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Nov 24 2010

Tolerance Of Atheists (Just Not By That Name)

So I was driving along last night, listening to the radio, and the local NPR station was playing a rerun of a program on Robert Putnam’s book “American Grace: How religion divides and unites us“. “Religion, in general, is a positive contribution, I think, to civic life”, begins Putnam. He notes that America is very religious (more so than, say, Iran), and notes that religion can be, “when taken in large doses… toxic to civic life”. But americans are both very religious and very tolerant. He says.

The first caller (about 10 minutes in), though, is an atheist, who has experienced the intolerance of religious believers herself. Putnam is clearly uncomfortable. The research showing that americans are so tolerant… did not use the term “atheist” when asking about tolerance of those who hold no religious beliefs. He really does not like the word “atheist” (“a very bad word in american life”), and has to resort to some serious verbal gymnastics to avoid using it at times.

It’s an interesting listen (found it!), and I found myself drawing very different conclusions from the same findings Putnam was reporting (not always–some were quite straightforward). It was exceedingly frustrating whenever Putnam was asked about atheists–the host does press him about not using the word “atheist” (“Doesn’t the fact that you have to use a different word show a degree of intolerance?”); the host knew about recent polls indicating that an atheist would not be electable, and asks Putnam about that. It really seems he wanted to find tolerance. He does find intolerance toward non-believers, but the word atheist (“Most americans don’t use the word atheist, even describing themselves”) seems to be a special case.

Yeah, I can believe many people don’t use the word “atheist” to describe themselves. This is a result of intolerance. Most people don’t walk around with a “kick me” sign on their back, if they can help it.

Anyway, I was frustrated. So I wrote this:

Americans are tolerant, despite what you have heard,
Of differing religious groups (though “mine” is still preferred),
Or even non-believers, though the story here is blurred—
They didn’t call them “atheists”, cos that’s a nasty word.

There’s many strong believers in the father, ghost, and son,
But a shift away from churches, in the 60’s, was begun,
And the fastest-growing segment in religion answers “none”
But we dare not call them “atheists”, cos that’s a word we shun.

In the 80’s, you remember, the religious culture war
Pitted Robertson and Falwell ‘gainst the heathens they deplore
And their power, to Republicans, was costly to ignore
So they railed against the “atheists”, whom good folks all abhor.

In the 90’s and two-thousands, there was yet another shift—
Youngsters cutting off religious ties and setting them adrift—
So the ranks of unbelievers got a huge percentage lift
But we didn’t call them “atheists”, in case they might be miffed.

If “Americans are tolerant” is going to be your claim,
But you steer away from labels which might anger or inflame,
Then it’s mere semantic wanking, and the truth is, it’s a shame
When the tolerance researchers fear to mention us by name!

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8 comments

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  1. 1
    Mattir

    This is why, for purposes of the Boy Scouts of America, I am a naturalistic pantheist. It's all fine, as long as one doesn't use that bad A-word. No one ever underestimated the intellectual honesty of the American public…

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    I used to do something like that, but I can't any more. I don't remember where along the line I made the change, but I don't care if I offend friends, family, employers, or anyone; I'm done lying about it.Corrected a friend a couple days ago about the "send a christmas card to the ACLU" bit that has made the rounds for the past 5 years. Have not heard back. Got passed over for a job at a catholic college. Offended a favorite (and very religious) uncle. Twenty years ago, I'd have sucked it up and all would be well, with the exception of my integrity.Fuck that.I'm glad my kids are too old for scouting now (won't lie, I'd have done the same as you, probably), cos now I can tell adorable little cub scouts that I won't buy their popcorn as long as they won't let gays or atheists join.Damn, I'm not supposed to be this bitter right before thanksgiving. I think I need either more, or less, to drink.

  3. 3
    Wedge3D

    Maybe atheists should be included on National Coming Out Day (NCOD)

  4. 4
    Monado

    Like!Polls are fickle things; we all know that changing the phrasing of a question to an equivalent meaning changes the answers. It reminds me of, "I'm not a feminist, but… (of course I expect to get the benefits that the feminists fought for)."CANADA has gay scouts. I mean, there was a small troop of out gay scouts in Toronto, with rainbow neckerchiefs. But I don't know if they are still meeting (nor of any reason why they shouldn't be). They probably meet out of the Metropolitan Church (the church for gays). Still, very good point. I guess Putnam restrained himself from saying that "no true Christian" would be so mean?

  5. 5
    Anonymous

    look like Dancing Monkey wants it in for yu…

  6. 6
    Cuttlefish

    Quite so, Anonymous–I think he has a crush on me. I keep telling him I like him, but just not that way… so the only thing left to do is delete his love letters.

  7. 7
    Anonymous

    Seriously? Come on…Atheists, a tiny little cult of Anti-Theists (There is no God and I hate him) have been RUNNING America for decades…with the ACLU as their pitbull. Everywhere there is a historic marker, holiday celebration, school commencement, etc. a single or ridiculously small group of Anti-Theists is there to make sure that our historic culture dare not mention the Creator that somehow got credit for all our rights (inalienable) which up till then seemed to eminate from the State. It is the very tolerance of Christians – there, I said it – for which Anti-Theists get their right to be so incredibly obnoxious. Atheists were in charge for less than a century in Asia and Eastern Europe, and they slaughtered more human beings than all religious (in name only) regimes in history combined. If you don't believe it's Christianity you have to thank for your freedom to trash the Almighty, try your blog in Iran (Islam), for instance, or in Bhutan (Budhism), or India (Hinduism).

  8. 8
    Cuttlefish

    Or Rwanda (christianity) for that matter.What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Anonymous, the burden of proof is yours; unless you are parodying some tea-bagger world view, something has convinced you of your position. Feel free to share it. Otherwise, I think MacBeth said it best…

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