A United States for nonbelievers?

JEWEL SAMAD AFP/GETTY IMAGES US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office in front of First Lady Michelle Obama … Continued



US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office in front of First Lady Michelle Obama during the 57th Presidential Inauguration ceremonial swearing-in at the US Capitol on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. US Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath.

At Monday’s moving inauguration ceremony, President Barack Obama repeated the constitutionally prescribed oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Like most but not all presidents before him, he also placed his hand on a Bible and recited the words “So help me God,” which is not constitutionally required. This atheist was, of course, disappointed but not surprised at the addition.

To understand how many atheists feel about this, consider substituting “Zeus” or “Shiva” or “Allah” for “God.” Like the other approximately twenty million non-religious Americans, I wish President Obama had taken his oath on the Constitution under which our nation is governed, rather than on a divisive sectarian book under which we are not governed-thanks be to Thor.

Inauguration festivities often send symbolic messages to the country, and I give two cheers to President Obama because he talked about treating people equally regardless of race, creed, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. I liked his message, but not the justification for it-which was God. What would we think if our president had said “Freedom is a gift from Odin” or we must preserve our planet because it is “commanded by Gaia, the goddess of the Earth?”

And despite the relative inclusiveness of this inaugural, Obama took a step back from his first inaugural address, during which he gave a token nod to atheists: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers.” At Monday’s inaugural, atheists and their millions of non-religious friends were as invisible as deities.

During the many debates I’ve participated in about whether the United States is a Christian nation, I always referred to the authority of our godless Constitution, which makes no mention of God or Jesus. My opponents usually countered with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, as did President Obama on Monday, stating that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” However, the Declaration of Independence does not govern us. It was a call for rebellion against the British Crown. By emphasizing our unalienable rights, the founders distinguished us from an empire that asserted the divine right of kings.

President Obama paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln during his inaugural festivities, taking the oath with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible. A chorus sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”-a Christian hymn that exults in “the coming of the Lord” and “the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Lincoln turned this song into an anti-slavery message. I wish President Obama had included one of my favorite Lincoln quotes: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

Although President Obama tried to deliver a bi-partisan message for Democrats and Republicans, I wish he had also included a bi-theological message for theists and nontheists. We who live responsible, lawful and creative lives without supernatural beliefs are the fastest growing segment of our country. We voted overwhelmingly for Obama. And as with African-Americans, women, and gays, whose rights we have long supported, atheists will continue to insist on inclusion.

An invocation or closing comments by a humanist or atheist could have sent the country and the world a message that nontheist citizens are also valued. We do not ask for special treatment. Instead, we look for opportunities where religious and secular people in our community can gather for common purpose in a country with a constitution whose first three words are “We the people,” not “Thou the deity.” Unfortunately, President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony was a missed opportunity for us.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

Herb Silverman
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  • Michael_C

    “And as with African-Americans, women, and gays, whose rights we have long supported, atheists will continue to insist on inclusion.”

    If I was a black, female, or homosexual I would be offended by the implication that athiests are on somehow on par with these groups.

  • mmurray1957

    Well said Herb as usual.

  • mmurray1957

    So atheists are lesser American’s than blacks, females or homosexuals? Is that your point ?

  • Michael_C

    No, my point is that atheists have not been discriminated against like these other groups and to insinuate otherwise is an insult to people who have actually faced adversity for things they couldn’t help.

    I’m sure you will try to argue that atheists have been somehow discriminated against but even if you were right it still is not the same since atheists choose to be atheists.

  • IonOtter

    Yes, because a human being who doesn’t believe in the invisible sky fairy is somehow less deserving of the same respect and protection from skull-crushing and humiliation, than Christians, gays and black people.

  • dcofer

    Obama is a non believer

  • dcofer

    And the slope keeps getting slippery in 10 years it will be men with boys who want inclusion. Obama has managed to completely pit groups against one another and most liberals are so blinded by him they don’t see it

  • TheBigNone

    Your number of 20 million nonbelievers is a bit out of date. The true number of the nonrelgious is closer to 60 million. And growing.

  • Glamdring

    …and Christians choose to be Christians (born again much?), Jews choose to be Jews…

    Here’s a hint: we’re all born atheists and adopt a religion, or not, as we get older. Usually it’s the religion of one’s parents, but not always.

