“ I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
George Bush Sr., August 27th, 1987
What is the most hated religion-affiliated group in the country? It is considered synonymous with Satan Worship– but it is far from that.
It does not really proselytize or demand money. It is not violent and does not inspire terrorism in its members. It does not endanger its members by forbidding modern medicine or demanding that they handle poisonous snakes.
To be an atheist in America is to be thought of as soulless, communist, Satan-worshiping, criminal, possessed, or just plain evil.
To friends and family, announcing that one is an atheist is likely to be greeted with resistance at least, disgust and hatred at worst in the religious United States. To call oneself an atheist is to be thought of as an immoral person who can engage in any activity detrimental to society since she has “no one to answer to.”
In America, any atheist who “outs” him or herself is likely to be met with adversity. Those that, often wisely, keep it to themselves feel alienated and alone. Some people have dealt with more adversity than others, including powerful double whammies such as being an atheist and gay, or from the bible belt, or from a Muslim background (Islam is notorious for punishing its heretics). Many atheists come from devout families and communities.
Some atheists have had greater challenges than others and it is those people whose stories are in this book. It is a testament to what people have endured in consequence to their dedication to science, to explanations based on evidence, and a strong antipathy of backwardness and superstition (not that all people who are religious embrace these things, but atheists battle the worst of religion). To that end, atheists in this book have met adversity in the forms of family members shunning them, of the isolation of being alone in a hated group, of being more or less forced to go through the motions of religion, such as going to church, even though they don’t want to, of being intimidated at school or kicked out of organizations. Some have received threats of violence or even death due to their open and “shameless” lack of faith. Others have been forced to file lawsuits to protect their first amendment right to freedom from religion.
Religion’s ill effects have always been there, but in recent years, certain events have driven more people away from religion in disgust due to the great harm it is capable of inflicting. September Eleventh is one obvious example and it continues to baffle me how religious people consider tragic events such as that to prove the presence of a loving, all-powerful God: most likely, their indications are the compassion and heroism amidst the tragedy and that God sent us the tragedy as an act of “love” to set us straight. The resulting war on terror brought even more attention to how religion, and specifically Islam, fuels fanaticism and intolerance. I am well aware that most Muslims are not terrorists, nor all terrorism Islamicist, but the fact remains that most of the terrorism in the world today is committed in the name of Islam– perverted or not. Islamicist extremism is the most dangerous fanaticism in the world today and will continue to be so as long as moderate and secular Muslims, or anyone else, cannot or will not stand up and criticize.
Also recently, many Catholics divorced themselves from Catholicism when the Church did little to prosecute its clergy who were accused of sexually molesting children. As horrible as raping children was, the Church’s reactions were even worse. It did more to cover up the crimes than to prevent them, often simply moving guilty priests to other congregations. The scandal no doubt made many Catholics wonder just how fallible their religion could be. As I am writing this, Pope Benedict is visiting the United States, meeting with survivors of rape by priests. I hope he is trying to make things right again, but apology or not, the Catholic Church has a lot for which to answer. It protected the rapists instead of the victims.
Sexual abuse is the most egregious and visible wrong the Church is doing. Old and new problems such as denying reproductive freedom, promoting uncontrolled population growth, enabling Islamicists to attack freedom of speech in the West (such as in the Danish cartoon incident, in which the Pope condemned the cartoonists for being insensitive to Islam, rather than condemning the Muslim rioters for their violent and extreme response), and holding back science are several more of Catholicism’s counterproductive platforms that, thankfully, are being challenged in the modern world.
Other examples of religion impeding progress are easily seen in America, with religious agendas preventing the teaching of evolution in the schools or museums, promoting abstinence-only sex education and prohibiting the distribution of condoms and other forms of contraception in third world countries, even those countries which are literally decimated by AIDS. A vaccine to prevent cervical cancer is considered too dangerous to give to girls since a decreased threat of the disease, which can be sexually transmitted, “enables” premarital sex (as with AIDS, the prevention is considered worse than the disease). RU-486, the abortion pill, also has medicinal properties for some cancers, but even cancer patients do not have access to the drug due to the success of anti-abortion groups, mostly out of Christianity. A Christian agenda is largely what thwarts reproductive rights in America. These problems aren’t new, but they continue to hold back progress in new and different forms.
Unfortunately, much worse backwardness and misery at the hands of religion are blatant in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in the Western world. As we have seen in the case of the Danish cartoon incident, to accuse Islam of violence is to incite its extremists’ violent riots, proving the critics right. The world’s most intolerant religion is almost exempt from criticism if we kowtow to Islamicists, placating them in our desperation that they not hurt us. Any slight or perceived slight, such as naming a teddy bear Mohammed (which is the most common boy’s name in the world), is grounds for execution, although the hero/villain in that tale got off with just deportation. Throughout the event, the teacher who committed the blasphemy stated her respect for Islam!
