Trust me, I’m an atheist

“…those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

So said John Locke in his otherwise commendable “Letter Concerning Toleration.” I’d have thought the intervening 300 years would have made Americans more trusting of people like me, but University of Minnesota sociology professor Penny Edgell finds there’s still a long way to go:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

Considering that the most disruptive atheist in recent memory is Michael Newdow, I’m surprised we currently rank below homosexuals and Muslims on the list of whom intolerant Americans see as part of a shared society. We’re unorganized and don’t wear our beliefs on our sleeves. We’re not pushing for changes to marriage institutions. (We can already marry your daughters, even if you don’t want us to. Nyaah, nyaah.) Radical sects of us don’t go blowing things up. Other than having a suspicious amount of free time on Sundays, we fit right in.

Then again, perhaps that’s the problem. Religious, racial, and sexual minorities have endured painful struggles to create public identities and gain acceptance. Atheists haven’t, and haven’t needed to. Like the communists in the 1950s, we could be anyone. The friend, the neighbor, the coworker. The person who always seemed so trustworthy till that Richard Dawkins book was spotted in his living room.

Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.

So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

[Via Rogier van Bakel, who more succintly responds to the survey, “bite me.”]

[Update 3/23/06: Evan at Coffee Grounds offers his experience as an atheist New Zealander introducing himself in Minnesota.]


16 thoughts on “Trust me, I’m an atheist”

  1. In my humble opinion, atheism is just as valid a “faith” as anything else. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve basically used your life experiences and teachings to conclude that there is no God. Don’t religious people basically do the same thing, only arriving at a different conclusion? And doesn’t that, in essence, make it hypocritical for them to scorn your particular beliefs?

    Anyway, just be happy you can at least describe your religious beliefs in a single word. When people ask me about mine, they usually leave in the middle of my explanation to grab a bite to eat and come back to hear the conclusion 🙂

  2. i sympathize with mike in that when asked about my “religious beliefs” i have to make a judgement call in regards to how i should answer- because the REAL answer takes a long time to explain and not everyone is actually interested. for those who i can tell are looking for the short version, i usually tell them i’m agnostic. to be honest- i don’t blame anyone for thinking i’m crazy for my current beliefs (because they are a little crazy- they’re kind of a mix of several things and no one even knows what the A.R.E. is) but i’m proud of the fact that i still study and consider my options, allowing my beliefs to change with new evidence as i grow and learn more about the world around me… and more important to me than anything in this world is tolerance and acceptance of all people… Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity are the main religions i’ve taken the time to study but science always keeps me skeptic- i’m never satisfied and am usually asking for more. i like the philosophy of Taoism though. the difficulty of explaining my own religious beliefs aside- my point is, (though i’m sure i haven’t made it,) that i find it ridiculous that your lack of faith in a “supreme being” makes you “lower” in society than those with opposing faiths. the lack of a faith in a supreme creator is just too scary? its easier to accept that someone believes in a different god/God as long as they agree that someone/thing out there is in charge? because if they believe in nothing than they must be unbalanced in some way? i wonder where that puts someone like me in the foodchain considering my beliefs involve some supernatural phenomena, reincarnation and a force of life (not necessarily God but i spose you could call it that) that connects every living being. or do crazy psychos even make the list as members of society?

  3. Solid post J. Do you think I’m better off than athiests when I say that I just don’t care. Is one position more electable than the other?

  4. I like Evan’s word for your position: apathist, meaning you just don’t care about the question. I think you’d be slightly better off here than an atheist, and you’d be highly electable in New Zealand (if that’s any consolation for you.)

  5. Dante, you could always cynically use the name of God for whatever purpose suits your political ambitions, regardless of your personal beliefs. It’s the American way.

    Jacob, I think what people oppose is this “capital A” Atheist. This image of a person that doesn’t exist. If they knew – for example – you, I don’t think they’d say that.

    As a Born-Again Christian who takes my faith very seriously, let me say I think this uninformed attitude is bullshit. You kick ass in my book.

    (Now if only you could see the flaws in the Objectivist philosophy of She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named…) 😉

  6. Really, you need to look at the silver lining. Parents would rather their daughter marry a person of another race than an atheist! Parents would rather their kid be gay than an atheist! Atheism is the end of racism and homophobia! It’s the answer to the immigration debate! Hell, I bet it could even solve global warming.

  7. Or better yet, to add to Sarah’s point, that makes you the most forbidden fruit of all. Which means women will be flocking to you the more you wear the name of atheist. Think about it.

  8. Um, Michael Newdow was pretty obnoxious.

    I like the Rose Wilder Lane line “look at the so-called atheists…” and she goes on to say that atheists follow a code, one that is moral and good.

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  10. Umm…just a point. With the exception of radical Islam and small religiously motivated regimes (Milosevic, etc.), the biggest killer of the twentieth century, Marxism (Stalin, Mao, etc), was founded on the bedrock of an atheistic worldview. Also, in principle, Hussein, Stalin, Mao, et al were all atheists, weren’t they?

  11. Fair enough. I was thinking more in terms of which groups have been disruptive in contemporary American society, but there’s no denying that regimes that were authoritarian and atheistic were extremely destructive in the last century. Yet I suspect the bias detected in that poll has more to do with unease about disbelief and a perceived lack of shared moral values than it does with visions of Mao.

  12. I don’t understand how believing that God doesn’t exist is any less an act of faith than believing he does exist. Since none of us were present at the creation of the universe, no one can know for sure. And atheist certainly claim to be certain.

    I understand that asking for proof of a negative is silly, but to me it makes sense that some entity created the universe, it didn’t just pop into existence out of nothing. I am comfortable with not knowing what that entity is and knowing that there are concepts beyong my ability to percieve.

  13. 1st off, i totally agree that many atheists act elitist, and this is somewhat understandable because we were raised on christianity and now feel betrayed. the fact other people out there in effect know a lot more about anything according to their religion then an atheist typically claims (“we know little about the details of the origin of Earth”) can make us upset because there can be a mix of jealousy and anger due to what is seen as a ‘blind faith’ religion.

    also at least in my case of atheism, i don’t claim to know the truth about the existence of a god but i think it is rather illogical to believe in something i feel is somewhat outlandish.

    I think that it’s a huge comfort to us to believe there is a god because it can make life look more appealing. This can bias our judgement on our beliefs. i’m gonna tend to believe the much more appealing belief if they are both possible but one is much scarier.

    Joel- i agree that people should be comfortable not knowing the entity. the discomfort of not knowing is present if not worked on, and i think this may cause a belief in god to be more appealing.
    However as far as logic goes, a god creating the universe is not more plausible then a universe somehow creating itself. people think that a god can creat something out of nothing unlike nature, but then they sometimes forget to ask themselves “who was the creator of this god who made the universe?” [surely something cannot come from nothing, and if you think about it, if there was a beginning where something came out of nothing, neither explanation is more plausible]
    i have trouble believing in chance sometimes because everyone says who perfect the conditions were to create humanity. my answers to this are that 1)the conditions are not the best work a god could put out. 2) we have no idea how infinitely huge the universe is, and yet all we’ve discovered is absent of ‘higher intelligence’. perhaps chance can be unappealing, but when random events occur ____lions of times, these unlikely results can occur.

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