A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

On Patriotism


I am a proud Englishman. Or, at least, I used to be. Today, I’m just a proud human being. In my late teens and early twenties I was passionately patriotic, with a huge St George’s Cross flag hanging menacingly from my bedroom wall, and England cups, towels and key rings never far away. I followed the England football team fanatically, and took an active interest in any other sport where England competed. My younger brother is Welsh, and we used to mock each other mercilessly, albeit in a friendly manner.

Over the last year or so, my patriotism has waned to the point where there is almost none left. I’ve questioned it more and more and come to see it as rather pointless and empty. I’m proud to be English; why? It wasn’t a choice. And, even if it had been, so what? What does the fact that I was born in England actually mean? Does it make me better than people who weren’t born in England? Of course not. The planet is made up of land and water. Human beings have drawn lines to divide that land up. Those lines are certainly not random, but they are arbitrary when it comes to where they lie in the moments that you draw your first breaths.

So, what about England as a country and as a culture? Well, I’m certainly proud of some of the values we hold in England, such as freedom of expression. On the other hand, I’m ashamed that we are officially a Christian nation, and still function under the archaic monarchy system. I’m proud of some of the achievements by English men and women, and by England as a nation. In the past we have lead the way in industry and contributed richly to music, art, literature and sport. On the other hand, in our colonial adventures we have been the tyrant, spilling much blood and taking many lives.

Another thing, was that I always thought of myself as English rather than British, but the absurdity of this identification has dawned on me too. I’ve lived in Wales for the last 20 years, been raised here, educated here and worked here. I can’t really claim to be English rather than Welsh or British, looking at it rationally.

I consider myself British insofar as I live in Britain, and so what is in the British interest is inevitably in my interest. If I were to move abroad, I would see it exactly the same with whatever country I moved to. I find it much easier now to think of myself as a global citizen. There are aspects of England to be ashamed of and aspects to be proud of, and the same can be said of any other nation. The same can also be said of human beings. I think I may as well just consider myself human. As a human I am ashamed of the religious ignorance in Saudi Arabia, but I am supremely proud of the United States Constitution. I see very little to be gained from patriotism and much danger. The segregation and emphasis on arbitrary differences often simply fosters resentment and disdain, and it is a mindset that can be easily manipulated and exploited by charismatic speakers, who dress up racism as fair and rational.

Is it worth it? To me, the answer is an ever more resounding no.

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20 Responses to “On Patriotism”

  1. As a dual citizen of the USA and Canada, I sometimes wrestle with issues of national identity. I think perceiving oneself in broad global terms rather than narrow national or regional terms leads to an appropriately humble identity.

  2. I too am a dual citizen, UK / USA. I lived in the UK until the age of 27 and now, at the age of 30 and living in the US I am discovering the treasure that is the constitution and the bill of rights and have only recently come to realize how much the US has to lose if the trend their governments have been taking over the past 100 years continues. The situation in the UK and US is ironic. While I am proud of the more secular nature of UK society, I am appalled by th institutionalized Christianity. The widespread religious bigotry in the US is shameful but it is the US that has freedom for and from religion built into the nations core.

  3. At least you still have a cool accent. 8)

    While it’s OK to have a sense of national identity, and to feel proud about that identity, I think you’re right in what you imply that blindly accepting your country, right or wrong, is not the way to think. Critical thinking, that which distinguishes you on the religious front, is just as critical in other walks of life. So there are things about the UK you approve of, and things you don’t. That’s the way I feel about the US. AND, I don’t get my hackles up when someone criticizes my country, if the criticism is valid.

    The next step from blind patriotism is nationalism, and we know where that leads.

  4. I know where you’re coming from on this. Although I’ve never felt strongly patriotic. In fact when I got older and started thinking about it patriotism puzzled me intensely.

    How could I feel proud about the great things Britain had achieved if I didn’t also feel ashamed at the colonial atrocities of yesteryear? I hadn’t played a direct part in either, I had just been born in a place that historically did those things. It’s sad (and illogical to me) that many young Germans feel guilty about the war that happened before they were born. They call it “Kollektivschuld”. I mean, it’s good that they remember, but they shouldn’t feel guilty.

