The Rise of the Godless March 7, 2009

The Rise of the Godless

***Update***: The article is now available as a free PDF through the Secular Coalition for America.

A couple months ago, I was at a board meeting for the Secular Coalition for America. There was a reporter who sat in on a bit of our meeting, who asked us questions, spoke to group members individually, and spoke to some of our donors.

The reporter’s name is Paul Starobin and he writes for the National Journal, a magazine aimed at Washington insiders. This week, his story was published and featured as a cover story on “The Godless Rise As A Political Force“:


You can only read the full article on their site if you’re a subscriber. (Damn firewall!)

But I’m sure there are ways around that

The article is extremely positive in regards to the atheist movement:

But what exactly do the Godless want? How would America be different if their clout grew to reflect their numbers? These are questions the national political establishment can no longer dismiss in the perhaps reassuring but nevertheless wrongheaded belief that all Americans subscribe to the coin slogan “In God We Trust.”

As the Godless would have it, the answer is that the nation would be governed more by cool reason than by irrational faith. The end result would be a more peaceful and modern society, less willing to embark on violent conflicts of a religious character in far-off places like Iraq and more willing to fund medical science in promising areas like stem-cell research. Euthanasia would be generally permitted, under the signature idea that each person is his or her best decision maker; a pharmacist could not legally refuse, as a matter of religious faith, to fill a birth control prescription; schools could not teach the various forms of creationism, including intelligent design, under the banner of science; the Boy Scouts would lose all forms of federal support for teaching that a good Scout has a “duty to God.” (The Girl Scouts no longer insist on that particular duty.)

We’re growing in numbers, too. Just check out the percentage of voters who are claiming to have no religious affiliation:


I felt a bit strange when I saw the word “Godless” used all throughout the piece — the connotation is so negative — but I suppose if “atheist” isn’t enough to catch a reader’s eye, this word certainly will. Whatever. It’s a marketing word for the magazine, not a word most atheists use to describe themselves.

There are a few bits I found grossly inaccurate. After speaking to one atheist donor who is in favor of it, Starobin concludes “the Godless are emerging as an enthusiastic voice on behalf of scientific efforts to clone human beings.” I’m pretty sure many atheists would be against that (though not necessarily against trying to find the technology to do it).

Starobin also suggests that many atheists think a world free of religion would be a peaceful world indeed. Of course that’s not true. He also falls into the “Stalin was an atheist and he was evil!” fallacy:

Some activists are imbued with a sense of arrogance — the arrogance of the true believer, one is tempted to say — evident in their disdain for the religious as captives to superstitions that only a cretin could accept. Their polished debating points seldom reflect the awkward truth — awkward, that is, to their mind-set — that religion is not the only source of war and strife, that the worldview of a murderous atheist like Stalin can also be a wellspring of blood and tears.

The reporter is connecting the phrase “murderous atheist” to Stalin as if his beliefs about God were connected to his evil motives. They were not. Sam Harris has explained this point before:

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions… There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

At least someone Googling the phrase “murderous atheist” will soon find this article. That’s better than many alternatives 🙂

Finally, Starobin seems to misunderstand our admiration for Charles Darwin — and he misunderstands evolution in general:

Such arrogance [of atheists] seems especially misplaced if one considers that many secularists get it wrong about their hero Charles Darwin… Darwin’s main point was not that Homo sapiens was a creature of cool reason but the last in a line of animal descent, and as such, a creature, in no small part, of instinct.

I didn’t realize atheists made the claim that our species’ ability to reason was necessarily a part of Darwin’s theory. Furthermore — and correct me if I’m wrong; I’m not a scientist — since when did Darwin say Homo sapiens were “the last in a line of animal descent”? Aren’t we still evolving? Aren’t we just another branch on the tree of life that is still growing and not some pinnacle of evolution?

Anyway, I thought the piece was very positive overall and I’m glad it’s out there.

Plenty of events familiar to readers of this site and others are mentioned in the article — national atheist groups’ names, atheist billboards, Religulous, military atheists, the Elizabeth Dole/Kay Hagan controversy, etc.

