Monday, February 6, 2012

Atheism in America

It's always interesting how others view us, isn't it? Here's an article on Atheism in America in the Financial Times (London).
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.

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.

The reporter traveled across America and spoke to a number of atheists here. Their stories don't seem surprising to me, but they clearly do to him.

Well, at least one of them surprised even me:
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 [Renee] 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.”

I thought the article was interesting. It shows why so many American atheists are still in the closet. But it also indicates, from a source right here in Lincoln, why that might not be the best thing:
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.

I never actually hid my disbelief, but until just a few years ago, I didn't advertise it, either. Certainly, I've had very religious bosses who didn't know of my atheism. But for the most part, I didn't talk about it just because I didn't think it was anyone else's business.

But I never had a business to worry about, either. And I didn't have to worry about losing my friends and family. There are very real reasons why many American atheists stay in the closet, and I would not encourage anyone to come out unless they were confident it wouldn't be disastrous for them.

But for those of us who are free to live openly as atheists, I think it's very positive to do so. Homosexuals had to come out of the closet in order to change attitudes, and so do we. But in both situations, a little prudence is wise.

* PS. That "Godless Atheists" poster was not part of the Financial Times article, just something I stumbled across online. :)


Renee Johnson said...

The poster is comical.

WCG said...

Thanks, Renee. I thought so, too. Note that, if I understand correctly, it's not something created by Christians.

Austin Cline, who's an atheist himself, has the copyright on the image. Apparently, it's based on a WWII poster in which the menacing figure is supposed to be the "The Killer" called "Accidents."

I just thought it was funny, so I used it here (with a link back to where I found it). I hope I didn't give the wrong impression, though.