Don’t Fear Atheists; We’re the New Lutherans February 23, 2009

Don’t Fear Atheists; We’re the New Lutherans

American atheists are nothing to worry about or fear, says Maurice O’ Sullivan in The Wall Street Journal.

He first cites President Obama’s reference to non-religious people during his Inauguration Address:

Our new president’s cautious phrasing may suggest that the country is not yet ready for the full debut of atheists, but they are certainly claiming a louder voice in the culture wars. And that voice sounds very different from the bizarre theatrics of Madalyn Murray O’Hare. A group once relegated to the edges of our culture, to college student unions and late-night cable, is now poised for prime time.

He then references a number of atheist organizations and mistakenly says they’re now doing things like creating websites and offering scholarships when in fact those things have been going on for years. But the idea is clear: the effect of all those resources is finally taking shape.

O’Sullivan welcomes the atheist invasion. It’s good for the religious, he writes:

Why should believers welcome this emergence of unbelief? Why not? We should be glad that there are people, even the devil’s disciples, who take religion seriously enough to attack it, especially in these days when God seems to appear only in quarrels over holiday displays, during political campaigns or on the self-help shelves of Barnes & Noble…

Even my Jesuit teachers admitted, at times grudgingly, that the Protestant Reformation re-energized the Catholic Church by forcing it to respond to Luther’s call for religion to engage the world rather than separate from it. While some who trumpet their faith may be a little too eager to engage in petty squabbles, we should be able to expect our leaders in all fields to articulate how their beliefs shape their vision, values, actions and policies.

And if we truly believe that an open, vigorous marketplace of ideas will establish value and truth as clearly as honest and open economic markets, shouldn’t we encourage everyone to enter that market?

… Perhaps if we are confronted with better questions about the meaning and value of religion, we will be forced to find better answers.

That is what we’re trying to get right now — An equal place in the marketplace of ideas instead of being relegated to the outskirts of it. May the best one win out. Some atheists want to go further and just skip that middle step. They’d rather eliminate religion (or the idea of it) altogether. It can’t happen, though, unless religious people have the opportunity to explore atheism for themselves.

Thanks to all the atheist books and blogs and groups, that opportunity is being presented all over the place. It won’t be long before it becomes commonplace to be an atheist or know an atheist.

It’ll be a welcome day when people won’t have to hide the fact that they are atheists or have some in the family or are dating one.

(Thanks to Lexi for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think I like being the devils disciple.

  • Ty

    I think of myself as more of a henchman than a disciple.

  • Religion will never be eliminated, any more than any kooky belief, like flat earthers, or UFO and Bigfoot believers, or belivers in the efficacy of homeopathic medicine. No matter how silly an idea is, there will always be some who will believe it. All we can hope for is that critical thinking and reason can be promoted well enough to relegate religion to the same outskirts of human thought as 9/11 conspiracy theorys, and belief in Nostardamus, Edgar Cayce, and Sylvia Browne.

  • Dylan

    I’m more of a crony.

  • Winston

    I just sent a letter to the editor emphasizing that I (and the majority of atheists, at least here at school) don’t really care what others believe, as long as they respect my right to my own beliefs. Obama wasn’t acknowledging one side of a culture war – he was letting me know I’m just as American as a religious person. That’s pretty great.

  • Move to Europe.

    Sometimes you Americans are so insular.

  • Richard Wade

    Move to Europe.
    Sometimes you Americans are so insular.

    But we came over here to get away from Europe. Sometimes you Europeans are so… European. 😉
    Nah, the Europeans who stayed there eventually made things better, so I’d like to stay here and make things better here too.

    Besides, they talk funny.

  • joanna

    So it appears that confrontation is inevitable now. Religious folks will attempt to use any discussion to further deepen their own beliefs…we won’t get a moments rest. They will be looking for atheists for “stress tests” and consider “engaging with the devil’s disciples” as faith-building exercises. Great.

    some who trumpet their faith may be a little too eager to engage in petty squabbles,

    A little too eager??? You think?

  • Lexi

    And a hat-tip to my Xian dad for giving me the article.

  • Richard Wade

    Religious folks will attempt to use any discussion to further deepen their own beliefs…we won’t get a moments rest. They will be looking for atheists for “stress tests” and consider “engaging with the devil’s disciples” as faith-building exercises. Great.

