Michael Newdow is a California physician, lawyer, and political gadfly who's
on a mission on a crusade battling the U.S. government over what he sees as the inappropriate use of religious language in the public sphere. He made headlines in 2004 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against his challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance; Newdow had sued to return the Pledge to its original language and to strike the words "under God" (added in 1954 at the height of Cold War hysteria). More recently he's been arguing that "In God We Trust" should be removed should be removed from U.S. currency.
Newdow interests me for a whole bunch of reasons, but today I'll focus on just one: the use of "avowed atheist" to describe him in news reports. When I Googled "Newdow" and "avowed atheist," I got 250 hits--certainly an underreport; for example, the story that first caught my attention (on my local National Public Radio station) didn't show up. But plenty of other articles did, such as this story and this one.
Newdow is undeniably an atheist. Not only does he very much not believe in a supreme deity, he even started his own church to spread the good word. (Only in America...) But "avowed"? What exactly does that mean?
We would find it odd, at the very least, to call someone an "avowed Lutheran" or an "avowed Buddhist." Yet "avowed atheist" slips right by our internal censors. It has become an unchallenged epithet, as predictable to our ears as "wine-dark sea" and "gray-eyed Athena" were to Homer's listeners or "card-carrying Communist" was to Senator Joseph McCarthy's. (In English, we like our alliteration.)
But hold on a minute. "Avow" is not a neutral word: it means "to acknowledge without shame." The implication is that there ought to be an element of shame involved, but the avower just doesn't give a damn.
As we know all too well, to be godless in America is to be un-American--even anti-American. This country was founded by theists--avowed theists, if you will--and is trending scarily toward official theocracy. In this environment, where Jews can be regarded as "people who go to a different church," atheists can barely be regarded at all. Even Wiccans get a fairer shake. But what's an atheist, after all? Someone who just says no to the whole Great Spirit thing. Who says, Go ahead and pray if you like, but leave me out of it, thanks.
What disturbs me is hearing otherwise intelligent commentators--such as the one on my public-radio station--revert to the lazy, unthinking "avowed" epithet. Let's think twice before automatically splicing adjective to noun for the sake of a sound bite. And a moment of respectful silence, please, for the ungodded among us. If nothing else, they force us to confront our collective demons.