The fallout from the Ron Reagan atheist ad

In watching an earlier Democratic debate, I mentioned how surprised I was to see an ad featuring Ron Reagan, former president Reagan’s son, on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that argued for the separation of church and state. He began by describing himself as an “unabashed atheist” and ended with him declaring himself to be a ” lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

As one might expect, this gave some Christians the vapors because they saw that as a deliberate slap at their faith, with the speaker sharing the hallowed name of their most revered president adding insult to injury, with some proclaiming that he must be rolling over in his grave. They saw the ad as further evidence that the Democrats were a godless party. Fox News reported that during the debate Ron Reagan’s name was the top trending search on Google.

Some were astounded that such an ad could even air.

Reagan’s detractors expressed alarm. They were concerned that an “unabashed atheist” – a person who lacks belief in a god or gods – could speak so bluntly on national television. And the ad inspired some strong reactions, with some major networks even banning it from the airwaves. And perhaps that should be unsurprising.

Social psychologists have spent years examining what causes some people to have negative feelings, thoughts and behavior toward atheists. Some work argues, for example, that atheists are disliked because they remind religious believers of their inevitable mortality. That is, atheists deny the existence of an afterlife. When reminded of death, this theory suggests, religious people respond with increased prejudice toward atheists.

What struck me was that the thought never seems to strike these critics of the ad that by their logic, the commonplace invocations of god and Jesus by public figures in the US could be viewed as deliberate slaps at non-believers. Perhaps this is because us nonbelievers are so used to dealing with public expressions piety that we do not react that same way to religious speech, viewing such statements as just meaningless words that are lost to the wind.


  1. ionopachys says

    Well no, it’s not that it doesn’t occur to them. It’s that “deliberate slaps at non-believers” are right and proper. As far as they’re concerned, Christians are the good guys and Atheists are the bad guys, so atheists insulting Christians is a terrible crime while the reverse is a good deed. Substitute, say, civil rights champions and klanners for Christians and atheists, and you can understand their perverse reasoning.

  2. says

    When Christopher Hitchens died, religious fanatics wasted no time promoting his theistic brother as the “smarter one” for still being alive, and took glee in praising Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s son for refusing to provide a DNA sample to help catch the murderers of his mother and siblings.

    This is why I call them hypochristians.

  3. file thirteen says

    I’m halfway through the book Waterline by Chris Else (an NZ slightly futuristic eco-thriller cum small-town-commentary piece of fiction) and how Ron is being treated has its parallels with how in the book Brian is arrested and, although not guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is still exiled for not being xtian enough. It’s kept me interested so far.

  4. lanir says

    I think it has more to do with the discomfort of trying to balance hokey old religious stories that probably seemed a lot more believable thousands of years ago with modern life where no one expects any of those things to actually happen. It’s a weak point of religion and when people try to tell themselves these unbelievable stories are the basis for core parts of their life like their morality, they’re just not going to react well to anyone who challenges it. The mere existence of atheists brings that challenge up again, I think.

  5. wsierichs says

    The reason for Christian fear/hatred of atheists is rooted in Christianity’s core worldview: The Earth is a cosmic battlefield between God and Satan, and everyone is a soldier of one or the other. Christians, and only the right kind of Christians, are the soldiers of God, the only source of morality; pagans, Jews and heretics are soldiers of Satan, the source of all evil. So his soldiers by definition are evil and the god they worship (everyone worships a god in this theology) is Satan. Furthermore, everyone deep down knows the reality of the Christian god. It’s in one of Paul’s writings and is a basic Christian belief, which is why so many Christians insist that there are no atheists because, really, we know their god is real. We just refuse to admit, and the only possible explanation for this is that we hate their god.

    Furthermore, the Christian definition of atheism includes denying the divinity of Jesus. Jews and Muslims are thus atheists (and Satan worshipers) because they openly deny Jesus’ godhood, so they’re knowingly choosing Satan. Pagans are atheists because if they believed Jesus is a god, they would be Christians. Heretics are the worst because they supposedly twist scripture to lead unsuspecting Christians to Satan and damnation. They’re practicing the worst type of atheism, deliberately leading people away from Jesus.

    If you understand these two aspects of Christianity, you will understand many of the things Christians have said and done over the centuries.

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