Understanding Why God-References Are a Big Deal

"Crisis-Induced Devotion" and the Importance of Church-State Separation

Posted May 19, 2013

If your school was like mine, it probably fell a bit short of such a patriotic ideal. Slouched, half-awake students, mumbling the words and giving little thought to their meaning, were as common as the upright patriots. In the lower grades, terms like “allegiance” and “indivisible” were often mispronounced and misunderstood. By high school the exercise had lost much of its mystique, not because kids are unpatriotic, but mainly because the pledge was seen as rote recitation that was required by authority figures.

Perhaps recalling such lackluster attitudes from their school days, some people seem to think governmental religious references are meaningless, not worth disputing. Every now and then, for example, when I'm discussing a church-state issue, someone will throw out a question that has nothing to do with legalities, but instead raises a more practical angle: Why are you fighting over this? Does it really matter? The issue might be "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, a crèche on a public park, or "In God We Trust" as the national motto: “What’s the big deal?” 

There are many reasons why church-state separation is a big deal (indeed, the fact that a valid constitutional claim is being raised should, in itself, qualify the matter as a legitimate “big deal”), but there is a psychological component to such issues that sometimes gets overlooked amid all the legal analysis. This component, which I call “crisis-induced devotion” (or “CID”), illustrates why governmental religiosity, while sometimes appearing benign and unimportant, is always at least potentially dangerous.

CID shows us that what appears mundane, given the right stimulus, can quickly become extremely intense. CID occurs, for example, when a person who is not particularly religious or patriotic suddenly becomes fervent about their religion or patriotism due to some external crisis that triggers intense devotion.

A case in point is that of Jessica Ahlquist, a young student from Cranston, Rhode Island, who initiated a church-state lawsuit in 2011 to remove a prayer banner hanging from her public high school’s gymnasium. The lawsuit, perceived by her community as challenging God and religion, provided a psychological stimulus that caused her classmates, who had previously been as outwardly apathetic about religion and patriotism as any other public school population, to suddenly experience a surge of righteousness. During her homeroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, classmates turned to her and shouted “Under God!” to emphasize that they - and their religious views - were patriotic, and that Jessica was an outsider.

Intense emotions can cause ordinary phenomena in our environment to suddenly take on great significance, resulting in previously unseen devotion. Religion and patriotism are two phenomena which can be especially common in CID scenarios, because both tap deep psychological reservoirs that often remain dormant in everyday life. This is what makes church-state entanglement, which of course involves both religion and country, so problematic even when it seems mundane. The blend of religion and patriotism, though seemingly benign, is really a combustible mix waiting for ignition. Just ask Jessica.

Crisis-induced devotion can arise outside the church-state context as well. How many times have we seen someone suddenly become devoutly religious upon the death of a loved one, for example, or upon facing a serious health threat or other crisis? And of course patriotism - devotion to country - always spikes in response to any kind of external aggression. It's worth noting that the devotion, to religion or to country, often subsides eventually, but can be quite intense while it lasts.

Not everyone experiences CID in response to a crisis (the existence of foxhole atheists proves that point), and CID is not always negative or destructive. But because devotion can become so extreme in response to a stimulating crisis, CID often has the potential to be dangerous. Sudden, intense devotion to religion or country - particularly in reaction to a perceived crisis - can easily result in unwarranted hostility and other outcomes that are later regretted.

Humans often deal with crisis by attaching themselves to something. The powerful sense of community that overtook the city of Boston after the recent marathon bombing can be understood as crisis-induced devotion to community. To the extent this brings people together, promoting healing and good will, it is indeed positive. To the extent that CID fuels aggressive impulses – as when the nation rushed to war in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks – it can be negative.

Back to consideration of the church-state context, we can see the double-barrel nature of the CID situation, since both religion and country are in play. Clearly, what seems mundane is only masking as mundane. We may see little significance in our national motto being “In God We Trust,” but the psychological foundation is nevertheless being laid for a strong association between patriotism and God-belief. And as teenagers slouch and mumble during pledge recitation, perhaps checking out a cute classmate instead of giving full attention to the flag, we shouldn’t assume the routine ceremony is “no big deal.” Despite their apparent disinterest, those kids are being conditioned to associate love of country with God-belief each time they affirm we are "one nation under God.” 

As such, when a crisis later comes and CID is triggered, it will only seem natural to see atheists as outsiders.

David Niose’s book, Nonbeliever Nation, is available here.

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