On "mere ceremonial deism"

August 5, 2011

Wendy Kaminer argues that while atheists have a right to be up in arms about the World Trade Center cross,
in other cases they'd do well to pick their battles:

is the challenge for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other irreligious
advocates of secular government: accept or resign yourself to a little
ceremonial deism, partly for the sake of focusing on the important distinction
between it and ceremonial sectarianism. And when challenging arguable, official
sectarianism, like the Trade Center cross, accept or resign yourself to the
increasing foolishness and futility of "offended observer" claims.

While Kaminer's strategic point may be right, I don't buy her
distinction between harmful "offical sectarianism" and "mere ceremonial deism,
like the vapid, non-sectarian references to God that decorate our currency and
pepper presidential speeches." The word she wants for the latter category is
"theism," not "deism." More importantly, I don't think it's benign.

When a state leader invokes God in this country--even while studiously
avoiding giving God a specific name--he or she might not give explicit,
quotable offense to Jews and Muslims, but the speech patterns tend to be
Christian ones thinly veiled. What's more, not all theists are monotheists--and
not all people of faith identify themselves as theists of any kind. From where
these folks are sitting, Kaminer's "mere ceremonial" references to God might
sound awfully sectarian.

Kaminer's post is about legal strategy for atheists; the
interests of people of faith are outside its scope. Still, her argument implies
a familiar and unhelpful binary: there are people who think it's just lovely
every time the president ends a speech with, "And may God bless America," and
then there are atheists for whom this is just irritating noise.

But there are also people of faith who find the language of a
singular God whom one asks for things to be totally foreign to their sense of
the divine. And then there are those of us who are monotheists but are also
offended by least-common-denominator ceremonial monotheism in service of
nationalism--not in spite of but because of the vapid, decorative qualities
that Kaminer names.

When the narrative is theocrats vs. atheists, the focus is on how
invoking the former's God might offend the latter and/or infringe on their
rights--a legitimate and serious concern. But such invocations also offend my
understanding of God.