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Myth: Atheism is Promoted By Church/State Separation & Religious Neutrality

Does the Government Establish Atheism by Not Promoting Religion, Christianity?


When the government refuses to erect Ten Commandments displays or set aside time for prayer in public schools, it's endorsing atheism. Since atheism is a religion, this means the atheism becomes an officially established religion in violation of the Constitution.

This is a common myth repeated by Christians who want the government to promote and endorse their religion, but it’s so bizarre that I have trouble figuring out how anyone could sincerely believe it. Where is the logical connection between the premise “the government is not endorsing any religion” and the conclusion “therefore, the government is endorsing atheism”? Even if one mistakenly assumes that atheism is the same as irreligion, this conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.

If we accepted this myth, then we'd have to conclude that it isn’t possible for the government not to violate people’s constitutional rights: if the government promotes one religion, it violates the rights of people who aren’t members of that religion; if the government doesn’t promote any religions, then it violates the rights of people of all religions. That’s clearly nonsense, however. If we adopt a position which leads to the conclusion that the government can’t act in a way that doesn’t violate people’s constitutional rights, then it should be clear that our position is flawed.

If the absence of any overt endorsement of theism or religion were the same as an endorsement of atheism, then computer manuals are atheist tracts which encourage godlessness because they don't mention gods. Restaurant menus don't mention any gods, either, so they must be secret attempts to undermine theism and Christianity as well. Oh, and let's not forget most news stories — they don't mention any gods, so they are just part of the liberal conspiracy to turn everyone into atheists!

To promote atheism, the government would have to specifically tell people that atheism is preferable, that theism is ridiculous, or make similar anti-theistic claims. The government would have to erect a sign saying, “There is no God, get over it.” How is the absence of any signs, whether promoting or rejecting gods, the same as an endorsement of just the rejection of gods? I could claim that if the government removes the Ten Commandments but then fails to erect a sign saying “There is no God, get over it,” then they are actually still promoting theism. True, that’s a stupid and illogical claim, but it’s essentially the same as what the above myth is saying. If the absence of theistic displays is the same as promoting atheism, then the absence of atheist displays has to be the same as promoting theism.

You’ll notice that no atheists actually make such an argument — you won’t find any atheists insisting that the absence of any displays, theist or atheist, is a problem. They are quite content with the absence of such displays because they don’t think that the government has the authority to promote either atheism or theism. Just because the government doesn't promote one particular religion or one set of religious beliefs doesn't mean that the government is promoting atheism, agnosticism, or irreligion. It is a fallacy to assume that the absence of endorsement for one idea necessarily implies the endorsement of some other idea.

Was atheism being promoted or favored until 1954, when "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance? Of course not, and I don't think any Christian believes it. This renders the claim that removing the phrase and restoring the Pledge to its original form would constitute an endorsement of atheism completely incoherent.

There is a big difference between lacking any mention of gods and promoting disbelief in gods. A recipe can be atheistic without promoting atheism. A novel can be atheistic without promoting atheism. A law can be atheistic without promoting atheism. The fact that something is atheistic or godless (in the very technical sense that it lacks any mention of gods) really isn't important — when was the last time that a Christian or Muslim was troubled by the lack of references to God in a computer manual or recipe? It's not something that anyone cares about because they recognize that it's not the same as promoting atheism.

The simple fact of the matter is, the government doesn’t impose or even promote atheism when it simply fails to endorse one religion over all others, or even when it fails to endorse religion generally. The government can’t even be described as “promoting” atheism unless it specifically encourages an endorses atheist views — such as issuing a statement against theism, for example. This would be just as unconstitutional, however, as instituting official prayers in the name of some god.

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