Starobin also features a friend of mine (and fellow board member of the Secular Student Alliance) Becky Robinson:

Becky Robinson stopped believing in God in her late teens. She did not become an activist in the movement until her early 20s, when she left Pittsburgh, where she had grown up, to attend school in the Dallas area. She found, to her dismay, that the religious climate “permeates everything” there — starting with being asked what church she attended whenever she met someone for the first time. “I am not one to hide how I think,” she said in a recent conversation. “Here I felt I had to be an atheist with a capital A.”

By going online, Robinson found like-minded nonbelievers in the Dallas area. In 2006, she organized a University of Texas (Arlington) chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, and several dozen students showed up at the first meeting. At the second meeting, a student in the nursing program complained that her microbiology professor was offering extra credit for Bible study. The group “put an end to that right away” by letting the head of the biology department know what was going on. That was “a defining moment,” Robinson said. “We knew we had to be there.”

Now Robinson is active in rallying her nontheist comrades to oust “creationists” from their elected posts on the Texas Board of Education. “We have a long battle ahead of us,” she added, referring to Texas’s “fellow heretics” and their struggle to be viewed as “normal, average, good people.”

How awesome is she?!

Several other atheists are featured and organizations are profiled.

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of the National Journal in your local bookstore.

You don’t have to pay, though, to watch a video featurette on NJ’s website called “Faces of the ‘Godless’ Movement.”

Tomorrow (Sunday) morning, Starobin will be a guest on C-SPAN at 9:30 a.m. (ET) to discuss this very article. If you remember to set your clocks forward tonight, you just might be able to catch him 🙂

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  • Vincent

    I disagree with his comment on euthanasia too.
    He’s confusing assisted suicide with euthanasia. Euthanasia is the physician ending the life of a suffering patient who cannot express his wants.
    I don’t think most atheists are for that. He’s right we are for the right to choose for our selves (for the most part) when and how to end our lives, but that’s not euthanasia.
    The trendy phrase now is “death with dignity” and Jack Klugman has some great videos out on youtube about it.

  • Cindy

    The better explanation for Stalin, et al. is that power can lead to horrible actions in order to hold onto that power, whether it is justified by “God wills it” or “Communism is threatened by these unbelievers.” It boils down to using evil to hold onto power by getting rid of those who disagree with you ideologically.

  • Ben

    “Godless” makes it sound like we’re missing an essential, like a limb. How about we push for the wide-spread use of the term “god-free” instead?

  • Bart the Pirate

    Someone explain, please.

    Why must we atheists be anti-theists?

    It seems atheists are defined by the anti-religious activism.

  • Miko

    On the evolution bit, another thing to note is that a certain amount of instinct is a good thing. Sure, you want to suppress instinct if someone has a gom jabbar at your throat, but when it comes to getting out of the way of an oncoming bus, it’s best to have as little as possible to do with rationality. When we say we’re pro rationality, we’re contrasting it with faith, not with instinct.

  • Miko

    Bart: Because only things that the majority views as negative make the news. The other stuff atheists do just isn’t considered newsworthy.

  • Great deconstruction of the article, Hemant. You can bet I’ll be parsing it in my column later.

    On the whole, I’m just really glad we got generally-positive, cover story treatment by a respected, entrenched political publication. I do with that Starobin had been a little less careless with so-called atheist “goals” as you mentioned. And I think he misses a crucial point in the rifts within the movement: I think it’s about goals as much as strategy: Those who want sequestration of religious expression have one strategy, those who want open debate have another. It’s not just about which of us are kind of mean and those who are nice. Though, I will say, that’s huge.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    “You can only read the full article on their site if you’re a subscriber. (Damn firewall!)”
    Currently, it appears as if the entire article is available; although, I’m sure they’ll chop it down to an abstract in a few weeks. Which will result in what I think you meant to say, that being, “(Damn paywall!)”

    [re: “godless”]
    “It’s a marketing word for the magazine, not a word most atheists use to describe themselves.”
    That’s not usually the case with most atheists I know well. Revel in such a moniker, I certainly do; and I even have the t-shirt to show it. Anyway, a cluebat 0′ godlessness upside the heads of DC insiders is a welcome thing — even if much progress is still needed for its material (e.g., facts about evolution, fascism, etc.).

