May 21, 2019

Americans Are Still Uncomfortable with Atheism

“Daniel Seeger was twenty-one when he wrote to his local draft board to say, “I have concluded that war, from the practical standpoint, is futile and self-defeating, and from the more important moral standpoint, it is unethical.” Some time later, he received the United States Selective Service System’s Form 150, asking him to detail his objections to military service. It took him a few days to reply, because he had no answer for the form’s first question: “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?”

Unsatisfied with the two available options—“Yes” and “No”—Seeger finally decided to draw and check a third box: “See attached pages.” There were eight of those pages, and in them he described reading Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, all of whom “evolved comprehensive ethical systems of intellectual and moral integrity without belief in God,” and concluded that “the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven, and the essence of His nature cannot be determined.” For good measure, Seeger also used scare quotes and strike-throughs to doctor the printed statement he was required to sign, so that it read, “I am, by reason of my ‘religious’ training and belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”

By the time Seeger submitted his form, in the late nineteen-fifties, thousands of conscientious objectors in the U.S. had refused to fight in the two World Wars. Those who belonged to pacifist religious traditions, such as Mennonites and Quakers, were sent to war as noncombatants or to work as farmers or firefighters on the home front through the Civilian Public Service; eventually, so were those who could prove their own independent, religiously motivated pacifism. Those who could not were sent to prison or to labor camps. But while Selective Service laws had been revised again and again to clarify the criteria for conscientious objection, they still did not account for young men who, like Seeger, refused to say that their opposition to war came from belief in a Supreme Being.”

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