Atheism in America

Well at least Julian now realizes that we Murkan atheists haven’t been exaggerating about the level of hostility to atheism and atheists there is in the US. He took an evidence-gathering trip here last year, and a long article in the FT talks about what he found.

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…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.

I don’t think the issue is “neglected” but maybe that’s because I’m thinking of my particular corner of the Internet, which talks about it all the time. At any rate: yes indeed: the almost complete absence of overt atheism is striking at all levels of US public life. This is one reason we (in this particular corner of the Internet) talk about it so much. It’s worth talking about, plus talking about it makes it less true. We talk about our absence and thus make ourselves a little more present.

This week, Barack Obama was invited to speak at the 60th National Prayer Breakfast, an interfaith gathering which every president since Eisenhower has attended.

And he accepted, too. Boy did he ever.

it’s always been an opportunity that I’ve cherished. And it’s a chance to step back for a moment, for us to come together as brothers and sisters and seek God’s face together. At a time when it’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and clamor of our own lives, or get caught up in the noise and rancor that too often passes as politics today, these moments of prayer slow us down. They humble us. They remind us that no matter how much responsibility we have, how fancy our titles, how much power we think we hold, we are imperfect vessels. We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to Him. Avoiding phony religiosity, listening to Him.


This is why we have to be so noisy and obnoxious – it’s because the president of a secular democracy feels obliged to talk sick-making drivel like that, which is made especially illiberal and objectionable by all the “Him” crap. He wouldn’t use language that implied that “God” is white; he has no business calling “God” male. He should leave the whole damn thing alone.

But he can’t, or at least he and his handlers think he can’t; so back to Julian’s article.

Julian talked to Harry Purdy, of Manchester, who met his GI father for the first time in 1991, and then moved to the US – only to have all his newly-found relatives reject him because he’s an atheist.

“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.”

There’s a woman whose relatives had no problem with her babysitting for their children when she was a crack addict, but won’t have it now that she’s not an addict but is an atheist.

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.

And that there are a lot of us; that we’re here, and we’re not leaving; that we’re not fanged or rabid or given to eating babies.

The word is getting out, Julian notes; numbers are rising; things may be improving.

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.”

Or Freethought blogs…



  1. stevebowen says

    American atheists have allies in the UK. We don’t have the stigma of atheism here but we have the imperative to stop the American christianist model from infecting our politics too. Feb 11th in London should be interesting.

  2. Felix says

    “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.”

    (My (odd) emphasis)

    I think Ed might wish to disagree with Julian Baggini on that point.
    Wasn’t the point of the original colonies that they could be as theocratic as they wished and demand total obedience to a particular, narrow set of beliefs?

  3. says

    I’m not sure if the majority of Americans I’ve met in the UK are religious, although several of them appear to have been, but on the other hand I’ve never met any who were totally intolerant of atheists. Are they untypical?

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Bernard Hurley,

    The people who can afford to travel from the US to the UK tend to be better educated and more affluent than most Americans. Tolerance, or at least manners, are more common among the better educated than the American hoi polloi.

  5. Josh Slocum says

    OK Julian. You’ve discovered we’re not self-aggrandizing liars. You’ve discovered that we actually have a point, and that you’ve been severely blinkered by your status as an affluent Brit in a culture vastly more open about this than the US.

    You owe us an apology for slagging us off repeatedly. Intellectual honesty demands that you acknowledge you were wrong, and that you wronged us many times over.

  6. Beth says

    Bernard Hurley: What Tis Himself, OM said is correct. Particularly in low income rural areas, being an open atheist can be as detrimental to your status as being openly gay. But it is very dependent on which particular subculture you are in.

    I live and work deep in the bible belt. Solid red state. On the one hand, I work in an academic research environment and atheism is not an issue among my colleagues. On the other hand, I stay away from talking about religion with my fundamentalist relatives at family reunions because some would have an issue with my agnostic stance.

  7. says

    The answer is that religious freedom was the reason why the puritan Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower in 1620 in the first place.

    In my darker moments, I wonder if the Mayflower was actually the B-Ark, and the pilgrims came here because Europe was about to be eaten by a giant mutant star goat.
    But only in my darker moments.

  8. machintelligence says

    I can’t help but believe that one of the reasons that atheists are able to be more open about their beliefs (in the USA) is that our arch-enemies are no longer the “godless communists”, but rather religion besotted Islamic fundamentalists.

  9. says

    Hmm…I don’t think that makes any difference. I don’t think religion-besotted Christians see religion-besotted Muslims as like them, despite the obvious commonality.

  10. says

    Yes and no. People will talk a lot of bullshit about god being neither female nor male (actually neither male nor female, but the hell with that), but most of them don’t mean a word of it.

    But in any case, no kidding, and so what. It’s still bad, and it’s still beneath Obama.

  11. says

    I didn’t realise it was a more like a totalitarian Christian society

    You’re free in the USA to be of any religion you would like, as long as you believe in Dog and accept xrist as your personal savior, (whatever ‘personal savior’ means.) If you are unable/unwilling to conform to these minimal standards of religious freedom, it is in your best interests to STFU.

  12. Forbidden Snowflake says

    When I was growing up, I was the only atheist I knew. I had to get on my bike, ride to the public library uphill both ways and take out the one atheist book that they had in the whole library: The Case Against God by George Smith.

    Ahh, fixed!

  13. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    …ride to the public library uphill both ways in the snow

    You missed an important qualification.

  14. N. Nescio says

    Fixed your fix.

    When I was growing up, I was the only atheist I knew. I had to get on my bike, walk to the public library (it had no pedals) uphill both ways and take out the one atheist book that they had in the whole library: The Case Against God by George Smith.

    Life was hard in Yorkshire, Kentucky.

