The rise of atheism in America
The number of disbelievers is growing, but they remain America’s least trusted minority. Why?
The National Atheist Organization’s “Reason Rally” in March: 19 percent of the American public spurns organized religion in favor of skepticism about faith.
How many atheists are there?
It depends on your definition of the term. Only between 1.5 and 4 percent of Americans admit to so-called “hard atheism,” the conviction that no higher power exists. But a much larger share of the American public (19 percent) spurns organized religion in favor of a nondefined skepticism about faith. This group, sometimes collectively labeled the “Nones,” is growing faster than any religious faith in the U.S. About two thirds of Nones say they are former believers; 24 percent are lapsed Catholics and 29 percent once identified with other Christian denominations. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, claims these Nones as members of his tribe. “If you don’t have a belief in God, you’re an atheist,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you call yourself.”
Why are so many people leaving religion?
It’s primarily a backlash against the religious Right, say political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In their book, American Grace, they argue that the religious Right’s politicization of faith in the 1990s turned younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches, even as conservatives became more zealous. The dropouts were turned off by churches’ Old Testament condemnation of homosexuals, premarital sex, contraception, and abortion. The Catholic Church’s sex scandals also prompted millions to equate religion with moralistic hypocrisy. “While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics,” Putnam and Campbell write, “the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction.” As society becomes more secular, researchers say, doubters are more confident about identifying themselves as nonbelievers. “The collapse of institutional religion in the first 10 years of this century [has] freed so many people to say they don’t really care,” said author Diana Butler Bass.
How are nonbelievers perceived?
Most polls suggest that atheists are among the most disliked groups in the U.S. One study last year asked participants whether a fictional hit-and-run driver was more likely to be an atheist or a rapist. A majority chose atheist. In 2006, another study found that Americans rated atheists as less likely to agree with their vision of America than Muslims, Hispanics, or homosexuals. “Wherever there are religious majorities, atheists are among the least trusted people,” said University of British Columbia sociologist Will M. Gervais. As a result, avowed atheists are rare in nearly all areas of public life. Of the 535 legislators in Congress, for example, only one — Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) — calls himself an atheist. Few sports stars or Hollywood celebrities own up to having no religious faith.
Why so much distrust?
Many Americans raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition are convinced that atheists can have no moral compass. Azim Shariff, a University of Oregon psychologist who studies religious thinking, sums up how believers view nonbelievers: “They don’t fear God, so we should distrust them. They do not have the same moral obligations as others.” The antipathy may have actually grown with the recent emergence of “New Atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who have launched impassioned attacks on organized religion. Dawkins has encouraged his followers to “ridicule” anyone who could believe in “an unforgiving control freak” and “a capriciously malevolent bully” like the God portrayed in the Old Testament. Dawkins’s harsh approach, said Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, has confirmed “some of the negative stereotypes associated with the nonreligious — intolerance of the faithful, first and foremost.”
How have atheists responded to this negative image?
A coalition of nonbelievers is out to make atheism more acceptable, starting with last month’s “Reason Rally” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where thousands stood up for their right to not believe. Silverman of American Atheists, who helped organize the rally, said it was intended to give heart to young, “closet atheists” who fear the social stigma of being “outed,” in much the same way closeted gays do. “We will never be closeted again,” he said. Some within the movement advocate taking a more conciliatory approach to believers, too. Alain de Botton, the Anglo-Swiss writer of the new book Religion for Atheists, assails Dawkins as being “very narrow-minded,” and praises religions as “the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.”
Will atheism ever be accepted?
If growth continues at the current rate, one in four Americans will profess no religious faith within 20 years. Silverman hopes that as nonbelief spreads, atheists can become a “legitimate political segment of the American population,” afforded the same protections as religious groups and ethnic minorities. But he’s not advocating a complete secular takeover of the U.S. — nor would he be likely to achieve one, given the abiding religious faith of most Americans. “We don’t want the obliteration of religion; we don’t want religion wiped off the face of the earth,” Silverman said. “All we demand is equality.”
Atheists in foxholes
Atheists are barely visible in politics and entertainment, but they are clamoring for recognition in another area of public life — the military. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers estimates that 40,000 soldiers identify as nonbelievers, and counts the most famous casualty of the war in Afghanistan, former NFL star Pat Tillman, as one of its own. In attempting to secure the same rights and support enjoyed by religious soldiers, the association lobbies against the idea that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” and wants “atheist chaplains” made available for the ranks of the armed nonbelievers. Jason Torpy, the association’s president, says that nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the military except Christians, yet receive no ethical and family counseling geared to their own nonbeliefs. “These are things that chaplains do for everybody,” he said, “except us.”
Why The Reason Rally is Worth Coming Out For
Fellow Huffington Post contributor, Nathalie Rothschild, recently wrote an article titled, Why The Reason Rally Isn’t Worth Coming Out For. The article appears to be a deliberate attack on atheists. She did all but call us “uppity” for organizing the Reason Rally. I will take up the mantel of defending humanistic atheists and present my case for why I think the Reason Rally is worth coming out for.
Rothschild implies that only gays need to come out of the closet and that there is no societal pressure for atheists to remain closeted. This is flat out wrong. There is a huge cross-over demographic between the LBGT community and the greater community of reason. This of course is in no small part due to the fact that so many religious believers in America consider homosexuality to be a sin. The Bible even calls it an abomination (Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27) punishable by death (Leviticus 20:13). The pressure to keep gays closeted comes from the exact same people who hate atheists.
Don’t take my word for this; be skeptical. Go to the Reason Rally in DC on March 24th and talk to some gay atheists. Some of them will tell you that it was harder to come out to their family as gay and others will tell you that it was harder to come out as an atheist. It will probably be about 50/50. So why is it difficult to come out as an atheist?
Aside from the third of Americans that consider themselves evangelical/born again, even within the mainstream of America, many families consider religion to be an integral part of their cultural identity. This is especially the case within Catholic and Jewish families. In fact, many atheists who come from a Jewish background still identify as being Jewish despite their lack of belief in Yahweh.
But on to the discrimination! Yes, atheists face a great deal of discrimination and fear of discrimination for being outspoken about our lack of belief. Again, don’t take my word of it; be skeptical. You can look at stories that have been in the news like the insults and threats that 16-year-old Jessica Alhquist received for standing up in favor of the Separation of Church and State or the recent “controversy” involving Miley Cyrus’s tweet of a quote from A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. But don’t even take that on faith, experiment. Come out as an atheist to your friends, family, and co-workers (even if you really do believe). Consider it a challenge. See what happens. Play the role of an out of the closet atheist for a week or so.
This isn’t fear mongering. Many atheists fear having their families disown them, losing their jobs, or simply being harassed by the religious. More than that, we do have politicians like Rick Santorum who are running a campaign on Christian privilege. Even President Obama has been hostile toward atheists with his policies of expanding the Department of Faith Based Initiatives and more recently bending over backward to give exemption from the law to the religious on issues like contraception insurance coverage.
Don’t think that Rick Santorum is the only politician who believes America is and ought to be a Christian nation either. You would be hard pressed to find just a handful of Republican politicians who would disagree. Democrats are better, but even they have a few Christian extremists in their ranks. Plus, many are so afraid of being perceived as not Christian enough that they rarely speak out in favor of secular values and take every opportunity to promote Christianity even symbolically.
That brings me to the Reason Rally and why it is worth coming out for. Christian Right organizations boast that they can make or break a candidate. When they take a stand for or against an issue, politicians are more likely to pay attention to what they have to say. Atheists, Humanists, secularists, and other people of reason have a voice too. We need to demonstrate that voice and let the politicians know that we are out there and that we vote too.
When a politician justifies his or her political position merely with a reference to their faith, we have to make it clear that there will be a price to be paid. “Homosexuality is a sin” is not a sufficient reason for denying equal rights to gays.
One of the reasons why I am going to the Reason Rally on March 24th at 10am at the National Mall in DC is to send a message to the politicians that they should consider our opinion because we have a strong voice too. Rothschild wants to call this “Identity Politics” and that’s fine with me. We need to let politicians know that atheists vote and we may not vote for politicians who don’t have our interests in mind or who exclude us instead to embracing the values we all share.
Rothschild claims, “It seems, in fact, that the very thing that irks today’s atheists about religious people is that they have a strong, unifying vision of good society and that they are willing to live by it, well, religiously.” No, that isn’t what bothers us at all!
There are two things that bother us. The first is that this “strong, unifying vision of the good society” is wrong. Second, it bothers us that these religious believers want us to live by their religious inspired rules by trying to impose their religion into laws… religiously. That really irks us. If we wanted to live in a theocracy, we would move to Iran. Interestingly enough, these same politicians who are quick to speak out against “Sharia Law” are often the same politicians who try to impose a theocracy here in America; but I digress.
The Reason Rally is also going to be a great people to meet other secular minded individuals. Atheists not only often live in the closet, but we often live isolated from each other. It’s hard meeting other atheists in a nation dominated by religious believers. That is why there is such a large atheist presence on the internet. So the Reason Rally is a great place to make new friends. It’s like our mega-church but without the irrational beliefs on insufficient evidence.
