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.