  • TheBigNone

    So, if the bar for acceptable discrimnation is ‘choice’ then any person who joins a religion in adulthood can be discriminated against? I believe we have laws against that. And just what is so reprehensible about asking for proof of claims of deities? If someone claims to see a UFO we demand proof. If someone is accused of a crime we demand proof. If someone makes a claim for cold fusion we demand proof. Why is religion any different? I have more faith in the judgement of an atheist than I do in a believer.

  • Glamdring

    …to which I offer the reply that should have been given to the folks who tried to claim he is a Muslim: “Even if that were true, which it is not, so what?”

    America needs to be a secular nation. Not theist. Not atheist. Not agnostic. Secular.

  • Louise10

    Atheists don’t choose to be atheists. Do you believe that thunder is caused by angels bowling in the sky? Maybe the explanation of thunder as a natural phenomenon is wrong! If you don’t believe in bowling angels, is it because you “choose” not to believe, or because it makes no sense to believe in them? It makes no sense to atheists to believe in invisible gods, even “the God.” That’s “nonsense” to atheists, and atheists find it impossible to “choose” to believe in nonsense.

  • WmarkW

    I’m as atheist as Silverman is, although I disagree with his politics. I would have preferred Mitt Romney took the oath on that silly collection of pre-Columbian fantasy history, but that’s a different discussion.

    Barack Obama should take his oath on whatever book HE considers sacred. I care not a whit about Keith Ellison using a Quran, as long as that’s what consecrates his oath in his own mind.

  • wrybread

    I do not “choose” to be an atheist. Your implication is that I can somehow force myself to believe something is true, when I in fact believe it’s not. Very 1984.

    Here’s an analogy. Do you believe there is an invisible miniature Loch Ness monster living underneath your house? (I hope not.) Now let’s say someone has a brainwave detector, puts a gun to your head, and says “I ORDER you to believe in the Loch Ness Monster or I will kill you. But you can’t just say you believe, you have to actually believe.” Could you do it?

    I don’t think so. The only “choice” atheists make is not to lie.

  • satyaramc

    some speak…. because they have something to say………..;………. some others speak because they have to say something…………. i feel this way when i read articles such as these…….

  • Display Name 454

    77.7 million Catholics in the US. Not counting any of the other of the hundreds of sects and denominations in the US. Convince yourself that you believe or don’t. You will change and grow as you age. All that aside, why do atheists go so far out of their way to justify how moral they are? Without God morality is rather vaporous.

  • brianmark

    Michael, if you really believe that atheists have not been discriminated against, then you have lots of history to catch up on. Atheists have been forced to adopt religion; atheists have been executed; atheists have been denied land, property, and inheritances. Even today, several U.S. states continue to require (unconstitutionally!) that all elected public officials believe in a monotheistic Abrahamic religion.

  • CharlieDarwin

    Sacred books- no, thanks. Using a bunch of tribal myths as some sort of foundation for the oath is the ultimate mockery.
    Swearing on the Constitution is a wonderful idea- who could object to that?

  • nkri401

    For your sake, I pray God exist. I shudder what you would do if you found out God did not exist. I suppose you would rape, pilage and plunder to your heart’s content.

  • cprdcnats

    There is no such thing as a nonbeliever. Scratch a little harder and you’ll find a creed, clergy, rituals, and repression of heretics. It may be a faith that is malformed – one crafted not in sincere pursuit of truth, but formed from unrepetence and justifications. But it is a faith with its principles camped in metaphysical ideas and language. The cloak of non-belief is the effort to avoid the spotlight that would reveal the faith’s shallow, broken legs. The cloak of non-belief is also used to evangelize their faith and launch their crusades undetected.

    On the larger topic….
    Without submitting yourself to higher authority, one in which you humbly seek to understand and reconcile yourself to (rather than dictating and/or legislating to allow for your own selfish gain), there is simply no point to a constitutional republic. If our law and tradition is completely beholden to the conspiring whims of the 51% (or the 3% plus the 48% they’ve deceived), it’s not just our laws that lack standing, our very community is a farce. There must be a continuousity and design outside of our own creation.

