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Can Godless Atheists Be Patriotic? Can Godless Atheists Be Good Citizens?


What is American Patriotism?:

It’s impossible to address whether godless atheists can be patriotic Americans without first addressing what might constitute American patriotism in the first place. Too many act like being patriotic requires blind, unswerving allegiance to whatever America’s leaders tell them to do or believe. Under such a definition, few thinking Americans could be patriotic. A better conception of patriotism would encompass more of what America should and should not stand for.

Patriotism vs. Nationalism:

Although synonyms that are often used interchangeably, patriotism and nationalism are subtly different concepts. Patriotism is normally defined as “love, support, or defense” of one’s country; nationalism is devotion to the interests and culture of one’s nation — it’s an emphasis on national rather than universal values. A person can love and support their country without also accepting a tribal attitude by devoting oneself to the “interests” defined by political leaders.

Do Godless Atheists Support the Constitution?:

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of American patriotism is supporting the Constitution — not merely the letter of the Constitution, but also its “spirit,” its moral and political message. There’s obviously nothing about being godless which would prevent this. In fact, the interests of godless Americans to be as free and equal as their religious neighbors can instill a stronger than average support for the Constitution. — never mind the fact that the Constitution itself is godless.

Do Godless Atheists Support Liberal Democracy?:

America is designed to be a liberal democracy, so to be patriotic it’s necessary that one support both the presence of liberal democratic institutions as well as the values necessary to liberal democracy. Being godless obviously doesn’t prevent this, though it is possible for a person’s religion to conflict with some aspects of liberal democracy — for example, the secular requirement that one religion not be given special status.

Will Godless Atheists Fight to Defend America?:

It’s thought by many that a true test for patriotism is whether someone is willing to fight to defend their nation. This isn’t really true, for a pacifist can be patriotic; but even if it were there are plenty of examples of atheists who have served in America’s armed forces and various wars. An atheist can be a patriotic pacifist who refuses to return evil for evil or they can be a patriotic member of the military, willing to go to war in defense of American values or survival.

Do Godless Atheists Respect Religious Liberty?:

Most atheists would be surprised at this question, given how important religious liberty is to preserving basic civil rights for atheists. There is a perception, though, that atheists don’t respect the religious liberties of others simply because atheists can be dismissive, critical, or harsh on religious beliefs. There is, however, no connection between the two. There is nothing about atheism which would prevent an atheist from supporting religious liberty for all.

Do Godless Atheists Respect Civil Rights?:

Critical for a liberal democracy is that everyone enjoy the same basic civil rights — not simply in theory, but in reality. People who believe that our liberties come from God may have trouble understanding this, but atheists are no less committed to equality and civil liberties than any other group. There are atheists who are prejudiced, of course, but there is nothing about atheism which would cause atheists to opposed to civil rights generally.

Gods, Religion, and Christianity are Not Necessary for American Patriotism:

Although the difference between patriotism and nationalism is subtle, it is significant because the attacks on the ability of godless atheists to be “patriotic” are often attacks on atheists’ failure to be ardent nationalists. This is also what lies behind more general allegation that liberals, war protesters, and all others who fail to heed imperious demands of political leaders are “unpatriotic.”

Nationalism is a product of the development of the modern nation-state and that, in turn, is an outgrowth of modern political conceptions of ethnic or tribal groups. According to nationalist doctrine, every “tribe” should have a political entity known as a “nation” to call its own and where it can determine its own destiny in the world. Thus the French, Germans, Italians, etc. must all have their own nation and all members of those groups belong in their particular nation.

Whereas patriotism can (and should) be focused upon loyalty or love of the ideals which a nation stands for, nationalism is necessarily tribalistic. Nationalists are thus willing to chuck any ideas overboard for the sake of preserving the tribe’s honor, power, and survival. This is why a patriot may put the demands of universal values ahead of national interests; a nationalist, however, never will.

A key component of nationalism for nationalists in America is American Christianity — usually Protestant, evangelical, and conservative, though in recent years some room has been made for conservative Catholics and even some Jews as well. So long as patriotism is defined by nationalism, and nationalism is defined by a narrow vision of Christianity, atheists will necessarily be excluded from the ranks of patriotic Americans. This should not be treated as a criticism because such “patriotism” is an ideology that the world can do without.

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