Finding a Way Forward

by J.C. Samuelson

Just over two weeks ago, I wrote an article briefly discussing the controversy that exists, even among secularists, concerning the revitalization of atheism in relation to expressions of cultural or political bias against non-believers. The goal of that article was to show that a bias does exist, and that it does manifest itself in the public arena. Yet that article was woefully inadequate to the topic, particularly in terms of examining the public relations aspect of the issue, what relationship that might have to the persistence of bias, or how far secularism has come, where it might be going, and what, if anything remains to be done.

For the record, I do not think of myself as a member of a downtrodden minority. Nor do I think non-theists should adopt that sort of attitude. In spite of its religious heritage, America functions as a pluralistic and largely secular society, not a theocracy. The instruments of government prohibit the establishment of a state religion, and for the most part Americans seem to go about their daily business without giving the religious leanings of their peers a second thought. Those who wish for a theocracy are a minority in spite of the seeming prevalence and insistence of religiously-minded people pushing a religious agenda. Indeed, we are far better off today than our forefathers were.

During the colonial period, many states enacted statutes requiring compulsory church attendance. Virginia, for example, had in place a law which imposed progressively worse punishments for the crime of non-attendance in church. For the first offense, provisions were withheld for a week. For the second, a person was whipped in addition to losing provisions for a week. For the third, the death penalty! Other states had similar laws proscribing work, travel, or other activities on Sunday while simultaneously requiring attendance in church. Additionally, several states enacted laws against blasphemy, one of which was used to jail Abner Kneeland in 1838. Obviously, these laws persisted for some time following the incorporation of the United States. However, the substantial influence of reason and tolerance since have rendered virtually unimaginable - to the Western mind, at least - these archaic notions of justice for imaginary crimes.

To be sure, religion still plays a major role in elections and is considered by most to be an important part of our cultural identity. Public debates over such things as stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia, school prayer, science education, and so on are usually grounded in competing notions – theistic vs. secular – of what constitutes right thinking. Evangelicals are still a powerful constituency, of which a significant proportion believes Jesus is coming soon, and politicians still pander to the religious ideals held by voters. Yet cracks continue to appear in the religious facade of America.

Most Americans are equally appalled by the irrationality and violence displayed by religious extremists regardless of whatever their own professed attitudes toward faith might be. Though offended by unflattering depictions of their religious icons, very few religious Americans would resort to murder or the kind of mass violence exhibited by their Muslim counterparts overseas. Furthermore, an increasing number of religious Americans look askance at leaders like Pat Robertson or groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church who, with every uttered inanity or act of intolerance, make belief in a biblical notion of God appear to be the epitome of ignorance. Indeed, it seems that today the god America worships is for the most part an abstract redeemer, a well-spring of love, forgiveness, grace, and morality rather than the exclusivist judge of the Old Testament. That this god and its former incarnation are based on the same inconsistent text seems lost on most Americans.

Another sign of the decline of religious influence is the sputtering Intelligent Design movement (ID). Initially, many Christians embraced it as a scientific vindication of their belief in a biblical God and a viable descendent of creationism. However, it has since been stripped of all pretensions, having been revealed as nothing more than a different spin on evolution, with an undefined intelligence being used in place of natural selection to account for complexity. Prominent creationists such as Henry Morris have distanced themselves from the movement because it fails to promote a biblical model of creation (see Design is Not Enough by Henry H. Morris), while the Clergy Letter Project has gathered over 10,000 signatures from clergy across America supporting evolution. These things, combined with the efforts of scientists and educators such as Jerry Coyne, Kenneth Miller, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, and many, many others to inform the public, along with a defeat at Kitzmiller v. Dover (in front of a believing judge, no less), seem to have forced ID out of the public spotlight.

Of course, there is still the booming market for apologetics. Yet I personally believe that this is another sign that religion is, in some sense, losing its grip. Americans want more than just platitudes from the pulpit, blind obedience, and an ignorant faith. They want assurances that their beliefs have a solid basis in evidence. Such a thing would have been virtually unheard of in colonial America, when attitudes toward faith were markedly different. Thus, the proliferation of apologetics works may be less a sign of a return to pre-Enlightenment thought and more of an indication that people desire good reasons for belief. To my mind, this is somewhat encouraging because it seems to mean people are thinking about their beliefs rather than simply holding them to be true.

