Not Praying Along With Obama

How atheists are botching their war on religion.

Like most people watching TV last Tuesday morning, I hadn’t caught an inauguration in a while, so some of the choreography was new to me. For instance, I didn’t realize there’d be this formal handoff and goodbye, with the departing president escorted to a helicopter before ascending directly into history. I thought only Nixon had put on that show.

A less welcome surprise came during the inauguration itself, when two Christian ministers invited us all to pray to their god. Wait, what? Could we possibly still be doing this? On a day when one barrier to progress was crashing down, it seemed hard to believe such a retrograde routine was also being trotted out, seemingly unquestioned.

I happen to be a religious person myself. But to have any reverend stand before the country and start directly addressing— on our behalf—a kindergarten version of God (old male, up there, controlling everything) as our government leaders bow their heads just seems wrong on its face. We all elected this president, and it’s not a religious office.

The trouble is that the only people speaking up loudly for separation of church and state are people who hate the church part.

Prior to the inauguration, a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the organizers, claiming the inclusion of prayer was unconstitutional. (They also wanted “So help me God” removed from the oath of office.) A district judge in D.C. dismissed the claim, saying the plaintiffs hadn’t shown what “concrete harm” they would suffer from the event.

It was a nice try. But what keeps me from sending the Foundation a check is that they’re also the ones who installed that pro-atheism sign in the state capitol building in Olympia at Christmastime—the one that was picked up by Bill O’Reilly and caused Governor Gregoire’s phone to ring off the hook for days.

And no wonder: The sign read in part “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—exactly the kind of boneheaded provocation that undermines the cause. The Foundation also paid for the “Imagine No Religion” billboard that was up this summer along Denny Way.

The atheist lobby and its standard-bearers, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, attack all religion as dangerous and delusional. But religion is no different from sports, music, or any other part of our culture. It can be a life-enriching experience that promotes community feeling and social values. It can also lead to destructive extremes. Should we Imagine No Sports because of steroids, concussions, and Pioneer Square knife fights?

Gay-rights advocates make the same mistake, seeing religion as the problem. But they’ve got the cart before the horse. People who cling to the homophobia in the Bible do it because…they’re homophobic. If they couldn’t justify it through Leviticus, they’d find some other way; atheism sure isn’t going to cure them. As so many great leaders have shown, consciousness can be raised through religion, not just in opposition to it.

Fanaticism, bigotry, and the divisive intrusion of religious dogma into our public life are what we should be fighting against. And we’ll have more success when atheists stop being as small-minded and doctrinaire as their enemies.