  • RickWatcher

    The Constitution is not Godless. It ends with, in the Year of our Lord. Also almost every aspect of it was inspired by scripture. Such as the three branches of government ware inspired by Isaiah 33:22, “For the Lord is our judge (Judicial), the Lord is our lawgiver (legislative), the Lord is our king (Executive); he will save us.”
    Here are a few words from those who actually helped bring it into being.
    “I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as satisfied that it is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament.” Benjiman Rush

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” John Adams
    Most of our founders stated that without the finger of God this document would never have come about.
    I am amazed at the mountain of truth, facts and evidence that people have to ignore inorder to say anything about the founding of this nation was in any way godless. It is only the desire to live a life free from God and His commands that makes it possible for an individual to ignore so much evidence to truth.
    Daniel Webster, Statesman and defender of the Constitution had this to say;

    “If we and our posterity reject religious instruction and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us, that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity.”

    It also amazes me that it took only about 70 years of socialist/communist/godless indoctrination to draw so many from the truth and fight for their own demise.

  • WmarkW

    First Paragraph: I certainly don’t advocate repressing heretics. Arguing with them is not repression. I agree that a lot of politically liberal dogmas about offensive speech codes, political correctness and reflexive labelling of dissenting opinions as based on ignorance and bigotry, border on repression, but those are not part and parcel of atheism.

    Second paragraph: You go straight from citing a constitutional republic to characterizing an unfettered democracy. The latter is what violates the minority’s inalienable rights by voting to make them lesser citizens (like the South did until 50 years ago). My support of constitutional democracy is based on my belief in something 300 million times as big as myself — a whole nation of politically equal Americans. We’re a subset of a group seven billion times as big as myself; a world of people equally deserving of dignity.

  • WmarkW

    The First Commandment orders that its believers will have no God before the Judeo-Christian one. The First Amendment states that government will in no way enforce any such thing.

    Our Constitution is not based on scripture, except to the extent that latter is an important part of the basis of Western Civilization; as are other non-biblical principles, like free inquiry, the scientific method, capitalism, and a democratic-republican government of politically equal classless citizens.

  • bwong5


  • RickWatcher

    It’s easy to tell you have never researched any facts about our nations history, other than what a talking head professor may have told you. Go to the original writings of our founders, easily found on the WEB. Just the fact that there are so many religious quotes, sculpture, art and other items that cover our public buildings, highways and other areas all across the nation and that the godless are now trying to remove is the greatest visual proof of where our foreparents, throughout the centuries of this nation, stood on God and how important He and His Word were to them.

  • Display Name 454

    Wild animals live that way… Heaven wouldn’t be heaven if my dogs and birds weren’t there to share it with. Hell, I’ll live on the perch and let them feed me if that’s how it needs to work as long as we are all still together. As someone who firmly believes in God I’m humble enough to admit that I have no idea what heaven might be like or if it even exists. Think long and hard before you say something as silly as you just did. If we are just randomly occurring, self sustaining chemical reactions that evaporate into nothingness after we die, really what is the point of morality or civilization in the first place? God might have set the reactions in motion and walked away from the physical realm, but he did plant the seed of a soul in us and it has grown as our collective consciousness has a species. Our species didn’t develop civilization until we began to grow spiritually. I’ll make that statement to include polytheistic cultures as well as any of the more modern concepts of God. I don’t stand for all of the idiotic things that have been done in the name of false religious belief, but without the humility that the acceptance of a higher power than yourself brings, there is nothing stopping people from living as you suggest. What is the point of living other than to satisfy your instinctual urges as tigers or crocodiles do? My point to you is simply this, in the same way as people arguing for the legalization of drugs go out of their way to let everyone know that they don’t use, atheists seem compelled to excuse their belief (or lack thereof) with a similar disclaimer “look at me I can live a clean life and I don’t need God, I must be so much better than you weak minded religious types…” I don’t try to live a humble, moral life because I’m afraid of God, I do my best to live that way because I love God. Otherwise, every man for himself ,law of the jungle only makes sense and is the example set by most other creatures living on the planet What say you?

  • jgpolitico

    Rick Watcher, You forget the Treaty of Tripoli signed by President John Adams which stated: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

    Also, the Jefferson Bible in which Thomas Jefferson ripped out all of the miracles and nonsense from the bible.

    You also forgot how contradicting, uninformed, and malevolent the bible is…..but you pick and choose and compartmentalize so I don’t expect you to know that.

