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God—losing its religions?
By George A. Ricker

The theocrats of the Religious Right have succeeded in accomplishing something nonbelievers would not have thought possible, let alone attempted. They have divorced “God” from religion.

That’s right. In their zeal to get the “God” label plastered wherever possible in our society, the religionists apparently haven’t heard the rationale being used by judges, politicians and so on to accomplish the task. Most of these people, after all, agree with the American people that there ought to be a separation between government and religion. They also think—the Religious Right’s dishonest version of history notwithstanding—that the Constitution requires that separation.

When challenged about making “In God We Trust” the official motto of Florida, as was done recently (it had been the “unofficial” motto for decades) or leaving it on our coins, the argument is always “this really isn’t about establishing religion, it’s just a recognition of our historical heritage.” Apparently, “God” is no longer a religious concept. It’s more in the nature of a brand name or an industrial trademark. The reason we keep slapping it on coins and buildings and web sites is because it’s an important symbol, one that evidently has nothing to do with anything real or anything religious.

Let’s face it. No one with a working brain really thinks the government of the United States “trusts” in “God.” If it did, we wouldn’t be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on national defense and hundreds of billions more on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the phrase must be a meaningless expression in the minds of those who insist on putting it on our money and on our state seals, etc.

As for being “one nation, under God,” as our pledge of allegiance asserts, the notion is laughable. The majority of Americans who worship a god don’t worship the same god. They certainly aren’t united by it. In many cases the god they worship isn’t even named “God.”

As a matter of fact, when it comes to religions, there is no such thing as “God.” As David Eller points out in his book, Natural Atheism, there are only gods. With more than 33,000 denominations (according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press, 2001) in Christianity, Christians can hardly claim to be worshipping the same deity. Just as there cannot truly be said to be a Christian religion but only Christian religions, there cannot be a Christian “God” but only Christian gods.

So the idea that putting “God” in the Pledge or on our money advances the cause of religions may be wrong after all. It hardly advances the cause of any religion to trivialize the bedrock concept of that religion and make it part of a slogan like “God bless America,” or “In God We Trust.”

An old saw proclaims that “familiarity breeds contempt.” As “God” the brand gets plastered on more and more public buildings and public web sites and the dissemblers who attempt to rationalize the practice continue to make the claim that the reference really isn’t religious but historical, then religions eventually must either create a new brand name for their preferred deity or launch their own campaign to end the practice.

There was a time in the history of religions when the name of the deity was kept a secret, available only to practitioners and never pronounced aloud. The name of “God,” whichever name a particular god happened to go by, was a word of power invested with magical properties. The person who knew that name gained a certain amount of power with the knowledge, thus the names of gods were closely guarded by the religions who worshipped them.

Today, we don’t believe such things—at least, most of us don’t. Nonetheless, it seems a strategic error for the religious to attempt to make the name of the god they worship so commonplace as to put it on a nation’s currency or on its public buildings. A “God” so aligned with commerce and the secular state must inevitably have less and less to do with any genuine religious sentiment.

So the dilemma facing those among the religious who view religion as a matter of the spirit and not a rhetorical device for political posturing is whether to invest their energy in reclaiming the central concept of that religion from its degradation to the status of a political buzz word or to invent a new concept to take the place of the old.

“God” is losing its religions. Will those religions attempt to reclaim it or replace it with something else?

• The idea for this essay came from a piece by Dianna Narciso that appeared in the July, 2006, issue of Freely Speaking (the monthly newsletter of the Space Coast Freethought Association). It had the same title.

© 2006 By George A. Ricker

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