The word atheism has a peculiar edge to it. But as hard as it is to imagine, there are millions of people in this world who are atheists but seek God. I am one of them. And in many ways, my God is similar to Michael Newdow's. He has argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that the words “under God” in the American Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional and offensive to people who don't believe there is a God.
It took me a long time to realize that most self-professed atheists were not so much rejecting the idea of a uniting spirit to humanity or an underlying intelligence in the cosmos as the idea of God promoted by organized religions.
The problem isn't with God. The problem is with theism, particularly monotheism. And Newdow's argument is right, even if he carelessly lumped monotheism in with God. Monotheism has historically been the most exclusive and divisive definition of God we human beings have come up with. And who can blame Newdow for lumping the two together when monotheism in the Western hemisphere monopolizes the word God?
Olson unwittingly points out theism's potential for misuse. He said “that God gave them [America's Founding Father's] the right to declare their independence when the king has not been living up to the unalienable principles given to them by God.” The Founding Fathers were fairly benign in their interpretation of God, what with deep thinkers like Ben Franklin who was a Deist and Jefferson who was disgusted with centralized religion.
But, once you go down the road of using God as a justification for action, you'll one find yourself with all kinds of people who believe their God gave them the right to do things like make preemptive war on other nations, deny women their right to their own bodies, or throw the environment to the wolves. And those are the tamer examples.
God is always a reflection of our own sense of identity. It can glorify our ambitions or inspire self-sacrifice. Still, God the word is a neutral term that most secular humanists found distasteful because it's been repeatedly used for personal advantage. Marx may have been an atheist, but his God was humanity and he did his best to come up with a way to live that reflected the spirit of universal love that might counteract the centuries of hate in the name of God.
Supre Court Justice David Souter pointed out that the phrase “under God” has lost all religious meaning. Even monotheists are quickly realizing that while the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the same God on the surface, theologically and practically monotheism has spawned three very different and conflicting gods. The unifying power of our gods has been lost because the word God has been abused.
Today's definitions and usages of God still reflect times when theologians and priests were not interested in uniting all of humanity. Instead of nurturing the expansive faculty of the heart, Joseph Campbell reminds us that religious leaders narrowed the sense of identity in their followers to a little sect while “deliberately directing outward every impulse to violence.”
Newdow's arguments were on the mark by pointing out religious divisiveness, and the Justices probably knew it. In fact, if I were a monotheist, I would hope the Justices take those two words out of the Pledge lest the Supreme Court one day finds itself with a majority who believe that laws are the way to regulate my beliefs.
But striking out those two words will not solve the disease of divisiveness. It just addresses a fifty year-old symptom. There is a principle at stake. The definitions of our gods, our nations, and ourselves will reflect the same attributes, whether they are divisive or expansive.
It will be a good day when people can distinguish between God and theism, and not recoil at the words atheism or God, seeing them as perfectly compatible. Secular humanists still have work to do in undermining the monopoly on God presumed by organized religion.
Author Sankara Saranam is the founder of The Pranayama Institute, an educational public charity that reaches over 70 countries, a commentator on religious affairs, and the author of God Without Religion, available in August 2004.