    Other than those cavils, I did like your review of the article, Hemant.

  • I see no reason that the term “Godless” should have a negative connotation. Nor do I see any reason, if the technology could be perfected, not to clone human beings.

  • Dave Huntsman

    “Godless” is clearly meant to have a negative connotation; and most english speakers would tend to agree. I would maintain that “gods-free” would be the more positive equivalent.

    An even better term is simply to emphasize ‘secular’. Because almost all atheists/non-believers/agnostics/freethinkers/humanists believe in secular government, and in protecting (and educating about) our secular Constitution. So would millions of moderate theists. We should remember that.

  • llewelly

    I felt a bit strange when I saw the word “Godless” used all throughout the piece — the connotation is so negative — but I suppose if “atheist” isn’t enough to catch a reader’s eye, this word certainly will. Whatever. It’s a marketing word for the magazine, not a word most atheists use to describe themselves.

    ‘Godless’ has exactly the same meaning as ‘atheist’. Especially when followed by the word ‘communist’.

  • Mark

    The article said:

    Activists have no real proof that Obama, whatever his mother’s beliefs, is not a sincere Christian, but they are accustomed to seeing hypocrisy on the part of elected officials on the God issue.

    This is the funniest quote in the whole article because the only group in the universe more filled with hypocrisy than the politicians would be the Christians. LOL!!!

    On the other hand, I guess you could say that Christians are the most qualified to spot hypocisy.

  • Mark

    Bart the Pirate Says:

    Why must we atheists be anti-theists?
    It seems atheists are defined by the anti-religious activism

    This is because no rational person would need to spend time and money debating, arguing or worrying about something that does not exist. All visible atheist activity is actually anti-religious activity.

    I pointed out in another thread about a week ago that the only reason atheists need activism is because so-called Christians are not really true Christians at all but instead are charlatans using God to line their own pockets, stroke their own egos and build up for themselves political power using the constant threat that “God will send you to hell if you don’t do what I say”. Its a very profitable and enjoyable scam for those millions who are playing that game. Of course they are all going straight to hell by the very rules that their own Bible clearly lays down (check out Matthew 7:21) but today’s Christians don’t seem to be concerned with that at all as long as they can be greedy for themselves and nasty and hateful towards others allways in the name of God.

    Jesus plainly said that true Christianity demands humility, service and sacrifice not arrogance and accusation as is popular in Christian groups today.

    The bottom line is that there wouldn’t be any need for anti-religious efforts to combat evil Christian behavior if the so-called Christians would practice their true faith and not a fake one.

    So, eventhough I’m not much of an atheist myself, I really appreciate the efforts of the atheist community in exposing the evil hypocrisy and selfishness of most Christians today. I believe that atheists will go to heaven long before today’s Christians will.

  • Mark,

    I think that as well. See this comic.

  • Bill Walker / godfree

    One mans strong abiding faith appears to a non-theist as a morbid preoccupation with Babylonian mythology.

  • Sort of tangential, but the “murderous atheist” part reminds me of this article in the Smithsonian last year about a pair of young men (back in the 1920s? I forget the date) who killed a boy in cold blood. The article, for no reason that I could see, pointed out that the young men were atheists. That irked me no end.

    I have only partially forgiven them because of the terrific article they printed about Darwin in the Feb 09 issue. :}

  • Rich

    Like Houdini searching for spiritualists who could contact his beloved deceased mother, I keep reading atheist blogs/discussions/articles attempting to find reasonable arguments for their position…

    and keep being disappointed.

    After viewing a video “debate” in which Richard Dawkins continually contradicted himself in the most laughable manner (although his sadly unenlighted “performance” unintentionally revealed himself to be curiously vulnerable in an almost childlike fashion), I clicked onto the link above to that other atheist rock star (read: scam artist) Sam Harris. I honestly expected to find a position paper written by a well-educated scholar who would present arguments that were superficially cogent (until being exposed as oxymoronic upon closer examination). I was not prepared for the shockingly sophomoric platitudes Harris offered up as “cool reason”.

