I recently received an email from a friend who, having read my articles on Science vs Religion and Atheism vs. Agnosticism, took issue with my position — not because he believes in God, but because he disagrees with my characterization of epistemology and my definition of agnosticism. On the one hand, his letter has led to a mentally stimulating exchange of ideas which I’ve been delighted to be a part of. On the other hand, it’s forced into the front of my brain the realization of just how misunderstood atheism is in America.
A Canadian paper has just published an Op-Ed on this subject. Here is a notable excerpt:
Studies have shown atheists are less likely to be criminals and less likely to get divorced than theists. Countries with lots of atheists are strongly correlated with low murder rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, low illiteracy rates, high per capita income and high levels of gender equality. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Atheists contribute more to charity than theists do.
Despite all of these positive qualities, atheists are more distrusted than virtually any other minority. Roughly three-quarters of the population wouldn’t vote for an atheist, half views us unfavourably and one-quarter of the population believes that we are inherently immoral. As I’ve demonstrated briefly above, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this dim view, so I have to hope this is caused by a simple lack of understanding as to what atheism is.
I’d like to add to his statement and suggest that many atheists don’t understand what atheism is. Certainly, my friend understands clearly why he doesn’t believe in God, and I feel like we’ve worked out our differences as semantics, but the exchange has reminded me of how many atheists I’ve met over the years who didn’t even know they were atheists. (As a matter of fact, another friend and I spent approximately two years discussing atheism before he became convinced that he, too, is an atheist, and has been for years!)
Part of the problem of understanding atheism — particularly in America — is that by the time most children have grown enough to make a rational decision about atheism and theism, they’ve been indoctrinated into the belief that atheists are bad people. Most of my readers are aware of the studies, but we really don’t need studies to know that we are villified. We are the most distrusted group in America. We notice.
The thing is, the most distrusted group in America isn’t really atheists. It’s people who call themselves atheists. All atheists are not equally distrusted. I believe that for every outspoken atheist in America, there are probably three or four people who don’t believe in God, don’t go to church, don’t buy into any of the bullshit, and have never bothered to openly tell anybody about it. They just go about their lives, quietly, contentedly, not rocking the boat. If you ask them where they go to church, they will say, “I don’t really go in for religion.” If you ask them if they believe in God, they’ll say, “I don’t know. I never really gave it much thought.”
Theists, in particular, are happy to let these folks go on with their lives. They’re irrelevant to theists and theism because they don’t cause any trouble. Big Bad Atheists, on the other hand, are a real bother. We blog. We go to meetings. We write books and buy ads on buses. We go to school board meetings and demand scientific proof of Creationism. We sue the Boy Scouts. We demand evidence.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? I’d guess that 95% of “Big Bad Atheists” would be happy if theism was removed completely from the government, if theists didn’t get special tax consideration when they went to meetings, and if theism was something practiced privately and not mentioned publicly.
And who is it that theists wouldn’t vote for? It’s not really atheists. There are atheists in Congress now. There are atheists in positions of leadership all over the country, but they have one thing in common — They’ve never admitted it publicly.
Theists don’t fear and distrust atheists. They fear and distrust the ones who won’t keep it to themselves. They want us to be the silent minority. They don’t want us meddling with their power, questioning their tax-exempt churches, their blue laws, their legalized discrimination, their bans on scientific research, their indoctrination of children, and their outrage at wardrobe malfunctions.
I feel a little like there’s a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in America. If you have to be an atheist, just keep it to yourself and don’t mess with the system. It’s damn inconvenient to have to deal with all the good arguments atheists make, and more inconvenient still to accomodate them under the law when they demand equality and justice.
This is why I believe the key to breaking the power of theism in America is in communication with the silent atheists. Many of them don’t even know they’re atheists, and wouldn’t want to be called one in any case. We’re good people. We’re moral, we love, we hurt, we have compassion. We try to make our friends and loved ones happy. We want things to be better for everybody. Yet, for no good reason, we are distrusted and vilified — so much so that many of us don’t even realize we belong to the group.
As I write these words, I use a pen-name. I must, for I would risk public censor, boycott, and financial ruin if my words were properly attributed. As I call for openness from atheists, I remain anonymous. It’s still nasty territory to be an atheist. Part of me feels anger towards those atheists who have chosen not to rock the boat. Part of me understands completely. For my entire life, my words are google-able. There will never be any doubt that I am an atheist and that I disapprove of theism. If someone like McCarthy ever comes to power again and America descends into theocracy, I could be in real trouble.
Perhaps — just perhaps — there’s a chance that reasonable heads will prevail while a moderate sits in the White House. I sometimes despair that I will live another fifty years and never see a non-theist in power. (I’m comforted by the fact that another fifty years would be quite a stretch.) I worry that so long as Christians control the media and the government, we atheists will always be misunderstood — on purpose.
I hope I’m wrong.