January 5, 2009

Jobless Atheists

It is not often that I can criticize the secular credentials of the American Democracy, as I do those of the Indian Democracy. From the treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen to religion-based allocation of its Plan outlays, religious discrimination is rampant in secular India, almost always under the guise of protecting the rights of chosen minorities. Not so in the United States of America, I thought, despite the intermittent rabble roused by the nation's Christian wing-nuts. That was before I discovered in the state statutes, official discrimination against a minuscule minority — infidels like me.

At least eight of the fifty states have explicit proscriptions against those who challenge the existence of a god:

Arkansas State Constitution:

Article 19, Section 1: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court."

Maryland State Constitution:

Declaration of Rights
Art. 36. "That as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him, all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore, no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate, on account of his religious persuasion, or profession, or for his religious practice, unless, under the color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others in their natural, civil or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent, or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry; nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come."

Art. 37. "That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God..."

Mississippi State Constitution:

Article 14, Section 265: "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state."

North Carolina State Constitution:

Article 6, Section 8: "Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God...."

Pennsylvania State Constitution:

Declaration of Rights, Article 1, Section 4: "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."

South Carolina State Constitution:

Article 17, Section 4: "Person denying existence of Supreme Being not to hold office. No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."

Tennessee State Constitution:

Article 9, Section 2: "Section 2. No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

Texas State Constitution:

Bill of Rights, Article 1, Section 4: "RELIGIOUS TESTS: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

I never had any delusion about holding an elected office —not even as a member of the local school board — in this overwhelmingly religious country. I must admit that I was tempted to apply for a political appointment in the Obama Administration, but abandoned it after Mr. Obama had to scramble in sack cloth and ashes (pun intended) to recover from his remarks about the "real Americans" clinging to religion when faced with adversity. Nevertheless, I am appalled that those who deny the existence of the non-existent can be constitutionally excluded from public offices, despite their First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.

The landmark judgment in the Torcaso v. Watkins case in 1961 was a victory of sorts for my fellow atheists. The U.S. Supreme Court then held that the First and the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution overrode these religious tests in the state constitutions. Reversing the earlier judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals upholding the State's requirement of belief in god for public office, J. Black wrote for the unanimous Court:

We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person "to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, 10 and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.

The judgment appears to guarantee that any discrimination against the non-believers by these eight states will be held illegal, even if the relevant articles remained unaltered in their constitutions. That, unfortunately, is small comfort to those who are willing to stand up for what they don't believe in while seeking public office in these states.

  1. Nice post, but the Tenessee example is the opposite of the rest:
    "Tennessee State Constitution:

    Bill of Rights, Article 9, Section 2: "That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this state, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state."

    In that excerpt, there is no mention of the requirement to believe in a god, quite the reverse.

    The article immediately before that one in the Tennessee constitution says:
    "That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship
    Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience."

    but that doesn't compell anyone to do so.

    Maybe you consider that "taking an oath" requires a belief in somekind of god, as has been argued before, but I don't think it does. It only does if the oath is taken on some religious document, such as the bible, like for the presidency, for example. Or if you consider that what's written on currency represents the values of the state, such as "In God We Trust".

    As for the Mississippi example, the use of the term "Supreme Being" is ambiguous. This term was used in the first revolutionary French constitution, but is widely reported to have referred to an abstract Supreme Being which in fact represented the moral autority of the Republic, distinct from the concept of god. I don't know whether the use of this term in 1870 in Mississippi can be construed to represent the same concept or not. The fact is that no mention of god is made, and this must have been deliberate and therefore mean something. Given that Mississippi has a French history, it may be related.

  2. vfwh:
    Thank you for pointing out the error. I have corrected the relevant excerpt, which now states:

    Article 9 Section 2. "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

    The replaced provision was actually Article 1 (Declaration of Rights) Section 4. I don't know how it got there. If it is not an Error ID10T: copy&paste, it must be the act of Tennessee's Lord Protector;)

    Apparently, the Tennessee Constitution is not alone in not considering the belief in god as a religious test!

