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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys, a secularist

About references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance,
etc: How secularists can win by altering their
strategy, and change it into a win-win narrative.

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I am really amazed about how illogical and irrational some Atheists and other secularists can be. Yet, they are the ones that insist that their "world views" are based on rational and logical thinking!

The phrases "In God We Trust" and one nation "under God" are "fighting" words for many secularists. However, I think that the phrases are more like the red cape waved in front of a Spanish fighting bull. The cape serves two purposes: It taunts the bull. Most importantly it is used to focus the bull’s attention on something that isn’t important, and take his attention away from what is important, the guy wielding the cape.

Consider Dave Niose, past president of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and author of the book "Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans." 1 He wrote an article for Psychology Today, titled: "Understanding Why God-References Are a Big Deal" 2 He describes why the AHA fights to have every reference to "God" removed from public discourse, from our currency, from the Pledge of Allegiance, etc.

But, there is more than one way to catch a canary.

[Some might be more familiar with the phrase ‘to skin a cat’. I however have cats that I am very fond of and prefer not to use that phrase.]

Some Atheists and other secularists are so focused on the red cape -- the "God" word -- they can’t see any other way to catch that canary -- that offensive word -- other than to self-righteously demand it never be used.

  • To take a little liberty with and use another time worn, but oh so true phrase: "they can’t see the forest for the one tree" they are focused on.

  • To use a Biblical reference, they have been blinded and made deaf  by the "God" word and have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear.

  • More importantly they seem to have difficulty thinking clearly and logically in order to come up with a better strategy to solve their problem.

By using a different technique, they could control the narrative, change the dialogue, and set themselves up for a win-win situation. They could accomplish their goals without presenting themselves as the antagonists -- the anti-God folks.

Although it wasn’t the intent of his comment, Herb Silverman, founder and past president of the Secular Coalition, pointed out a clue to addressing this issue in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post, titled: "On religious atheists." 3 He mentioned how he was taught at a young age to recite the ritual Jewish prayers. He commented:

"Had I understood the English version of all my ritual Hebrew prayers, I’d undoubtedly have become an atheist even sooner."

We teach our children to recite our secular religious prayer, The Pledge of Allegiance, but we don’t teach them what it means. I don’t think most kids or adults have ever really thought about the meaning of the words in the pledge.

Forget for the moment whether there is or is not a God. What does the Pledge's phrase "under God" imply? What does it require of us? Does it mean that we are under God’s control or just under God’s watchful eye? If it means the latter, then what is it he is watching for?

Is he looking to see how we behave towards others? There are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us yes: God is watching to see how we behave. There are Christian groups that firmly believe that a person’s salvation is dependent upon their "good behavior". Others believe that "under God" implies that God is watching out for the security of our country. There are plenty of Biblical passages that tie man’s behavior to God’s actions. There is great disagreement among Christians over issues of salvation and right behavior, yet many people don’t realize that.

What do those words in the Pledge mean to Atheists and other non-Christians?

Why hasn’t some secularist educator written a short pamphlet about the Pledge of Allegiance, that tells about it’s history, including when and why the words "under God" were added. 4 Then it can analyze the Pledge of Allegiance, phrase by phrase, and add talking points about each phrase. What does it mean "I pledge allegiance"? Can you pledge your allegiance and still disagree with what your country does? Does it allow for dissent, different viewpoints? "And to the republic for which it stands". What are the principles this republic stands for? Equal rights under the law for everyone? Freedom of religion, what does that mean?

One other point: IF religious folk object to an open discussion of what "under God" means, it can be pointed out that:

  • As long as those words remain in the Pledge of Allegiance, and

  • If a discussion of the meaning of the Pledge is appropriate for public schools. and

  • If they are going to be reciting it, then

  • The discussion of what "under God" means comes with the package.

