The gay rights movement triggered the most rapid social change in my adult lifetime. When I was young (granted, back in the Ice Age), homosexuality was viewed as a form of mental illness, and gay people were largely closeted. Today, 70+ percent of Americans are accepting of same-sex marriage and supportive of equal rights for LGBTQ Americans. (Leaving the culture warriors with only lesser-understood trans children to demonize…)
Political scientists and sociologists will confirm that the main reason for this rapid turn-around was a politically potent act: coming out. Coming out took incredible courage when that effort began– friends of my sons were thrown out of their homes, vilified by their “Christian” families, fired from their jobs. But coming out changed perceptions: suddenly, people realized that Aunt Gladys and her long-time roommate weren’t just roommates, that the doctor they trusted, the mailman who delivered their packages and so many other people they knew and cared about were–gasp!– gay.
And attitudes changed.
Atheists need to gather up our own courage, and follow in the footsteps of the gay community. I had a friend–now deceased–who used to insist that, until atheists made their presence known (a la the LGBTQ community), Americans would never see pious religious hypocrisy for what it is.
Perhaps–just perhaps–this recent guest essay in the Washington Post is a beginning. Titled “America doesn’t need more God. It needs more atheists,” the author made her case.
My (non)belief derives naturally from a few basic observations:
The Greek myths are obviously stories. The Norse myths are obviously stories. L. Ron Hubbard obviously made that stuff up. Extrapolate.
The holy books underpinning some of the bigger theistic religions are riddled with “facts” now disproved by science and “morality” now disavowed by modern adherents. Extrapolate.
Life is confusing and death is scary. Naturally, humans want to believe that someone capable is in charge and that we continue to live after we die. But wanting doesn’t make it so.
Child rape. War. Etc.
And yet, when I was younger, I would never have called myself an atheist — not on a survey, not to my family, not even to myself.
Being an “atheist,” at least according to popular culture, seems to require so much work. You have to complain to the school board about the Pledge of Allegiance, stamp over “In God We Trust” on all your paper money and convince Grandma not to go to church. You have to be PhD-from-Oxford smart, irritated by Christmas and shruggingly unmoved by Michelangelo’s “Pietà.” That isn’t me — but those are the stereotypes.
And then there are the data. Studies have shown that many, many Americans don’t trust atheists. They don’t want to vote for atheists, and they don’t want their children to marry atheists. Researchers have found that even atheists presume serial killers are more likely to be atheist than not.
The author focused much of her essay on how she and her husband raised their children, teaching them to distinguish fact from fiction — which she points out is harder for children raised religious. Her children “don’t assume conventional wisdom is true and they do expect arguments to be based on evidence. Which means they have the skills to be engaged, informed and savvy citizens.”
She then shares data showing that fewer Americans than ever report a belief in God–and yet, are reluctant to call themselves atheists.
Among religious Americans, only 64 percent are certain about the existence of God. Hidden atheists can be found not just among the “nones,” as they’re called — the religiously unaffiliated — but also in America’s churches, mosques and synagogues.
“If you added up all the nominal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. — those who are religious in name only,” Harvard humanist chaplain Greg M. Epstein writes in “Good Without God,” “you really might get the largest denomination in the world.”
She readily acknowledges the good done by good religious people, but then enumerates the injustices done by bigotries masquerading as religious belief: discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, control over women’s bodies, abstinence-only or marriage-centered or anti-homosexual sex education,“Don’t say gay” laws, laws denying trans kids medical care, school-library book bans and even efforts to suppress the teaching of inconvenient historical facts.
And when religion loses a fight and progress wins instead? Religion then claims it’s not subject to the resulting laws. “Religious belief” is — more and more, at the state and federal levels — a way to sidestep advances the country makes in civil rights, human rights and public health.
If you are as tired of performative piety as I am, you should really click through and read the entire essay. And if you are an atheist, you should definitely consider “coming out.”