Some atheist friends and I had a ritual that we followed when we met for dinner. We defaced our money.
On the back of U.S. paper money (technically, Federal Reserve notes) are the words “In God We Trust.” But I don’t trust in a god that I don’t believe exists; why should I be forced to promote a concept I don’t accept to conduct commerce? Does the American government have no obligation to its citizens who are atheists, agnostics, or religious non-Christians who feel excluded by this?
Consider the second beast from Revelation 13:16–18 that forced all people “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.” Would the Christians eager for the imposition of “In God We Trust” as a national motto be just as happy if the money were printed with the Beast’s 666? Or what if it instead professed trust in Shiva or Allah or Xenu?
Our dinner ritual is to practice a little civil disobedience and change the slogan. Some cross out the entire motto, some cross out just “God,” and some change “God” to “FSM” (Flying Spaghetti Monster). You could replace it with E Pluribus Unum or the beginning of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Let’s take a closeup of the middle anarchist. I’m pretty sure that’s a blue “RELIGION: Together we can find a cure” t-shirt. Oh—and a defaced $20 Federal Reserve Note.
Give it a try at your next gathering of freethinkers or advocates for the separation of church and state.
But is it illegal?
What’s illegal is a national motto that spits on the First Amendment. Even if we ignore the unconstitutionality, it should’ve been a crime to replace the motto E Pluribus Unum—“Out of many, one,” which is the story of an America built by immigrants working together—with a colorless motto that could just as easily fit fifty countries.
Title 18 of the U.S. Code has several relevant sections about changes to currency.
- Section 333 says that mutilating or defacing a Federal Reserve note is illegal, but only if done “with intent to render such [note] unfit to be reissued.”
- Section 471 says you can’t alter money with intent to defraud.
- Section 472 says you can’t possess or pass on money with intent to defraud.
- Section 475 says you can’t put advertisements on money. (This got the Where’s George? bank note tracking project into trouble.)
It’s clear that this project is legal, but if you like, imagine a cloud of doubt to make it more exciting.
Add some spice. Cross out “God” in front of who you’re paying, or replace the slogan with “Atheist Money.” Get your Christian friends to join in—government meddling in religion can’t be good for them, either.
And ask yourself how weak the Christian argument is if its proponents must try to steal the prestige of the U.S. government to bolster it.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/12/15.)