Musings: Atheists Are Alright With Me

My friend and her college-age daughter, Antonia, are both atheists. Toni relayed a story to us about the time she and her friends were in the dorm discussing religion and she stated she was an atheist. One of the girls in the group replied, "But you're so nice!" as if atheists are generally mean, scary or unethical people. How’s that for a big myth?

Of all demographics, atheists are easily the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned. A Gallup poll before the 2012 presidential election found that atheists scored highest in terms of voter bias, followed by Muslims and gays: Only 54% of Americans would vote for a qualified atheist candidate; 58% would vote for a Muslim; and 68% would vote for a gay candidate. This means that almost half of Americans view atheism as a serious character flaw.

Anthropologically, it’s a matter of solidarity. A belief in God or an invisible higher power helps humans explain all the things that are beyond our control and understanding, such as how the universe began and why bad things happen to good people. If we also believe our God judges, rewards and loves us, we’ve got a built-in moral compass, perpetual source of spiritual comfort and direct access to divine intervention. The impressive power of belief is well-documented and there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence linking healing and other amazing miracles with prayer and a variety of religious experiences.

A belief in God or gods has more or less kept societies together for thousands of years. Like a powerful but unwritten social contract, this belief offers affinity and the promise of future reward when we place our trust in God. By rejecting this contract, non-theists frequently face anger and suspicion as their doubts question the truth of what can only be known by faith. George H.W. Bush, an oft-quoted president, declared, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Now these beliefs may be changing. The 2012 WIN-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index found that the number of people worldwide who say they are “religious” dropped from 73% in 2005 (the last poll) to 60%. In Europe, where religious belief is very low, some countries report over 50% non-believers. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey counts 10.3% of Americans as not religious — atheist (1.6%), agnostic (2.4%), or secular unaffiliated (6.3%). These non-religious Americans are more numerous than Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Christians combined (6.4%).

These numbers of decline in religious belief speak to the eroding trust that young people, in particular, are willing to place in religious institutions crumbling at their foundations. Witness plummeting church memberships, the Catholic Church’s unfolding sex abuse scandal and the senseless ongoing killing of people around the world in the name of religious belief. As social stigma lifts, people who have not been believers for decades are more willing to come out of the closet and identify themselves as non-theists, humanists or skeptics and express new ways of thinking about God, including no God.

The biggest myth here is that you need religion and a belief in God to bring out the good in people. Author Penn Jillette writes, “Theists ask me, ‘If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.’ My answer is always: ‘I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to…and the number for both is zero.’ Humans have morality. We don’t need religion.” Research confirms that a sense of fairness and humanist values are innate, derived through our evolution as social animals living together in communities.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have prayed to and worshipped deities we believe are listening to us, judging us and acting upon us to control our fate. From these practices the world’s religions have evolved as channels to God’s care, protection and power. Skip the religion for a moment. What if “god” is simply the general operating dynamic of everything in the universe acting at once? This unites every single person in that mighty field of divine creation with the common task of doing their little piece in creating the world the best way they can at every moment. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

It was this self-creative spirit that inspired the founding of our country. Contrary to popular belief, the United States was not founded on religious principles. The Constitution intentionally omits the word God and mandates that no religious test shall be required to hold office of any kind. Many of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin were not Christians, but deists or Enlightenment rationalists. They believed in a supreme creator, but rejected the idea of any personal involvement by that being in our lives now or hereafter. Because of their passionate beliefs and the freedom from religious tyranny they sought, America achieved its destiny as a democracy offering freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

In the words of philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore, “You don’t have to believe in God to know that when you go out the door in the morning, you walk on sacred ground.”

Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine. Visit www.spiritofchange.org.

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