    Hmm. I wonder how much I could charge for an hourly fee as the resident Church Atheist…

    Hire a Heathen! Strengthen your faith with your own personal spiritual drill sergeant! He’ll poke so many holes in your silly attempts at logic that you’ll abandon all attempts at using your brain and rely entirely on “I just believe, period.” You will achieve pure emotional faith, no thought involved!

  • And if we truly believe that an open, vigorous marketplace of ideas will establish value and truth as clearly as honest and open economic markets, shouldn’t we encourage everyone to enter that market?

    I’m surprised that anyone was able to mouth this without feeling dirty afterward. You’d think that religion might at least aspire to the pit of depravity that the “free market” has recently demonstrated itself to be. 😉

  • valhar2000

    Well, Chris, the market hasn’t really been all that free, lately. There’s been a lot of corporate wellfare and hinthintwinkwinking for some, and a lot of regulation for others, but not that much of a free market, unless you restrict the discussion to hot-dog salespersons.

  • …I wonder how much influence the Devil can have when his disciples don’t even believe in him.

    This has got to be bad for morale…We must inform Queen Athe.

  • Rsanders

    “Move to Europe.

    Sometimes you Americans are so insular.”

    Can you find me a job there?

  • Funny. I thought atheism already was main stream.

    A little persecution syndrome going on, or have I just been a little blind to your plight?

  • Ty

    “A little persecution syndrome going on, or have I just been a little blind to your plight?”

    That’s a stupid question. Was that on purpose?

    When declaring yourself an atheist isn’t political suicide, then you can call it mainstream.

    And yes, I know we have one openly atheist congressman from one of the most liberal districts in America. We also have one Muslim congressman. I wouldn’t call Islam mainstream in America either.

  • Huh.

    And here I was naive enough to think there were no stupid questions.

    I guess maybe main stream was the wrong adjective.

    We also have an Indian governor. Of course, he’s Republican, so that hardly counts.

    If I were at a random party in my neighborhood and discussing religion, and you mentioned you were an athiest, no one would really care, other than to hear your opinion and maybe engage in some good natured debate.

    And when I vote, I couldn’t care less about religion of the candidate.

    Nope, Ty. Sorry to dissapoint. Serious question.

  • Ty

    Then you live in a great neighborhood, and are an enlightened voter. Your personal experience is not universal, however.

    A recent political attack was made by one candidate in which she accused the other of meeting with atheists.

    Not being one. Meeting with them to listen to their issues.

    That places us about on par with terrorists.

  • I guess I see the political arena, which is an altered universe anyway, as a poor barometer for what’s accepted culturally.

    I’m from Chicago, and in Chicago you must be a democrat to run for office. I mean, to seriously run. But that doesn’t mean a republican is ostricized at a party or drinks from a separate water fountain in Daley Plaza.

    Churches are a huge political orginazation and have a lot of political power, so until athiests get some equivalent clout, they’ll always have a political achille’s heel.

    But that welcomed day Hermant talked about seems like it’s here, to me, on a cultural level. My sister dated an athiest for over a year, and he was part of the family.

    I just didn’t like him because he was a White Sox fan 😉

  • What we need is for a few atheist Republicans to run for office. That might confuse the right-wingers just enough for some of them to get elected and break the glass ceiling. Then atheists from all political persuasions could more easily run.

  • Spurs Fan

    But that welcomed day Hermant talked about seems like it’s here, to me, on a cultural level.

    I think you’ll find any recent survey about which group is the most ostracized refuting this. Atheists are well below Muslims, Homosexuals, Mormans, and any other group. I live in rural Texas and I can already tell you how much I and my line of work would suffer if people knew I was an Atheist.

    And who is “Hermant”?

  • Ty

    I think you’ll find any recent survey about which group is the most ostracized refuting this. Atheists are well below Muslims, Homosexuals, Mormans, and any other group.

    Yarp. I was going to mention this as well.

  • Spurs Fan… maybe those surveys were just talking about sarcastic, condescending athiests… who knows.

    Hemant, sorry about misspelling the name, brother.

    In the mean time, I’m gonna google around for those surveys and see exactly what they say and who the survey population was. Though to be honest, I’d rather hear real life stories than stats any day.

  • Ty

    The fact that many atheists speak of ‘coming out of the closet’, or frankly, of staying firmly inside the closet with friend and family should tell you a lot about how most atheists are treated.

    I personally lost every friend I made during my thirty years as a Christian once I came out of the closet as a deconverted atheist.