  • GregoryOR

    D. N. 454, the point of morality and civilization is that they make us strong as a species, which allows us to persist in this universe. Humans would have gone the way of the dinosaurs without our ability to create a social structure. Morality is a crucial element of the mutual dependence that builds a society. It is part of the make-up of humans, and is as natural to us as child-rearing and division of labor. Morality IS an instinctual urge for humans, just as hunting is for tigers and crocodiles. You do your best to live a moral life because that trait has been preserved and reinforced in humans over millennia of evolution. You are implying causality where none exits – you are moral and you love god. You are not moral BECAUSE you love god. They are unrelated.

  • inreasonitrust

    You see his hand is on a couple of bibles. President is in his second term now and feels very secure. He tried to please the mass, which in this case, are not those who do not believe in God. He wouldn’t have mentioned Gays and Lesbians either if they would have given the impression that they do not believe in God.

  • cprdcnats

    I did, because that is the end result. A self-imposed limit is temporary. Viewing ones limits of authority as a matter of mutual respect or practicality eventually cedes into selfish attempts to conspire with select others and/or and blind you to the 1, 25, or 49% for selfish gain.

    Granted that inalienable, rights, equal, dignity are metaphysical ideas and may reflect a faith. Whether it be shallow or sincere, strong or malformed, it may require a spotlight of how you can advocate such claims without imposing its own standards and repression of non believers.

  • Display Name 454

    You completely miss my point. It is indeed a choice to live a moral life. Many, many, many people choose not to live moral lives. Sandy Hook is but a single example. Wall Street and the Robber Barrons are others.

  • Michael_C

    For being supposed intellects you guys sure use terrible logic. Im not saying atheists have never been discriminated against, all beliefs systems have been throughout history. But in the US atheists are not and have not suffered discrimination on a national scale like the mentioned groups.

    As for choosing to be atheist… I would think you would all embrace that notion since if you didnt choose your beliefs than how are you better then the supposed brainwashed and irrational religious nuts?

  • Catken1

    “Humans would have gone the way of the dinosaurs without our ability to create a social structure. ”

    You mean, successfully surviving and thriving for hundreds of millions of years? Even after the massive extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous, for which no species could possibly have evolved defenses in time, dinosaurs are still around, and dinosaur species still live on every continent including Antarctica (penguins being members of Dinosauria just as surely as T. rex was), and still outnumber mammal species 2 to 1.

    Yes, human social morality does help our survival as a species, and is a characteristic natural to us. And I agree with you on all the rest. Saying that God exists because you need God to give meaning to your life is not a valid or a convincing argument.

    I just had to speak up for one of my favorite groups of animals. :^)

  • GregoryOR

    Sorry, but I cannot agree with you. If in 65 million years, the best you could say about my closest extant descendants is that they taste great when fried and their unborn children make great omlettes, I would consider that a collossal failure.

  • Rongoklunk

    Obama seems to be too smart, too educated to be religious. I don’t blame him for acting religious – it’s what the majority want to see. Childhood indoctrination is why so many Americans are believers, but Obama wouldn’t have been indoctrinated with the parents he had. His dad wasn’t a christian and his mom wasn’t particularly religious either.
    When his presidency is over I think we’ll see another Obama who will admit that he doesn’t actually believe in a skygod. I’m sure he feels it’s an absurd hypothesis, which is nothing more than wishful thinking – as Carl Sagan used to say. And like most atheists he understands how powerful childhood indoctrination really is.
    I wonder if he ever talks religion to his daughters about how silly faith is – based on fear and ignorance. I like to think so.

  • Rongoklunk

    We believe whatever we were raised to believe – whether it’s Hinduism, Sikhism, Mohammadism, Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, and of course Atheism, but in the latter indoctrination is not necessary. Just allowing children to grow up without bothering them with ancient tales of the supernatural – gods, angels, devils and ghosts – is an honest way to raise children. I raised five atheists who are adults now, and raising their kids as they were raised – godless. I might have found this difficult in the USA, but I raised them in the UK and Canada, which was a piece of cake. Truth is far more important than any ancient superstition.

