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Atheists in America

November 24, 2010

There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the US of A and probably never will, what with not living there and indeed (let’s bring dubious discussions of ‘national character’ in early, shall we?) living in the nation that the founders of America so conspicuously rejected. You would expect differences of opinion with that history, even 200+ years down the line.

The thing I am not understanding this week? Atheism, or rather attitudes thereto.

Over the pond, the third Skepticon has just finished in Missouri. It’s a scepticism-centred conference in which speakers approach various subjects from a sceptical and rationalist point of view. In theory the number of things to be sceptical about is pretty much infinite (you can apply critical thinking to anything), but in practice a lot of the Skepticon talks end up being at least partly about religion. Or, this being Skepticon, the particular strand of nonreligion that arises through the application of scepticism. (As contrasted with, for example, those atheists who were raised that way and never thought about it very much.) Obviously one of the reasons religion ends up coming in for heavy discussion is that some religions make pretty odd truth claims; but from what I’ve read recently, it’s also because it’s a rare chance for speakers/attendees to discuss atheism in a supportive or, at worst, neutral environment.

This is the sentence of Amanda Marcotte’s post that got me: “atheists are actually an oppressed minority in this country”. She notes that as a group they’re less oppressed than some, perhaps than most, but still: a) a minority, and b) liable to be oppressed. And goes on to mention talking to a bunch of people at the con for whom ‘a common theme [is] that people are actually treated like they’re scary or threatening or evil even for refusing to believe in god’. Then:

This opened up a conversation where people discussed actual grief they’ve gotten from people they know: the “you hate god” thing, accusations that atheists have no morality, and my personal favorite, claiming that atheism requires as much if not more faith than believing. […] I’ve had people say this dumb shit to me online, sure, but at this table a lot of people endured it from friends and loved ones.

And in the comments people pop up with their own experiences of being subjected to, well, atheist panic, it would seem. There seem to be a lot of people with horror stories at Pandagon. (And Pharyngula, and Slacktivist.) The idea of people being ‘out’ as atheist recurs again and again. It’s completely bizarre, and more than a little frightening.

I’ve been having seminars the last few weeks that deal heavily with medieval Christianity, because religion and literature are so heavily bound up in the Middle Ages that to study the latter is to study the former. As an agnostic atheist (I don’t believe in a god, and also don’t believe the question of god’s/gods’ existence can be definitively proven either way) it’s extremely interesting looking, as it were, in at these texts from the outside. The symbological contortions that people like Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux go through trying to get the right answer out of every line of the Bible are a thing to behold. I’ve said as much in class. Nobody cares. Nobody cares, in the good way; it’s not an issue.

Which is kind of strange, considering.

Britain is one of the few European countries that still has an established church. Here, at least in law, Jefferson’s famous maxim on the separation of church and state operates in reverse: the head of the church is the head of state. Bishops – unelected religious leaders – sit in the upper House of our legislature for no other reason than that they are bishops. Our Royal Family are forbidden to marry Catholics and divorced people because the Church says so. The portrait of the Queen on our coins is accompanied by the letters F. D. for fidei defensor – defender of the faith. However small the print may be, the Anglican Church is written into British law.

And yet the Queen – our unelected head of both State and Church – opened the meeting of the General Synod of said church and read a speech emphasising, among other things, that “It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none.” And was applauded. Partly, no doubt, because she’s the Queen; partly because even when the Anglican Church is on the verge of schism everyone is terrifically genteel and polite; but, at least in part, because it’s so uncontroversial as to be pretty much a truism. (Other royals say controversial things when off-duty. The Queen can’t afford to, and her speechwriters know that.)

Which leads me to pose the following question for the USians in the audience, should there be any: what, in your opinion, would be the reaction of the US media, the US religious establishment, and the US in general if President Obama made a similar comment?

I’m personally drawing a blank, because on the one hand, to me, and I suspect to a lot of the UK, it is simply not a controversial thing to say. On the other hand, I’ve read the comments of a lot of American atheists recently (Pandagon, Pharyngula, Slacktivist), and from what they’re saying things are rather different over there, perhaps scarily so.

As a final aside, and possibly another question – given the general reverence that seems to be accorded the Founding Fathers in the USA, I wonder how much prominence is given to Thomas Paine? A republican and a religious man . . . but also  fiercely progressive (he would be considered progressive in many ways today, let alone in the 1790s) and a dedicated skeptic and rationalist.

