Atheism and Public Life

I am an atheist: I have no positive belief either way about the existence of God or the supernatural. Though it sounds more like agnosticism, my particular worldview is generally called weak atheism: I make no claims either way regarding the existence of a god (I won’t say “There is no god!” in other words.), but I do find it to be more unlikely than likely that such a being exists.

To my knowledge, I am the only atheist in my family. I am not, however, the only atheist in the country. Yet you wouldn’t know it to look at the religious distribution within Congress.

A report on a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life regarding the religious affiliations of members of Congress begins,

Members of Congress are often accused of being out of touch with average citizens, but an examination of the religious affiliations of U.S. senators and representatives shows that, on one very basic level, Congress looks much like the rest of the country. Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress – like the nation as a whole – is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, a comparison of the religious affiliations of the new Congress with religious demographic information from the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of over 35,000 American adults finds that some smaller religious groups, notably Catholics, Jews and Mormons, are better represented in Congress than they are in the population as a whole. However, certain other smaller religious groups, including Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, still are somewhat underrepresented in Congress relative to their share of the U.S. population. (Pew Forum)

Read further, and we find the following, handy chart[, which has been removed].

Look closely — I have, and for the life of me, I can’t find myself in that chart.

Where are the atheists? Are we lumped in with “Unaffiliated” or “Unspecified”? Was there an “atheist” option for the survey? If so, did no one check it because no one is an atheist or because no one is politically naive enough to admit it?

This set me on a hunt to determine how many atheists there are in America. “Atheist Revolution” reports that there is “a commonly reported number is that 1.6% of Americans identify themselves as atheists” (AR). Toward the end of the post, a figure of 10% is suggested.

Applied to the House survey, that would leave some 50+ members as atheists. Yet how many openly atheistic politicians are there? One, that I’ve found: 18-term Democratic congressman Pete Stark from California.

There’s good reason for this: the Pew Forum also contains the opening of a USA Today article about atheism in America.

Being an atheist is not easy in this age of great public religiosity in America. Not when the overwhelming majority of Americans profess some form of belief in God. Not when many believers equate non-belief with immorality. Not when more people would automatically disqualify an atheist for the presidency (53%, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll) than a gay candidate (43%), for example, or a Mormon (24%).

Anti-atheism might have found its ugliest public expression during an episode in the Illinois Legislature this spring. As atheist activist Rob Sherman attempted to testify against a $1 million state grant to a church, Rep. Monique Davis railed, “This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. … It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! … You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!”

Lest we dismiss the legislator’s harangue as an anomaly, consider the organizations that bar atheists from membership — the Boy Scouts of America and American Legion, to name two, as well as some local posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — and the conspicuous absence of openly atheist politicians on the national stage. (The Pew Forum)

The most famous — and in some ways, the most significant — public expression of anti-atheism comes from Bush, Sr.’s comment to Robert Sherman: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

And yet we’re taking over America, taking God out of everything. My only question is, in what sense?

If anyone is a persecuted religious minority in public life, it’s atheists. Mike Whitney, at Dissident Voice, wrote in 2005 of a study that

showed that in the 1960s only very small minority of the public would vote for blacks, Jews or atheists (all of them in the 20 to 30% range). In the late 1990s when the same question was asked, blacks and Jews scored in the 70% range; not perfect, but much better. Atheists, however, still dithered in the 20 to 30% range. No change. The distrust and bigotry are still as alive today as they were 40 years ago. (DV)

The link Whitney provided is dead, and I have no way of confirming this study, but it certainly seems plausible. We’ve seen that the race barrier is, thankfully, surmountable. When will we have an atheist president? Indeed, when will we have a major-party atheist candidate? My bet: never.

Here in Greenville, I guard my atheistic stance very carefully. I avoid discussing religion with anyone other than close friends. I am fairly certain that no student or co-worker knows that I am an atheist.

I am especially careful around students: I answer students’ occasional questions about my religious views as ambiguously and politely as possible. When showing pictures of a Polish Christmas (as I did this last week) to provide students with a firsthand account of traditions very different than their own, I was asked, “Mr. S, are you Catholic?” I responded: “What do you think?” When the student stated that I must be, I simply said, “Well, remember that our assumptions aren’t always correct,” and left it very ambiguously at that.

The same girl came into class and asked, completely out of nowhere, “Mr. S, what do you think of homosexuals?” How does an atheistic, liberal teacher answer such a question with such obvious religious overtones? I wanted to say, “I think they’re human beings with every right to happiness that you and I have, and I see nothing whatever immoral in their behavior,” but that would have only spiraled into a “But the Bible says” conversation, and it was not where I wanted to go just before class. I don’t remember exactly how I replied, but I know I did my best to dodge the topic entirely.

