By DINA HAINES APPLEBY
Do you know any atheists? Polls show that 1 percent to 3 percent of Americans do not believe in God. If your circle of acquaintances is bigger than 100 people, chances are it contains an atheist, although you may not know it.
I never deny that I'm an atheist, but I don't always offer up that information. This is not because I am unsure or ashamed of my disbelief in God. I don't mind the questions or even occasional accusations that follow when I declare my atheism. I'm happy to discuss it.
But I hate thinking about the conversations that people have and the conclusions they draw when I'm not there to respond.
Living in America, this discussion usually plays out in terms of Judeo-Christian beliefs. The most common criticism about atheists is that without belief in God, we have no ethics or morals. A recent letter to the editor said, "No system of ethics ... can stand alone. To make [ethics] understandable to a child, it must be clothed in religious terms, such as having an omniscient, omnipotent father in Heaven." I completely disagree.
When a child hits another and the second child cries, the first one doesn't need to have read the Bible or gone to Sunday school to know his action was wrong. Nor does he need to fear eternal damnation to discourage him from doing it again.
I try to teach my children right from wrong with a simple principle that most Christians will recognize. "How would you like it if Johnny took all the toy trucks and wouldn't share them with you?" It's not as eloquent as "do unto others," but the message is the same and it gets the point across.
When it comes to solitary offenses, such as cheating on a test, I rely on my own honor and values. Truth and honesty are the values I try to teach my children, through words and example. I want others to see me as an honest person, and thus I make the decision not to cheat.
The guilt I feel when I go against my own values is probably not that different than the guilt a believer feels when she goes against her religious values. Although I don't fear God's judgment, I face the judgment of my friends and family, peers and professors, as well as my own conscience.
Since becoming an atheist several years ago, I haven't stopped giving money to charities or being friendly to my neighbors. However, I am part of the least tolerated group in America. Recent polls show that nearly half of Americans (47.6 percent) would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist.
When asked, "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist, would you vote for that person?" Only 49 percent answered yes. For comparison, 59 percent said they'd be willing to vote for a homosexual. More than 90 percent were willing to vote for a woman, black or Jewish candidate.
Atheists don't believe in God, but that is the only generalization you can make about us. This doesn't mean that we are more immoral, uncaring or selfish than the rest of the population -- just as lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus doesn't make Jewish people more (insert your stereotype here) than others.
All of which brings me back to the question of whether you know any atheists. It's much easier to hate or distrust an abstract group of "others" than to hate or distrust the friendly woman in the next cubicle or the guy on your softball team who might not believe in God.
That is why I want people to know I'm an atheist. I encourage other atheists and agnostics to make their views known. This won't change our reputations overnight. But every time someone says, "Well, I have a friend who's an atheist ..." it's a step in the direction of tolerance, and that's a value I hold dear.