By: Sajia Hall
As an organizing member of AHA, the UW-Madison organization for Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, Nick Jikomes hears arguments against atheism all the time. One of the most common is that atheism requires belief and is therefore a religion.
Jikomes, however, has an answer. “There’s a common witticism that saying atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair color,” he said. “What people often mean by that is that atheism requires faith, which is just not the case. Atheists believe in reasoned arguments, and evidence is our basis for establishing whether something exists.”
Jikomes, a second-year genetics major, regularly organizes meetings and lectures on atheism-related topics. “I can’t be 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist—to say so would be absurd, because you can’t disprove anything with absolute certainty,” he said. “I can’t disprove the Christian, Muslim or Hindu gods. I can’t disprove the Roman or Greek gods, or even the Smurfs. But it doesn’t take a leap of faith to deny the existence of such things.”
Be fruitful and multiply
Atheists and agnostics are a significant—and growing—section of the population. In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey found that 14 percent of the U.S. population indentified as having no religion, which is nearly double from 8 percent in 1990. For young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, that number increases to 35 percent.
These numbers are no surprise to Annie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison-based association representing over 12,000 atheists and agnostics. “This new generation is much less religious than previous ones,” Gaylor said. “We’re very pleased about that, it’s a good sign.”
Likewise, AHA serves an important function on campus for both non-religious students and people questioning their faith.
“We get a lot of people who just aren’t quite sure where they stand, or religious people who want to hear different viewpoints. It’s not an exclusive group,” Jikomes said. “AHA is important because most non-religious students grew up in religious households, and before college, never had a place where they could go and discuss [such] things. In AHA you can hear views and discuss things you might never have been able to.”
Andrew Wier, a second-year law student and a leading member of the Christian legal society, believes that having AHA on campus is a good thing.
“Any people have the right to organize. I think it’s great that we have a country where people can get together and discuss things,” Wier said. “I disagree with them fundamentally when it comes to religion, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some great friendships and discussions.”
However, according to Jikomes, it’s not always easy being an atheist. Despite the growing numbers of non-religious people, misconceptions and stereotypes linger. “It’s a common misconception that atheists are hedonistic nihilists, who are bitter and unhappy people,” he said. “Many would say that we are inherently immoral, which is not true.” Another common misconception about atheism is that atheists have extreme left-wing political views.
“Being a non-religious person doesn’t necessarily entail a political stance,” Jikomes said. “Prominent atheists, both liberal and conservative, have been supporters of the [Iraq] War.” Nevertheless, the Pew Forum, an organization which studies religion and public affairs in the United States, found that people who identify as having no religion are more likely to belong to the Democratic Party.
Not just for the left
One reason for this political persuasion is that atheism is closely related to secularism, the belief that government institutions should be separate from religious beliefs.
“People are free to believe whatever they want,” Jikomes said. “The problem is when they apply their religious beliefs to society at large. This is the reason the Constitution says that Congress shall make no law affirming or denying religion. We don’t make laws in our modern society based on religious belief.”
Wier disagrees. “If you believe that religious beliefs should not be present in government then you reject a great deal of morals. I think that’s a double standard, that one person’s worldview would be more acceptable than others’ as the basis of laws.”
Wier is not alone in this perspective; according to the American Religious Identification Survey, 75 percent of American adults describe their views as religious, while 16 percent identify as secular.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is a firm supporter of secularism—as an organization, they promote the separation of church and state and regularly file lawsuits toward that end. In 1984, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the UW-Madison, attempting to remove a question regarding religious preference from the registration forms. In response, the university ultimately decided to remove the question.
“What has already happened in Western Europe is finally seeping into our culture: an increased respect for secularism and a fear of theocracy,” Gaylor said. “Students today are choosing progress. They are choosing Darwin over Genesis and choosing to use their minds, rather than see our country become any more dumbed down.”
Todd Brogan is a junior communication arts major and a member of the Baha’i religious organization on campus. The real problem, Brogan said, is not with religion, but with beliefs that are violent and intolerant.
“There are atheist states, like communist China, and religious ones, like Iran, which kill people every day,” Brogan said.
Atheists turn the other cheek
Ethics, like politics, are another point of contention. Jikomes believes that humans, rather than an external deity, determine ethics.
“I think that saying ‘Well, God says so’ is an easy and shallow way of determining right from wrong,” he said. “Secular ethics isn’t about doing something because you were told to. It’s about doing good for its own sake, because it is, in itself, the right thing to do.”
Wier has a different view. “[Christians] treat people well because they are creations of God. It’s harder to find reasons that don’t rest on pragmatism without that foundation,” he said. “Ethics should be about treating people well, and not just because you feel like it.”
Nevertheless, despite differences in beliefs, both Weir and Jikomes believe that religious and non-religious people can find common ground. “It’s possible to lead an ethical life as a law-abiding citizen and to treat people well regardless of whether God exists,” Weir said. “It’s in the philosophical underpinnings that the reason for this ethics becomes different.”
Jikomes agrees. “What’s really important to atheists and non-religious people is that we have good reasons and evidence for believing the things we do,” he said. “Atheists aren’t looking to ride on the street and destroy religion. Anyone is entitled to believe what they want, and they should exercise that freedom.”