  15. darksidecat says

    @Felix, that’s not accurate, it’s a common historical myth. They already had freedom to practice their branch of Christianity in Holland (where many of them had emigrated). The reason they left was not for religious freedom, but out of a desire to build their own little theocracy. The US state and then federal church-state separation notions came out of a different tradition, built from the Dutch and Quaker colony rules (which tended to allow people to practice any western monotheism they liked or any branch of Christianity they liked, respectively) and “enlightenment” notions.

    …which is made especially illiberal and objectionable by all the “Him” crap. He wouldn’t use language that implied that “God” is white; he has no business calling “God” male.

    This may be true of Obama specifically, but it isn’t quite so true in general. Common depiction of and reading of God and Jesus as white to the active exclusion of other depictions is pretty damned common in the US, currently as well as historically. A number of US religious traditions have historically explicitly claimed white people as being more Godly than people of color. This was, in fact, a very common complaint of the US Muslim movement(which also had its fair share of issues itself). Refusal to worship a “blond haired blue eyed Jesus” was a common theme, such as this quote by Malcolm X from 1954:

    Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blondhaired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshiping a Jesus that doesn’t even look like us! Oh yes! Now just bear with me, listen to the teachings of the Messenger of Allah, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Now just think of this. The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God.

    So, while sexist notions of God as male are extremely embedded in western and US culture, I don’t think it is historically or culturally accurate for many to suggest that there aren’t a ton of people who think of and imply that God is white as well.

  16. says


    I think that was rather the point: Obama wouldn’t have made any comment about how White God is, so why does he have to comment on how God is a male? My answer is that God = Jesus to most Christians so they don’t have to even think about it; God is the Father and Jesus is the Son–both inextricably male deities. But if Obama wanted to elevate the conversation to include non-mainstream Christians and non-Christian theists, he still ought not have used the male pronouns out of respect for others regardless of his own blinkered beliefs.

  17. baal says

    Greisha, the basic argument is that there are social and cultural penalties across the US for being openly an atheist. Various other disenfranchised and disfavored groups (LGBT and African-Americans for example) did not see their circumstances get better until they became “noisy and obnoxious.”

  18. Greisha says


    How did being “so noisy and obnoxious” help LGBT and African-Americans?

    How do you see being “so noisy and obnoxious” will help atheists? Please explain mechanism of changes.

  19. Decnavda says

    I think the switch in enimies from goddless commies to muslim terrorists does help the cause of non-belief. True, it makes little difference to fundie xians, we are both evil Satanic “others” to them. But it matters as to which side the “crowd” is on. There are vast numbers of people in America who believe themselves to be Xian and patriotic, but who have never read either the Bible or the US Constitution and really don’t think about these issues much beyond their gut reactions. During the cold war, when our enimies were godless and Xianity and patriotism were conflated, these people went along with adding God to the pledge and the money. But just as the cold war made it possible to smear liberals and leftists as “pinkos”, I think a lot of these people are open to the idea that all those fundimentalists are crazy whichever book the read, and they can see that the over-educated non-believing crowd looks a lot less like muslim fundimentalists than they looked like commies.

  20. Greisha says

    @Bernard Hurley:

    Nice joke, but I have a practical question.

    I grew up in a gods free environment and all that religion nonsense annoys me a lot. The question is what a practical path we can take to secular society, considering current composition of the USA.

  21. says

    Greisha, to get change you have to get noisy, people have to realise that you really want it and you’re not going to stop till you get it. You don’t have to get obnoxious, they’ll think you are whatever you do.

  22. says

    Um…hate to break it to you Ophelia, but the God of Abrahamic mythology IS male…

    But since that’s not true of all religions, that just means that the president’s statement was sectarian, making it a church-state violation.

  23. says

    Though, that would of course depend on in what capacity he was making those statements. I’m not entirely sure if this counts as him speaking as the president or simply as a private individual.

  24. Greisha says

    @Bernard Hurley:

    Bernard, believers already think we are obnoxious as atheists, servants of Satan. They probably know or guess what we want, but most likely do not care. They like a status quo, the same as it was (is) with racial or sexual minorities, and many would probably like to turn things back.

    And about noisy, very few believers read freethoughtblogs, or Dawkins, or Dennet, or Massimo Pigliucci.

    Anyway, I still do not see how it works.

    Thanks, Greisha

  25. says

    Greisha @29: Think about what it took to get civil rights for blacks in America, or voting rights and other rights for women, or for gays to start getting more rights (and what it’s still taking). Noise. Being out there, being heard, in a way that’s hard to ignore. That’s the mechanism: making it harder to ignore us, so that those who don’t think about us and how we’re marginalized can’t pretend to have never heard of it. This -hopefully- eventually will lead to those people actually thinking, and coming around to realize that we are right (at least about things like church/state separation, or prejudice against non-theists). It worked and continues to work with those other movements.

    And it’s not just FTB, or various authors. Part of the noise comes from the ads and billboards being run by American Atheists and the FFRF. It comes from campus groups like the Secular Student Alliance. It comes from lawsuits like the one Jessica Ahlquist recently won. It will hopefully come from the upcoming Reason Rally, and any events like it that follow. “Noise” is not the only point to the things I mentioned (except maybe Reason Rally?), but it’s there regardless, and it helps.

  26. Renee Johnson says

    America is just now coming out of the dark ages as far as Non-belief in Supernatural forces goes. I truly thought it would take a hundred years or more, but the internet has changed everything. Yes, I live in a rural town, but I use to live and work in Dallas. Life is different in a small town. Almost everyone knows you where ever you go.
    It is easier to be anonymous in the city, but still it is difficult to come out to the people you know will not approve.
    Help me and other atheist come out.
    Renee Johnson (I am on Facebook)

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