Secularists could choose to not recite the pledge in public schools and continue the effort to remove these words from the pledge. Realistically, this will not succeed, at least for now. Besides, that is a lose-lose strategy. Alternately, they could decide to place themselves into a win-win situation by promoting a free and open discussion about what those words "under God" mean. Eventually religious folk might actually take up the call to have the words removed, because they don’t like such a discussion. I suspect that "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools would be dropped. The phrase it would become another "cold war" relic and the text of the Pledge would return to its traditional, pre-cold war wording.

In a Letter to the Editor of my local paper one man called for bringing the Bible back to public school classrooms. I responded with a letter in which I said that I have no objections, I think the Bible is a beautiful book, as long as the Sacred Texts of other world religions and the wisdom of some of our great philosophers are also used. I mentioned how I could see each school day start with an inspirational reading from the Upanishads one day, than a Biblical passage the next, and something from Aristotle on the following day and even Mark Twain or Will Rogers after that. Each would be followed by a discussion of the passage.

Earlier, when there were calls to teach the "Genesis" creation stories in science class in our public schools I responded that I have no objection, I think it is a beautiful story, as long as the creation myths from other world religions and ethnic groups are also taught. AND as long as they aren’t taught in Science Class. Maybe they could be incorporated in a class on world history.

I also pointed out that I think that "Religion" should be taught in public schools, children need to learn about ALL the world religions and secular philosophies. IF children are ever to understand World History they need to have a basic understanding of the world religions that have been a maker of much of that history. IF we are ever to solve the problems in the Middle East we will have to have a basic understanding of the religious strife that has created the problems. This would remove the magical and mystical from all of them. Only in a public school is "religion" required to be taught without promoting one over the other and without distortion of one over another. This wouldn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, since no single religion or secular philosophy is being promoted over any other, ALL would be taught.

I put myself and my response into a win-win situation. They couldn’t attack me for being against the Bible, I obviously wasn’t and I said I thought it was a beautiful book and Genesis was a beautiful story. They couldn’t accuse me of being against religion, I was advocating for the teaching of a little about ALL the world religions and secular philosophies. I wasn’t insisting that nothing be taught.

I had suspected that my advocacy of open and free discussion of ALL viewpoints wouldn’t be acceptable and it wasn’t.

My opponents found themselves in a lose-lose situation. They had no choice but to reject my suggestion, which meant rejecting their proposition as well. They really want only their version of Christianity taught. They don’t even want anyone’s children to learn about other world religions or creation myths that might possibly lead to learning respect for those "others".

IF they had accepted my proposal I still would have won because public school students would have had the opportunity to learn about the great variety of creation myths which would have placed their own into its appropriate context. AND they would have had the opportunity to learn about the teachings of other world religions and our great philosophers.

That is what is called strategy. Setting yourself up in the win-win situation and your opponents into the lose-lose situation. It is about avoiding the confrontational/adversarial position that pits Us against Them where both insist that it is either My Way or No Way. I simply offered a third option: Every Way. I changed the narrative, the argument from Christianity or nothing (Atheism, which is what Secular means to many Christians) to Christianity or Everything -- Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism, Deism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism, Secularism, Wicca, etc.

When Obama was running for office the first time, the News Hour had a woman appear several times to discuss different campaign strategies. One thing she pointed out was how some were very successful at taking control of the narrative and others were dismal failures. When a politician goes on the defensive you know he has lost control of the narrative. The Obama folks have had a hard time learning this lesson. Time and time again they have failed to gain control of the narrative and thus found themselves in a defensive posture.

I sent an email to the American Atheists in which I told them that they should drop their fight to keep the cross from the ruins at the World Trade Center from being placed in the memorial museum. I pointed out that they needed to cut their losses and move on. They had their day in court and they lost. By filing an appeal to a higher court they make themselves look like sore losers. They make it look as though their strategy is to bully the opposition into submission by threatening lawsuits the other side can’t afford.