On top of this, respect for diversity of beliefs has increased. It seems as if Enlightenment rationalism has left an indelible mark on the American psyche, affecting even deeply held religious convictions. Still, we may ask why are non-theists, whom it may be argued are a direct result of Enlightenment philosophy, met with such mistrust or outright hostility? Though there has been a parallel increase in tolerance for nearly all social groups, the gap between non-theists and other groups remains large.

Last year, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota's American Mosaic Project found that atheists are the least trusted minority in America. The study, titled Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann; American Sociological Review, 2006, VOL. 71 (April:211–234)), created quite a stir partly because it seemingly validated atheists' perceptions of themselves as an unfairly stigmatized minority. Indeed, the study reveals that American perceptions of atheists (and, by extension, other non-believers) are rarely, if ever, based on personal experience. Rather, they are based on somewhat abstract ideas about what constitutes being a good American, a member of society in good standing.

Religion has historically been associated with morality, values, meaning, and purpose. As such, it has formed a basis for defining cultural identity and has reinforced a sense of solidarity within groups. Additionally, shared ideals provide a framework for civic engagement through which these ideals are expressed, and have promoted strong communities of like-minded people. Even many non-theists recognize this, though it is often framed in negative terms (e.g., control, manipulation, etc.) or is argued as having a basis in obsolete or barbaric notions of the past. However, it's notable that it doesn't matter that shared ideals needn't be based on something real or tangible. They quite easily coalesce around abstract symbols that represent something imagined to be universal or eternal. Thus, even a symbol - such as a flag, a cross, or even a principle - may help people develop clearly defined boundaries between who is an insider and who is an outsider, both of which are important in forming a collective identity.

Gradually, formerly strong religious boundaries in America have softened, becoming more inclusive and pluralistic in character. Ideas concerning tolerance and acceptance which are a natural result of Enlightenment rationalism, combined with historical events and a shared sense of civic purpose in general, have since helped define a unique American identity. This American civic religion (to give it a name) is most tolerant of those who are perceived as having some foundation in a concept of eternal or universal truth which, as has already been mentioned, provides a framework for civic engagement. Thus, today most Americans consider some sort of religious grounding to be a necessary prerequisite for good citizenship. Though religious boundaries remain, it seems that it's more important that a person have some religion rather than none at all. It may be, as one astute commentator noted in reference to the previous article, an issue of tribalism.

What does this have to do with non-theism as an intellectual position in relation to theism? Very little, apparently.

Again according the study above, for most Americans the non-theist symbolically represents a broad category of persons not bound by the shared ideals already discussed. That is, lacking a concept of the greater good or intentionally working against it. The in-depth interviews that were part of the study also reveal that this symbolic non-theist can be placed at either end of the social hierarchy. Some associate it with illegality or criminality from a lower rung on the social ladder. Others associate it with rampant materialism or cultural elitism from above. Though seemingly contradictory, both are equally regarded as expressions of antisocial conduct or self-interest in which individual gratification supersedes that of the collective.

Many non-theists would be quick to object, pointing out that our jails are filled with those claiming some religious affiliation. Many would also point out that non-believers do, in fact, frequently work for the greater good of society, either through military service or engaging in various forms of philanthropy at the local or national level. Most non-theists, at one time or another, have also argued that morality, values, meaning, and purpose needn't be based on any superstitious beliefs held by our Bronze Age ancestors. These facts notwithstanding, the common perception of non-believers as misanthropic malcontents persists.

At this point it's worth noting that perceptions usually manifest as attitudes. In turn, attitudes are expressed through social interactions and politics. As perceptions change, so do attitudes, thereby influencing social acceptance and policy. Thus, perceptions are what I believe lie at the heart of cultural resistance to non-theism. If we desire change, our efforts may achieve their best effect by focusing on working toward changing erroneous perceptions.

Sadly, some of us unwittingly reinforce erroneous perceptions. While I do not mean to suggest that the onus is on the non-theist to placate those having these perceptions, how well-received we are partly depends on both our conduct and how we express ourselves. As one example, wearing a t-shirt with "Religion: The easy way out of thinking" emblazoned on the front is, though humorous to us, likely to only provoke defensiveness in a theist. This doesn't make it wrong, or the person wearing it intolerant or unfeeling, but it does set up a barrier to effective communication. Another example is the use of direct or indirect ad hominem in discussions with theists. While passions often run high, and theists do frequently impugn the character of non-believers during such discussions, to my mind it's counterproductive to resort to name calling. As someone who likes to think of himself as a rational individual, I believe it's possible to be firm but fair, simultaneously avoiding personal attacks while pointing them out and chastising those who use them from the other side of the invisible fence.