This is a brief rundown of the enormous damage religion has caused and is best described in Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great: how religion poisons everything. Books such as his and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are long-needed, especially now, calls-to-arms and are bringing atheists out of the closet– and “converting” new ones as they effectively disprove God’s existence. This is called new atheism: atheism is mad and isn’t going to take it anymore. The books and consequent movement cry out for personal responses from atheists and what their own struggles and persecution have been. Also, it is important that the world know that many of us are out there– and proud.
Despite the fact that people will kill or die in the name of religion, or send their sons and daughters to kill or die, and despite the lack of evidence that a God or Gods exist, America clings to religion with a fervor strong enough to make believers shun, threaten or otherwise hurt non-believers. In the atmosphere of religious America, not many people are given the opportunity to question religion; not believing in God is rarely presented as an option. The individual, surrounded by religion since birth, is viewed as threatening if she wonders out loud whether God exists or whether the Bible is true. In “conversion” to atheism, many people have had painful inner struggles: they must let go of whatever they knew. They often feel that they have been tricked, manipulated or deceived. Perhaps worst of all, they forgo the heavenly father watching over them, providing love and protection (although a look at the Bible does not indicate a loving God). In addition to this inner struggle, the atheist wonders what the consequences will be if she were to “out” herself and her loved ones knew she was a heretic. To spare their families grief, many do keep silent and go through the motions of religion to maintain what Jews call “shalom bayit” (peace in the home). Many atheists, myself included, and most of the interviewees in this book have come out despite these consequences. For others, the obstacles are simply too great.
And yet, despite obstacles, we have atheists. The stories here illustrate the resilience of the human spirit. Atheists stand their ground in the name of progress and the truth based on evidence, despite the threat of personal rejection or worse. Those who seek to stop the destruction religion causes are, sometimes literally, struck down, but many people have braved this. In my case at least, it was (and perhaps still is) more of a case of anger and exasperation overpowering what precious little wisdom I had.
America is at a crossroads. In many ways, it seems to be more religious than ever: “megachurches” are popping up and over half of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, say that prayer is very important in their daily lives and that the world will have to answer to God for our sins on Judgment Day. Many say that they believe in the devil, that the Bible is literal, that they identify as evangelist Christians, that God created the world in six twenty-four hour days (no tricks!) a few thousand years ago and so forth. Many even believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted (the science of the Flintstones). The rest of the developed world laughs at our ignorance and shakes its head in wonder that the U.S. has become so powerful a nation.
Religion is ubiquitous: at prayer groups and societies in schools and universities, from subway preachers to a captive audience, on cable TV networks, in Christian fiction such as the very popular Left Behind series of books, and from the speeches of our politicians and pundits. There is a large market for Christian books, movies, greeting cards, music, video games and other paraphernalia that allows Christianity to permeate most areas of a an American’s life. While working at a job that required me to call many families in impoverished inner city neighborhoods, the mothers often answered the phone with “praise the lord.” In many ways, it sure looks as though the country loves Jesus.
Religious conservatives, on the other hand, often state that the U.S. has become more lax with religion and that this liberalism is sending the country to hell in a handbasket. Conservative critic Dinesh D’Souza even attributed the September Eleventh attacks to “traditional” cultures’ outrage at our “immoral” liberal society: gay rights, abortion, feminism, The Vagina Monologues, working mothers, etc., echoing what Jerry Falwell said soon after the tragedy. According to pundit Ann Coulter, God was not pleased with us and sent us these attacks to wake us up and, presumably, make us more religious (to Christianity, of course). It certainly sounds to me that these pundits are willing to take a giant step backwards since they agree with extreme Islam’s “traditional” values. At the very least, Christian pundits agreeing with Muslims’ “traditional” values would have to convert to Islam to be consistent with all this.
In doing so, these critics want to create an American Taliban, and I doubt Coulter, known for wearing dresses that show her décolletage, is interested in living in the sort of oppression Islamicists create. I doubt she or any other American Christian is interested in bending that far backward in the name of “traditional family values,” such honor killings and genital mutilation.
So is America religious or not? Whatever the case, according to the Pew Foundation, the fastest-growing religious group in the country is “unaffiliated.” Could America be catching up with the rest of the developed world? This is what we must do if we are to progress as a nation.
Just kidding. This is Not My God, a site for the personal aspect of atheism. I'm putting together a book with that title, having already 20 interviews lined up, but I still want to hear from more of you.
I've expanded the blog to include material not related to atheism, including rants, raves, consumer issues, curmudgeonly matters and other miscellany.
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