Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Brief Soapbox Intermission

Brace yourself, I've got something to get off my chest...

I'm an atheist.

Part One: Americans Hate Atheists

And that makes me a member of a minority group that is perceived with suspicion, disgust, and outright fear by a large percentage of the population. Consider the following. According to a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, "atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups" (cite).

  • Only 49% of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president (59% would vote for a homosexual, 90% would vote for a Black, female, or Jewish candidate, pretty much everybody would vote for a white dude.)
  • 39% of Americans agree with the statement that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of American society" (26% agreed regarding Muslims, 23% agreed regarding homosexuals, 13% agreed regarding conservative Christians [interesting], 13% agreed regarding recent immigrants.)
  • 47% of Americans would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist (34% would disapprove of a Muslim, 27% of an African American [yikes], 19% Asian or Hispanic, and pretty much everyone's ok with a Caucasian.)
  • Atheists are more distrusted than Muslims, Jews, gay men, and feminists. A similar percentage of respondents reported distrust for rapists as did for atheists.
(cite, cite)

So, Americans hate Muslims, homosexuals, and rapists, but they REALLY hate atheists. Ok, that might be overstating it. Americans may also really hate rapists.

Part Two: How Many Atheists Are There?

(Well, it is a nice thought, but not all these guys were atheists.)

About 14% of Americans have no religious preference, but only 7% respond to surveys about belief by agreeing with the statement "I don't believe in God", or "I don't know whether there is a God and I don't believe there is any way to find out". (These are the definitions of atheism and agnosticism, respectively). 7% is a pretty small group, but way larger than Mormons (1.9%) or Jews (1.7%).

Only 1% of Americans self-identify as atheists or agnostics*, but this is still more than the numbers of Jehovah's Witnesses (.7%), Buddhists (.7%), Muslims (.6%), or Hindus (.4%). Of course, most atheists don't go to atheist meetings or dress up in suits and go around ringing doorbells, handing out pamphlets about how there is no God. (Can you imagine?)

Part Three: FAQ

We'll get to why people hate atheists so much in just a bit, but first I want to answer a few questions. These are the most common questions that I get when I talk about being an atheist.

Why are you an atheist?
  • There is no need for the presence of a supernatural deity to explain the variety and wonder of the natural world.
  • Text from the Bible, as from other religious documents, is an amalgam of myths, aphorisms, and archetypes that have been around probably since humans first learned to tell themselves stories. The text and history of the Bible, as with other religious documents, clearly demonstrates that it was written by humans and has in fact gone through an editing process by which bits were added and removed according to the whims of the ruling religious elite at the time. Furthermore, passages from the Bible specifically contradict what science tells us to be true.
  • I have never experienced anything which might be described as a religious experience that could not be explained by the psychology and sociocultural pressure of the milieu.

Of course, all of these together don't mean that God doesn't exist, that the Bible isn't divinely inspired, or that religious experiences aren't real. However, I find these three factors to be necessary foundations of my disbelief in any deity. Were any of these pillars to be removed, I would likely become a more religious person. (That is not a challenge, people!)

I realize that spelled out so clearly, my beliefs make me sound arrogant. But no more arrogant than people who go around claiming that they know there is a God, and furthermore, presume to know what God wants.

What do you think happens when we die?

The same thing that happened before we were born. Nothingness.

Doesn't this make you sad/scared?

Not for me personally - obviously I won't be aware of what's going on. It does make me sad that death is final and that I won't have an opportunity to meet up with my loved ones again. It would be nice if an afterlife did exist. But wishful thinking cannot and should not be the basis for religious belief.

How do you fill that hole in your life that religious people fill with God?

Why do you assume that my life has a hole? I certainly don't feel in any way that my life is less than complete. I work, I write, I blog, I quilt, I play with my dog and cat, I raise money for charity, I love my husband and family, I clean the house (sometimes), I read, I hang out with friends, I eat (lots), I travel, I teach - these are the same things that everyone else does too.

And lest you accuse me of being in denial about some gaping hole in all of this, let me also tell you what I don't do. I don't drink, smoke, or do drugs. I don't gamble or sleep around. I'm not depressed or sad - in fact, I'm pretty happy most of the time. In short, I don't do anything that would lead someone to suspect that I'm subconsciously compensating for some kind of soul hole (sounds like a band name - Soul Hole). I'm actually pretty boring that way.

How can you tell right from wrong?

AHA. I feel like this is what people really want to ask, though most don't come right out and say it. And this same question is what goes back to the statistics I cited earlier - why people don't like atheists. It's really a trust issue, as studies confirm (cite). Many religious Americans don't trust atheists because they don't believe that atheists share - or even possess - a recognizable moral code.

