Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In God They Trust: On Tribal Competition

A chain email came to the BA inbox today, which encourages citizens of quality and conscience to write "IN GOD WE TRUST" on the back of all the envelopes they send through the US Mail. This message has been making the rounds, it seems, garnering many enthusiastic gruntings in the blogosphere. The email reads:
Payback is fun!!!!!!!!!!!!! WRITE IT ON THE BACK OF YOUR ENVELOPES or front WE THINK THIS IS A GREAT IDEA. WE'LL START WRITING IT ON THE FRONT OF OUR ENVELOPES, TOO! ----------Including Bills You may have heard in the news that a couple of Post Offices in Texas have been forced to take down small posters that say 'IN GOD WE TRUST ,' The law, they say, is being violated. Anyway, we heard proposed on a radio station show, that we should all write ' IN GOD WE TRUST' on the back of all our mail. After all, that's our National Motto, and ----- all the money we use to buy stamps. We think it's a wonderful idea. We must take back our nation from all the people who think that anything that offends them should be removed. If you like this idea, please pass it on and DO IT. The idea of writing or stamping......... 'IN GOD WE TRUST ' on our envelopes sounds good to us. SOME PEOPLE ARE HAVING A STAMP MADE TOO.........lets use it as our signature on e-mails, too! It's been reported that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, we have a very hard time understanding why there's such a mess about having 'In God We Trust!' on our money and having God in the pledge of Allegiance. Could it be that WE just need to take action and tell the 14% to 'sit down and shut up'? If you agree, pass this on, if not, delete!!! BUT REMEMBER IF YOU DELETE THIS, that's one reason why this world is in the mess we're in now. WE SIT BACK & LET IT HAPPEN!! IN GOD WE TRUST
This message, with its characteristic orthography and paranoia, might be seen as frightening. Who are these irrational people, who believe in absurd gods? Who live vicariously through the Bible, instead of being present here in the real world, which so desperately needs their attention? Do these people vote -- and if so, what kind of irrational policies do they support? Do they raise children -- and if so, what kind of awful indoctrination are these kids having to suffer through?

I could understand being frightened by these thoughts. But I'm not really bothered by it. I see a lot of this kind of glurge going around the web, but it is in decline, and where it is seen, it is definitely not mainstream. People simply have less tolerance for this kind of befuddled tribalism. That's a good way to think about it, actually. I'm not frightened -- I'm irritated, by the members of the Jehovah Tribe.

One of the many reasons why this world is in a mess -- why we never come close to fulfilling our potential as citizens and neighbors and fellow human beings -- is because some people are tribalistic. When they see the markings of their tribe being degraded, they react with gleeful defiance, and often with violence. They circulate messages online, encouraging their fellow tribespeople to "take back the nation" from people who disagree with them. They tell those other people to "sit down and shut up."

Call me an optimist, but I happen to think that this kind of primitive thinking is on the way out. It isn't compatible with a modern world, in which computers enable communication between distant parts of the globe, where economic plenty means longer lives and higher standards of living than ever, and where easily accessible education means an escape from Bronze Age tribal beliefs.

There are too many problems that need our attention, to waste time dealing with the hooting ignorance of tribespeople. Who cares if they mark the back of their envelopes with the signs of their superstitious tribe? It will keep them busy while the adults among us keep busy with the real business at hand.

I don't mean to sound disdainful. Most of these folks -- near all of them -- are a lot better than the beliefs they profess. But beliefs can be insidious and hard to uproot, especially without disturbing all the values that they would have anyway but which have become entangled in those religious doctrines. I don't feel disdain for the people who are scared to realize that Christianity is on the wane; I feel bad for them. They have a tough time going. One thing they can feel comforted by is that "the other team" isn't tribalistic, and doesn't have any reason to be anything but reasonable and compassionate. We're all in this together -- notwithstanding the sneering of some folks who would rather be members of tribes locked in competition for national predominance.

For the record, the phrase "In God We Trust" was not recognized as an official U.S. motto until 1956, though it appeared on some coinage as early as 1865. I prefer "E pluribus unum." As for the facts behind the original message, in 2002 the USPS ordered the removal of "In God We Trust" posters that had been printed and distributed by a private party to some post offices in Texas. The problem wasn't the slogan, but rather postal regulations that prohibit "depositing or posting of handbills, flyers, pamphlets, signs, posters, placards, or other literature (except official postal and other governmental notices and announcements) in interior public areas on postal premises."