Atheism in America

Julian Baggini traveled around the US interviewing atheists for this article in the Financial Times.  The general picture: not pleasant.  If you live in small town America, you'll most likely want to keep your non-belief to yourself.  Being unreligious will make it hard for you to be part of the community, since so much socializing and volunteer work is organized around religion.

Academic city dwellers, particularly if they're philosophers, will find it hard to relate to all of this.  70% of philosophers are atheists, so (seriously) I think it's harder to be a Christian in philosophy than to be an atheist.  On the other hand, as an inhabitant of a north Dallas suburb (we're just a few blocks from Plano, the hideously conservative suburb mentioned in the article), I do have just a little experience with anti-atheist prejudice--enough to know it's a reality.

The article ought to make anyone empathize with maligned American atheists, but it should probably also make maligned American atheists ponder their own agenda a bit.  Consider what many of Julian's informants told him--being gay or even a crack addict creates less of a problem than being an atheist.  Why is that?  Probably part of the difference lies in the thought that you can't be good without God.  Atheists really need to overcome that belief.  But there's another element to this.  If you're gay, you're not attacking heterosexuality, and you're not trying to make others gay.  In the public mind, an "atheist" isn't simply someone who believes there is no God.  An atheist is a promoter of godlessness.

At least, that's the impression I've gotten in many conversations. People will confess disbelief and then turn around and say "But I'm not an atheist, or anything like that."  What is an atheist, or anything like that?  An opponent of religion, I think, not merely someone who believes there is no god. So--part of the problem with atheists winning acceptance is that many don't position themselves like members of other religions.  Christians can accept Jews because Jews aren't anti-Christian, and vice versa. It could work the same way between theists and atheists, but it calls for overt "live-and-let-live" attitudes on both sides.

Of course, some atheists really are anti-religious, and don't plan on giving that up, even if it would help atheists gain more acceptance.  They think the goal of defeating religion is so important that it's worth the temporary marginalization of atheists out there in middle America.  OK, fine, but let's be honest about how atheists present themselves to others, and what role that self-presentation plays in the stigma associated with the word.


bowmanthebard said...

In the US, social welfare is mostly maintained by charities, which often have a religious ethos. I'm an atheist, but I can understand why Americans might have a sense that in the US religion is a "force for good", and that atheists are "against" that "force for good".

Human Ape said...

"It could work the same way between theists and atheists, but it calls for overt "live-and-let-live" attitudes on both sides."

Really? Should we just ignore the daily religious atrocities? Should we just ignore the child abuse called religious indoctrination? Should we just ignore the never ending Christian wars against science education and against our constitution?

If America's Christians can keep their childish idiotic fantasies in their worthless churches and if they could let children grow up before attempting to destroy their minds, I would be happy to ignore their breathtaking stupidity.

Human Ape said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Human Ape said...

"OK, fine, but let's be honest about how atheists present themselves to others, and what role that self-presentation plays in the stigma associated with the word."

Even if all atheists ate babies for breakfast that wouldn't change the fact they're right about the non-existence of magical god fairies. Being a atheist, also known as not being an insane gullible moron, is something to be proud of. If some idiots have a problem with that, who cares?

Deepak Shetty said...

An atheist is a promoter of godlessness.
So a muslim would be as antagonized by an evangelical christian? Or the Catholic would seriously consider Tim Tebow to be seriously offensive?

Christians can accept Jews because Jews aren't anti-Christian
And history suggests it wasn't always this way.

but it calls for overt "live-and-let-live" attitudes on both sides.
Anytime. For e.g. stop government support of religious crap and reduce the strong influence f religion in public life/science/policy and most non-believers wouldn't care a damn about which particular God someone believes in.

Jean Kazez said...

It seems to me that there's a huge chunk of America where people of different religions get along very well by conveying to each other a message along the lines of-- "We disagree, but we all worship a higher power, and so the details don't matter all that much." I see this in ecumenical activities organized by churches and synagogues, and in the way that kids talk to each other in a public school. People aren't in conflict over religion because there's an unwritten rule that you're supposed to back off, respect, tolerate--there are various distancing rules that keep people in harmony. I think some atheists violate those distancing rules. They actually comes across as not just disagreeing, but as being openly and full-tilt against religion. This is breaking the unwritten "how to get along despite religious disagreement" rules. This sort of rule-breaking isn't the only reason why there's hostility to atheists, not by a long shot, but it looks to me like it must be one reason. Why would you --if you're religious--like atheists, if atheists are laughing at you and saying religion poisons everything, etc etc?

Faust said...

