In God We Must
Why won’t the U.S. accept its atheists?
The most extraordinary story I heard was from a woman in Tuscaloosa county, Alabama. She grew up in nearby Lamar county, raised in the strict Church of Christ, where there is no music with worship and you can’t dance. She says her family love her and are proud of her, but “I’m not allowed to be an atheist in Lamar County”. What is astonishing is that she can be pretty much anything else. “Being on crack, that was OK. As long as I believed in God, I was OK.” So, for example, “I’m not allowed to babysit. I have all these cousins who need babysitters but they’re afraid I’ll teach them about evolution, and I probably would.” I couldn’t quite believe this. She couldn’t babysit as an atheist, but she could when she was on crack? “Yes.” I laughed, but it is hard to think of anything less funny.
Given all of this, you might think followers of other religions, such as Muslims and Jews, would be just as threatening. But that does not seem to be so. “People might not like the Buddhists and Mormons but at least they feel like they’re people who believe in a higher power and that confirms their beliefs,” says Johnson. “But somebody like an atheist, it just throws their beliefs into their face.”
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, concurs: “We challenge the whole concept that you can’t be good without God. We challenge the idea that religion is important in the first place, and that really makes them uncomfortable.”
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Data backs up anecdote. A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. Nearly 48 per cent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent). No wonder atheist groups talk of modelling their campaigns on the civil rights, gay and women’s liberation movements. It is not that they claim their persecution is on the same level but that they suggest the way forward requires a combination of organising and consciousness-raising. “We want people to realise that some of their best friends are atheists, some of their doctors, and lawyers and fire chiefs and all the rest of them are atheists,” says Dennett.
Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go. The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”
Whatever the solution, ignorance does appear to be a large part of the problem. Elder knows of no atheists other than those in a group that meets up a 45-minute drive from where he works. Johnson has two kids in the local school and is as active in the community as a non-churchgoer can be, a volunteer for the library and a board member for the Boy Scouts (even though she feels their strong religiosity is presenting problems for her son’s progression through its ranks). Still, she says, “I’ve been here 10 years now, and don’t know anybody in the whole county who’s an atheist.”
A report from the Pew Research Center last November showed that 53 per cent of Americans say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. That is one reason why many are afraid of coming out, to the extent that both American Atheists and the American Humanist Association (AHA) will, on request, send mailings to members under plain covers. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, says that even some of the committed rationalists who work in their Washington offices tell family that they work for a “humanitarian group”.
Could it be that they are too afraid? “Before Breaking the Spell came out,” says Dennett of his new book, “a lot of people advised me that I was going to have to go into hiding, or have bodyguards, unlist my phone number and all this. And I didn’t know that they weren’t right. A few months after the book came out, it was very clear that they were wrong.”
There’s another reason why atheists might be better off out than in. Researching his PhD, the sociologist Chris Garneau of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that, although people who self-identify as atheists are more likely to experience stigma than other seculars, such as agnostics and humanists, those who are out are significantly less likely to report psychological distress than those who struggle to keep their dissent silent.
Julian Baggini is the author of The Ego Trick.