  • Rongoklunk

    I am a nonbeliever. If you scratch me you’ll find an atheist. See, nonbelief is the default position on the god question. Childhood indoctrination is necessary to produce a believer, and it often lasts for life. I would suggest that you were so powerfully indoctrinated that you’re unable to grasp the reality that there are many people out there in the world who are sure that there are no gods. We are atheists because it’s the only thing that makes sense. For instance, man invented gods; 3500 of them from Apollo to Zeus and from Thor, Visnu and Huitzilopochtli. This strongly suggests that your god was invented too. It’s what we humans do; invent imaginary thingies, like fairies and goblins and ghosts and gods – the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause and a million other things. The ancients had brains but no knowledge. They were good at hunting, gathering and procreating; and imagining things. They were sure somebody was up there in the clouds looking down on us. But the Hubble Telescope says no Gods are up there. None at all. Gods are by definition – mythical.

  • Chris Almond

    Very good topic. For him to take an oath on something other than the Bible I think would not be true to who he is. I think a person should take the oath on their own faith. Obama, I am convinced is a committed Christian. One would presume from the type of churches he has attended as well as his actions and speeches that he is committed to Christian “liberation theology” which was a political movement that came out of the catholic church originally but had tremendous influence in many other traditions. It is still a major driving force in church communities committed to promoting social justice through the instrument of the state. I don’t think his religion is a show unlike many others. I think you can also see in his personal life that he is committed to pursuing spiritual qualities through his faith tradition. That said, I think he is a terrifyingly mediocre president.

    Saying all that to say that a person should take the oath on what they personally believe in. For example, President Clinton could have taken the oath of office on a women’s behind. That said, he was a great president.

  • question1

    So you don’t feel you’re included unless you’re specifically mentioned as “special”? The Prez didn’t mention the handicapped, Buddhists, Wiccans, vegans etc. It seems your primary objection is that he used his own faith to swear & he continues to espouse it. If you’re ever elected you can swear to Thor or a nearby herb. God bless America.

  • Joel Hardman

    I think most atheists would be much happier if Obama didn’t say anything about religion. We don’t need to be treated specially, we just don’t want religion to be treated specially by the government.

  • Secular1

    ” For example, President Clinton could have taken the oath of office on a women’s behind. That said, he was a great president.” I am quite amused by the prospect of old Billy with his right palm on Monica’s, just the thong clad behind taking the oath of office. I would have given my right arm to see Rhenquist administering the oath, with Newt’s facial expression of disgust, while his own right arm plunged into Calista’s blouse clad bosom. SNL must dod a skit on that.

    Seriously the point Dr. Silverman is making is a public figure’s religious motivations or lack of should not be anyones concern, in his public life.

  • RickWatcher

    I haven’t forgotten anything, you have just been taught a twisted version of history. Article XI, which you partially quote, states in full; “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity [hatred] against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said States [America] have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
    The government itself is not a Christian government and cannot create a state church as state in the 1st Amendment. All religions were and are welcome here, however this did not mean the major of the people were not Christian or that many of founding documents were not inspired by the Word of God. As a side note here you might notice this country has had trouble with Islamic terrorists for over 200 years.
    As for the supposed Mr. Jefferson’s bible. If you’ll do a little bit of your own research you would discover that Mr. Jefferson did not treat or call this his bible. He called it a book he entitled, The Life and Morales of Jesus. He created another with nothing but the miracles which was, “The Miracles of Jesus.” He actually used a regular Bible for his personal use. He created these books as teaching aids for missionaries who were sent to the native American peoples. Which by the way was funded by the federal government. As a side note here, Mr. Jefferson actually founded a Christian church in his home state.
    In parting I will leave you with a few words from Mr. Jefferson:
    “I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” In a letter written to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816

  • DrWaffles

    Interesting article. I’m not sure the comparisons to worshipping other deities really was the best thing to include, though. Each deity has it’s own sort of cultural connotation. Zeus and Gaia in Greece, Allah in the Middle East, Thor in the arctic regions of Europe, and God in America and Europe. God makes sense in America, due to the Christian population. A president worshipping Allah would seem rather bizarre, since fewer Americans worship him. Likewise, it would make sense if the ruler in a Middle Eastern country worshipped Allah, but the people would find it strange if he worshipped God, due to the Muslim majority. It is true that the president cannot force Christianity upon others, but he is still free to practice Christianity himself, even publicly.