By Linda Stanton
The re-awakening of atheism in America is going to make for some very interesting times. Leaders of the Christian Right have spent years trying to cast themselves as the voiceless victims in a secular society, but the scapegoating is over. (Want to talk marginalized? How many atheists have there ever been in Congress or the White House?)
Nonbelievers know a lot about Christianity and Judaism, most having been raised in religious families. Believers, however, are somewhat less clued-in about atheists. Here are a few simple truths about who they are, and aren’t.
Atheists are well-behaved. Atheists seem to play well with others overall. They’re not in the news for getting caught doing things they tell others not to do. Most co-exist peacefully with believing family and friends. They pay taxes.
Atheists don’t start wars on behalf of atheism. They do join the military, however, and contrary to the cliché, they are found in foxholes. In fact, there is a lawsuit now against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a major who harassed a group of “foxhole atheists” who simply wished to exercise their freedom of/from religion while serving their country in the Middle East.
Atheists have a thing for the American Constitution, particularly the First Amendment that separates church and state. They are secularists who support a government free from influence by any religion. They’re not anti-religious but nonreligious.
So when people like Mike Huckabee announce they want to “take this nation back for Christ” and make the Constitution fit the word of God, atheists worry, and feel that everyone else would be wise to worry along with them.
Atheists don’t take up much space. In fact, they only comprise 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted through the Graduate Center at CUNY. (Agnostics would add 0.5 percent, the nonreligious 14.1 percent more.)
A total of 900,000 people isn’t even enough to fill 10 football stadiums, but evangelical leaders insist the godless are behind the decline of a whole nation. Uh, okay.
Atheists make good neighbors. Chances are, if you lived next door to an atheist, you might never know it. Atheists aren’t known for going door-to-door or shore-to-shore to un-convert people. They will help you even though there’s no heavenly reward in it for them.
Atheists will not infringe upon your life uninvited. On the other hand, you have to wonder about the neighborliness of certain believers when you see, for example, the miracle of the multiplying churches and neighborhood-munching mega-churches.
Thanks to the Religious Land Use law, passed in 2000, it’s lots easier now for religious groups to build more tax-exempt houses of worship, often against the wishes of neighborhoods which they burden financially and environmentally.
Atheists are lousy fundraisers. If you really want to raise a ton of money, oh, say on a weekly basis, don’t ask an atheist. Go to the folks with the know-how.
Televangelists raise almost $100 billion a year. In fact, they are so good at talking money out of people’s purses and bank accounts that six major Christian ministries are under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee.
These prosperity preachers tell their followers that God wants all of them to be well and be rich. (Serendipitously, God wants the preachers to have fancy cars, huge houses and the occasional Learjet.)
Atheists are the quiet type. Religionists have counted on atheists’ need for self-protection, but things are changing. Witness the popularity of Christopher Hitchens’ insightful book, god is not Great, the movie version of “The Golden Compass,” the mainstream media interest in the nonbelievers’ demographic.
There’s a new dialogue beginning between mainline believers and atheists, and among atheists themselves. While militant New Atheists fight on intellectual turf to replace dogma with rational thinking, humanists encourage believers and nonbelievers to get the moral work of peace, social justice and saving the environment done together.
Right-wing Christianity shook the atheist community out of its complacency with its relentless rhetorical badgering and attempts to co-opt the country. A missing piece of the real picture of America is finally being restored. Amen to that.
Linda Staten is a professional writer and former college instructor of ethics and comparative religion.