    It seems almost cruel to deconstruct the point-by-point fallacies amid Harris’s flights of fancy…almost like picking on the sentence structure of a pre-K Head Start student. Besides, what would be the point? Anyone who could read such contradictory drivel…which, of course, is entirely consistent with the very premise of atheism, which is the epitome of the rejection of reason…and could still pretend to be a proponent of atheism is so utterly brainwashed that no amount of rational explanations would prove to be convincing. My only reaction is that atheists who have swallowed this nonsense are more to be pitied than scorned.

    Suffice it to say that atheists want to have everything both ways: We believe in reason (although no one has posited an explanation how nothing can begat something, which is essential to an atheist’s belief in their own brand of “creationism”); we believe in no ultimate authority although we are ‘hard-wired’ to understand “moral” decisions (it’s hard to stop shaking with laughter long enough to even type that great pearl of wisdom); acting “morally” (sic) out of a “concern” (?) for suffering of others is far better than doing so to honor a God (Why should this be so if the atheist is only responding to eons of evolutionary instincts rather than an intrinsic “goodness”? Besides…these principles are only the results of survival of the fittest principles…if stealing & murder benefited the survival of the species more than altrusim, murder would be considered “good” by the atheist. The list goes on & on…each “point” becoming more ludicrous. However, the article truly represents the childish, tantrum-like thinking of the atheist at his most nonsensical.

    The idea that such loads of manure are the results of the deepest thinking of the ‘best and the brightest’ of the current atheist movement is…well, it just leaves me speechless.

    Y’all have a nice day.

  • LRA

    Hey, now…

    The comments about Texas aren’t completely accurate. I don’t know about UT Arlington, but I lived in Dallas for 6 years and I went to Texas A&M which is a haven for conservatives (which I am not). I have NEVER been asked what church I go to in social situations (in fact, there was lots of drinking and debauchery involved!) and I have NEVER met a biology professor that supported bible study!

    However, the State Board of Education does piss me off!!!

    (ps Arlington is in Dallas)

  • gribblethemunchkin

    Settle down there Rich the Troll. Go have a lie down, do some deep breathing. You’ll feel better for it later.

    As for this article, i don’t actually have a problem with the Stalin comment. He is saying that without religion we’d still find ways to slaughter each other. Just like Stalin did, which is accurate. I don’t see him saying that Stalin did what he did BECAUSE he was an athiest. For all that we say that Stalin was the head of a secular, reasonless state (which he was) we must still admit that he was an atheist. Starobins point is accurate.

    Of course his Darwin comment is way out there. And i’m not sure what he was talking about with Euthanasia and cloning. I suppose that atheists probably are more accepting of the idea of cloning humans or assisted suicide because we don’t tend to have the religious hang-ups about them. I’d hardly list them as a cassus belli for us though.

  • DCKate

    I look forward to having the opportunity to read the whole article. One thing that struck me just from the bits posted here is the repeated use of the term “Godless” with a capital G. I’m not sure how I feel about that, for two reasons.

    First, the capitalization situation. One would not capitalize “atheist” so the only reasoning is that they capitalize godless because it begins with god. Therefore, they are referring to a specific God. But I don’t disbelieve in a specific God. I disbelieve in ALL gods.

    Second, I don’t like being defined by what I’m not. I am not LESS anything. By calling me “Godless” it insinuates that I am lacking a god. I am not lacking a something by not “having” a god. I am in a natural state of understanding. Theists are HAVING of a God. Yet you would never see a group of theists described as the “Godful”, yet that is the natural antithesis of “Godless”. I don’t think I’m making sense. But the more I think about it, the more I resent their use of the term.

    I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

  • One thing that struck me just from the bits posted here is the repeated use of the term “Godless” with a capital G. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    First, the capitalization situation. One would not capitalize “atheist” so the only reasoning is that they capitalize godless because it begins with god. Therefore, they are referring to a specific God. But I don’t disbelieve in a specific God. I disbelieve in ALL gods.

    That jumped out to me right away, as well. If that is the term you are going with, it should be “godless”, drop the capital G.

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