Paine concluded, with the knowledge available to him, that the working of the universe required a Creator, but no deity more involved than that; he identified as Deist. If something like this (from his Age of Reason) was said today –

Though man cannot arrive, at least in this life, at the actual scene I have described [‘to behold at one view … the structure of the universe’], he can demonstrate it, because he has a knowledge of the principles upon which the creation is constructed. We know that the works can be represented in model, and that the universe can be represented by the same means. The same principles by which we measure an inch, or an acre of ground, will measure to millions in extent. A circle of an inch diameter has the same geometrical properties as a circle that would circumscribe the universe. The same properties of a triangle that will demonstrate upon paper the course of a ship, will do it on the ocean; and when applied to what are called the heavenly bodies, will ascertain to a minute the time of an eclipse, though these bodies are millions of miles from us. This knowledge is of divine origin, and it is from the Bible of the creation that man has learned it, and not from the stupid Bible of the church, that teacheth man nothing.

All the knowledge man has of science and of machinery, by the aid of which his existence is rendered comfortable upon earth, and without which he would be scarcely distinguishable in appearance and condition from a common animal, comes from the great machine and structure of the universe. The constant and unwearied observations of our ancestors upon the movements and revolutions of the heavenly bodies, in what are supposed to have been the early ages of the world, have brought this knowledge upon earth. It is not Moses and the prophets, nor Jesus Christ, nor his apostles, that have done it. The Almighty is the great mechanic of the creation; the first philosopher and original teacher of all science. Let us, then, learn to reverence our master, and let us not forget the labors of our ancestors.

– what would people think of him? What, for that matter, would he think of them?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2010 4:23 pm

    I don’t have a strong sense, yet, of how far atheists are abhorred in the US. But a few things occur to me:
    1) OK, the US has the Constitutionally enshrined separation of Church and State. But much though atheists like to believe that this represents some national commitment to secularism, what it really emerges from is that there were so many enthusiastic rival Christian sects that they didn’t want any single one to gain power. It’s a country originally made up of people who were so deeply religious that they were prepared to travel for weeks to an unknown, dangerous land to practise their faith.

    2) Not only is church attendance much higher here than in Britain (40% vs 10%), but also the church is much more deeply involved in all forms of charity. I decided I wanted to do some voluntary work locally, and after initially spurning any charity with religious connections or origins I realised there was nothing left, and had to water that principle down to ‘don’t volunteer for anyone who is actively proselytising or imposing their Christian views on others’. So there is this very strong association between the church and civic values/ activism, much more than we are used to in the UK. Certainly if you read Obama’s memoir you get the sense that the church is where it’s at in terms of getting things done in communities.

    3) My feeling is that it’s all very well for people like the Queen to repeat that formula about praising people ‘of all faiths and none’, and at this point (possibly out of ignorance) I can imagine Obama saying that. But what you hardly ever get from politicians or statespeople (if that’s a word) in either country is them coming out and saying that they’re atheists themselves. David Miliband and Alan Johnson are two notable exceptions, and you can see how badly that goes down in some sectors from this Nick Clegg has had to describe himself as ‘not an active believer’ because of the hostility to his simple statement that he didn’t believe in God… And every day’s business at the House of Commons begins with Christian prayers.

  2. Seamus permalink
    November 24, 2010 7:06 pm

    Not a USian, but do you remember Obama’s shout-out to “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers” in his inaugural address? Here are some reactions to it:

  3. Diana B. Hurlburt permalink
    November 28, 2010 10:02 pm

    As a USian, I am fairly sure that the various lunatic fringes would flip their shit if President Obama made such a statement. The comment above shows some reactions to the president’s statement about our country being for everyone, even Muslims and “nonbelievers”; this is the general tone of the country with regard to atheism, as well as non-mainstream religions such as paganism, Santeria, and the like. My perception may be skewed by the fact that I live in the South, but my experience is that atheism is bound up with whatever the theist in question hates–various scientific theories, environmentalism, Satanism, non-mainstream sexualities, socialism, etc.

  4. November 28, 2010 11:11 pm

    Thanks, all three of you 🙂

    scepticalexpat, I wasn’t aware of the statistics on churchgoing in the US vs. the UK, or of the dustup over Nick Clegg’s atheism/areligiousness. My impression of the 2010 election at least was that atheism seemed to be mostly a non-issue – there was plenty of belief-related bigotry going around, but most of it seemed to be directed at Muslims. Do remember Brown leaning rather hard on the whole child-of-the-vicarage thing, but didn’t think much of it at the time.

    Seamus, thanks for the video. Atomic Spin also dropped me the link to that, along with this poll from the University of Minnesota in 2006, in which respondents identified atheists as “America’s most distrusted minority” – less trusted than gay people, immigrants, or Muslims. They’re also apparently the minority group Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry. Completely bizarre.

    Diana, thanks – I hadn’t considered the impact of the association of atheism with other unpopular philosophies. Though now I think of it, there does seem to be a lot of “godless Communist” rhetoric around, even though it’s been twenty years since the USSR disintegrated.

  5. Seamus permalink
    November 29, 2010 11:15 am

    While the video did show a conservative backlash against Obama’s inclusive statement, I’d have to point out that when I was looking for a range of press responses, the general tone in the American press was positive towards what Barry O’Bama had said.

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