Was “And Non-Believers” a Big Deal? January 20, 2009

Was “And Non-Believers” a Big Deal?

No doubt Barack Obama threw atheists a bone by referring to “non-believers” in his Inaugural address. But how big of a gesture was this? How much did it actually mean?

What is the proper response?

Should we act like this is a big deal and thank Obama publicly? Send out press releases praising him for including us? Jump up for joy because we were mentioned at all? Act like we have now reached the mountaintop?

Or should we chill out because this really isn’t that big of a deal? Should we think less of it because he only briefly referred to us — minutes after Rick Warren was given center stage to deliver a Christian prayer? Perhaps we should wait until he does something *really* worthy of our applause, whatever that may be.

I’m not sure what the right reaction is.

His mention of us was nice. But that’s not entirely the type of change atheists are looking for.

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  • benjdm

    It is a change to be celebrated, not an end. Just like getting a first member in Congress.

  • Kate

    Who says we can’t celebrate and thank him…AND keep pressing for more? We have to be thankful for the recognition while ALSO making it known that politics still has a long way to go in realizing that we are citizens and productive, ethical members of society.

  • It’s a beginning. We should acknowledge it.

  • Kristin

    I’m with Kate here. It was great that we got some recognition, but it doesn’t mean he’s actually going to do anything to help us. The best we can do is make it known to him that we appreciate the mention and that we hope he’ll keep on with it. It wasn’t worthy of excessive praise, but it was definitely something I’m sure a lot of fanatical religious viewers were rolling their eyes about, and for that, I applaud him.

  • Luther Weeks

    Sadness amid Joy. Just as all the non-Christians should feel with only a mention that we are part of the country, but all the rest of the ceremony laced with a context of the existence and thanks to the Christian God.

    Two days in a row for me. Yesterday I was at a very nice MLK day ceremony. I had no problem with the Imam who gave an invocation of peace, not mentioning any god. But then a gospel choir which I accepted as MLK was a preacher, but the choir director lectured us about his God and then asked for hands to be raised by those who agreed – I was pleased than many hands were not raised by adults and students present, but felt for similar events with all students and lots of peer pressure.

  • Erp

    I wonder what Rick Warren’s reaction was when Obama mentioned ‘non-believers’?

    Personally I think it shows that Obama considers atheists as fully capable of being Americans. It was just a gesture but a nice gesture.

  • It’s totally worth celebrating. Just because we want to go even further doesn’t mean we can’t be grateful for a step in the right direction.

    On the flip side, recall that George W Bush acknowledged the nonreligious on several occasions as well. This is from Positive Atheism’s Big list of Quotations:

    We know that men and women can be good without faith. We know that.

    For some reason, I am not particularly grateful to him. Sometimes words aren’t enough.

  • It’s a step. A baby step, and I was pretty seriously annoyed at how many shout- outs God got throughout the ceremony. But I don’t think any other Presidential Inaugural address has ever mentioned non-believers in a positive way. Something of a milestone. (I’m writing a longer piece about this, but it won’t be up until tomorrow.)

    I’ll be a lot more interested in his actual policies on secularism and separation of church and state, though. If he just gave us lip service in the inaugural address, I’ll be ticked. If he follows through and walks the walk, I’ll be happy.

  • SDR

    Could you be more cynical? What the hell else would you expect of him in one speech. He clearly made a point to reference us and that’s an awesome start. Did you expect him to dedicate tomorrow as “national atheism day” or something? Don’t speak for all of us. As an atheist, that’s exactly at least the beginning of change that i’m looking for.

    I run a site dedicated to exposing discrimination and bigotry against atheists. I see the worst of the wost every day, having people report to me disgusting stories that I doubt you will ever hear, and even I am not so jaded that I can’t see what a huge symbolic act that was. Lay off the pessimism for one fucking day.

  • raatrani

    My initial response was a sarcastic “thanks for actually mentioning us…”, but upon further reflection, I realized that the pause before he added that phrase was meant to draw attention to it, to make it more than just an attempt to be PC.

    Maybe I read too much into it, but I can’t help feeling that he did so deliberately, kinda like an “I hear you” moment.

  • Tony Boling

    I enjoyed being acknowledged but no doubt the only reason we were even included was due to the lawsuit to get so help me god omitted. It was fresh in his mind so he probably included it to appease us.

    At least it was in a positive way

  • JB

    He also said “we will restore science to its rightful place,” which stood out to me more than the nonbeliever part. Not sure exactly what his meaning on that was, but the fact that he even said it, I take as a good sign.

  • Miko

    Obama’s a skilled name-dropper, so I wouldn’t expect any major policy based on the recognition of nontheists’ existence. Still, it’s a good thing. Most of what politicians say is apery and habit, so assuming he keeps it up, other politicians will pick it up too.

    It’s a good thing, but it should be a completely ordinary thing. And the way to make it an ordinary thing is to treat it as if it is. We don’t need to go out of our way to applaud it. We just need to say, “well, of course: a president’s not going to leave out 15-20% of the country when he’s dividing it up by religious affiliation.”

  • «bønez_brigade»

    I agree with Kate and Kristin. Obama should be praised publicly by secular organizations, but also pressed to help us attain full respect. I really wanted to shout “thank you” to him for just mentioning those that don’t believe. It was quite an uplifting feeling to hear it. A start towards respect, indeed.

    @SDR — Yes, Hemant could’ve been _far_ more cynical (and pessimistic). Go back three posts and read his “Three Little Words” post from earlier today for more “optimistic”. Hemant has been rather positive (and optimistic) today, yet realistic by posing important questions to ponder.

  • stephanie

    Yes, of course this is to be celebrated loudly and with much joy.

