Obama’s Address to the State of Non-belief

by Daniel Rourke (a non-believer)

“We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

Barack Hussein Obama, 20th of January, 2009

Obama-non-believers As a British citizen I watched the inauguration speech of America's 44th President with a warm but distanced interest. But as someone who was brought up in a non-religious family, and has thrived without a belief in a deity, I listened to Barack Obama's words with fascination, concern and hope. Obama's message to his nation and the greater world was one of inclusion. A broad ranging speech during which America's new leader threw his arms wide around those who believe in America, and even wider around those who perhaps do not.

The matter of 'belief' resonated throughout Obama's address: the belief in God, the belief in America and the belief in Obama himself. Yet in regard of that single word a debate among 'non-believers' has sprung up. A debate as to whether Obama's nod to the millions of Americans who call themselves non-theists, atheists or agnostics should have been wrapped up in such a semantically negative phrase.

To pick apart the significance of the phrase 'non-believers' it pays to look at the word 'atheist': a label which is often analysed by theistic and nontheistic communities alike. A common etymological error connects “a”, from the ancient Greek for “without”, and “theism”, denoting a belief in God. Thus, an a-theist is considered to be someone without a belief in God. The true etymology of the word though is better derived from the Greek root “atheos” meaning merely “godless”. Thus athe(os)ism is closer in kind to a “godless belief system”, rather than “without a belief in god/gods”. This analysis, although tiresome, is worth attending to in regards Obama's inclusive rhetoric, because as a minority non-theists are some of the most pilloried in American society.

In an infamous 2004 study, conducted by the University of Minnesota's department of sociology, 39.5 percent of those interviewed stated that atheists “did not share their vision of American society”:

Asked the same question about Muslims and homosexuals, the figures dropped to a slightly less depressing 26.3 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. For Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans and African-Americans, they fell further to 7.6 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.0 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

The study contains other results, but these are sufficient to underline its gist: Atheists are seen by many Americans (especially conservative Christians) as alien and are, in the words of sociologist Penny Edgell, the study's lead researcher, “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.” – link

The suggestion that an atheist's concern for their country is of a different quality to that of a believer is enormously telling. Has the common misunderstanding of atheism as a lack of belief come to be associated in America not just with God, but with morality, patriotism and an empathy for others? A 1987 interview conducted by Rob Sherman with George Bush senior seems to attest to this. Whilst in the office of Vice President, Mr. Bush stated:

“I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

A comment that has rung in the ears of nontheists ever since.

It is this apparent mis-conception about non-belief that makes Obama's comment seem all the more thoughtless. Surely, in a speech of such fine rhetoric, so minutely crafted to chime with the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation – and of a world beyond – a phrase weighted as strongly as 'non-believers' should have been handled more carefully? It is doubtful that it was included as an afterthought; doubtful indeed that Barack Obama and his team of talented speech writers did not deliberate over its usage and inclusion in the most important piece of oratory they had ever crafted. How many Presidents of the last century have talked of 'non-believers' in such patriotic tones? How much recent American policy has cited atheists and agnostics as integral to the character of the nation; as a minority worth even calling attention to?

A closer look at the phrase is necessary, I believe, to truly grasp its significance as one of the most subtle shifts in political rhetoric the Obama team has yet delivered. Another extract from the inaugural address begins to clarify our semantic quarrel:

“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Here Obama asks for the narrative of American life, of American policy, to be redrafted. A call to a young nation to “pick [itself] up, dust [itself] off, and begin again” the work of building its identity. Obama's call for America to unite under its founding principles is a definitively secular call; a call to the American State to be once again separated from any religion, just as its founding fathers had intended. For too long the identity of America has been infused with a kind of Christian grand-narrative, a sense that if God had placed mankind on the Earth to achieve greatness, and if America was the world's greatest nation, then God must have always intended for the Christian story to also be the American story. This dangerous ethos, often echoed in the rhetoric of the Bush administration, is arguably responsible for the current tension between America, the Islamic world and beyond. This dangerous ethos, once reassessed through the eyes of a secular nation, bears more relationship to a fundamentalist doctrine than it does to a moral bedrock for American policy.

By placing 'non-believers' at the end of a list of religious denominations Obama and his team were speaking not to the religious beliefs that unite Americans, but the moral and social bonds that tie them together as communities. When we look at the Christian community, at the Jewish community, at the Muslim and Hindu communities, the sharing of 'beliefs', becomes much more irrelevant. Two distinct people may call themselves Christian, but as a Protestant and a Catholic their core religious beliefs will be very different. By citing the non-believer community in his “patchwork” identity Obama was talking of the irrelevance of any particular view of God in the constitution of the American nation. His message to the Muslim world to “seek [together] a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” was a message to all to put particular beliefs in Gods aside and get on with the common goal of restitching our patchwork world. A message to:

“Tie up your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.” – link

As a non-American, I can believe in similar ideals. As a proud atheist I can attest to the fact that not believing in a God does not mean I don't have beliefs. After all, every one of us – Atheist or Agnostic, Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i, Shinto or Rastafarian – are non-believers in something.

by Daniel Rourke