    In some ways, being an atheist in America is very much like being gay. Yeah, a lot of decent people won’t treat you any differently, but it’s not until you’re living openly that you realize just how much discrimination exists.

  • From Wikipedia: Legal and social discrimination against atheists in some places may lead some to deny or conceal their atheism due to fears of persecution. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota involving a poll of 2,000 households in the United States found atheists to be the most distrusted of minorities, more so than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups. Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[4] However, the same study also reported that, “The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation — with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.”[4]

  • Ty, your coming out of the closet example tells me how athiests percieve themselves in context with those around them. I wonder if some of it is a self-fufilling prophecy, though clearly the survey I posted and your own anctedotal evidence suggests some of it is founded.

    I’m a cop in a major midwestern metropolitan area. In my precint, of roughly 40 officers, 2 are devoutly religous, a handful secular catholics, one a secular jew, the rest non-religious or athiests, including my best friend at work, an athiest.

    And we all go out for a beer with each other (except the Nazarene who drinks Dr. Pepper all night) and nobody gives a damn what religion they are or aren’t.

    I’m sorry you experience prejiduce for what you believe. I’m sorry you’ve lost friends because of it. And I’m thankful that world is foreign to me.

  • Ty

    I’m glad you are that open minded, but calling it a self fulfilling prophecy smacks a lot of blaming the rape victim for being too attractive.

    And I never viewed myself in that context until AFTER I was shunned by my former friends. This is learned behavior, not a preconceived idea.

    I think you still don’t really get it, but that’s ok. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in the South, either. The best either of us can do is be open minded and sympathetic, which it appears you are.

    Also, I’m talking about this stuff because it is in the context of the blog post and your comments. I never talk about being an oppressed and hated atheist outside of this pretty narrow situation.

  • I understand your point about calling it a self fufilling prophecy being offensive if you’ve personally exprienced being ostracized. I guess I was speaking in generality regarding people who don’t announce their beliefs out of fear of reprucussions. I have hard time believing the majority of families would forsake a loved one because they don’t see emperical evidence of a creator.

    But like you mentioned, I probably won’t get that since that’s not the environment I live in.

    It also seems to me, from a cultural perspective, fundamentalist Christians suffer far more from the disdain of popular culture and media than non-religious people do. Perhaps it’s the “athiest” label that scares people more than the simple fact that someone doesn’t believe in a god. Perhaps they need a new label without the historically negative connotations. Or no label at all. Something for smarter minds than mine to ponder.

    I myself am in a skeptical phase of my life, unsure of what I believe. People on all sides try to convince. But I can tell you this. None have shunned me.

  • Spurs Fan

    Spurs Fan… maybe those surveys were just talking about sarcastic, condescending athiests… who knows.

    Maybe that’s true, but can I see a citation? 🙂 Sarcastic maybe, but when did it become condescending to point out (albeit in sarcastic fashion) that you misspelled the name of the main blogger?

    It also seems to me, from a cultural perspective, fundamentalist Christians suffer far more from the disdain of popular culture and media than non-religious people do.

    This is a decent point and not one I would disagree with. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), these things do not dictate serious matters like law, family bonds, etc. Just because Ned Flanders is made fun of in the Simpsons doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t at most, suffer discrimination and at least, be viewed as an immoral beast here in the Bible Belt.

    Christopher, I’m very glad to hear that you seem to live in a world where rational and reasoned thought flourishes. And I admit that if I moved to a more metropolitan area, things would be easier. However, my family lives in rural Texas, and I want to stay here near them. I should be able to live here by choice without fearing implications from people who see me as inferior and I should be able to live under laws not dictated by a fundamentalist view of the Bible, eh?

  • Spurs Fan… totally agree.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    from the bizarre theatrics of Madalyn Murray O’Hare

    O’ Sullivan and the WSJ need to do a little fact-checking and spell-checking. I presume he means Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

    So far, American atheists have no figurehead with the brilliance or literary and scientific prizes of Britain’s Mr. Dawkins, the recently retired Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, where Balliol College named one of its most prestigious awards after him.

    Steven Weinberg comes to mind. He is an excellent writer (Steel Foundation Science Writing Award, 1977, Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, 1999, James Joyce – Ronan McNulty Award, University College Dublin, 2009), and it’s hard to beat the Nobel for a scientific prize. He is not as widely known outside science, and although he has written and spoken on behalf of atheism (and humanism), is not as thoroughly identified as a spokesperson for it.