metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

December, 2000, Volume 8 Nr. 4, Issue 88

BEING ATHEIST IN A HOSTILE CULTURE

 by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

At the outset of the 3rd millenium, CE, I am too old to be surprised at what should have shocked my younger self: Today in the USA Atheists are persona non grata, feared and reviled, mostly closeted, and considered by their fellow citizens to be unfit for public office.

This in a nation which basic formal design was the work of a bunch of Enlightenment elite who had enough vision and humanity to make a plan (the Constitution) that they knew would trump their own lifestyles. The Bill of Rights is the capstone of a resilient old edifice engineered to shift and flex in turbulence of the times, but not to break. That critical list of original amendments would have a snowball’s chance in the heated culture wars of today.

Atheists are alien species to most Americans. Few people seem to know any atheists personally. Of course they do, because we freethinkers average one in twenty. But folks are more likely to admit to fetishism than to atheism.

How such an odd state of affairs developed is a topic too large for this essay. Instead, I’ll relate the common experiences of closeted and out atheists. The Queer-Lib terminology is is deliberate, and the parallels are many.

 

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL

When someone asks about your religion, you can give lots of answers that will usually be accepted, or one that will not. The latter is "I am an atheist." Contrary to the rhetorical nonsense that America is a secular humanist society, or a godless one, the assumption of those vague, ill-defined concepts of "belief", "religion", "faith" and "spirituality" are nearly universal.

There is a high professed level of theism in the U.S. The Gallup poll’s perennial question, "Do you believe in God, or a universal spirit?" has been asked since 1944. The lowest level was in ’47 and again in ’78, at 94%. The highest in 1953-54, at 99%. In 1994, fully 96% of U.S. adults said they believed. The words "God" and "universal spirit" are vague enough that we should take care in interpreting these results. More precisely worded surveys have been the crossnational surveys of the ISSP (International Social Survey Program) from 1991 and 1993. While these results show less religiosity in the U.S. than the Gallup seems to, the U.S. figures top the list among the 17 nations surveyed, in "Definitely believe in life after death", "Definitely believe in The Devil", "Definitely believe in Hell" and "Definitely believe in Religious Miracles". On "I know that God exists and I have no doubts about it", U.S. adults come in third, behind only The Philippines and Poland, with 63%. Compare that to the 96% in the Gallup poll for a similar, but distinct, question. We must be careful how we read polls, but I wonder if the desire to have faith, in spite of doubt, explains the higher Gallup figure.

In this milieu, there is something unseemly, even dirty, about atheism. We don’t talk about it in polite company. It’s "the last taboo" as Wendy Kaminer writes. I wonder if this powerful avoidance is related to the power of the idea.

"My own mind is my church" Thomas Paine

"I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose" Clarence Darrow

"There are many gods which Christians reject. I just believe in one less god then they do. The reasons that you may give for your atheism toward the Roman gods are likely the same reasons I would give for not believing in Jesus." Dan Barker

Atheism simply means "without belief in god(s)". That’s all. Yet the cultural baggage that has obscured this simple concept makes most non-believers play charades, wearing the social assumption that has been projected onto them. Just like we are all presumed heterosexual, we are all presumed theists. And with the social ostracism heaped on the Other, it is just easier to stay in the closet. Or is it? I find closets dark and stuffy, and I do not want to perpetuate the myth that there is something wrong or shameful about me, about atheism, about reason, about critical thinking.

George M. Felis, doctoral student in Philosophy at University of Georgia, writes:

"I have grown increasingly impatient with inquiries about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Why am I so vexed? Because most inquirers will accept any answer but the one I give. They would be willing (if not eager) to respect my beliefs if I told them I were of some Christian denomination—or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or anything else. But atheism? They cringe at that. For reasons that escape me, the most unacceptable of religious beliefs is none at all."

