Is Atheism America’s Last Great Taboo?

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Feb. 5 2012 7:00 AM

In God We Must

Why won’t the U.S. accept its atheists?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Point, Texas (pop. 792) is not the easiest place for a single lesbian to raise her child. But neither her sexuality nor her unwed parenthood are enough to make Renee Johnson an American conservative’s worst nightmare. As she explained to me when I met her at Rains County Library, “I’d rather have a big ‘L’ or ‘lesbian’ written across my shirt than a big ‘A’ or ‘atheist’, because people are going to handle it better.”

We had met in a private room because Johnson worried that anywhere else in the town, people might overhear us and be offended by her godlessness. No wonder she often feels alone in her non-belief. But Johnson is far from unique. As I found out when I travelled across the US last year, atheists live in isolation and secrecy all over the country. In a nation that celebrates freedom of religion like no other, freedom not to be religious at all can be as hard to exercise as the right to swim the Atlantic.

America is the well-known exception to the rule that the wealthier and better-educated a country is, the less religious its population. As a Pew Research Center report put it, when it comes to religiosity, “the US is closer to considerably less developed nations, such as India, Brazil and Lebanon than to other western nations.” But what is less discussed is what this means for the minority who are not just apathetic about their faith, but have actively rejected it.

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The issue is somewhat neglected because it’s not usually perceptible on the coasts and in the larger cities, but the almost complete absence of overt atheism is striking at all levels of US public life, even in cosmopolitan areas.

This week, Barack Obama was invited to speak at the 60th National Prayer Breakfast, an interfaith gathering which every president since Eisenhower has attended. In the history of Congress, on the other hand, there has only been one avowed atheist, Pete Stark, who has represented ultra-liberal Oakland in California since 1973 but only acknowledged he did not believe in a supreme being in 2007. Even he is a member of the non-doctrinal Unitarian Church, prefers to refer to himself as “non-theist” rather than atheist, and refused to be interviewed for this piece. This compares with at least six openly homosexual representatives.

As leading American public atheist Sam Harris sums it up, being a member of the godless club is “basically the worst thing you can be in terms of having a political life, incurring the judgment of strangers”. A Gallup poll last year showed that, while 9 per cent of Americans would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, 22 per cent wouldn’t support a Mormon and 32 per cent would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate, 49 per cent would refuse to back an atheist for president.

Still, I found that even some New Yorkers, Bostonians and Washingtonians didn’t think there was much problem with being an atheist in their country. Until, that is, I told them a few stories. Like that of Harry Purdy, born in Manchester, the son of an American GI father he did not know. A year after the US government opened up its records, the then 46-year-old stepped off the plane at Louisville Airport, Kentucky in May 1991 and became the first of the lost GI babies to be reunited with his father. Purdy eventually took up American citizenship and moved over to live in 1993.

“It was a good thing I met him for the first time,” he told me when we met at a roadside restaurant near his home, “but this is Kentucky, this is the Bible Belt. I’m an atheist.” One by one, members of his new family turned against him because of his lack of belief. Harry doesn’t see any of his American family any more. “The last one I saw was my cousin, Ronnie. Every time he invites me over to dinner, he turns to religion. Last time I saw him, I didn’t back out, I took him full on.

 “I’ve been told things like ‘I hope you have an accident, die and go to hell.’ So that’s what I’ve been up against.”

Friends have rejected him. “I used to be a good running friend with somebody who doesn’t live far from here. I mentioned on one occasion that I was an atheist and I’ve never seen him again … I came here knowing this was the Bible Belt, but I didn’t realise it was a more like a totalitarian Christian society: you’re either one of them or you’re not and there’s no in between. So I’ve learnt this lesson, to keep it to myself as much as possible.”

From the outside, keeping your views to yourself may not seem such a problem. But this is only if you think that it’s easy to live hiding who you really are from almost everyone around you, even close family. Take Matt Elder, who lives in Festus, Missouri (pop. 11,602). When I met him in a downtown St Louis diner, he came across as a cheerful, friendly guy, not someone living under a kind of persecution. “They’re not going to cut me off or throw me to the wolves,” he says of his Christian family and in-laws. But if Elder is typical of the trying-to-keep-their-heads-down atheists scattered around the Bible Belt, then his story shows that none of them has it easy.

Elder says with a smile that when he goes out wearing his black T-shirt with its large scarlet A – the symbol of the atheist Out Campaign inspired by Richard Dawkins – “you’ll see mothers bring their children a little closer and step a little quickly away”. Elder is not militant and tries to be as accommodating as he can without being a hypocrite. “I would go to church with my wife about every week, just for community. But now, I don’t go because there’s really weird conflicts.” Weirdest of all is his regular appearance on the weekly prayer list. “There are times when people stand up and say stuff out loud to every­one else, and my wife did that while I was there.” I asked him what she said, and his paraphrase was: “My husband no longer believes in God and I’m scared for him and my family.” No wonder Elder feels that now at the church “there’s a target on my back”.

To dismiss this as no big deal would be to underestimate the role of churches in small-town America. “Life pretty much revolves around the churches,” says Johnson of her experiences in Texas. In her local Rains county (pop. 9,139), there are 31, of which 17 are Baptist. If you don’t belong to one, you aren’t part of the community, and there are few secular alternatives.

. . .

Churches are also the main hubs for volunteer work, which is much more central to life in the welfare-state free America than it is in Europe. As another of America’s leading public atheists, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, put it to me, “The sad truth is that in many parts of the country, if you want to join forces with your neighbours and do something good, and you look around for an organisation that will help you do that, that’s the churches.” Matt Elder, for example, used to go on mission trips to help build houses for poor people in Mexico, and “would go again in a heartbeat”. But now it would just be too difficult. “You don’t quite belong as you did. It’s kind of a lonely feeling.”