Jean, I think you're generally right here but it goes a bit deeper than the fact that some atheists like our "human ape" here, are aggressive and millitant in thier posture.

If one is an atheist, one holds a set of beliefs that are fundamentally discontinuous with most regligous belief as commonly practiced and understod by the vulgar (to borrow a phrase from the good Bishop Berkeley).

All those various religious people have something in common, a generally commesurable belief in "the supernatural." It's not well spelled out, many of them are going to be pretty clumsy with the ontology, but there it is. On average they all believe in some kind of extant higher power that somehow (and there are variations on the theme) engages the world.

The atheist on the other hand tends to reject this picture wholesale. Even if they aren't millitant about it, they are liable to hold that there simply is no such domain as "the supernatural." They will point to a world full of "physical" objects interacting on the basis of natural law and on this view they, even if not millitant about it, represent a fundmantally different belief system than that shared by all the various religions.

I think this discontinuity; this lack of commesurability; has to really be the essence of matter. The millitancy is just a particularly aggressive and indignant version of general atheist rejection of "the supernaturalist worldview."

Dave Ricks said...

What am I reading, DBAD Deux? Some unspecified people had some unspecified social transactions in some unspecified social context. And it was bad. And you people really ought to think how you could do better next time.

What are we talking about? Shouting forced laughter at an ecumenical bake sale event?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Right--I simplified. There are lots of very fundamental reasons why a Christian will have a harder time bonding with an atheist than with a Jew (for example). So it's not quite clear what role is played by the fact that the village atheist is sometimes a person running around making fun of religion and trying to get rid of it.

Dave--Come on, you're in denial. I'm not going to waste time trying to convince you of the obvious. Yes, Virginia, some atheists really do detest religion, and say so openly.

Dave Ricks said...

Jean, your post wasn't about their existence, your post was about their impact, and I was asking you to make your claims explicit. In Baggini's article, in his last paragraph, for the Florida guy to lose his friends, what do you claim other atheists did to cause that?

I'll back up and say we wonder about the same thing: In your 4th paragraph, your first few sentences have someone pussyfooting about their atheism. And we wonder, why the pussyfooting?

H1) Your hypothesis is the pussyfooting is to avoid being mistaken for some archetype Boogyatheist that I'll compare to the archetype Slut for girls (i.e., Slut! and Fast Girls). I can agree with that hypothesis, but your post is like validating the archetype Slut, and validating the tribal system of rumor and bullying, and your last paragraph is like saying "let's be honest" about these rules -- that modestly-dressed girls can expect to be judged slutty because some other girls dress slutty, and you're telling the modestly-dressed girls to police the slutty girls or else it's their fault for being judged slutty. If you really want those rules to control atheists, just say so explicitly, and I'll accept that's what you want.

H2) Another hypothesis is the pussyfooting is to avoid saying any small thing that might trigger an involuntary physical reaction from even moderate, non-practicing cultural Jews, Christians, or Muslims. I went to a friend's house for lunch, and I said something small that made his eyes vibrate from side-to-side for a second, and it looked like he threw up in his mouth a little (emotionally, if not physically). Then a few seconds later he was cool, like it never happened, and we're still the same friends. I don't remember exactly what I said, it might have been mentioning "God" as "the god of Abraham" or a sentence or two reviewing how revealed religion works as a method to know morality. Either way, I was being respectful, but for me to simply talk about the popular "God" on some level of abstraction or mythology got this insane feral reaction for a couple seconds. Or in Julia Sweeney's one-woman show Letting Go of God, after she comes out as an atheist, "Mom & Dad Freak" (pp. 85-90 in the CD booklet). What is this thing that freaks out, even in moderate, non-practicing believers? The shock of hearing blasphemy, what is that? Betrayal of the tribe? Fear of themselves being struck down dead? I don't know, but atheists did not create the part of believers that freaks.

H1 and H2 may both be true.

Jean Kazez said...

Dave, If you look at certain atheist blogs, you'll see something that's at the very least ironic. On some days you see ranting and raving about religion that borders on loathing. Then, once in a while, you get a post bemoaning the way Americans don't accept atheists. Are we really not allowed to have the thought that the loathing and the non-acceptance might be connected? Is it forbidden? That just sounds like some sort of political correctness--not the attitude you'd have if you really wanted to understand the truth. I think there may be a connection. That's not to say that atheist loathing of religion is the explanation or even part of the explanation in every instance of atheist non-acceptance. It's just one factor, playing a role in some cases. I think that's a very reasonable hypothesis, but of course you need data to back it up. If someone like sociologist Barry Kosmin were studying why Americans distrust atheists, I think it would be out and out foolish of him not to explore it and see what role it plays.