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July 24, 2011

Does atheism need a pitch man?

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Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features "an atheist who dies and goes to heaven." If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?

A. All too often religious people equate faith with moral behavior. As a Muslim, I can attest to the fact that this is not always the case. As a former atheist, I can also attest to the fact that I was raised not only with a strong moral orientation, but also with the theoretical background, critical thinking and analytical skills needed to make sound moral choices. In fact, growing up, one of the things that I found distasteful about believers was how easily they seemed go against their own moral code, ostensibly because God would forgive them. God or not, I thought, you should do what is right because it is right. It seemed the ultimate irony that those who proclaimed atheists to be immoral were often far less moral than myself and other atheists I knew.

Obviously, not all atheists are moral either. And some are downright obnoxious when it comes to belittling those of faith, just as those of faith can be obnoxious in their descriptions of atheists and lacking in moral fibre. Both can also be paragons of virtue and tolerance. Clearly, it is not the faith or lack there of that determines a person's character. And when deciding whether to vote for a candidate, it is not their faith that should be important, but rather their moral stance, and their position on issues of importance to the individual voter.

Will America ever get to that point? I sincerely hope so. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of religion, when a person is valued and judged upon her own merits, rather than by the supposed beliefs of the faith group to which he belongs; when election to lead is based upon the individual's character, not his group identity, or her lack of faith. It is, It is the vision our founding fathers had for this country.

I believe that we will get there someday. In 1950, there were two black congressmen; today there are 43 and we have a black president. In 1960, there were 19 women congressmen; today there are 92. In 1970, there were six latinos in Congress; today there are 32. In 1980 there were 15 Jews in Congress; today there are 40. Gays, Mormons, Muslims, atheists -- these and other groups that are sill underrepresented -- will surely continue to see their ranks grow in the same way that other minority groups have seen their acceptance grow.

Pamela K. Taylor | Jul 21, 2011

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Common ground between religious and nonreligious Americans?

Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features "an atheist who dies and goes to heaven." If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?

Truth claims about faith aren't the only matters dividing religious and nonreligious Americans. Members of these groups often disagree about the meaning of religious freedom and church-state separation, qualifications for public office, modes of civic participation, and a host of others public issues.

The battles over theology will continue, of course, and even an eternal optimist like me doesn't expect religious and nonreligious people suddenly to appear on the same side of most lawsuits and policy and legal arguments. But I do believe many members of these groups could come to agreement on some important civic issues. To start that conversation, here are a few points for consideration, some of which challenge both sides.

•Candidates for public office should not be rejected simply because of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Moral values, strong character, and solid intellectual abilities matter, of course, but no religious or nonreligious community has a corner on these credentials.

•It is fair, however, to reject political candidates for their positions on legal and policy issues, including religious freedom issues, even if those positions derive from a candidate's beliefs about religion. For example, if an atheist candidate would institute governmental hostility toward faith, or a Christian candidate would establish Christianity, those are legitimate bases for voting against them. At the same time, no voter should assume that these are the positions of candidates who are atheists or Christian.

•All Americans have the right to try to spread their beliefs about religion (including atheists and people of every faith), but no one should deem others unworthy of civic participation or partnership simply because they won't accept those beliefs. It's wrong and counterproductive, for example, for atheists to say they won't join religious people in policy alliances because these believers won't renounce their faiths. It's also wrong and counterproductive for religious people to suggest that nonreligious people are less than worthy partners for the public good because of their lack of religious faith.

•Religious and nonreligious people should engage in joint efforts to serve their communities without seeking to convert one another and while listening to one another.

•Both religious and nonreligious leaders should refrain from promoting falsehoods and over-generalizations about religious and nonreligious communities. Members of their respective communities should hold them accountable for doing so.

•Public officials may recognize the contributions religious individuals and communities make to the common good; many of them need to do more to recognize similar contributions by nonreligious individuals and communities. Further, many more public officials need to follow the examples of our current and most recent former president in terms of validating the presence and equal value of nonreligious Americans in our pluralistic democracy. President Obama has observed that, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus --- and non-believers." When he was president, George W. Bush said: "You're equally American if you're a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You're equally American if you choose not to have faith."

I welcome the conversation.

Melissa Rogers | Jul 21, 2011

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Myth and the American psyche

Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features "an atheist who dies and goes to heaven." If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?

While it is comforting to think that people who believe in God are somehow morally superior to others, reality does not show that to be true; Hitler believed in God, as did Mussolini and some of our most beloved politicians here in America, and yet, they can hardly be deemed as being morally superior to anyone.

People who have been devout believers in God, history shows, have behaved abominably, said some very hurtful and degrading things about people, and strayed far from the straight and narrow. That being the case, it would seem that belief in God is a comfort, but a comfort which provides a mythical illusion of that belief being such an important barometer of one's goodness and morality and of one's capacity to be an effective political leader.

Human beings contain the capacity to do good or evil, God notwithstanding. That may sound harsh to religious ears, but when one considers societies which are largely secular, such as Japan or Denmark, what other conclusion can one draw? In those societies it is not God, apparently who is running the show.

Meantime, in our American society, we tout a horribly high crime rate, more people in prison than in any other modern society, and social ills including abject poverty, which the belief in God has not been able to fix.

Why, then, should anyone be afraid of an atheist? If belief in God has not helped religious societies be any better than secular ones, why in the world should atheism be such a taboo?

It would seem that our religious society suffers from what Reinhold Niebuhr called, in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, "collective egoism." God notwithstanding, Niebuhr writes that "in every human group, there is less reason to guide and check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore, more constrained egoism than the individuals ...who comprise the group."

That would mean that a religious group, operating with this collective egoism, would be no better an agent for creating and leading a moral society than would be a country of atheists.

The polls that show that Americans are bothered by the presence of atheists, and would not vote an avowed atheist into office, speaks to the way we live in myth. The myths around us are boundless; we say we live in a democracy where all people are free, but that is not the case. Ours, again, God notwithstanding, is more a plutocracy where some have all the rights and others have few. And the myth exists that if one believes in God, one is better than one who does not.

Part "B" of this whole discussion is why religious groups, or religious people, operate so much out of fear as opposed to faith. Why are religious people or groups so much more likely to exclude another group of people, in this case, atheists? It is mind-boggling and so much out of alignment with a God who, in all religions, is supposed to be about God.

It would be great if we religious people would develop broader vision. We are so myopic that we cannot see the good in other groups nor the flaws in our own group. Our "collective egoism" operates to our own detriment, keeping people at bay who might very well enrich our lives.

Susan K. Smith | Jul 21, 2011

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As long as Christians remain the dominant force, in both in the public and in the government, atheists are going to continue to lag behind in public support.

Other minority religious groups have fared better when it comes to public acceptance, but in large part, this is because there is a common thread among theists: Belief in the supernatural. That's why interfaith groups can prosper: The details may be different but we're all united in our belief in God! But bring an atheist into that mix and you might have chaos. Politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) know that, to gain votes, they just have to profess a belief in a god. It doesn't matter how wacky the rest of your beliefs may be -- you won't hear Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman going into detail about their Mormonism -- if you tell Americans that you and god are in frequent contact, everything will be alright. Why is that? Because saying you're a religious person is a not-so-subtle code that lets America know you're a good person.

We've seen Congress become increasingly diverse over the years. The 111th United States Congress (elected with Barack Obama in 2008) consisted of members who were female (92), black (43), gay (3), and Muslim (2)... but only one member of the House (Pete Stark of California) dared to say he didn't believe in a god. (And even he is listed in the public records as a "Unitarian.")

What is it about atheism that makes us so unlikeable, so untrustworthy, and so likely to lag behind all other minorities?

Two reasons.

First, there's a constant demonization of atheists from the pulpit. Christians can find a way to work with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists because they believe in the supernatural. But they have a natural enemy (in their eyes) when it comes to atheists. Church members are told that you can't be good without god, that you need god to give you strength in troubling times. Atheists are often seen as the people who want to lure you over to the "dark side."

Second, we aren't afraid to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people. We aren't afraid to say the emperor has no clothes. We aren't afraid to point out to people that their pastors and parents can't back up what they preach when it comes to matters of faith. And we aren't afraid to fight back when we see people trying to fuse church and state.

The truth hurts, you don't hear it in churches and temples, and most people can't deal with it.

So how do we fix this problem? How can atheists become more accepted in our culture?

Simple. We have to go public with our beliefs.

There's no shortage of atheists out there, but because of social pressures, we tend to stay silent about it. Recent figures show that "between 25 percent and 30 percent of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation -- roughly four times higher than in any previous generation." Can you imagine the paradigm shift that would occur if all those people made their beliefs known? If they were willing to fight back against religious oppression when they saw it? If they refused to vote for a candidate who based his/her views on the Bible instead of the Constitution? If they just changed their Facebook profile to accurately state their (lack of) religious beliefs?

It would be a revolution.

As Chris Stedman points out in his own On Faith piece, "people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay." Similarly, if you do know someone who is gay, you're less likely to oppose gay marriage (and gay rights in general). A Gallup poll from 2009 showed that among people who knew someone who was gay, most (67 percent) supported same-sex relations. If you didn't know someone who was gay, however, that number dropped to 40 percent. It's no surprise that so many high-schoolers can't understand why the older generation is so opposed to offering gay people the same rights as everyone else.

I imagine the same principle would apply to atheists, too. If you know an atheist personally, you would realize that the prejudiced things your pastor said about us are probably untrue.

That's why it's so important for atheists to come out of the closet. It's vital that we make ourselves known to those around us, so that they know we hold many of the same values they do, that we volunteer and donate to charity just like they do, and that we have our own sense of ethics and morals (and they didn't come out of some holy book).

There's no reason we should be left behind in the realm of public acceptance, especially when there are so many of us out there who don't see any evidence for a god's existence.

Hemant Mehta | Jul 20, 2011

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Call me an optimist, but I think atheists and other nonbelievers are poised for huge growth in public acceptance. We've been one of the last groups against whom open discrimination was acceptable; the story's told well enough by the repeated surveys over the last decade or so showing that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist for president than would vote for a woman, gay or lesbian, Muslim and so on. We nonbelievers have been in the basement, #1 among reviled minorities as other groups have gained ground.

But I think we're about to follow better-accepted minorities into a new dawn of public acceptance. And I think we're going to do it the same way the LGBT community did it -- by forcing a sea change in how average Americans perceive our numbers. Think back two or three decades, when public attitudes toward LBGTs began their historic flip -- when we went from a "norm" where most people felt revulsion and suspicion toward homosexuals to a new "norm" where most people expanded their horizons to include LGBTs among the targets of their acceptance. Much of this can be attributed to dogged attention-getting by LGBT activists. There was an organized campaign, actually called "We Are Everywhere," whose goal was frankly to change public perception of one data point and one data point only: how many LGBTs were out there. Countless LGBTs outed themselves; some campaigners more controversially outed other LGBTs who would have rather kept their orientation a secret. LGBT characters started to show up in sitcoms. But the biggest weapon in this campaign's arsenal was an endlessly-repeated survey finding that gays and lesbians constituted ten percent of the population.

Ten percent is something of a magic number in minority affairs. If a group constitutes ten percent of us, that group comes to be seen as too big to demonize, too big to marginalize. A minority that represents ten percent of the body public is entitled to a seat at the table; that just seems to be one of the unspoken principles that guide the way average Americans perceive diversity issues. In later years, that ten percent figure attracted a lot of criticism; many observers now concede that it may have overestimated the LGBT population by a few percentage points. But here's the snapper: True or not, the ten percent figure worked, and today the sea change it helped to drive is almost certainly irreversible. Average Americans no longer think of LGBTs as a tiny coterie of scary people who hang out in bus station rest rooms. They view them instead, accurately, as fellow workers, fellow students, fellow citizens -- you know, as neighbors. And that, I submit, made all the difference.

In an upcoming column in the magazine I edit, Free Inquiry, science-watcher Tom Rees reports on research by University of British Columbia social psychologist Will Gervais. Gervais exhaustively measured "gut prejudice" against atheists. He found that most prejudice against atheists is rooted not in beliefs that atheists are unpleasant, but rather in the perception that they are untrustworthy. (Prejudice against LGBTs skewed similarly in decades past.) Then Dr. Gervais ran more tests.

In one test, subjects were assigned one of three readings: a neutral reading about food, a passage from The God Delusion in which Richard Dawkins argued that supernatural belief is nonsensical, and a text describing the rising number of atheists in the United States. This selection mentioned that among Americans ages 18 to 25, at least 20 percent are atheists. Here's how Rees sums it up: "For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect: it effectively abolished their distrust of atheists."

In another test, student subjects read either an essay claiming 5 percent of students at their university were atheists, and another pegging the figure at 50 percent. (The true number was midway between them.) Subjects who read the essay with the inflated figure were significantly more likely to rate atheists as trustworthy than those who had read the deflated figure.

Gervais also noted that in countries where atheism is more openly prevalent in the population, voters -- even religious voters -- are more willing to vote for atheist candidates than they are in the United States. That helps explain why Australia's Prime Minister and the U. K.'s Deputy Prime Minister reached their high positions even though both are open atheists.

In other words, people who believe atheists are numerous -- in simple terms, people who know they know atheists and know first-hand that many of the negative stereotypes about atheists are wrong -- tend to abandon their prejudices against the nonreligious. That phenomenon worked for LGBTs and it can work for the nonreligious. I think it's working already.

The numbers are on our side. An influential Pew-University of Akron study pegged the number of atheists, agnostics, and "hard seculars" -- folks who don't check the box for "atheist" or "agnostic" but live without religion nonetheless -- at 10.7 percent as long ago as 2004. Recent surveys suggest that yes, Virginia, about 20 percent of young people are atheists. About 15 to 16 percent of the general population identifies with no religion (though a third to a half of them are not truly secular). atheist characters are presented in a positive light on TV shows like House, Bones, and The Big Bang Theory, to name only a few. atheist initiatives like billboard campaigns attract unprecedented, often positive, attention in the news media.

Geez, it smells like a sea change!

Call me an optimist, but I think the dark age of public revulsion toward atheists is soon to end.

Tom Flynn | Jul 20, 2011

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Religion | By doctormatt | 1:54 PM

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