Instead of some pastor preaching to us, the Reason Rally is going to have lots of great speakers to inform and inspire us… plus, some great entertainment. If you don’t care about anything else, the entertainment alone is worth coming out for. Bad Religion is a great band, Tim Minchin is hysterically funny, and Cristina Rad is awesome… and that is just a few of the great speakers. American Atheists’s president David Silverman said it best when he called the Reason Rally the “Woodstock for the secular community.”
Best of all, the Reason Rally is free! How can it not be worth coming out for?
Understanding original sinThe story about Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Bible’s book of Genesis is very important to Christians. This story, also known as “the fall of man” and “original sin,” is so important because it explains a great many things about Christianity and the Christian God.
For example, the story of “original sin” explains why an omnipotent God allows so much suffering to occur on our planet. It also explains why Jesus needed to come to earth to be crucified. It explains why human childbirth is so painful. It explains why human nature can be, at times, so cruel and evil. It explains the sacrament of baptism. According to this page:
[original sin is] The sin of Adam and Eve, the essential event of the Fall of Man. According to the most common teaching of Christians, all descendants of Adam and Eve — that is, all people — share in this sin and are, from the time they are conceived, in a state of sin. In German, the term used is Erbsunde, meaning “inherited sin,” a more explanatory term than the English one. Jesus, through his Crucifixion and Resurrection, atoned for original sin. All who believe in Jesus and accept baptism are freed from original sin and experience salvation.
The question that we will explore in this article is a simple one: is the Bible’s story of original sin valid? Does this story, whether it is literally true or not, have any importance to mankind? The goal is to help Christians to look at the story of original sin from a fresh perspective and analyze its meaning.
The Creation Story
“The fall of man” starts with the creation of man. Genesis 2:7 describes the actual creation process in this way:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
After creating man, the Bible says that God moved man into the Garden of Eden:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the Garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’
Here we are faced with an enigma — a talking snake. From a scientific standpoint this snake is impossible. There is no such thing as a talking snake. Snakes (and reptiles in general) have neither the physical structure nor the brain power to speak. There simply are not enough neurons in the reptile brain to process language.
Even in the context of the story, the talking snake is a bit hard to swallow. The story seems to be saying that God created not one but two sentient species — humans and serpents. Yet the Bible makes no mention of the serpent’s creation nor does God provide any warning to the serpent to stay away from the tree.
Let us ignore this as a quibble as well. Perhaps the serpent is God’s way of personifying Satan in the story.
After Adam and Eve disobey God and eat from the fruit of the tree, here is what happens:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’
He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.’
And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from?’ ”
- God is the all-knowing creator of everything. The questions he asks in this passage — why does God ask them? Since God is all-knowing, he already knows the answers. For example, something as simple as “Where are you?” is unnecessary for an all-knowing being. God knows EVERYTHING, so there is no need for him to ask any question of anyone. Let’s dismiss that with the thought that God is playing the role of the coy parent in this scene.
- If you take the “omniscient” train of thought a little further, you realize this: Since God is all-knowing, it means that at the moment that God put the tree into the garden, his omniscience would allow him to instantly know the entire course of human history. He could foresee every single person’s birth, life and death in full detail at that moment. If God did not like what he knew that Adam would do, then why did God set it up that way? And why would God be at all surprised by what happens?
- Most people also wonder about the tree. The tree is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Therefore, Adam and Eve would not have any knowledge of good and evil until they ate from the tree. So how would they know the difference between right and wrong until they ate the fruit? In other words, they had to eat the fruit before they would know that it was wrong to eat the fruit. If someone doesn’t have any knowledge of right and wrong, how can the person commit a sin? And how can you punish the person for doing wrong?
- Most people also wonder about human nature. God created Adam, so God designed the placement of every cell in Adam’s body and brain. Therefore God knows all about human nature, and how Adam and Eve will think and react in every situation — God is the one who created human nature. Certainly God had an omniscient reason for creating human nature in the way that he did.
When you read this story and really think about it, you realize that Adam and Eve are a very special case. Look at it this way. When normal people like you and me are born as babies, we know absolutely nothing. We have to learn about our native language, culture, rules, laws, history, etc. from our parents over the course of many years. Adam, on the other hand, is created from the dust of the earth. Like Frosty the snowman, Adam, “came to life one day.” The instant that he is created in the Bible, Adam is an adult who can speak and think.
This raises a number of questions about Adam’s state of mind:
- Where did Adam’s initial language come from? God must have pre-programmed that in.