I tried to explain how they could change the narrative. I asked if there would be a plaque of some sort placed with the cross and if so what that plaque might say. I then pointed out that IF a plaque was being placed they could help determine what the plaque says.

I pointed out that the cross symbolizes different things to different people. For Christians it is a symbol of hope. For many non-Christians -- particularly Jews, Native Americans, etc., it has become a symbol of oppression. The partially destroyed appearance of the cross in the ruins carried the meaning for some, that Christianity bears part of the blame for this tragedy. Getting that message out there, changing the narrative, on the plaque would force the public to contemplate and confront the issues of symbolism and the series of events, over centuries, that lead to this point in our history.

Atheists would be putting themselves into the win-win situation rather than putting themselves into the adversarial lose-lose situation of simply demanding the cross not be displayed or the cross and their symbol be displayed. The lose-lose situation is one where even IF you win the skirmish you lose the war because you have created greater strife/hard feelings, turned anger into hate, antagonized your opponents and turned them into enemies. It wouldn’t be a battle about "God folks" (the good guys) versus the evil "God haters". Eventually as the public shifts its perspective about the meaning of the "cross", Christians will begin to realize that it isn’t a symbol they want displayed in public places, because it often carries the wrong message.

Arguing for the broader narrative on a plaque placed beside the cross is keeping within the constraints and intent of the first Amendment. It isn’t promoting one religious view over another, it is simply seeing that ALL the different viewpoints, religious from many different religions and secular are represented. The last thing many Christians want is for the broader narrative to be presented. The American Atheists PR director with whom I exchanged emails never seemed to grasp what I was trying to say. The "red cape" for this man is simply a cross.

I think the strict absolute separation of church and state has worked against us by making the free and open discussion of religion, religious doctrines/dogmas, the Bible, and other sacred texts, mythologies, etc. into taboo subjects. You can’t fight Christian Bible based arguments by ignoring the Bible, pretending it doesn’t exist, or taking the extreme position of declaring it an "evil" book as some Atheists have done. You fight the Christian Bible-based argument with counter Bible-based arguments. Instead of ignoring the argument that claims this is what The Bible says, you broaden the dialogue by pointing out other passages that contradict their passage, and listing the myriad of different Bible based views on the subject. Then, you ask which interpretation of which passage(s) is the TRUTH and which view, which passage the LIE?

Instead of helping confirm the magical and mystical nature of the Bible by making it Taboo, you remove the magic and mystery by treating it respectfully, as you would any other good book, as worthy of serious intellectual discussion of the ideas it contains. IF we can seriously discuss the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers, we shouldn’t be afraid to seriously discuss the teachings of the ancient Hebrews. You destroy the opposing argument by broadening the debate not by narrowing it down to two viewpoints -- the virtuous Bible-based argument and the non-virtuous Atheist argument. In essence instead of undermining the foundation you are top-loading the wall. The weight becomes too much, and the wall comes tumbling down on its own accord.

It is possible to get people to move in the direction you want them without the use of force, IF Secularists rethink their strategies, change the narrative, and become smarter and wiser.

Secularists can help this world find ways to move past the divisiveness that has torn us apart without setting ourselves up to be the anti-Christ, the anti-God, the antagonist. Let’s get Secularists to put themselves in the win-win situation of supporting equal rights for everyone. Secularists become totally Inclusive, and not viewed as being Exclusive. Instead of Christianity or nothing (Atheism), make it Christianity or Everything.

Change the narrative.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover image David Niose, "Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans." Palgrave Macmillan, (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  2. Dave Niose, "Understanding Why God-References Are a Big Deal: Crisis-Induced Devotion and the Importance of Church-State Separation," Psychology Today, 2013-MAY-10, at:
  3. Herb Silverman, "On religious atheists," Washington Post, 2013-JUL-01, at:
  4. "The Pledge of Allegiance," U.S. History, 2013, at:

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First posted: 2013-AUG-18
Latest update: 2013-AUG-18
Author: Susan Humphreys

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