Which is really pretty insulting. And confusing. As a person with religion, do you need to do a quick WWJD check before every little interaction, or do you have a reliable internal compass that lets you know how to behave in most instances? It's simple. In order to be a good person, I don't have to be scared into behaving by the threat of punishment from above. If you need the threat of punishment to do right, that makes me a little bit afraid of you. And if you need to have the rules of right and wrong clearly spelled out by someone else, then I'm a LOT afraid of you. Do Unto Others - that's all you gotta know. Unless you're a sociopath.

People are people - if they want to behave like jackasses, they'll do it, and they'll find a way to justify it, using their religion if necessary. Not so sound too self-congratulatory, but I think I do pretty well at being a good person. I often wonder, though, while in the midst of a good deed, if the person on the other end would ever guess that I'm an atheist. Like the folks from the church food fundraiser, who told us that we gave more canned food than many other houses, or the woman stopped on the side of the road, who we helped secure a runaway mattress back to the roof of her car, and who kept saying "God is gonna bless you!"

The point is not to make a list of how awesome and righteous we are, but to suggest that atheists are perfectly capable of being good people, and that in fact we are way more successful at this than some would suspect. After all, we're 7% of the population - that's 21 million people. 21 million people can successfully start some shit, I tell you what.

Part Four: This Part is Just For Lindsay


Part Five: Atheists Are Good People Too

Compared to the general population, there are WAY fewer atheists in prison - less than a quarter of one percent, according to many, many studies (cite). Ok, so maybe all of these prisoners were evil, evil atheists while doing their crime, and now that they're doing their time, they see the light. That seems unlikely to account for all cases, or even the majority of cases, but fine.

Consider instead the country of Norway. Known for their lovely fjords, Norway also has an unusually high percentage of atheists - estimates range from 26-71%, depending on definition. And you know what? The Global Peace Index rates Norway as the 9th most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland (16-23% atheist), New Zealand (20-22% atheist), Japan (65% - second highest in the world after China), Denmark (43-80%), the Czech Republic (54-61%), Austria (18-26%), Finland (28-60%), and Canada (19-30%). (cite) (Sorry no cite for the atheism percentages, but I'll send you the pdf if you're curious.)

I THINK YOU GET MY POINT. But just to make sure I've ground it totally into the ground, I'll just remind you that Norway is ranked number one in the Human Development Index, which considers life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living. (cite)

The US is ranked 82nd in the Global Peace Index, and 4th in the Human Development Index. (Isn't it nice to find at least ONE global ranking scheme in which the US does pretty well for itself?)

Part Six: TL;DR

Hating on atheists is stupid and nonsensical. And BIGOTED. So knock it off. One can be a perfectly happy and good person without religion of any kind. Also, I'm moving to Norway.

*If you really start poking around in the Pew Forum's data on religion - and if you're a data nerd, prepare to spend several hours happily plugging away at it - you'll see that when asked if they believe in God, a weirdly large percentage of those who call themselves atheist or agnostic replied that they do believe in God, meaning that they don't actually know what the terms 'atheist' and 'agnostic' mean, but that's a whole 'nother thang.


  1. Anna, my love for you grows by bounds every day. :)

    Though I think you forgot the nicest thing about atheism -- the lack of anxiety and stress for breaking a set of strange and rather arbitrary rules.

    And, we get to sleep in on Sundays, as the good lord intended. :)

  2. This is fantastic, and I'm sharing it on my seminary blog (yes, really). Thank you.

    1. Awesome, Emmy! I love your blog! And Zoe, I also love sleeping in on Sundays. It's a day of REST, people!

  3. atheism is wrong i don't care what you say you just want every one to be unhappy and miserable for the rest of their life just like you are.

    1. I think you gotta read this again, you seem to have missed a few crucial points...such as the whole darn thing.

  4. I personally have 2 (that I know of) friends who are atheists, and I find no problem with it. I'm a Christian, and the Bible clearly states that people are supposed to love your 'neighbor' (everyone). Even though the Bibles says this, people hate my friend for being atheist, and someone just recently tried to attack him for it. So just remember this if you hate atheists: MOST religions say to treat people how you want to be treated.

  5. Amazing, covered a ton of good points. I am an atheist myself and I find all this bigotry to be horrible. I mean, come on guys, just have a little tolerance! If you really think an atheist is going to go to hell (which is pretty unlikely as they aren't evil or psychopathic or insane any more than anyone else) let them go to hell. Just stop trying to push all of your beliefs on others.