    As regards the use of "Supreme Being" in the Mississippi Constitution, the abstract concept of French origin (Cult of Reason?) may be antecedent to the phrase, but elsewhere in the constitution, the oath of office required of all public officials uniformly includes the phrase "So help me, God". Therefore, I suspect that "Supreme Being" here is a reference to a religious deity.

  3. Nice Post. Constituition wise India is much more liberal and secular country than USA.Here the Communists and Rationalists like DMK swear solemnly instead of in the name of God.
    I am a fellow Atheist too

  4. You are probably right.

  5. Be it India or America.

    Democracy Doesnot confirms freedom.

    Voting is not solution, it is killer.

    India, thus is a society based not on Individual Rights and Freedom, but and unlimited majority rule—just like an Ancient Athens, where the public, exercising “the most fundamental right of citizenship,” voted to kill Socrates for stating the unpopular ideas. Or may be India is just like the modern day Zimbabwe, where the democratically elected Robert Mugabe seized the property of farmers and caused the nation to reach the edges of starvation. Ohh well India already has experienced the similar fate under the most popular and democratically elected Politician of India Ms. Indira Gandhi, The dictator of emergency period. One must not forget that Germany was also a democratic country supporting the “right to vote” as “the fundamental right of freedom”. The majority voted for Adolf Hitler, to turn Democratic Germany to a Nazi Germany. Will India follow the same trend?
    Can Indian citizen claim that it is perfectly acceptable to kill or punish controversial philosophers, writers, painters or to exterminate six million Jews, so long as popularity majority vote supports it?

    Americans are a little more free than Indians because Americans do realizes the importance of property rights to some extent.

    Yet america is not Very much better than india.
    Specially when Obama like leaders claims that right to vote is the fundamental right.

    Right to vote cannot be a fundamental right to define freedom; it is just a signatory right to voluntarily choose a system to safeguard the fundamental right of freedom, and that is the “property right

    Indians just do not understand the importance of property rights, hence they even do not realize what is freedom. For them the killer democracy and its Impasse is the only possible situation.

  6. A bit off the topic Sir , are just an atheist or a Hindu atheist ? By a Hindu Atheist , I mean to imply a person who follows the atheistic school of Hindu Philosophy .

  7. Unpretentious Diva:

    I broadly agree with your views. Isuppose your definition of "property rights" includes the most inalienable property right, the right over one's body, and hence the "right to die" and the "right to choose".

    Representative Democracy is the best system of governance that we have today to protect individual freedom. And, the right to vote is an integral part of that system. One day, I hope, we'll graduate to "Direct Democracy", when the right to vote will have greater significance than being merely signatory.

    I am an a-theist - not a theist, and therefore do not agree that the existence of a god (as a creator, supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, etc.) is supported by rigorous theory or evidence. Other than that, I cannot claim adequate knowledge of the Samkhya, Nyaya, or the Charavaha schools of Hindu philosophy to assert consonance with them.

  8. Thanks for answering . But do you never feel like exploring those schools of thought , as you are aware of them ?

  9. Kislay:
    Yes, I have explored - explored is the operating word here :) - these schools of thought, as well as a few of the Upanishads. One thing that I have learnt from these is that nothing said or written is beyond challenge. And, that I consider time well spent, but alas, there's so much to read, so much to know, and so little time :)

  10. Thank you for humouring me Sir .

    "One thing that I have learnt from these is that nothing said or written is beyond challenge " .

    Very True . I think it was Buddha who said so , to not take anything at its face value , even if it came out of a book deemed Holy or Sacred .

  11. Incidentally Buddhism is an atheistic religion, so these state laws can rightly be classified as anti-Buddhist. This can be another criticism of the laws, but they might reword the sentence to say religion rather than God.


Leave a Comment