Psychotherapist Marlene Winell, who practises in Berkeley, California, specialises in “recovery from harmful religion” and advocates religious trauma syndrome as a psychological diagnosis. “There are so many places in the US that are just saturated with religion. Everything is interwoven – their families, their schools, their business – so that if you were not part of the club, part of the group, you get ostracised and people go through really horrible experiences of not belonging any more.” If that sounds like the experience of leaving a cult, perhaps that’s because, as Winell argues, “in its raw form, fundamentalist Christianity that believes that the Bible is the word of God is basically a giant cult.”

It was certainly the case that when I talked to several atheists together, sessions ended up feeling like self-help groups. In Dallas, five of them took turns to list examples of the constant pressures of living in a religious society. One was a businesswoman in Plano, a city that’s part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis and was ranked as the fifth most conservative in America by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research. She insists that, if she came out, she would lose her business. “I’ve worked for years to get these people to trust me, to want to do business with me.” So she constantly has to bite her tongue when Plano City Council opens its meetings with prayers, which it does in defiance of the constitutional separation of church and state.

That separation reflects the strange historical paradox of American religiosity: why is it that religion is both at the heart of the nation and legally excluded from its centres of power? The answer is that religious freedom was the reason why the puritan Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower in 1620 in the first place. They were followed by other nonconformists wanting to escape countries whose established churches made it difficult for people of other denominations to thrive. It was precisely because the religious rights of individuals were deemed so important that most were determined to ensure that the United States government should have no role in determining the beliefs of its citizens. The only mention of religion in the 1787 Constitution was the clause “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In 1791, its first Amendment declares “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

The strict separation of church and state has not, however, stopped many seeing America as a Christian nation. Many Christians campaign for both prayer and the teaching of creationism in schools. One of the most famous legal fights over the latter was the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial”, in which a Tennessee biology teacher, John Scopes, taught evolution in violation of state law. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court deemed such laws unconstitutional because they breached the first amendment. Other legal disputes are still being fought over monuments such as crosses and the Ten Commandments on publicly owned land.

Despite what looks like a clear constitutional ban on religious discrimination, atheists face problems in many areas of public life, including the military. A woman in the Marines, who has to remain anonymous, says that although chapel and prayer were technically optional, “it was frowned upon” to opt out. In Iraq, chaplains would come into the bunkers and say “bow your heads and pray”. Everyone on the base would receive a prayer through a daily email. Her real problems came at the end of her first tour of duty. “We killed a lot of people,” she said. When she got back she had “a really hard time dealing with it” and “got really bad into alcohol”. But when she asked for help, she was sent to the chaplain, even though she said she didn’t believe in God.

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.”

. . .

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.

. . .

Things could be starting to get better for atheists in America. Both Speckhardt and Silverman claim that the number of people who don’t believe in God in the US has more or less doubled over the past decade, with even faster growth among the young. Validating that claim is difficult, in part because the word “atheism” is poison. The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 reckoned that about 12 per cent of Americans were atheist or agnostic, though only 0.7 per cent self-identified as atheist and only 2.3 per cent said there was no such thing as God. Surveys do agree, however, that atheism is on the rise, albeit from a very low base.

What’s driving this change? The success of the “new atheists” has certainly had an effect. Books by the ironically-named “Four Horsemen” – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – have all been New York Times best-sellers, with sales in the hundreds of thousands. As Speckhardt says, this has “raised the profile quite a bit”. Publicity campaigns – such as the Metroplex Atheists’ “Good without God” bus adverts in Dallas-Fort Worth, the “No God? No Problem!” billboards by the AHA, and the American Atheists’ more pugnacious ones with “You know they’re all scams” printed alongside symbols of the leading religions – have also generated “millions of dollars of free publicity”, according to Speckhardt.

High-profile legal challenges to cases of religious discrimination have also gained a lot of attention. The AHA, for instance, set up the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) five years ago, employing a staff attorney and calling on the services of about 30 pro bono attorneys, while the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists also use court actions to bring attention to cases. For instance, the AHLC won a settlement for a Southwestern Community College teacher who was fired for allegedly telling his class that the story of Adam and Eve should not be taken literally.

When it comes to identifying the main cause of atheism’s recent growth, most people agree. “It’s all about the internet,” says Silverman. “The reason that atheism is on the rise is because there is no way that a person who is an atheist can think they’re alone any more. When I was growing up, I was the only atheist I knew. I had to get on my bike, ride to the public library and take out the one atheist book that they had in the whole library: The Case Against God by George Smith. Now any atheist can go on Facebook or Myspace and find literally millions of friends.”

Johnson can testify to the power of the web. “I found the East Texas atheist website, and through that the Fellowship of Freethought, the Dallas atheists, the Plano atheists and all these different other groups and I’m like, ‘oh, I’m not alone’ … Just knowing that there are 400-plus people at least, maybe thousands, an hour and a half from here that have similar beliefs is enough that I don’t feel isolated.”

There is still, however, a reluctance for many to come out. “Other than [Stark] we know of at least two dozen other atheists in Congress that just aren’t willing to admit it,” says Speckhardt, a number almost identical to that given to me by Silverman. “They feel that it will be political suicide for them, that they wouldn’t get re-elected or they couldn’t get any of their bills passed. We’ve got to work hard to change that feeling out there.”

That may not be an impossible task, but it certainly looks like a very hard one. Meanwhile, the best hope for America’s atheists is that more people come to understand the message that one man posted on a sign outside his Florida home after he came out as an atheist and all his formerly friendly neighbours, apart from a Muslim family, stopped talking to him: “I’ve been an atheist all my life. Last year I was a nice guy.”

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

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