There’s simple rule for atheists and agnostics in America: keep your head down and your mouth shut.
I recently wrote an article for Dissident Voice web site criticizing the new Pope and organized religion. Boy, did the brickbats start to fly. Many were put off by my assessment of the Pope as right-wing extremist who will undoubtedly lead the papal caravan back to the 13th century. More were offended by my dismissive remarks about religion.
Why? Is it such a stretch to acknowledge that someone may have an opinion that veers from the majority? (According to the latest polls, 90% of Americans believe in God)
Or, is it simply because atheists and their unwelcome worldview offer a real challenge to people of faith?
Face it, atheism in America is a lonely experience. Atheists are widely distrusted and there is a palpable undercurrent of discrimination directed at them, even though it is less noticeable than the prejudice aimed at other groups. In many ways, atheists are social pariahs, America’s leper colony. Just about everyone is wary of atheists, as the polls repeatedly indicate.
For example, I saw a poll in Free Inquiry magazine a few years ago 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.
Why? Are atheists a threat to society?
And, how is it that politicians, entertainers or whomever can expound ad nauseam about God and, yet, the views of atheists are scrupulously omitted from the media. (With all the religious programming on TV and radio, have you ever heard an atheist offering his point of view?) If 90% of the population were so secure in their beliefs, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion, would it?
The fact is atheism simply doesn’t exist in America. It is the forbidden topic, like homosexuality 20 years ago. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that there is concerted effort to downplay atheism so as not to undermine the unifying myth (God) that binds western society together. The fact that the vast majority of Americans accept the existence of some super-human phenomenon, of which there is no scientific proof, shows that religion has been the most successful PR campaign in the history of mankind. Regrettably, in our “free” society, no one is even allowed to openly debate the issue.
Faith: Search for truth or conditioning?
Religious faith is almost always determined by one’s upbringing. The vast majority of Americans wind up practicing the same religion as their parents. This proves that their religion was not the result of an objective, open-minded search for the truth, but simply a matter of conditioning and habit. Many people will probably be offended by that observation. After all, they believe they have discovered the truth independent of the coercive influences of family and environment. But the demographics of religious groups change at a glacial pace, leaving Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews in similar numbers and locations as they have been for hundreds of years; proof-positive that religious affiliation can be reliably predicted by geographic and statistical analysis.
Is this “free will”? Actually, the predictability of human behavior is a serious challenge to our notions of personal freedom.
Like most unbelievers, I’ve been more than willing to keep my mouth shut and my head down, not drawing attention to myself and resisting arguments with religious people. But, now, things are changing so dramatically that withdrawing is no longer an option. Religion is being politically exploited to such an extent that it’s threatening the fundamental institutions of democratic government. There is a real chance that democracy in America will not survive Bush’s tenure as president. Atheists have no choice except to step forward and raise their voices against this new menace.
What is an atheist?
In reality, I never think of myself as an atheist. It is a foul, pejorative term intended to pigeonhole someone so that his or her views can be marginalized. But atheism is not that easy to dismiss. After all, it is not a philosophy or a belief system, but something entirely different. Basically, it is a suspension of judgment on a topic for which there is no demonstrable evidence. It is an unwillingness to draw conclusions without proof. Is that atheism or just basic science?
In any event, I prefer to think of myself as an “unbeliever” in a world of unbelievers.
Why? Because, in fact, no one really knows whether God exists or not. That makes us all unbelievers. We may elevate conjecture to a level of human virtue, calling it “faith”, but it is still just conjecture. Nothing concrete can be verified.
So, what is faith and why is it so important to religious people?
Faith is the “acceptance of unproved assumptions.”
Unproved assumptions? How is that different than saying that faith is nothing more than hearsay, speculation, hypothesis or theory?
Is someone a better person because he’s willing to accept something that has no basis in fact and is in no way scientifically provable?
And, doesn’t that conflict with the idea that God gave man the capacity to reason to make sense of his world? Or should man just abandon his thinking abilities and take a leap of faith?
“Unbelief” is man’s natural state. The unbelieving mind is the mind that is flexible, open to learning and receptive to new things.
On the other hand, the believer only experiences reality through the prism of his own ideology. His attachment to his own views creates a filter through which the world is interpreted.
True, for some religion is a liberating experience, and their practice only increases their expansiveness and generosity. For others, however, it is just a way of masking their own mean spiritedness or (in the case of Bush) carrying out their own repressive agenda. When we consider the old expression, “Even the Devil can cite scripture for his own purposes,” maybe we think about Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or some other equally sanctimonious charlatan who use their knowledge of the Bible to denigrate people who differ in their political perspective.