    I think Jeremy Hardy summed it up quite well,
    “It’s like saying ‘we beat Germany at the football’, no you didn’t, you watched in on the telly!”

    My parents (who were born after WW2) were travelling in Europe many years ago when a Polish woman insisted on paying for their shopping because of “what England did for my country during the war”. A nice gesture, but completely misplaced, IMO. If she’s going to be consistent this Polish woman would be treating modern-day Germans with unwarranted disrespect.

    I don’t see how we can take any of the credit or blame for things in which we were not involved.

  5. A very nice post, I can’t think of anything to add. Reminds me of this quote by Oscar Wilde: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”

    Cheers,
    Albert | UrbanMonk.Net
    Modern personal development, entwined with ancient spirituality.

  6. Well, I am patriotic. But it’s not so irrational to be a patriotic Kiwi. That’s not because our country is so terribly wonderful, mind. It’s because our patriotism takes a different form. I mean, we all know we’re the little kid country that everyone leaves off their maps. We’ve got no illusions of world domination. We just, um, make bad jokes about Australians that we don’t really mean because we do love them deep down, and maybe take an interest in Maori culture because it’s one of those things that we have but nobody else does, and blindly root for the nuclear-free policy.

    Okay, maybe that last one isn’t so rational (not that I can’t rationally justify it, myself, mind). But most of the time Kiwi patriotism is a laughing, insecure thing tied to a deep and abiding love of our quiet little home. It’s an identity, little more.

  7. I agree with you. Patriotism is too often an excuse to unite within artificial borders to perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality. While it has utility in bringing people together for self-defense, to build a sense of community, and to instill pride, it can also lead to arrogance, aggression and unilateralism. It some ways, it is not unlike the American tendency to support the local football team, although it is simply a locally-branded commercial venture, and has little actual connection to the people in the area.

    More importantly, though, I think there is insufficient appreciation for how much of our personal “success” is merely an accident of birth. I would guess that the largest determinant of our happiness and success in life is the situation of our birth – where we are born, to whom we are born, and when we are born. All of which has given me an idea for a post of my own…

    Stefan

  8. I’m a dual national also (Australian/USA). I was raised almost exclusively in Australia and have now lived in the UK for almost 4 years.

    I wanted to agree with Lynet – I do feel ‘something’ akin to pride in being an Australian that I suspect is similar in substance to hers. Australians, as a rule, don’t tend to take themselves too seriously and have a healthy disrespect of authority. Mainly it’s about sport though :-D

  9. I’m also a dual-national (New York City/the rest of the U.S.) I feel very patriotic about the former, ashamed about the latter. It used to be very easy to be patriotic about America, what with the world’s greatest system of government ever codified. Nowadays, with that codification becoming mere words for people to hang their worst imperialistic and theocratic impulses on, I’m finding it difficult to feel any sense of rah-rah.

    New York City’s still the greatest, though.

  10. Great post and I agree with you 100%. As a first generation American this strikes me as extremely weird personally. My parents emigrated from Cuba but consider themselves proud Americans. Meanwhile, my brothers, both born in this country just like I was, often chide me for not being very “Cuban.”

    Well, what am I? American by birth? Cuban by cultural heritage or birth? Does it matter? Who cares? Ultimately, we are who and what we are by virtue of how we think and act– not by the arbitrariness of our parentage or place of birth. Right?

    Psychologists have done studies where they leave a group of people in a room and divide them into two sub-groups. They tell one group “You’re the Red Team,” and the other “You’re the Blue Team.” Then they leave them in the room for a while. They found that the groups actually engage in competive behaviors with each other and start to develop group characteristics based on nothing other than being given a name for “their group.”

    Interesting? Sure. A little scary? That too.

    But NYC is STILL the greatest!

