A candidate for a Massachusetts Senate seat recently added “godless” to the adjectives “horrific” and “cowardly” to describe the bombings of the Boston Marathon. I find it unbelievable that he used this adjective deliberately to say anything about nontheistic Americans. People don’t think like that. But I think it is important to understand why godless might seem like an appropriate word to use. Word usage and implicit meaning develop over time for reasons that are frankly very difficult to track down, but here is the history I find relevant to this word used in this way.
We as a nation added “under god” and similar phrases as an anti-Soviet propaganda move some 60 years ago. It was a toxic bit of international tribalism that was supposed to help U.S. citizens know who was on whose side. An unfortunate aspect of this kind of propaganda is that it creates a dehumanizing us-vs-them dynamic. That is bad enough in war times against the enemy, but this little Cold War gem doesn't divide so clearly.
Many of the things that the soviets were known for remain the hallmark of evil in our politics. The traumatic effects of the Cold War have left our national psyche with a handful of "triggers" that have long since disconnected from their references.
No one seems to remember why socialism is bad or, if we're honest, what it is. But it has been coded as the bad opposite of capitalism for so long that within our public discourse capitalism is in the same category as apple pie, mom, baseball and Christianity; while socialism is lumped in with dictatorship, gulags, and Atheism.
Ever since the Cold War “godlessness” has been just another word for Un-American. And because the faithless (atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc.) are not widely known or acknowledged, using this old bit of cold war tribalism still makes sense in some people’s heads. David Niose has made the point that we need to use similar identity politics to those used by the Gay Rights Movement to make the rest of the country realize that being something other than a Christian is something that a lot of good, non-cowardly non-horrific already are. And I agree with him.
Come out of the closet, mention your beliefs once in a while. Let this country know that good people like yourselves are not theists. Let them see that it is possible and indeed common that good people think differently about the world. It will do them and us a world of good.