Actually, I love to discuss belief, religion, agnosticism and atheism. I love to explore ideas, to speculate why people believe unlikely or false things, to debunk myths about atheism. People are very protective of their beliefs, whether in a god or a conspiracy theory or miracles, in spite of lack of evidence. Unproven beliefs are generally built upon hearsay and reinforced with carrots and sticks. Carrots include heaven, belonging, being special, and certainty. Sticks include hell, shunning, and uncertainty. Powerful motivators for social animals. And the tendency to cling to beliefs may be part of our protective mental devices as a species. If we could accept someone else’s word for it that this plant was poison and that one was yummy and nutritious, then that is a useful adaptation. Like others, (testicles hanging where they are: good for making viable sperm, but vulnerable to painful injury) there is a downside to this tendency to credulity. Developing habits of skepticism can help attenuate the negatives.

Many folks are so threatened, angered or confused by the statement "I’m an atheist", that useful conversation on the topic is uncommon, but there are some typical trends.

As Felis writes:

"…the exchange goes something like this:

" Me: ‘I’m an atheist. Have been since I was twelve.’ (Pause for cringe of some sort.)

"Inquirer: ‘Really? Why?’

"Me: ‘Because there is no God.’ (Another pause. No one ever expects me to say this, although it is clearly the logical response.)"

 

MYTHS AND ASSUMPTIONS

For a taboo topic, there are plenty of myths. One is that atheists, (and Gays), must have become "that way" because of emotional trauma or child abuse. Why else would we reject God/Nature? In a recent conversation with a gentleman, I said, "I’m an atheist."

His immediate reaction was to tell me how he defined "atheist" for the children he teaches at Sunday school: "An atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in God and hates His guts."

Aside from the illogic and presumption of hatred in the "definition", there was a taste of the oppressor in his comment. Countlessly, Queers, Blacks, Asians, Others, have heard themselves defined, to their face, by the clueless privileged classes. Such people even think they are being open-minded, while actually wedging individuals into decorative boxes; boxes painted with tribal designs and treated as trinkets from Pier 1. We become caricatures, tokens, and totems.

The gentleman, with his smug definition of atheism, was oblivious to his insult. He calls himself a Christian. Should I have defined that for him, perhaps with "a Christian is a deluded fool who worships his imaginary friend"? Reduce him to a caricature?

This is a very kind and good man, whom I have no doubt would be kind and good with or without religion. I know many people like him. Some deal with real psychological pain that a nice person like me is doomed to burn in hell forever. It is a cognitive dissonance they don’t like to think about.

Other assumptions include equating atheism with communism, immorality, worship of Satan, worship of human beings, evil, and anger. Such absurdities must be challenged.

RELIGIOUS HEGEMONY
AND RELIGIOUS CORRECTNESS

Within America’s cheered and feared religious pluralism, there is low tolerance for atheism. An August 2000 Gallup poll shows that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate than for a woman, a Jew, an African American, or a homosexual. (However, 49% said they would vote for the atheist—the highest number since Gallup started asking that question in 1950.)

In 1987, when publicly pious politicians, though on the upswing, had not reached present saturation levels, G. Bush the Elder said, "No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God."

"Faith" is a badge of normalcy. The faith claimed can be as mainstream as Episcopalian, or as minority as Ba’hai or as amorphous as "New Age", as long as one can claim the talisman word. "Spirituality" is a vague inkblot of a word. Everyone can have a different interpretation and still be part of the culture of Good People, Spiritual People. Belonging to some religion, and/or claiming to be a person of faith, is taken as a mark of moral character. The religious hegemony in this country is such that most people assume there is a meaningful correlation between belief in a god and personal morality and ethics.

Nonbelievers are thus denigrated as immoral and evil at worst, pitied as shallow at best. Such assumptions are silly, but rarely challenged. Knowing the myths are empty does not make it any easier for most nontheists to come out of the closet and face the shunning and ostracism they know will come, even from people who love them.