I do admit to being human, however, and have occasionally enjoyed the temporary (and illusory, I might add) satisfaction a lack of restraint in that area can bring. However, the result is almost always a complete shut down in meaningful communication.

Returning to the issue, sometimes it's our conduct that does the job for us. Abstaining from or refusing to participate in the political process or community involvement, even in innocence, can inadvertently and adversely affect how others perceive us if they also know (or think they know) something of our beliefs. People are often willing to be forgiving of personal beliefs if those who hold them are clearly working toward a goal that can be associated with solid, shared principles. This is not to say that non-theists should run out and join the nearest charitable organization (though that couldn't hurt), but we better serve both ourselves and the communities we live in if we have meaningful interaction with those around us, even when it's confrontational. Illustrative is the Smalkowski case mentioned in the previous article.

The Smalkowski family, by taking the stand they did, were able to exemplify the sort of behavior that many in their community (and indeed elsewhere) undoubtedly aspire to; that of calmly facing enormous odds to stand by one's family and one's convictions, winning out in the end against bigotry. In other words, they engaged the community in a meaningful way that can easily be associated with solid, shared principles of fairness and justice. It would not come as a surprise if at least some members of their community have had their perceptions of atheists significantly altered in favor of tolerance. Even a shift into neutrality would have to be an improvement based on the description of the prevailing attitudes that existed at the start of the debacle. It's probably too much to expect that any fundamental beliefs about God or the Smalkowski's place in the universe have changed, but it may still be a step in a positive direction.

It might have been decidedly different had the Smalkowski family avoided interaction with their community. Though they may have averted conflict, the Smalkowski's would have had to sacrifice their convictions as well as willingly accepted isolation. Had members of the Smalkowski family publicly belittled their neighbors by calling them stupid for their beliefs or otherwise positioned themselves as intellectually superior, it might have been even worse for them.

One of the reasons I think non-theists have had trouble making inroads is that we have never constituted a meaningful subculture. Many of us have contented ourselves with playing along while harboring a streak of individuality, non-conformist ideals, and lacking a shared sense of purpose. While it's possible to live a perfectly happy life leaving well enough alone in public, if we expect to be counted as equals we have to stand up and get involved in our own destinies and that of our communities. We've always been very good at finding fault with religion, but haven't always been quite as good at promoting rationalism. Believe it or not, there is a difference.

At, a couple articles were recently posted (see here and here) that discussed "atheistic evangelism." Both seemed to express a sense of hopelessness for the future. One asked if such a thing could succeed, while the other suggests this is the wrong approach. Personally, I think it's a mistake to call it evangelism in the first place. Evangelism is a purely religious term that refers to preaching the "Good News." Unlike evangelism, speaking out in favor of reason is not about preaching non-theism to misguided theists, or about bashing religion. I do not consider it evangelistic to promote critical thinking, science, medicine, or good education. Nor do I think it evangelistic to fight intolerance, injustice, bigotry, and irrationalism. Neither is standing for what you believe. As for whether reason can triumph, I submit that it can. America - indeed, the West in general - has been a reasonably successful (if imperfect) experiment in applying Enlightenment rationalism toward entire societies and methods of governance. What is needed is time. Time and an ongoing promotion of reason simply, plainly, and without equivocation, respecting that theism is not the result of an absence of intelligence, but an intellectual position one takes.

By now it should be apparent that to change perceptions requires tact, timing, patience, courage, willingness toward social engagement, and a degree of intrepidity. Fortunately, many non-theists have these in spades, and recognize the necessity of engaging our theist brothers and sisters as motivated, moral, value-driven, and rational human beings without a belief in gods. Some form organizations that support non-theists or promote science, reason, or secular worldviews. The National Center for Science Education is one such organization. The Secular Coalition for America is another. Others include Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Rational Response Squad, the Atheist Volunteers, and of course the Brights Network along with many, many other organizations large and small across the country and around the world. Still other non-believers write books and articles, or organize local Meetup groups here and abroad.

Clearly, many non-theists are already actively engaging their communities and the world in positive ways or have been for some time. Non-believers can be a powerful constituency when they so choose. Though I have some ideas as to what and how more non-believers can engage society, I put the question to you first:

What, if anything, do you think non-theists and other secularly-oriented people can do (or continue to do) to promote rationalism while promoting themselves as valuable individuals and good citizens, worthy of equal standing?

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