Early humans believed in gods that could become angry and that bestowed or withheld favors based on the deference they were shown by humans. Humans needed to propitiate these gods, usually by sacrificing something valuable: depending on the culture, a prized heifer, a prisoner of war or one's own child.
One can understand why early humans held such beliefs. They were ignorant of the causes of natural disasters or of disease outbreaks. If an earthquake or epidemic occurred, someone, some agent, had to be responsible, and as these events were beyond human powers, the gods had to be responsible. And just as we can sometimes soothe the anger of a fellow human by offering a gift and asking for forgiveness, so too one could placate an angry god by the appropriate show of deference and submission.
In more recent times, other forms of deference have replaced ritual sacrifice (for the most part). Instead of cutting the throat of an animal, people take part in worship services, engage in prolonged prayer, or otherwise manifest their deference to a deity. But the root idea that there is a god or gods who bestow favor based on the respect or honor we show them has persisted, at least in the minds of some.
And one mind in which this idea has persisted is the mind of Justice Antonin Scalia. In an address to a Catholic high school in New Orleans on Saturday, Justice Scalia stated that Americans needed to "honor" God because doing so was the way to ensure that God would continue to be good to the United States. Scalia specifically attributed American victories in the Revolutionary War and at the Battle of Midway to God's favor, which Americans achieved by honoring him.
Justice Scalia is certainly not unique among Americans, and clearly not unique among humans in general, in holding that God responds with favor to those who show him deference -- and with disfavor to those who do not. Of course, this is not to say that such a belief is rational or justified. To the contrary, it seems to me that any deity who demands worship and attention doesn't deserve to be worshiped. But if some people think that supplicating a deity will increase their chances of getting what they want -- fine. This doesn't particularly concern me.
The problem is that Scalia interprets the supposed desire of God for worship as requiring the United States to favor religious belief as its official policy. It's not enough for individual believers to worship God as they see fit -- a right which I and most Americans are happy to acknowledge and protect. According to Scalia, the government must place its thumb on the scale and promote and advance religion over non-religion. So Scalia's God is not only a God who craves worship, he's also a God who doesn't respect freedom of conscience and he wants the government to nudge, if not compel, atheists and agnostics into becoming believers.
Neutrality between religion and non-religion is for Scalia not only something that lacks constitutional warrant, but, disturbingly, he also maintains that such neutrality risks incurring the wrath of God or, at best, his indifference. Apparently, the United States cannot expect to prevail in any future conflicts if we show equal respect to theist and atheist alike.
In the past, such attitudes were used to justify the persecution of nonbelievers and religious minorities. Their lack of respect for the true god or gods endangered the community.
I doubt if Justice Scalia favors imprisoning atheists. But it is clear that he thinks government should promote religion by school prayer, Ten Commandments monuments, nativity scenes in the courthouse, crosses planted liberally on government property, and so forth.
Moreover, in principle, it would be difficult for Justice Scalia to criticize those who would want to take stronger measures against nonbelievers. The theocrats in Iran and Saudi Arabia also maintain that if their citizens don't "honor" God, they are placing their country at risk. They just have a different interpretation of what is due God by way of honor.
So Justice Scalia's remarks are troubling, on more than one level. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his remarks is his dismissal of the efforts of those American sailors and soldiers who brought about victory for the United States at Midway. I always thought that the victory of the United States in that battle was due principally to the dedication of those who worked long hours to break the Japanese codes, the skill of the commanding officers, the heroism of bomber pilots who defied withering fire to reach their targets, and the bravery and commitment of the American forces in general -- some of whom undoubtedly were atheists and many of whom were inspired by the American ideal of freedom of conscience for all. Scalia considers their efforts inconsequential compared to the whim of an insecure deity.