Fawning respect for established religions, as well as for personal emotionalism as an indicator of truth, may look like just good manners. Yet they are anathema to democracy. No idea should be exempt from critical discussion. An unholy alliance of revivalist Christian testimony and support group "sharing", both with their rules of enforced credulity on the part of witnesses, has given birth in the wider culture to a new set of conversational taboos. The old adage to "Never talk sex or religion in mixed company" has given way to: "By all means talk sex and religion, just don’t ever do something so rude as to ask for evidence." If a person tearfully testifies to the power of God in their life, or, indeed, if a person tearfully relates an experience of being abducted by aliens, it is a grave insult to ask, "How do you know?" Such a question is considered a personal attack on the claimant’s integrity, rather than a reasonable request for clarification. Wendy Kaminer has written,

"This therapeutic culture promotes the idea that we may measure truth by the passion and sincerity of the believer. That is a ridiculous notion because passion and sincerity have nothing to do with truth; they can have a lot to do with delusion."

 

POWERFUL PRINCES OF
PIETY PROCLAIM PERSECUTION

There is a trend, rooted in Christian mythology, of the persecuted faithful. 40% of Americans consider themselves born-again evangelical Christians and the large majority call themselves Christians. Yet, the myth of the secular humanist culture, the godless society is more in vogue, and invoked, than ever.

Against this imaginary Goliath, the flock can cast themselves as David. Imagining the faceless majority to be as a pit of vipers/den of lions/arena of pagans, they fancy themselves warriors in the mold of their Old Testament superheroes, like Daniel, Joshua, David, and of endless Christian martyrs. They read the eighth "beatitude" (a word not found in the bible) as proof of their persecution, and of their righteousness.

By invoking the G-word, theists attempt to legitimize attacks on privacy, expression and civil rights, even using "religious freedom" as an excuse to discriminate in the public arena, turning the First Amendment on its head. The Religious Reich tries to have it both ways, shouting that this is "a Christian nation" AND that we are a secular humanist society; whining that Christians are persecuted (by anti-discrimination laws of all things) AND crowing that they are the majority.

U.S. political campaigns have become infused with God-talk. The popular notion that religion is essential to high moral character has been exploited by some of the most skilled moral relativists of our times. While Gush and Bore tried to out-pray each other on the campaign trail, they were running on the blood money of transnationals like Lockheed-Martin and Phillip-Morris. They were invoking their "Prince of Peace" while promising to expand an obscene military budget, and said not a word on the international ban on landmines, which the U.S still has not ratified. They railed at sex and violence in the movies and on the web, but said nothing about the torture epidemic in our prisons and jails.

Gore, and then Lieberman (repeatedly) said the Constitution "guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion", a bizarre interpretation that would have shocked the law’s authors. The push for "faith-based partnerships" is a way to subvert the intention of the First Amendment by favoring not one religion, but "all" religions. In practice, this will not only breach the wall of separation between church and state, but will favor those churches that already have resources. Our tax money will go for social services at institutions that may discriminate based on their religious scruples, even if such discrimination would be against the local, state or federal anti-discrimination laws.

Faith is presented as a credential for office. The Democratic Party works to "take back God", which hapless deity was kidnapped by the GOP. Virtuecrats and culture warriors use religious rhetoric with abandon, and toss god-colored glamour dust in the eyes of the public. Mesmerize them and fleece the flock. Gimme that old-time religion.

PYTHON AND IMPIOUS IMPISHNESS

The fewer sacred cows we breed, the better. Let ideas live in the open, where they may be seen and debated, shared and changed and refined. If you have sacred cows in the house, beware. There are cows outside the window in our Vermont pasture, doing what cows do: doo. Cowpies. In the field, manure helps more food grow; closed up in your house, it’s just a stinky mess.

One of the best ways to deal with sacred cows is to point and laugh. Masters like Mark Twain and the Monty Python are inspiring to me. And some believers are aware of, and willing to lampoon, the absurdities in their beliefs and rituals. Just as you can get the best lawyer jokes from lawyers, some of the funniest knocks on religion come from the funny faithful. Granted some of the lamest attempts at humour I have ever heard were those of fundamentalist Christians, but the severe repression of creativity and intellect required to be a good fundie is death to wit.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DOGS AND CATS

A dog thinks: Hey, these people I live with feed me, love me, give me a nice warm house, pet me, take care of me…They must be gods!

A cat thinks: Hey, these people I live with feed me, love me, give me a nice warm house, pet me, take care of me…I must be a god!

  2000 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Return to Homepage

Feedback