    If a politician makes even a token gesture toward atheists and no one responds, exactly what is the probability of another politician trying a similar tactic?
    Conversely, what if that first politician gets positive buzz from atheists across the nation for even such a small inclusion?

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Ran out of time on the edit, arrrg…

    That should say, “…for a “more optimistic” take on all of it”.

  • SDR

    bønez_brigade, that non-cynical post was written by Richard Wade, not Hermant. I stick by what I said, although I appreciate your view.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    I stand corrected. Thank you, SDR.
    I still think Hemant could’ve been far more cynical in this very post, regardless.

    (BTW, great post earlier today, Richard.)

  • zoo

    I was also pleased with that, JB. Being an SIT and seeing all sorts of ignorant people drag science through the mud and throw it in the ‘unimportant’ or the ‘downright bad’ piles simply because the can’t understand how it works or want all the evidence to just go away, it’s nice that, indeed ‘whatever it means’, he has it in mind.

    It’s nice he has us as a group in mind too, whatever that may lead to.

  • Yes, yes, yes.

    It is an acknowledgment that we belong in the fold, that he is aware of us and our exclusion. It does NOT mean that will necessarily bend over backwards for us, but it’s a clear sign that we are on the radar, and now we need to take the opportunity to stay on the radar.

  • Hoffy

    Yawn……there was so much god mumbo jumbo that one little reference to non believers is hardly a ripple in the pond, that Rick Warren was there makes his gesture utterly meaningless, as an Australian watching and listening to it all it was like a theatrical hollywood junket strewn with platitudes and cliche’s, nothing new to see here folk’s you all go on home……………

  • I’m glad he said it but at the same time it could well turn out to be nothing more than empty words. I don’t see him radically changing America enough that the majority of citizens will suddenly view atheists as human beings…

  • Dee

    Cynical post! I love your blog, but recognize something good when you see it. The President mentioned us. It’s great, its a step in the right direction. Chill. Peace. 🙂

  • QrazyQat

    We are, after all, only 3 presidents away from the one who said: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” So it isn’t much, but it’s night and day from just 21 years ago. You know, it wasn’t much that they let black people move up a few rows in a bus either; was it important?

  • Nobody of Consequence

    It’s an issue of semantics, but I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘non-believers.’

    It implies (and reveals) the notion that we don’t believe in anything, which furthers misconceptions around our beliefs.

    Probably expecting too much, but I’d rather have him throw out a truly all-inclusive note that encompassed all minority faiths (atheists, pagans, wiccans, voodoo, satanists, whatever).

  • not a big deal. cf: Obama’s choice for the opening prayer (Warren).

    Yes, he threw us a bone, but that’s all we’ll be getting. Don’t expect him to let us eat from the table or sit on the sofa any time soon.

  • I think calling an atheist a non-believer is pretty insulting.

  • cre8tivewmn

    He acknowledged us…as he should have. However, I agree with Miko that we shouldn’t thank him for something that is our due anyway.

  • I think we should celebrate the small victories. He didn’t have to mention us and if we don’t respond, we’re in danger of giving the impression that we simply can’t be pleased (“…so why even try?”). There’s no reason why we can’t do this as well as keep up the pressure.

  • A mention was nice, but it’s not the ultimate package we need for proper unity.

  • Richard Wade

    I don’t see Hemant’s post as being cynical. He’s asking questions and saying he is not sure what the right reaction is. If he was being cynical he’d make all those questions into negative statements about how it’s all bull. I think he wants to be open to the possibility that Obama’s mention of non-believers is the beginning of real and practical inclusion, and as any skeptic should, he is withholding his conclusion until he sees tangible evidence. That is what we are about, is it not?

    Skepticism is not cynicism. The skeptic says “Let’s look for evidence.” The cynic says “I already know it’s crap even before any evidence is found.”

  • We should be happy.. Just because he had a prayer doesn’t lessen the fact that he included us.

    As it has been said before in the blog. It was his party and he can have a prayer if he wants to (that’s his choice).

    The fact that he included us was very significant and we should not disregard it like we are above it already.

    Baby steps. We are getting there =)

  • I voted for Obama. I even campaigned for him but I have to admit that the “non-believers” phrase didn’t do much for me. It just struck me as good speech writing. I felt it was just a way to make sure his speech was as inclusive and PC as possible, which fits his message.

    I do think he will be a more inclusive president over all. I also think he will be less hostile towards atheism than many. However, one little catch phrase doesn’t make me want to celebrate.

  • Okay, so apparently the mix-up regarding Obama’s swearing in wasn’t serious enough to invalidate his presidency. But it was important enough that Obama and Chief Justice Roberts did it all over again on Wednesday night.

    What was particularly interesting about this ceremony was that there was no Bible!

  • Janz

    Big things come from little things. A baby step is a step…and after the evangelistic style of your previous, a mention is a great thing!

  • mossel

    Lets just call the acknowledgement of our existence is a change we can ‘believe’ in.

  • donna hammil

    it is not a joke that it was in fact socially and politically incorrect to identify anyone as “nonbeliever.” If you are not me, you are other. I can hardly believe that such an intelligent honest individual would not have realized that in 2009 — you can’t say that! where has he been? “and the nonbelievers” — this sounds like something dear ol’ Rush would say (again & again). We are not “non” anything. We do not identify ourselves in the negative. It was not noble of him to include these “others” for the first time-where do you think we’ve been all this time? I could say it was a left-handed compliment–but that would belittle lefthanders, and righthanders, and ambis! To include “also the nonbelievers” keeps them in their place: smaller, lesser, begrudgingly acknowledged. BTW — if you don’t believe in what I believe in, then you are a nonbeliever.

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