I was doing my dead-level best to be non-confrontational when I replied to the poster of the image at right earlier today. Attempting to not be the atheist that I am, but instead an unbiased observer answering the question presented.
You can see it, right? The problem in the sign? In the question? Allow me to spell it out.
Let’s assume that there is nothing wrong with putting god first. It’s a big assumption, but play along with me for a few minutes. Whose god shall we put first? There are thousands of gods created by man down through history. Thor? Isis? Jupiter? Allah?
I know, I’m just teasing you. Obviously it is the christian god that the sign wants us to put first. This is America, home of the Bible thumpers. Obviously they mean the christian god. So would that be the magic underpants Mormon god, or perhaps the Calvinist predestination god? The Catholic god or the Protestant god? Which one of the thousands of flavors of christian god gets to be the God that goes first before all things?
The problem is (this is the comment that got me blocked by the friend who posted the image) that Americans, specifically European Americas, largely immigrated to the Americas to escape religious persecution. I could produce any number of references backing up this historical truth. The one I picked today was this one.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “inforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
It was this experience that lead the framers of the constitution to explicitly leave all references to religion out of the founding documents for the United States of America. It is why the first amendment to the constitution, the first right in the bill of rights is freedom of religion. The freedom to have any religion or no religion at all. That is what freedom of conscience means; the right to choose your own path based on your own private council.
The mistake is believing that your god must be affirmed in order for America to return to greatness. American greatness resides in the right of the people to follow their own path to greatness. That the individual freedom to keep your own council, to act according to one’s own conscience, makes America as a whole greater than the sum of its separate parts.
What has to come first, before god, before religion, is something that was created with the United States itself; the notion of the supremacy of secular civil society. While individually our consciences must be acknowledged as our guides, what must guide our government is consensus, not any one person’s god or conception of god.
America is already great; and the saddest fact of all is that a wide swath of Americans don’t know this. They have fallen victim to a charlatan’s flim-flam act. A snake-oil salesman who hopes to cash-in on the lies told to the people of the United States for decades now. He claims he can Make America Great Again, as if American greatness is something that can be given to us by an authority figure.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
American greatness is found when Americans realize we don’t need authority figures to tell us what to do. American greatness is based in all of us acting on the council of our own consciences. Providing food and shelter to the homeless. Comfort for the bereft. A ear for those who just want to be listened to. The answer is not to ask a leader “what should I do?” but to ask yourself that question in the light of your most fervently held beliefs, and then act on that advice in the best, most humane way possible. In the end, we will come to a better answer than any authority with a lifetime of knowledge can get to on his own. This is known as The Wisdom of the Crowd, and it is true whether you believe it or not.
Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature puts the lie to the notion that we are in a moral decline without god; and there are countless other resources which document through scientific inquiry the improving quality of life in the modern age. If you want to know why you are dissatisfied with your lot in life, you need look no farther than the contents of your own mind. Be the change you want to see in the world, and the world will look better to you because of it. Not because of god, or of any other authority you might appeal to.
Or as I would say to the person who posted the image if I was still speaking to her, don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear answers to. It will save all of us a lot of time.