By David Bryce Yaden, Rutgers U. Assistant Humanist Chaplain,
In 1956, the United States of America officially changed its national motto from E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One,” to “In God We Trust.” This switch effectively traded a universal, profound, and inspiring sentiment for a provincial, metaphysical, and specifically monotheistic claim. The new motto was adopted during the Cold War, when Congress was scrambling to differentiate the country from ‘atheistic’ communist ideals and to do whatever possible to exclude “them” from the U.S.
While resonant with many, the new motto fails to represent our nation as a whole.
The first and primary problem is that the new motto excludes our fellow Americans who belong to non-theistic religions, like Buddhists, as well as those who choose no religion, like atheists secular Humanists. Secondly, it is a flagrant transgression of the separation between church and state. But constitutional and legal scholars have written about these Establishment Clause issues at length. So rather than dwell on how the adoption of the new motto forced us to crucify some of our most cherished values, I will focus on the positive: how the old motto better captured our collective ideals as a nation.
The worries of Congress over whether the original motto was democratic sounding enough were misplaced – rarely have truer and higher words for democracy been uttered than the latin E Pluribus Unum. For it to reflect a communist worldview, it would have to read something like, “out of two classes, one will prevail.” The “one” in the old motto was likely what bothered Congress, perhaps it sounded too much like “workers of the world, unite.” Maybe it suggested to them a collectivist perspective that eschewed individual rights and liberty. But E Pluribus Unum is a sophisticated phrase – it holds the paradox of simultaneously acknowledging both multiplicity and unity.
The first part of the phrase, E Pluribus or “out of many” recognizes an aggregation of individuals. This affirmation of personhood entails all of the human rights and liberties that should, and often do, go with it in our country. This includes the freedom to pray to whatever god or gods one wants to and the freedom from having any specific religion imposed through the government – like the new motto violates. Another positive aspect of the multiplicity implied in “out of many” is how it highlights the concept of diversity. Our national mythos of largely immigrant origins, “the melting pot,” is one of strength through diversity. Though this value has met with many affronts, and requires constant vigilance and further progress, it is an ideal towards which we can continue to strive.
The next part of the phrase, Unum, means “one.” This refers to how we can set aside individual differences and come together in something larger than ourselves – as Dr. Jonathan Haidt puts it, “as a cell in a larger body.” We can join together, equal under the law, yet still free to celebrate our individuality and diversity. Unum reminds us that in our constitution, the criteria for inclusion is being human, bias from distinctions related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or belief system notwithstanding. True human inclusion is an ideal that still deserves all of the collective grit and persistence we can muster.
This is all more easily dreamed than done, of course. But I gather hope from an unlikely source. My research (conducted under the advisement of Dr. Jonathan Haidt, Dr. Andrew Newberg, and Dr. Martin Seligman) focuses on the psychology and neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences – moments in which the self seems to merge into a sense of unity (for a first-person account check out Jill Taylor’s TED Talk).
These peak experiences range in intensity from feeling “swept up in a crowd,” to “losing yourself in music,” to those passing but precious peak or mystical moments of feeling “at one with all things.” Self-transcendent experiences are E Pluribus Unum on a perceptual level. We are not yet sure how exactly they occur on a neurocognitive level (though we have some ideas), but we do know that after these experiences we tend to feel better, we treat others better, and we see others – even strangers of different race and class, for example – as more like ourselves. In short, self-transcendent experiences help us to recognize our interconnection and common humanity.
So the fact that we all have the capacity for some degree of self-transcendent experience gives me hope. And maybe if we can’t restore our original national motto (but we can sure try), we can work to live the old one. We live E Pluribus Unum by recognizing that human rights, liberty, and diversity are essential to who we are as individuals – and by agreeing, as one, that this is what we want our country to represent to the world.
(For another angle on this topic, you can check out Paul Chiariello’s article here.)
David Bryce Yaden (Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers U) David is a researcher at The University of Pennsylvania in the Positive Psychology Center under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, works in collaboration with UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and studies the neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences with Dr. Andrew Newberg. He provides healthcare business consulting services as well as public health education with a focus on end-of-life care and stress management with Lourdes Health System. He serves as an Assistant Humanist Chaplain for Rutgers University, where he graduated with the Class of '09. Check David out on Twitter at @ExistWell.
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