I am an acknowledged atheist. I don’t wear the label proudly or in rebellion. I know that this admission sets me apart from many of my friends and fellow human beings. I am an atheist not because I know a secret that others don’t, but because I lack a gene or a brain circuit or existential antenna that would let me commune with and feel the presence of God.
In my conception, in this absent state then, God—or Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, or any other name you use—is still a good idea. That is, for most people, the Existential Being that we revere and worship is a conception of goodness personified, something to strive for and emulate, a guide to right action and good thoughts, an inducement to calm and serenity.1
In my conception, this godhead exists in the human mind, is transmitted through spoken and written words, and in utter reality has no existence outside of human thinking, action, and cultural conventions. In other words, do I believe that an immaterial Being, a palpable Force, a Spirit or Intelligence, Creator of the universe as well as of the human form and mind, has an actual presence out beyond the stars and existing for all time and outside of time? For me, no. For others, possibly yes to probably maybe.
But god, godhead, the idea of a loving, creative, affirming presence seems to be part of the human psyche. I credit this to the fact that humans, with our brains and developed skulls larger in volume than the pelvic passages of our birth mothers, are born prematurely, with soft heads. We therefore require the loving attention of our parents through the first couple of years of our being. It’s not for nothing that we think of the godhead then as a either or both Sky Father and Earth Mother. We needed these beings, both distant and close, from our first moments of consciousness.2
In the same way, the U.S. Constitution is a human idea—an ideal, if you will—that has no existence outside of the human mind and the actions it engenders. Like the idea of a god, it is formed in words and written down on parchment and printed in booklets, the same way that God is revealed in the Bible, the Quran, or other sacred texts. But the Constitution has no other physical presence or existence outside of the human mind. It has no force that the human mind does not give it.
And yet the Constitution has a powerful influence in American life. We refer our laws and practices back to it. We see it as the ultimate test of rightness for the American culture and virtues. It has stood for 229 years. It has been amended twenty-seven times—the first ten of those at its very creation and called the “Bill of Rights.”3
Today, we seem to be undergoing either a schism or a reformation with regard to the U.S. Constitution. On the one hand are the originalists, who want to strictly construct its language according to the words on the page and the body of legal practice surrounding the interpretation of such texts. On the other hand are the proponents of a “living Constitution,” who want to interpret the text in terms of the current culture and mores, and pin the words on the page to the presumed intentions and attitudes of 18th-century white Europeans who could not have anticipated our technically advanced, multicultural, and supposedly superior view of law and justice. To the latter, the Constitution is a good start but needs work. The disagreement over interpretation seems to center in that same Bill of Rights and not so much in the basic structure of government laid down in the main text.
Although that governmental structure, too, is under subtle attack. Consider the movement away from laws being written in compact, comprehensible, easily analyzed form by the Legislative branch and merely enforced by the Executive branch—toward a Congress that writes long, abstruse bills full of intentions and to-be-desired end states, which are then left to the Administration and its Cabinet departments and alphabet agencies to interpret into regulations and laws. This isn’t so much a direct and reasoned attack on the Constitution and the government’s structure as a decades-long, bipartisan, and mostly lazy approach to sliding responsibilities around from one branch that has to fight for reelection every two or six years onto the other branch whose staff of bureaucrats and regulators is largely unelected and insulated from public criticism.4
And what happens when the popular belief in the rightness of the Constitution or the power of God goes away?
We can see in the sober words of G. K. Chesterton what abandoning the guiding notion of God and the principles of religion has wrought in our current culture: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Socialism, Communism, environmentalism (absent of, and even opposed to, human values), “the arc or history,” and every other -ism, doctrine, cult, and clever notion springs forth as a mainstay of human thinking. It’s not just that many of these doctrines are destructive, unstable, or unsustainable in the long term. They are also not as hopeful and sustaining in a person’s everyday life as the belief in a benign and loving presence. Prayer offers the believer, at the very least, a little daily chat with a presumed intelligence that is stronger, wiser, and more forgiving than the believer him- or herself might personally be. Adherence to the tenets of pure social justice, environmental sacrifice, or some other collective doctrine usually entails a bitter denial of personal hopes.
In the same way, if we abandon the strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the various modifying Amendments, we are left with the personal opinions of competing politicians—and those guided by some social, political, or economic theory with which the rest of us might not agree. The Constitution and its constituent Amendments are remarkably silent on issues of social, political, and economic theory, other than support for the individual in particular and the people in general against the tyranny of the state or the majority in control of the government. It’s a pretty lenient and forgiving structure; other systems of government are a lot more aggressive and demanding.
But again, in my conception, none of this is dependent on outside, impersonal forces. Both God and the Constitution are human creations, operating wholly within the scope of the human mind, and having effect only through the interactions among those who so believe in the first place.
These are, ultimately, fragile things.
1. Unless, of course, you worship Satan, the Devil, Baron Samedi, or some other dark force—and then your heart is in a different place from mine.
2. I imagine that a race of intelligent sea turtles would have a very different conception of God. They are abandoned by their mothers as a clutch of eggs in the sand, are warmed by an invisible Sun, hatch by the light of the Moon, and scramble across dry land to find the ocean, pursued all the time by hungry gulls and other predators. I imagine their God would not be caring or life-giving at all, but cold and distant like the Moon itself.
3. That is, the rights that citizens have above, beyond, and preceding the Constitution, as inalienable rights that come from some source—God, perhaps?—greater than the state or the federal union and the document that binds that union.
4. This is a basic problem with democracy. Ultimately, the people who have to run for office must seek approval from the voters. You do this in one of two ways: offer favors, projects, and advantages that other politicians can’t or won’t offer; or avoid association with damaging and restrictive laws and their effects that the voters won’t like. Promise the sky but avoid the whirlwind and the lightning.