- Where did Adam get his knowledge of how to eat, how to drink, how to bathe, how to walk, etc.? All of these skills normally come after several years of training. God must have pre-programmed them into Adam too.
- Where did Adam learn how to respond in conversation, how to be polite, how to interact with others, etc.? Normally a parent teaches all of these social skills as well. God must have pre-programmed them into Adam.
- How old is Adam? Did God pre-program Adam at the level of a 5-year-old? A 10-year-old? A teenager? A twenty-something? A middle-aged man? A senior citizen? The Bible does not say, but it is important. If God has pre-programmed Adam at the level of a five-year-old, or even a teenager, then it would be hard to get too mad at Adam for making a mistake. Five-year-olds and teens make mistakes constantly — that’s how they learn. On the other hand, if God has pre-programmed Adam at the level of a twenty-something, then Adam’s entire world view, attitude, moral code, political stances, attitudes toward women (see chapter 15) and so on have been pre-set by God. By age 25, most humans have been through 12 years of school plus college, they have dated a number of people and are married, etc., so they have stored a huge amount of information and experience in their brains. Albert Einstein at age 26 was married, had a child and had finished the theory of relativity. God could have programmed Adam with the same level on knowledge, understanding and experience that Einstein had at age 26. In that case Adam might have made different decisions, and humanity would have advanced technologically at a remarkable pace.
So why is God surprised in any way by the events that unfold in the garden, and why is there any need to punish mankind? Since God is the one who created and pre-programmed all of the actors, God made all of the decisions on what would happen in Eden. When God asks “Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from?”, why bother asking? God programmed it to happen. God can see the full swath of history — billions of years forward and backward down to the atomic level. That is what omniscience is all about. God created Adam and Eve, God pre-programmed Adam and Eve, so God knows exactly what Adam, Eve and the serpent will do together. Adam and Eve were doomed from the very beginning.
This is what makes the creation story and the notion of “original sin” seem so ridiculous to non-Christians. Adam did not “sin.” For one thing, Adam would have no way to know what a sin is until he ate the fruit. For another, Adam had no control whatsoever over what he did and therefore it was not a “sin” to act that way.
Responding to God
If Adam was smart, what he would say to God in response to a question like, “What are you doing?” is something like this:
“Look, God, you tell me. You are the one who created me. You are the one who arranged the neurons in my brain. You are the one who created human nature. You are the one who pre-programmed me with my language, my knowledge of the world, my code of ethics and everything else. You are also the one who created and pre-programmed Eve, and you are the one who created and pre-programmed a talking serpent. You have absolute control over every single thing that is happening here. You are the one who can see billions of years into the past and the future. You tell me — what am I doing? Quite obviously, I am doing exactly what you designed and programmed me to do. How could I possibly do anything else?”
“You know, Adam, you are right. I created you. I arranged every cell in your body and brain. I created human nature. And I pre-programmed you, just as you say. I know exactly how you think and what you will do in every situation. In addition, since I am all-knowing and beyond time, I can see exactly, nanosecond by nanosecond, how your life will proceed. I can see, in exact nanosecond detail, how the lives of the trillions of people who will follow you will unfold. I know everything. I understand everything. I am perfect. In creating you the way I did, I did so perfectly and with complete foreknowledge. I understand exactly why you ate from the tree. In fact, I already knew exactly what you would do when I planted the tree. I am glad that you now understand the difference between good and evil. Otherwise I would not have put the tree there. ”
“I will greatly increase your pains in Childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”
Adam is punished in a similar way — God convicts Adam and gives him the death sentence. Post-fruit, God says:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
It is hard to imagine the relationship with God getting any worse than this, but it does. Just three pages later, here is what God has to say about the human race:
“The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the Earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth — men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air — for I am grieved that I have made them.’”
When you think about it like this, you cannot miss the huge problem with the Bible. The Bible is supposed to be the error-free product of a perfect, omniscient being. Everything you have been told since birth tells you that the Bible is the perfect word of God. However, your common sense tells you something far different. When you actually read the Bible, what you find is that it is ridiculous. None of this happened. None of it came from God. All of it is a fairy tale. The Bible, quite obviously, was written by primitive men rather than God. “Original sin” is completely meaningless because it is an ancient fable. With that realization you come to understand many other things as well, as discussed in detail in the book.
What I would ask you to do is simply think about the Bible and the creation story as a rational human being. Read the book to learn more.
In 2010, the mayor of Greensboro North Carolina undermined the American value of religious liberty found in the United States constitution. These are the voices of Greensboro, using the framework of democracy, to reestablish the equal inclusion of both the religious and nonreligious.