Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
What Happened to Secular Values?
I am a baseball fan. Since September 11, it seems as though at every major league baseball game, during the seventh inning stretch, “God Bless America” is played instead of the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” At first, I got it. The terrorist attacks were so horrific that people had an emotional need to display their patriotism publicly. But fifteen years later, “God Bless America” seems to have become the permanent seventh inning anthem.
I think this is as much a religious statement as a patriotic one. Patriotism seems to have developed a more religious tone over the years. The Pledge of Allegiance only added the words “under God” in 1954. The founding fathers wisely, I think, made it clear in the constitution that there was to be no establishment of religion in the United States, which has been interpreted to mean that there shall be a separation of church and state. Nevertheless, I think this “separation” has been eroding.
Although school prayer was abolished by the Supreme Court, controversies around public prayer, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and public celebration of Christmas, Easter and other Christian holidays seem to have become more common.
We frequently see prayers at important government ceremonies. “In God We Trust” is engraved on our currency. And I think many people erroneously believe that the United States was established as a “Christian Nation.” To me, however, the most disturbing truth is that people are intimidated by religion. Let me explain.
One group of people universally reviled by the public is atheists. I remember in one study which compared the public’s attitude toward various individuals, atheists were rated at a similar score with rapists! Seriously? Even today, atheists are held in contempt by a vast majority of Americans with over 60% of Americans holding a negative view of them, according to a recent Pew poll.
I think this is interesting because atheists are not defined by what they believe, but by what they do not believe. Atheists are not theists. They do not believe in an all-powerful god. As Sam Harris has pointed out, most of us are atheists about Zeus. We are similarly unbelieving about the Egyptian goddess Isis or the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
Yet, few people these days will suggest that they do not believe in the Christian God. No politician would dare run for high office and declare him or herself an atheist. It would probably be political suicide. Belief in God seems to be expected of people who seek to hold the public’s trust.
In my view, however, we would be better off, in many respects, if we embraced secular values. I am certainly not against people holding their religious beliefs, but I am uncomfortable when they want to impose those views on the rest of us. Secular values are those that recognize that religion is not helpful in establishing social institutions like public education and government. These public institutions should be based on sound reasoning and scientific research, unbiased by religious belief.
For example, just because some religious thinkers reject Darwin’s Theory of Evolution does not mean that it should not be taught in public schools. Overwhelming evidence supports its scientific truth. Similarly, government should be based on secular principles. Government-funded programs should be evaluated on their efficacy and thrift, not on how well they conform to any theological principles. Individual people may find religion helpful in understanding moral ideas, but moral values can be based in rationality and compassion, without any direct reference to any particular religion.
You might say that singing “God Bless America” at baseball games does no real harm. But it might. Such public conflation of patriotism with religious belief establishes an anti-secular environment. It can gradually make people feel intimidated if they do not share these religious beliefs. In my opinion, when facing serious climate change, radical Islamic terrorism, and world hunger, we need secular values more than ever.
Column: Uncommon Common Sense
Bill Frayer lived all of his adult life in Maine until moving to Mexico in 2007. He had a long career teaching writing, critical thinking, and communication at the community college and university level. He has published a critical thinking textbook and four volumes of poetry. Stirring up trouble with his column for the last eight years, he enjoys hearing from those who have strong opinions about what he writes. Now a snowbird back in Maine, he enjoys playing blues, eating lobster, and fishing with his granddaughter. In Ajijic he enjoys leading TED talks at LCS and talking poetry with his fellow poets.