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!