April 17, 2012

Embrace the non-believers

As their numbers grow, there are a few things atheists must do to earn acceptance.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I would openly admit I was an atheist.

For a long time I would tell people that I believed in God because it seemed less intimidating. I worried that people would think there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t until I had a friend who was very open about her atheism that I publicly admitted my non-belief. Feeling like I was not alone in a sea of beliefs that seemed so alien to me made all the difference.

When I got to high school, I went to the other extreme. I resented religion and I made sure that everyone knew it. It was only after coming to college and entering an environment where free dialogue is encouraged and atheism is accepted that I came to see how this approach to religion is both without nuance and fundamentally unhelpful.

As more and more Americans self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheist, a national dialogue about secularism and its role in the United States is sorely needed. We can already see things changing, as evidenced by the GOP’s misplaced confidence that its religious female voters would be happy to forgo birth control. However, in a political climate in which politicians must constantly profess their religious beliefs in order to be electable, it seems that such a conversation will be next to impossible to have. There is no way that I could be elected to most public offices merely because of my lack of religious beliefs, and this profoundly disturbs me. Religion and America are inextricably linked in many people’s minds to the extent that atheists are somehow considered un-American.

It is also highly problematic that many of the public faces of atheism, like Richard Dawkins, are so intent upon emphasizing the malignancy of religion and the naïveté of those who practice it. Though this response may seem tempting, especially to those who feel as if they have been harmed by religion over the course of their lives, it garners neither converts nor conversation. After all, how can you have a dialogue with those whom you disrespect?

What we ultimately cannot afford to do is frame the dialogue as an “us vs. them” conversation—as those crazy religious nuts vs. the godless heathens. That is not what we should strive for as Americans. We are a people that are, at least nominally, united by its belief in common ideals that have nothing to do with whether or not a God exists and what name it goes by. When Christians claim that “America was founded as a Christian nation” or when atheists call religious people “delusional,” both groups ignore the important things that should unite them.

I doubt that I will ever understand what it feels like to believe in God. Similarly, I expect that many people could not conceive of a worldview without God. There is no changing that, and we may never fully understand each other as a result. Instead of focusing on understanding, we should focus on seeing that the other side truly believes what it believes and accept that.

There are several things that I think atheists should keep in mind that would help them enter the conversation I envision and, in doing so, gain more acceptance:

1. Atheists cannot afford to proselytize. Persecuting people for believing in God is just as unacceptable as persecuting people for not believing in God.

2. People who do not believe in God should not hide it. I feel certain that the number of professed atheists is far smaller than the number of people who do not believe in God. As with the gay rights movement, if people realize that they know many atheists who are good and moral people, it becomes difficult to stereotype them as evil or immoral.

3. We should call out politicians and other public figures who ignore the existence of atheists. When President Obama listed “non-believers” among the list of religious groups in the United States during his 2008 inaugural address, it was significant because few politicians choose to acknowledge the atheists in their constituencies.

4. Finally—and I think this may be the most difficult thing to do—we must at least acknowledge the existence of atheism in schools. I don’t remember atheism ever being mentioned in my elementary or middle school classes, yet there were certainly times that teachers openly expressed belief in God. Teaching children from an early age that atheism is acceptable would foster a similarly healthy openness about it in our society.

These points are by no means exhaustive, but their adoption would go a long way towards giving the rising number of atheists a seat at the ongoing national round table. Though we still have far to go, I see some signs that we are moving towards a society that shows more religious tolerance—a Mormon is about to become the GOP presidential nominee—as well as more tolerance toward those who have no religion.

I hope for a time when atheists can become politicians, can be respected as moral people, and can feel accepted as Americans. I hope that time is not too long in coming.

Maya Fraser is a second-year in the College majoring in sociology.