Atheism going mainstream?

At one point in his inaugural address, Barack Obama started using familiar language in calling for national unity, saying “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus,” but the ears of atheists everywhere perked up when he added at the end “and non-believers.” Could this, along with the most recent Pew survey that indicates that the influence of religion in America is waning, be a sign that atheism is going mainstream?

The fact that neither Obama nor the Chief Justice was perturbed by the absence of a Bible when he repeated his presidential oath privately because of flubs in the original public ceremony (and no one on Obama’s staff seemed bothered enough to go and hunt one down) lends credence to my belief that for many public figures, religion has played largely a ceremonial role, a façade for public consumption, rather than a true belief. It is like standing for the national anthem. How many people stand at home when the anthem is played at some televised event? As philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his 1873 autobiography, “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.”

These are welcome developments. Atheists in America are used to mostly being treated as invisible in the body politic, while in the realm of personal relations they have been at best objects of puzzlement and curiosity, at worst targets of hostility. The recent University of Minnesota study (Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, American Sociological Review; April 2006, vol. 71, 211-234) that found that Americans listed atheists as those “least likely to share their vision of American society” and disapproved of their children marrying them (atheists ranking below Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals) came as no surprise to them.

The strong negative reaction to atheism is strange. After all, while atheism undoubtedly has implications for one’s personal philosophy, it is not by itself strongly correlated with any particular philosophical framework or ideology. Atheists have no strong partisan affiliations based on commonly used labels. They are not obviously liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, and can be found on all sides of any non-religion based issue, whether it is social and economic policy, global warming, or war and peace. Atheists are all over the map.

And yet the reaction of many religious people to discovering an atheist in their midst varies widely over incredulity, pity, aversion, and unease, and it is instructive to look at the reasons why.

Incredulity comes from the fact that some form of belief in god or a supernatural power is so commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a given in American society, that to find someone who does not believe can be jolting, like meeting someone nowadays who believes that smoking is good for your health.

Pity for atheists arises from the feeling that without god, one cannot find any meaning in life, and so an atheist must be a despondent and depressed person, one step away from committing suicide. But talk with any atheist and you will find them just as full of the joy of life as anyone else. We atheists have found meaning in life. The only difference is that we have had to construct meaning for ourselves and have not adopted one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by institutionalized religions.

Aversion towards atheists arises from the misconception that without belief in a god who sets the rules and punishes transgressors, people would have no reason to not do evil things. Such people believe that human beings have no internal moral compass but can only navigate by god’s light. This leads to the feeling that atheists bear careful watching as otherwise they might indulge in all manner of criminality and perversions. But those who have studied the correlation of religion with morality find that the moral and ethical sensibilities of atheists do not differ significantly from those of religious people.

It is not hard to see why this must be so. The Bible, like the ancient text of any religion, is full of the most appalling acts ascribed to or approved by god, such as murder, slavery, rape, and genocide. In many cases, the Bible records that even when god was not directly committing these acts, he either viewed them as virtuous or commanded his followers to do them. That leads to the obvious inference that god considers those despicable acts to be good things.

This conclusion is, of course, embarrassing for modern sophisticated believers so an entire theological industry has been created to explain why such things are not to be used as exemplars of how god wants us to behave. Whether one considers such apologetics successful or not, the very fact that believers look for ways to explain away those ‘acts of god’ shows that people are applying a more fundamental and externally derived set of moral standards to discriminate between those acts and motives that are worthy of ascribing to god (and thus should be emulated) and those that are not.

The fact is that the general principles of morality have always existed independently of, and prior to, the codification of religious morality. Even within the framework of the Bible, people knew that murder was a bad thing (as we see in the story of Cain and Abel) even before the mythical story of Moses and the Ten Commandments where god chiseled that prohibition into the stone tablets. What religious texts did was to codify the moral standards of that time, as well as sometimes impose others ones that worked to the advantage of priests and rulers or advanced some political agenda.

The problem is, of course, is that different religious subgroups have arrived at different conclusions about what is moral and what is not, even though they are using the same religious texts. For some people, persecuting and killing infidels and apostates is a good thing, for others not so much, and both have reason to think that they are doing god’s will. How can you conclusively show that the leaders of the Inquisition and the Taliban and Pat Robertson are not the most accurate discerners of god’s believers, that the kind of vicious and hateful morality they espouse is not truly god’s will?

We cannot and should not decide what is good and bad based on what god supposedly did or what religious books say. That way lies barbarism and war. We have to arrive at a consensus on what is good and bad using basic human values that we can agree on, such as justice and equality. This is not as hard as it may sound. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations and is an admirable statement about what rights any human being, living anywhere, is entitled to. It not based on any religion but on our common humanity and on an intuitive understanding of the conditions necessary for people to live in dignity. Although it is not legally binding on member states, it is a powerful way of holding nations accountable for the way they treat their people.

As a declaration of principles to live by and a guide to how societies should be structured, the UDHR, the product of human beings working together for the common good, is far superior in its morality to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any other religious text purportedly written by god.

POST SCRIPT: Marijuana and jury nullification

The excessive hand-wringing over Michael Phelps and his use of marijuana is illustrative of how absurd our ‘war on drugs’ mentality is. Most people view the use of marijuana for medicinal or even casual recreational purposes far less seriously than legislators and law enforcement officers do. Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it is considered to be highly addictive and has no medicinal value, and puts it alongside heroin and cocaine.

When ordinary people start to think that a law is absurd and unjust, then you have the potential for jury nullification, which may have been why jurors acquitted a user in a less high-profile case.

For previous posts on jury nullification, see here and here.


  1. says

    “Pity for atheists arises from the feeling that without god, one cannot find any meaning in life, and so an atheist must be a despondent and depressed person, one step away from committing suicide.” is one of my favorite illustrations to the contrary.

  2. Josh Friedman says

    I attended the inauguration with my good friend who is a history teacher. After the inaugural address, we had a long conversation (with no conclusion) as to what piece of the speech would be most remembered (if anything).

    Just last week I sent him a message saying that if anything, I thought the three most important words of the speech were “and non-believers”. I think in an American future where religion takes a back seat, people will look back on those words as a real turning point.

  3. says

    We atheists have found meaning in life. The only difference is that we have had to construct meaning for ourselves and have not adopted one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by institutionalized religions.

    I would quibble here that religion does not even provide a meaning for life, however much adherents may claim otherwise. In my experience, and a tour of a Christian book store will back me up, Christians spend a lot of time struggling to know what God wants from them, what he’s saying to them, what his plan for them is -- in other words, what in the world they’re supposed to be doing to make their lives meaningful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *