctrination come but from the head of the organization?

  25. Is it not difficult to change the minds of most indoctrinated, delusional Christians?
    So, what is there to do to bring about change that favors the rational? Find obstacles to rational thinking, bring attention to them?
    Newdow does this.
    How many of us have been asked to say “so help me god” when in the court of law? I shudder when I hear that as part of an oath. During my divorce decree, the judge uttered these words “so help me god”, I repeated them because I did not want to spend all day in court, divorce is difficult enough.

    So what if he is an “angry atheist”? If he were “nice”, would that change the stereotype of atheists being “angry” or would people say “Oh, he’s nice – for an atheist” ?

  26. I’ve been a practicing lawyer for 29 years and an atheist for 41 years (at least). Although I don’t do First Amendment litigation work, I have read extensively about Establishment Clause and Free Exercise jurisprudence. I have some grudging admiration for Michael Newdow’s tenacity, but he’s not good at picking the right battles to fight. He (and the rest of us godless folks) will get nowhere tilting against the windmills of vague, ceremonial deism — the “In God We Trust” on U.S. money, the 1954 addition of “under God” [why not “under Canada”?] to the Pledge of Allegiance, the use of “so help me God” in the Presidential oath. None of this stuff is significantly dangerous to Americans’ rights, compared to the more serious Establishment Clause violations that occur in public schools, in courthouse displays, in the U.S. military, in “faith-based” initiative programs, etc. I could scarcely care less about whether “so help me God” is added to the end of a public official’s oath. It is as bland, featureless, and devoid of any real meaning as “God Bless America.” It debases and demeans real religious feeling through over-use, making most of the population somewhat numb to any power that such words or phrases once had.

    I assure you that when (not if) an out-of-the-closet atheist or freethinker is elected as President, and when he or she talks to the Chief Justice to rehearse the administration of the Constitutionally-prescribed oath, the Chief Justice will omit the “so help me God” phrase once the President-Elect makes it clear that he or she won’t repeat it.

  27. I always cringe when I hear the agreement against doing something because there are more important things to do. Following that line of thinking, everyone should spend all of their energies working on the one most important thing and leave everything else until that is accomplished or raises in priority (probably from neglect) until it is the most important. To an extreme, we would not be donating to the SPCA because that money or energy would be better served (in someone’s ranking) to feeding starving , or ending war in .

    I think removing the language would be good, not because it offends me, but because of the problems I see that it can create.

    If someone being sworn in to the office of Presidency choose not to repeat those words, either because they felt they do not need to be there, or shouldn’t be there, then imagine the firestorm. Would the oath be valid since it was not repeated as dictated? Or valid because it complied with the constitution? Are times when they were used valid or invalid?

    Actually, I think we need a firestorm. This just went on in my ranking of what people should spend their limited resources on.

    I like it.

  28. People can spend their limited resources on whatever they want. Newdow is a lawyer and so he can litigate these issues at less expense than someone else. But based on a long line of fairly clear precedents, he’s not going to win cases that “go after” the “under God” in the Pledge or the addition of “so help me God” to the Presidential oath, or most instances of prayer during legislative sessions (Look at how the 7th Circuit ruled in a rather egregious case that I wish the plaintiffs had won, against the god-wallopers in the General Assembly of my home state of Indiana).

    There are better, more efficient ways to protest against creeping religiosity in the public sphere besides filing lawsuits.

    When my fellow atheists and free-thinkers do things that are tactically stupid — like the FFRF putting up posters that say “Praise Darwin” — I’m going to speak my mind and point out that the wrong kind of firestorm is being created.

  29. I believe that if the majority wants to punctuate America’s celebratory rituals with prayer, we don’t need to make a fuss about it. There are more important things to do than being the Inaugural Prayer Police.

  30. Someone has already made the observation about herding cats and atheist. The attempts to weaken separation of church and state will wedge in just as creation continues to wedge into the schools. Pressure coming from the same groups. The herd may pick one area and be more effective but individual action such as Michael Newdow’s deserves some praise and support.
    The American Buffalo had an excellent defense against it natural enemies. Herd up with the big guys facing outward. Worked well until God-fearing Americans with guns came along.
    Atheist living as decent human being will not ensure tolerance. While we wait for the American education system to produce an enlightened critical thinking populace the Constitution’s Bill of Rights needs defending.
    I offer this as an example. This guy will be running for mayor.

  31. I think the advantage of fighting this battle is that it is bleedingly simple (at least from my perspective over here in Australia). The USA is supposed to have a separation of church and state. The pledge of aleigance is dictated by the government (correct me if I am wrong). Therefore, it should not mention god.

    There are no grey areas here, as there may be with faith based initiatives that might do some good along with pushing an agenda. The religious right can’t hide behind that defense here.

    Because of this, you can almost see this as a battle of “the USA is a religious nation” vs “the USA is a secular nation”. And that’s a battle worth fighting.

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