Being an atheist in America means being less than human. I know from personal experience, not from being an atheist but from being raised Christian in a conservative Christian town and holding negative biases about atheists. Like many others I thought that a belief in God was the foundation of morality, that Christians were superior to others and that atheists were a threat to believers. I didn’t, however, reach this conclusion consciously after weighing the facts and examining the issue independently. But rather it was something so ingrained within the culture that it permeated the social conscience. And of course atheists were just one group among many targeted by some Christians. But for several years now there have been movements both religious and secular that have championed the rights of other marginalized groups such as gays, people of color and women. Now it’s time for religious and spiritual people to take a stand for non-believers of all varieties.
Recent years have seen the spread of whats called the new atheism. Led by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (in the photo above) who are dubbed the “four horsemen,” they are known for their fiery rhetoric and passionate critique of all things religious. While they certainly don’t represent all atheists–some prefer a more moderate approach–they have provided an important voice of resistance and identity for a group that has remained painfully silent for to long. And atheism is one of the fastest growing identities in America. It’s now the third largest group behind Catholics and Baptists. People are fed up with the abuse scandals, hypocrisy, violence and rejection of scientific progress that is associated with so many religions and their teachings. Now that atheism has a renewed interest in the public sphere it is an excellent opportunity for religious people of all sorts to show kindness, compassion and understanding to atheists–all things which are central to their traditions.
I’m both a fan and a critic of the new atheists. I agree with much of what they say but disagree when they indict all of religion or reduce it to its most distasteful elements. I believe religion can serve a useful purpose in our world. It can offer a place of resistance, refuge, healing and renewal. But even as I support critiquing the new atheists I treat atheism like I do any other marginalized group that is targeted by a dominant culture. I liken their cause to other struggles for liberation and freedom. And that is why despite my disagreements I believe their response is just.
The reality is that we live in a culture of Christian hegemony and the new atheists are responding to a troublesome legacy of religious dominance. Paul Kivel, a violence prevention educator, defines this hegemony “as the everyday, pervasive, and systematic set of Christian values and beliefs, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of our society through the social, political, economic, and cultural power they wield. Nothing is unaffected by Christian hegemony (whether we are Christian or not) including our personal beliefs and values, our relationships to other people and to the natural environment, and our economic, political, education, health care, criminal/legal, housing, and other social systems.” And this form of dominance is accompanied by a long legacy of persecution, negative attitudes, prejudices and practices of “othering” against atheists. For Christians and other religious people to have to deal with a bit of push back or challenge to their mostly unchallenged ideas and way of living is small compared to being viewed as less than human for much of our civilized history.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of an everyday prejudice against atheists is that atheists consistently poll the lowest–below women and African-Americans–when people are asked who they would vote for as president. I liken this to the same general disdain that is held against women in our patriarchal culture. What’s the worst thing you can call a man? The answer is usually a woman, girl, sissy or some other adjective for the feminine. What does this say about how we view women as a culture? What does the presidential poll say about how we view atheists? Similar examples can be given about people of color, people with disabilities or those from a lower socio-economic background. These cultural views tell us a lot about the harmful attitudes that have become normalized, some of which make themselves known explicitly while many others are implicit and inherent with our structural, legal and institutional frameworks. But again the prejudice against atheists has yet to be challenged by the same progressive and/or religious forces which have been fighting for racial and gender equality for many years now.
In reality, people who are religious or hold to some conception of God aren’t any different than atheists. Let’s face it, we are all born atheists. No baby is born believing in the miraculous conception of Jesus, that Muhammad is a prophet or that Joseph Smith was chosen by God to spread Mormonism. Rather children are taught to believe religious doctrines, or adults freely choose them later in life. But even for those who identify as believing Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other religion they are still atheists in respect to other Gods. In fact some of the very first people to be called atheists were Christians. They were dubbed so by the Roman authorities for denying the state Gods. Socrates was also branded an atheist for denying the various Greek Gods, even though he still believed in God. Therefore, Christians are atheists when it comes to Zeus, Thor and Dionysus. Atheists simply deny one more God than Christians do. And the progressive spiritual people that no longer believe in a theistic God who intervenes in human affairs but still use the word God aren’t describing anything supernatural. Thus, whether it’s liberation or process theology, pantheism or panentheism, these liberal ways of defining God as love, creative potential, the universe, everything or freedom are simply interesting methods of describing the natural laws of existence. Therefore this sacred and divine language used to describe the beauty, power and transformative potential of the spirit of life is for many “believers” not describing anything different than what modern physics already acknowledges. Granted some take liberty with this and inject quasi-spiritual truths into science. But the point is that many liberals who use the word God are only a stone’s throw away from being agnostic or atheists themselves and their understanding of reality is often not that different from many atheists.
