In the New Eden, atheists
have historically been viewed as agents of Satan, vile practitioners
of unnatural deeds and saboteurs of innocence, truth, and virtue. While
we canít (legally) be strung up, thanks to a Constitution shaped by
Enlightenment minds averse to religious zealotry, we remain repugnant
to many in America. An Old Testament mentality underpins the animosity.
American freedom, prosperity, opportunity, and power, the American Way,
is sustained (it is thought) by divine favor. Should atheism flourish,
an offended deity will withdraw from the Chosen People his beneficent
guidance. Losing its privileged status among nations, a godforsaken
America will, like the Roman Empire or Sodom and Gomorrah, careen to
irreparable ruin. Though irrational, the fear is embedded in the American
Hence, according to a poll
conducted shortly before the last presidential election, 49% of the
American electorate wouldnít under any circumstances vote for an atheistic
candidate for president. Since people like to appear tolerant, even
to anonymous pollsters, the figure probably understates the national
antipathy. Because of the hostility, many atheists keep a low profile.
How often does a physician, lawyer, businessman, journalist, teacher,
insurance agent, broker, movie star, athlete, salesman, police officer,
plumber, roofer, electrician, contractor, or anyone else dependent on
public patronage advertise his or her atheism?
Since 9/11, American atheists
have felt more keenly than ever (if that's possible) that we are strangers
in a strange land. Public discourse on the tragedy is steeped in the
vocabulary of piety. The words "God," "faith," and "prayer," ubiquitously
invoked, unify the 90% or more of Americans who believe in divine Providence.
Like tribal talismans, the magic words ward off evil. But in atheists,
for whom prayer and faith lack efficacy in a godless universe, the words
intensify our sense of being outsiders.
The parlance of piety baffles
us. Take the words "God bless America."
The American scene is dotted
with billboards, signs, stickers, and banners blazoning the words. Grammarians
might tell us the words are in the subjunctive mood, not the indicative
or the imperative. They neither inform (God blesses America) nor command
(God, bless America). Instead, they express a wish (May God bless America)
or a prayer (Dear God, please bless America).
But what does the prayer
(or wish) entail?
Assuming, for the moment,
an almighty deity interested in human welfare really exists, in what
sense is he to bless us? With good health, bouncing babies, self-sacrificing
spouses? Philosophical wisdom? High IQís? Fat paychecks, sirloin steaks,
sport utility vehicles, faster computers, more cable channels, bigger
boom boxes? Competitive Superbowls? Better facelifts? Speedier cruise
missiles, smarter smart bombs, stealthier stealth bombers? Continued
monopoly on the planetís natural resources?
Does, in fact, "America"
mean Americans? And, if it does, all Americans, including murderers,
rapists, thieves, swindlers, embezzlers, muggers, liars, cheats, bullies,
pederasts, pornographers, conceited airheads, lazy slobs, domestic tyrants,
bigots, racists? Or does "America" refer to land, spacious skies, and
amber waves of grain? Or to some Platonic ideal of government embodied
in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, worthy of blessing
even if some Americans arenít?
Could it be that "God bless
America" doesnít mean anything? That the phrase is an empty mantra that
fuels feelings of security, virtue, and divine election?
As priest in chief of a
holy land, President Bush habitually uses the language of piety. In
February, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, he
urged Americans to turn to prayer in "this time of testing." The terrorist
attacks had put him, he said, "on bended knee."
Why? Was he petitioning
a despot swayed by cowering servility and unctuous flattery? Is this
the despot before whom the 9/11 skyjackers bowed and prostrated themselves
five times a day? Does the Almighty favor the best grovelers? Is he
actuated by vanity rather than goodness or justice?
Addressing the lawmakers,
foreign heads of state, and prominent clergymen in attendance at the
breakfast, Mr. Bush extolled faith. Faith strengthens, faith empowers,
faith overcomes every obstacle. Unfortunately for the befuddled atheist,
he didnít explain how. Does faith work in tandem with persistent groveling?
Does faith reveal that God has a plan even if it seems he doesn't?
The presidentís faith seems
to jostle with his fiscal policy. Faith, he told the assembled dignitaries,
"shows us the way to self-giving, to love our neighbors as we would
want to be loved." He also said we "must never target the innocent."
Presumably, Mr. Bush, a born-again Christian, tries to follow the teachings
of his favorite philosopher, Jesus Christ. Railing against the rich,
Jesus championed the poor, the destitute, the marginalized. Does Mr.
Bushís faith instruct him that the following budgetary measures, which
he approved, minister to the downtrodden?
- Reducing by 86% the Community
Access Program for public hospitals, clinics, and providers of care
for people without insurance.
- Reducing by 40% the Low
Income Home Assistance Program for Americans who need assistance paying
- Cutting $60 million from
a Boy's and Girl's Clubs-of-America program for public housing.
- Cutting $700 million in
capital funds for repairs in public housing.
- Cutting $200 million of
work-force training for dislocated workers.
- Cutting $15.7 million
earmarked for states to investigate cases of child abuse and neglect.
- Eliminating program to
provide child care to low-income families as they move from welfare
- Signing a bill that makes
it harder for poor and middle-class Americans to file for bankruptcy,
even when bankrupted by gargantuan medical bills.
- Proposing elimination
of the "Reading Is Fundamental" program, which gives free books to
- Proposing a $2 trillion
tax cut, of which 43% will go to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.
To atheists, "faith" refers
to a belief not supported by evidence or the facts. We think faith is
a poor substitute for observation, experiment, and critical thinking.
We see nothing wrong with hoping for the best as long as one is realistic
about the outcome.
Despite the bad press, atheists
are, on the whole, innocuous. Most of us are law-abiding. In fact, only
one percent of prison inmates are atheists. We prize the family. (Atheists
have a lower divorce rate than Baptists.) We share the American ideals
of freedom, equality, and opportunity. We value civility, honesty, kindness,
integrity, and courage. In personality, a cross section of atheists
is much like a cross-section of theists. Some atheists are gregarious
and chatty, others quiet and retiring. Some are studious, others more
for action. A few are mindless. I had rather hobnob with a reflective
theist than a dumb atheist. The former is apt to know more about atheism
than does the latter.
When the horrific events
of 9/11 are dispassionately considered, atheism looks pretty benign.
The culprit was bellicose theism. Whatever our faults, we atheists will
never kill ourselves or anyone else in the name of religion.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Gary Sloan, a retired
English professor in Ruston, Louisiana, is a regular contributor to
freethought media. He can be contacted at email@example.com.