As someone who is hoping for a brighter and fairer future for my country, I found hope and reassurance in watching the inauguration of our new President and Vice President, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But as someone who is not religious, and who knows all too well the harms of Christian nationalism, I also found division and exclusionary language.
For atheists looking forward to presidential inaugurations, we know we can almost assuredly expect to see the President being sworn in on one or more Christian bibles. I can’t confirm that doing so is unconstitutional, although it certainly puts the bible (literally) in a political place where it doesn’t belong. It’s worth noting that taking the oath on a bible is not required; two presidents in history have not used a bible. So why do we keep seeing it being done by Republicans and Democrats alike?
If you’re like me, then you voted for Joe Biden in large part as a way of fighting back against the Christian nationalism that has more or less taken over the Republican party. And if you’re like me, then you probably took some issue with just how religious the inauguration was, far beyond the use of the bible for the oath. There were prayers, hymns, bible verses, and other religious language and references galore. The most puzzling part of it all was how the “theme” of the whole event was unity. When you live in a country full of cultish Evangelical Christian communities and a growing population of apostates, what’s unifying about faith? Faith might unite Christians, but it ostracizes non-Christians, especially when it is being used in a context that is supposed to make everyone feel equally seen, equally valid, and equally American.
I could have written a whole post on why the religious parts of the inauguration got under my skin, but after reading Andrew Seidel’s article on it, I feel that he articulated all of my thoughts and then some, better than I could have.
After reading the article, I did what I usually do these days, and I shared it on Facebook and Instagram. Since last July, I haven’t really held back in sharing my true and sometimes divisive beliefs on my personal social media accounts. But I couldn’t help but think of how my small, Christian-majority following viewed this post. I imagined that they thought, “What a surprise, that an atheist can’t just be happy about this. Atheists always have to get so upset any time there’s so much as a prayer at a government event. Just get over it.”
In reality, the problem is that allowing religious displays like this (and this) opens the door to and normalizes more egregious instances of Christian nationalism. Democrats tend to be the ones fighting against religion-based laws like those limiting bodily autonomy and gender equality, so Christian nationalism should be the enemy of all people who want a free and fair society, not just atheists. This is where I want to call on atheists to sow unity and not division.
In my eyes, there are two sides in the great American battle that is raging right now: Christian nationalists and everyone else. Specifically, and definitionally, Christian nationalists include only Christians. They can be any type of Christian, but they tend to be mostly Evangelicals. Now, here’s the important part: Christians can be just as against Christian nationalism as everyone else, even atheists. Just ask Christians Against Christian Nationalism.
In my experience, it seems as though atheists are fighting the hardest against Christian nationalism, and the general perception is that they’re the only ones who are bothered by it. I’m positing here that this isn’t because non-nationalist Christians don’t care, but that atheists have such a hard time uniting with them. Only when I was knee-deep in the Internet’s atheist communities did I discover that sometimes, atheists can be as exclusive as religious people are famed for being. Here’s an example that recently appalled me.
The other day, I was watching this video by Jesus Unfollower. His was a reaction to a video by another YouTuber whom I happen to also watch named Natalia Taylor. Her video was her story of converting from being an atheist to being a Christian. It was a kind of stereotypical story where she was in a dark place in life before converting, but she made it clear in the video that she wasn’t in that dark place because she was an atheist, and she has great friends who are atheists who are happy. It’s also worth noting that she wasn’t making the video to justify why she was Christian, but just to tell the story of how she became one. Overall, I thought that she was very graceful in explaining that we shouldn’t judge someone based solely on whether they are a Christian or an atheist. (Kevin, who was making the response video, agreed.)
Then I went to the comments. Keep in mind that people who subscribe to Jesus Unfollower tend to be pretty firm atheists. Here’s what some of them had to say about Natalia’s story:
“She’s still delusional.”
“Talking snakes, magic trees, talking donkeys.”
“So this is the typical Christianity helped me get my life together story. That’s great for her but just because religion helped her get sober doesn’t mean the religious claims are actually true. There still isn’t any proof of any God or Gods.”
Reading these comments reminded me of a greater trend among many atheists: sowing division against someone for no reason other than that they publicly identified themselves as a Christian. I can’t understand why these comments are so focused on her reasons for believing rather than listening to her story. The video wasn’t about her making arguments for God. She wasn’t proselytizing, she was simply telling us who she was. Many atheists have “come out” as such to friends or family. We, more than most, are familiar with trying to simply tell someone that we don’t believe, only to be asked why. We know—or we should know—that when coming out, you don’t have to explain your reasons. You’re allowed to say, “I’m telling you that I don’t believe, and I’m not justifying it at this time.” Why aren’t we giving her the same respect?
The reason that I bring this up is that it isn’t helping us, as atheists, to create such a barrier between all atheists and all Christians. I promise you that Christians aren’t our enemies, especially when they are going out of their way not to be divisive. If all we atheists do is divide people in an imaginary line between Us and Them (when in truth it is very blurred), we are being just as exclusive as Christian nationalists. Meanwhile, those same Christian nationalists are hard at work eroding the democracy, freedom, and equality that we all value. If we—atheists, non-nationalist Christians, and non-Christian religious Americans—are so distracted by infighting, then before we know it, the extremist theocrats will have stripped us all of our freedom.
If we atheists want to have a fighting chance against Christian nationalism, we have to work together with those Christians who hold the same democratic and progressive values that we do. We should not be making enemies of whose who are willing to fight with us.