Another way that many religious people try to differentiate themselves from atheists is by suggesting morality has no basis without a foundation or belief in God. This is a dangerous and insulting myth that religious and spiritual alike have an ethical responsibility to challenge because we participate in the systems that perpetuate it. It leads people to believe that atheism is a social problem that needs to be confronted. But the real problems in society are poverty, violence, war, dehumanization and greed among others. I understand this belief about God being the foundation for morality because it was the dominant idea in the conservative Christian town I grew up in. However, it has no basis in reality. The idea that Bible believing Christians would be ravenous murderers without a belief in God is not only disturbing but simply untrue. There are many cases of people losing their faith and becoming atheists, yet they don’t lose their moral compass. And if you look at any crime or social ill you will find no statistical difference between atheists and believers. If anything more Christians have committed crimes simply by their sheer majority in the United States. Many European countries contain a majority of atheists and yet they rank among the highest on quality of life measurements; crime, poverty, health, infant mortality…etc. And as Christopher Hitchens frequently states, there are no moral actions that atheists can’t perform but there are plenty of wicked things that have been done by religious people.
Since my upbringing as a Christian my views on Christianity and religion have evolved quite a bit. I’ve lived in a conservative town where atheism was a dirty word. I then went to a progressive liberal arts college where Christian was a dirty word. Now I live in San Francisco and attend one of the very few non-Christian seminaries called Starr King School for the Ministry located in Berkeley. Based in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition I am fortunate to be studying alongside religious leaders who identify as atheist, agnostic, pagan, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, humanist, pantheist and everything in between. While we are not homogeneous by any means we share a general commitment to challenging forms of dominance. The only required course is called “Educating to Counter Oppressions to Create Just and Sustainable Communities.” And last year we hosted Paul Kivel’s workshop on Christian hegemony. 19% of Unitarian Universalists identify as atheist, while 33% identify as agnostic. Many services on Sunday will find no mention of the word God or spirit and will often have strong resistance to using these words. Other congregations may use these words but if they do it is in an inclusive non-theistic way that meets the expectations of their members. The point here is to say that there are religious people who are willing to stand up for atheists and agnostics, and that some atheists identify as religious themselves. In addition to UU’s many Buddhists are great examples of religious atheists. Yes it is a small percentage of the overall population just like the number of white people working to end racism is but these are crucial voices on the path to transformation. And until religious people begin to stand up for this cause in earnest and thoughtful ways I don’t blame the new atheists for not trusting us and being skeptical of all things religious.
What can concerned religious or spiritual people do about the dehumanization of atheists? The same criteria that is used for countering other forms of oppression can be applied to atheism. First we can commit to listening to the lived experiences of atheists who are in a culture of Christian hegemony. What’s it like to be you? How is your life impacted by our culture? Secondly we can commit to being an ally. This includes listening but also implies a willingness to stand side-by-side with atheists when they need support. This means exercising power through writing, speaking, advocacy or otherwise and challenging the myths about atheism that dominate our culture. And it means allowing our actions to be informed by the perspectives of atheists. It is commonplace for people in a dominant group to “help” the marginalized group without forming relationships and knowing what they actually need. Third, religious people can educate themselves on the history of atheism and its various expressions, understand how the culture of Christian dominance works and examine one’s own biases and prejudices against atheism. Just like we hold unconscious racist, sexist and class based beliefs we do so about atheism. I have even found these biases to be present amongst the very most progressive and liberal spiritual people. Examining and uncovering them is a crucial step in transforming our culture into a more humane and just one.
As a religious leader in training and as someone who still uses the word God I am committed to working to end the culture of prejudice against atheists. Dehumanization of atheists like any other group of people is a spiritual issue and I would like to encourage my religious and spiritual friends to join me in this cause. If we want to apply our ethical and moral teachings about love, nonviolence, compassion and justice consistently we must demonstrate them when the difficult and challenging opportunities arise.