The Role of Faith
For many religious people, faith is the cornerstone of their lives and they work tirelessly to spread the word of the Lord. They believe that expressing their faith through proselytizing or missionary work is inherently good. They cannot possibly grasp how excruciating it is for unbelievers to endure their over zealous preaching.
To the unbeliever, the religious fanatic is simply a predator who struggles to fight off his own insecurity by trying to convert someone else. This isn’t a sign of confidence and conviction, it’s a sign of uncertainty, the type of uncertainty that naturally emerges from “not knowing”. Preaching merely demonstrates that someone is attached to their own opinions, not that they are “saintly” people. Most people judge others by the way they behave. The rest is just salesmanship.
Belief and unbelief are counterbalancing forces in society. When unbelief is “disappeared” by the media or excluded from the national dialogue, religious extremism increases. Isn’t that what is taking place in America today? Currently, there’s a full-throated religious debate roiling the nation, on everything from stem cells, to abortion, to war, to euthanasia, to contraception. The one voice that is missing from the debate is the voice of the unbeliever. He has no place at the table, so a reasoned and balanced result cannot be expected.
Bush and Religion
Now that President Bush is making a concerted effort to demolish the wall of separation between church and state, we should be asking ourselves what the overall effects of religion are likely to be on American society.
Hasn’t Bush’s manipulation of religion created a more autocratic government? Hasn’t it been used to divide the nation into factions where a small group of fanatics are magnified by the media to represent the greater interests of the American people? Wasn’t religion used as the excuse for the conspicuous flaws in the Ohio and Florida presidential election? (The overwhelming statistical evidence proves that paperless voting machines produced the Bush victory, not the imaginary hordes of fundamentalist Christians coming down from the mountains to vote for the first time as Karl Rove would have us believe) Hasn’t religion been used as part of a broader plan to undermine our laws, target vulnerable groups, eviscerate civil liberties, empower the President, weaken our courts, attack science, (global warming, evolution etc.) and justify a campaign of global aggression?
Are these developments coincidental, or are they the inevitable result of a society where 90% of the people profess believe in some unknown and unknowable, supreme being whose divine will is always manifest in the world?
I believe that there is a direct correlation, just as there is a correlation between the large number of atheists and agnostics in Europe and the form of socialistic democracy that has flourished there. The efforts of unbelievers is naturally aimed at improving things in this world, and that includes shaping a government that is more respondent to the needs of its citizens rather than catering to the bottom line ambitions of corporate bigwigs.
For example, in France and the Netherlands atheists and agnostics represent nearly 35% of the population. Both countries also have 6 weeks paid vacation, maternity leave, an educational system that towers above America’s, full state health and dental care, retirement at 65, and a 35 hour work week.
The highest tax bracket in France and Sweden is 52% as compared to America’s 37%. The effects of this redistribution on society are immeasurable. On the one hand it builds a strong and productive middle class that can enjoy the benefits of citizenship with much greater equity. More importantly, it reduces the potential for a few powerful men to dominate the media, control the political process, savage civil liberties and lead the country to war.
These are the benefits of greater redistribution, and they are directly related to the number of “unbelievers” in the society as a whole. The unbeliever is focused on the improvements that can be achieved in this life, not the next.
Were the Founding Fathers unbelievers?
The American experiment began in the minds of men who were Unitarians, Deists and freethinkers. These are not dogmatic religions, but rely on a person’s own ability to discover the truth for himself. (The many times I have attended Unitarian meetings, I have never heard a sermon about Christ) The founders were a product of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, devoting themselves to the principles of reason, science and equalitarian government. They were forever alert to the insidious power of religion to corrupt the values of secular society and to undermine democracy. That explains why they had such high regard for men like Edmund Burke who said, “The miseries derived to mankind from superstition under the name of religion, and of ecclesiastical tyranny under the name of church government, have been clearly and usefully exposed. We begin to think from reason and nature alone.”
Or Tom Paine, “I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
Or, Thomas Jefferson, “In every country and every age the priest has been hostile to Liberty. He is always in allegiance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection for his own.” Or, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear…. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in he comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”
Jefferson’s skepticism (agnosticism?) was commonplace among the founders and was foundational to the establishment of democracy in America. Our commitment to reason, science and social justice has been drowned beneath the theocratic gibberish and the unrelenting demagoguery coming from Washington.
Other voices need to be heard in the mainstream to put the country back on the path of sanity -- the voices of atheists, agnostics, unbelievers and skeptics.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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