For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
A lot of atheists seem to be really impressed by this, but I'm not. Why should I be? Why on earth should I be moved, impressed, or happy that someone has deigned to recognize the physical existence of atheists in America? Wow — atheists exist! Stop the presses! Sorry, but I'm not just able to get excited about that.
Is this a step forward? Oh, absolutely — it's a step forward because so few politicians have ever done the same. This is merely a sign of just how bad things are in America, though, rather than a sign of how great Barack Obama is. The refusal of so many to even acknowledge that atheists exist, never mind acknowledge that atheists are equal citizens whose views should be taken into consideration, demonstrates just how deep and strong the animus towards atheists is in American society.
While admitting that we exist is good, it's not good enough. I want a lot more than to merely have my physical existence recognized and I think that other atheists should have enough self-respect to want more as well. Atheists who make a big deal out of Obama's single reference to the existence of nonbelievers seem to me to be getting excited over crumbs that have been absentmindedly swept from the table when they should have their own place at the table.
Obviously it would be absurd to expect several paragraphs devoted to atheists in Barack Obama's inauguration speech, so a single reference to atheists is probably the most one could expect. I'm not saying that atheists should have expected more in the speech, but rather than atheists should expect much, much more than meaningless rhetoric. A single acknowledgement that nonbelievers exist in America doesn't come anywhere close to making up for the anti-atheist bigotry which has been tolerated in the Democratic Party and even in Barack Obama's own presidential campaign.
Actions are more important than rhetoric, and even then not all actions are the same. Many liberals were mollified when they learned that Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to deliver a public address the day before the inauguration, as if that made up for the invitation to Rick Warren to deliver the inauguration's invocation. It didn't because Rick Warren — noted homophobe and anti-atheist bigot — was given a much more prominent position. Even worse, Gene Robinson's address was left out of the televised broadcast of the day's events and that was apparently because Obama's team wanted things that way.
So not only didn't Gene Robinson make up for Rick Warren, but his treatment actually reinforced all the worst interpretations of Rick Warren's presence there. All of these actions — not mere rhetoric, but actions — will only be made up for by significant progress in substantive matters concerning gay rights and gay equality. Fortunately, there are signs that that will indeed be happening, but people who care about equality for gays must keep up pressure on the administration rather than simply assume that things will go their way. There has been far too much support for anti-gay rhetoric and actions in the Democratic Party for gay to act otherwise.
Atheists need to learn from this because our position is, if anything, much worse. Absolutely no one was invited to give any sort of address from a secular, nonbelieving perspective at any point in any of the inauguration events. There is nothing in the written plans of Obama's administration to repudiate past anti-secularism or to reverse course against anti-atheist discrimination. Atheists have thus far received just one thing: an acknowledgement that we physically exist. Big deal. I already knew I existed and I knew that he knew atheists existed — we need more than a statement of the bleeding obvious.
The best that can be said about this meager reference to our existence is that it provides something to grasp hold of when making our case that we deserve more. We can point out that our existence has already been acknowledged and, better yet, it was done so in the context of a statement setting us alongside several prominent religious constituencies. So, now how can you justify ignoring us and pretending that we aren't equal or worthy of equal consideration? It's not much, but it's something to start with.