One of my students has, in large, bold letters, the question “Have you witnessed to anyone today?” written on her English binder. She became frustrated that the Greek underworld as presented in the Odyssey did not conform to her conception of what a proper hell would look like: people writhing in agony for rejecting Jesus. I simply pointed out that the Odyssey was written well before Jesus’ birth and left it at that. “Yeah, I guess, but still…” came her reply, and I actually had to tell her privately, “We can’t take class time discussing why the Christian hell and the Greek underworld are so different.” It would have mad a fascinating discussion, I’m sure, but it would have been a discussion that I would have had to step through very carefully.

The truth is, I felt much more comfortable in Poland being openly atheistic than I ever would in the States. It’s not that I went around with a “God is dead!” shirt on or anything so silly. Moderation: I’m all for everyone believing or not believing exactly as he/she chooses, and I certainly don’t want to be a proselytizing atheist. At the same time, I once used my lack of belief to stimulating an amazingly successful conversation class, and I never tried to hide the fact that I don’t believe.

A lot of this has to do with the differences in the state view of religion in Poland and America, as well as the makeup of the religious landscape itself. Poland is almost exclussively Catholic. There is no competition for souls, and as such, dissenting opinion can be marginalized much more effectively. In America, though, we have free market religion, particularly within Protestantism. Here, everyone is competing for souls. Denominations can handle the competition, but they cannot handle a group saying, “You’re all wrong.” Believers of all faiths can band together against that, and in America, they do. The religious variety in America heightens the us-them dichotomy compared to what I experienced in Poland.

But America is Jesusland.

Take a walk
out the gate you go and never stop
past all the stores and wig shops
quarter in a cup for every block
and watch the buildings grow
smaller as you go

Down the tracks
beautiful McMansions on a hill
that overlook a highway
with riverboat casinos and you still
have yet to see a soul


Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray

for Jesusland

Miles and miles
and the sun goin’ down
Pulses glow
from their homes
You’re not alone
Lights come on
as you lay your weary head on their lawn

Parking lots
cracked and growing grass you see it all
from offices to farms
crosses flying high above the malls
A longer walk

through Jesusland

Ben Folds “Jesusland”
A country that has religious messages posted on billboards cannot ever be a nation that elects an atheist.

4 thoughts on “Atheism and Public Life

  1. Not sure about that last sentence; it doesn’t take that much money to buy a billboard. But I understand where you’re coming from. Personally, I find myself in the 47% or so who would be willing to vote for someone whose not an atheist.

    Part of the problem is in how atheism represents itself. Most people’s experience with any ideological group tends to be framed by the extremes. Christians get defined by conservative evangelicals. Pagans get defined by the obvious weirdos — or, in their absence, conservative evangelicals. Atheists get defined by aggressive, angry authors (who tend to confirm the characterizations of conservative evangelicals).

    The people who have their own opinions but don’t feel the need to berate others for disagreeing aren’t generally loud enough to demonstrate that there’s another model.

  2. Those people aren’t often heard, though. The ones who make the noise — the Daniel Dennetts and Richard Dawkinses — become the spokespersons simply because they’re speaking the loudest.

    Re: billboards — I wasn’t referring to the money required but the sentiment required. A nation that is so public in its pronouncements of personal belief will not elect an openly atheist president.

  3. Those people aren’t often heard, though. The ones who make the noise – the Daniel Dennetts and Richard Dawkinses – become the spokespersons simply because they’re speaking the loudest.

    Precisely my point. The same is true for moderate / liberal Christians, moderate and liberal Muslims, and pluralist anybodies. Yet we all get defined by our absolutist extremists. Either people are going to have to learn to look beyond the CNN Headline News surface a little bit, or we’re going to have to find a way to be louder about being nice.

  4. Well written Mr. Scott. Being a software engineer and living in a large city (even if it is in the bible belt) I have a greater amount of latitude in voicing my beliefs. Usually I just question people with “Do you really think {God would do that}, {that really happened}, {etc.}.

    I still refer back to Cyril M Kornbluth’s story, “The Marching Morons” as an explanation for our backslide back into magic and superstition. Extremist religious beliefs have always been a “Lowest Common Denominator” kind of thing. Anyone who does not fit their mold of a “normal” person will always be looked at with fear and loathing. This used to include the previously mentioned skin color and non-Christian religious beliefs. But, with the pressure of our government and media, this attitude is slowly being reversed as these people die off.

    The question is, from where will come our advocates?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *