I read a newspaper column a few days back by Jane Eisner. She asserted that Democrats needed to get more in touch with God if they were going to win the next election. Her thesis was that too many Democrats came off as non-religious. That Clinton and Carter were electable because they had faith visible to the populace and people trusted that. The author went on to site a study showing that Muslims, Jews, and Evangelicals fared worse than generic Christians in straw polls. But most surprising to me was that fully half of all respondents would not vote for a well qualified atheist for President based on that fact alone.
As an atheist myself, that’s a bit of a wake up call. Yet I feel I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. After all, while I’ve been able to hold my head high and pronounce myself an atheist for many years, it’s not a position I offer casually. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I believe (or more accurately, what I don’t), but it seems to make many people downright uncomfortable. I’ve often felt it would be easier for people to accept that I’m an idol worshipping goat sacrificing pagan rather than an atheist. I’ve actually had people disbelieve that I was really an atheist at all, asserting that maybe I was just agnostic or having a little faith crisis and that I would get over this like it was a cold or something.
Curiously, people seem to accept and even respect that people have different religious faiths more easily than they can accept that they have no religion at all. Ironically, most atheists I know only came to the conclusion they were atheists after fairly lengthy studies of other religions and years of serious soul searching. Many (if not most) avowed atheists have spent much more energy examining their lives and developing personal philosophies than the average theist. This is not a position arrived at lightly or trivially. And frankly, I think the position deserves some respect.
Please understand that while atheism is, by definition, the lack of a belief in a god, it is not the “default” belief in our society. Those living unexamined lives pass as “Sunday Christians”. They grew up in the church of their parents and go through the learned rituals without ever wondering why. In our society, being atheist means (in most cases) stepping away from that Newtonian path and making different choices.
I’ve found that in many ways I relate to the struggles of the gay and lesbian community. Like being gay, atheists are not identifiable in a crowd. We don’t stand out because of our ethnicity, or wheelchairs, or other identifiers. Like being gay, many people feel atheism is not a valid lifestyle, and further that it’s just a misguided choice. The ignorant assert that with the proper training and discipline, gays and atheists would make better choices and fit in like everybody else. Like gays, coming out of the closet is difficult and makes some people you care about uncomfortable. And like gays, what atheists have in common is not much.
Some of the most ridiculous questions I get asked start with the phrase, “What do atheists think/feel/believe about…?” There is no organization of atheists. “We” don’t think anything in unison. That is not to say we are amoral, or have no beliefs or codes of conduct. It is just to say that those moralities, philosophies, codes of conduct, and honor are as diverse as all of the human population. It’s like asking, “What do gays do on dates?” It’s not like there’s a handbook.
Unlike gays, atheists are not a recognized minority. There are no diversity efforts related to us. We are as invisible as gays were 30 years ago. We are also not persecuted the way many gays were and are, which is probably why we haven’t risen up to be recognized. But I think our time may be coming.
The sour economy, the terrorist threat, the globalization of the world are all driving an increased sense of tribalism in our society. Despite our assertions about separation of church and state, the Christian God is getting an increasing amount of political airtime. To Ms. Eisner’s point, the Republicans do an exceptional job of keeping their conception in god in the spotlight. More frightening yet, are statements like the one George Bush senior made in Chicago in 1987 where he stated, “I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” The press gave this very little coverage. Atheists are still fair game. Could you imagine this statement being made about Blacks, Jews, women, gays, or any other group without it having been political suicide? The younger Bush is wilier, and is wont to refer to atheists as “our citizens who profess no religion at all”. He is careful not to use the word “atheist”, but I think that is just his way of ignoring us altogether. After all, “professing no religion” is implying the identification of a (perceived) void. It is not acknowledgement or acceptance of a valid personal philosophy of life which does not incorporate organized religion and a god.
I certainly can’t speak for atheists in general, but personally, I have no desire to alter your faith in whatever you believe in. I respect that your system of beliefs is functional in your life. It works for you. Mine works for me, and all I want is a little reciprocal respect. Sure sounds like the Christian thing to do.