  11. Welcome back Tobe – even if it’s just the occasiona post
    Of course patriotism and religious identity often go hand in hand, and become most dangerous when they are percieved to be synonymous. G Bush’s infamous comment suggesting atheists were not true citizens of the US in a “Nation under God” shows how far the religious right would like religion and xianity in particular to be identified with love of country. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to identify with country/city/district of birth at some emotional level but like the religion of ones birth all need to be examined in the light of rational thought.
    I too have issues with the established church here in England. The automatic inclusion of some clergy in our house of lords is an affront to democracy (although the same could be said of some of the secular appointments). Unfortunately it is one of the least mentioned issues whenever the subject of Lords reform comes up for debate.

  12. [...] recent post at A Load of Bright on patriotism, questioning the notion of declaring allegiance to a government or an ideology due to the [...]

  13. The Exterminator nearly got it right in his opinion, and analysis of this intriguing post.
    Patriotism is what prompted me to post my first ever blog TODAY: http://wherearewenow4rtm.blogspot.com/

    Patriotism does not mean that we blindly follow our leaders. Patriotism does not mean we agree with ‘all’ that our forefathers said or did.

    Here is what I think Patriotism is:
    -it is being proud of where you are from
    -it is a commonality that binds a group of people together, to form a stronger community and society
    -it is the ability to see and do things for the greater good of all, and not just a select few
    -it is the ability to admit to mistakes that have been made as a society, AND LEARN FROM THEM
    -it is the ability to recognize the weaknesses in our society, and having the strength to stand and try to make it stronger
    -it is the knowledge to make sound decisions, and not follow a political head (and I mean head in every sense of the word) who has been coached and practiced all of his/her talking points.

    I am a proud American, and I am a proud Texan. I don’t always agree with the things that transpire in the US, and sometimes even disappointed (eg. GWB), but my love for my country and my home is what gives me enough concern to speak out and try to change the negatives. without PATRIOTISM, I wouldn’t care….

    These are my thoughts…

  14. Come to America. We grew tired being British also. Welcome.

  15. I still think Samuel Johnson got it right: Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

  16. I couldn’t agree more. Patriotism/Nationalism is a stupid, deadly idea.

    Drawing invisible lines in the sand and growling at the guy across from them and feeling you’re better than them just because you’re on THIS side of the sand is one of the most idiotic things EVER.

    Maybe, someday humans will be mature enough to start feeling specism. Then we can mature from there.

  17. Very cool post. That’s great to hear that you’re transcending the egotisical game of separation and superiority, as if it actually had some validity.

    As you pointed out, the nations are just made up while the people are real. What if all people were equally valuable regardless of their nationality, culture, skin color, beliefs, or religion?

    Are all the “games of separation and superiority” that we play equally silly?

  18. I’m glad to note that you believe in freedom of expression so read this “You must repent of your sins and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour or you will end up in Hellfire”

  19. A very interesting read, thanks for sharing it.

    Your account shows the nature of how peoples beliefs develop and change over time. Different and new experiences *should* lead people to draw different conclusions and it is a shame not more people can reassess their beliefs.

    I think it goes to show the subjective nature of a belief system, whether it be patriotism, or any other political of religious idealism and that they are not inherently “true” in themselves.

    I think most, if not all, people who have experienced other cultures, or are just exposed to see the vast variety across the planet can see the absurdities in Patriotism.

    It can be a healthy view to be proud of your country, in our case, we can be proud that we have a National Health Service that is there for all and that it can provide in particular for those who need it the most, notably the poor and elderly. On the other hand, as an example, I remember flying to the States and as we were coming in to land, i could see the American flag dressed on what seemed every house. At an initial glance, it may seem like nothing, however it is powerful symbolism. Imagine if you replaced (metaphorically speaking) the symbol of the American flag with Hitler’s Nazi Swastika. It would seem horrifying. When you have an entire population believe in a cause so strongly, what happens if that cause is not as

    Perhaps I digress, any how, ask a strong Patriot which item would they burn if they had to choose one, a flag, or a book. Is it just me who finds their answer rather disturbing.

  20. I just discovered your blog! Great stuff.

    Personally, I only became ‘proud’ of being British when I moved away. Being an Englishman abroad sure beats being one at home!


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