Are We An Atheist Movement?

One of the greatest misconceptions I run across when discussing with people unfamiliar is the assumption that it is somehow an atheist movement. I can completely understand how people could come to that conclusion, and I think that it is important that we emphasize that this is not an atheist movement.

As much as we want to keep religion out of government, it is equally important to emphasize that we wish to keep government out of religion. President James Madison expressed this sentiment succinctly when he wrote that he “always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”

President Theodore Roosevelt saw the use of on coinage, stamps, and advertisements as “dangerously close to sacrilege.” He did, however, miss the mark when he said that he supported the motto’s use “on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in building such as those at West Point and Annapolis — in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon.”

I appreciate his sentiment and understand why a deeply religious man such as Roosevelt would feel that In God We Trust would inspire “lofty emotions.” However – and this is the issue I have encountered most among government officials and agencies that display IGWT – the motto is viewed as one which inspires lofty emotion precisely because of its explicitly religious context. It is slyly underhanded government endorsement of God – as if God needs their endorsement. By tying a religious sentiment to their terrestrial government, the US government treads on the emotions and beauty that religious beliefs can inspire, and cheapens them by inserting itself into something that, to borrow from Jesus of Nazareth, is not of this world.

Furthermore, In God We Trust perpetuates the idea of America and Americans as the “chosen people.” This is something that seems quite at odds with the universal message of the world’s great faiths and religions – a sentiment captured in the Holy Quran, “Oh Mankind! We created you…and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.” (Al-Hujurat 49:13) Islam stresses the equality of all nations, people, races, tribes, etc. However, In God We Trust was not meant as a unifying motto, it was meant to symbolize the divisions between people.

During the the Cold War, In God We Trust was adopted to symbolize our differences with the Soviet Union and the communist world; If the USSR was communist, we were capitalist; if they stressed the rights of workers, we stressed the rights of business; if they were atheist, we were religious. In God We Trust was meant to inspire people to take stock in these divisions and reject the universalist message of socialism and communism. However you feel about those ideologies, the point stands: In God We Trust was meant to foster tribal loyalty, not human unity.

The tribalism inspired by In God We Trust has become so rampant that it is nearly impossible to disagree with the motto without encountering the accusation that one is anti-American. I have been told on dozens of occasions that if I don’t like it, I should leave the country. That’s not the America I want to live in. No more than I want to be told to leave for not believing, I don’t want a Muslim to be told to leave because “this is a Christian nation” – the Christian god being the one to which most Americans are referring to when they say In God We Trust.

The point is, this is not an atheist movement, nor is it a movement for atheists. The Original Motto Project is about enshrining the inclusive nature of American society; it is about advocating for a marketplace of free ideas and expressions. It takes all walks of life and all belief systems – atheist, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Pantheist, and many others – to build a truly tolerant and pluralistic society. It truly takes the many to form one.

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: