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…