The Right To NOT Believe

by Michael Shields w/ Tom Rau

Often mocked and ridiculed, it is high-time that atheists are treated with the same level of respect granted to those of faith….

It is dangerous to be an atheist.

This is a sobering fact, and one hardly discussed. It is inherently risky, in many communities across this land of the brave and home of the free, to openly profess that you do not believe in the existence of a God. It’s interesting that lacking faith in a higher power is so taboo in a world full of so many people unsure about the origins of existence1. Religious freedom, a principle that America was founded upon, is, in many ways, denied to those that chose not to exercise this freedom2.

A few weeks back Bill Maher made a comment that I found interesting. He compared atheism to gay marriage; in that atheists are the next in line to come out of the closet3, so to speak. This statement, from a tried and true atheist, highlights how close non-believers need hold their secret. In many instances it just isn’t smart to flaunt who you really are, something homosexuals have been forced to deal with for far too long. I am not sure if I agree with Mr. Maher, but point taken – many atheist wouldn’t dare openly declare themselves.

The most blatant illustration of this lack of acceptance for the non-believers can be found in the makeup of our governing bodies. Our votes are our voice, and those elected do, in many ways, represent who we are. The American electorate views both atheists and Muslims far more unfavorable than other groups4, as only 58% of Americans would vote for a (“generally well-qualified”) Muslim candidate, and only 54% would vote for an atheist5. In contrast, 94% would vote for a Catholic candidate, 91% would vote for a Jewish Candidate, and 80% for a Mormon. Very telling numbers.

It’s baffling, to say the least, that according to this poll only 54% of the people would vote for an atheist president. If you break that down by the numbers it means that there are over 100 million adults in the United States of America that find atheists distrustful. I mean that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? 100 million people do not trust our country with a leader who doesn’t believe in a God. Yet even though they log on to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is an atheist. And even though they use Google, Larry Page is an atheist. They use Iphones, Ipods, ipads – Steve Jobs was an atheist. Microsoft, no problem, Bill Gates – atheist. These are some of the smartest movers and shakers this planet has ever seen. They have affected literally every single American on this planet and clearly shown that they are the people who can truly solve and handle some of society’s most complex problems. But there are 100 million people who would rather vote for someone like George W. Bush, who has never proven himself to be capable of running anything successfully?

This year, the U.S. House of Representatives welcomed into its hallowed halls its first member to openly describe her religious affiliations as “none,“ Arizona’s democratic representative to their 9th district, Krysten Sinema. But Representative Sinema, who was sworn in without a Bible, backpedals hard from the term atheist6. The stance from her camp is that “[Rep. Sinema] believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Accused by her opponent of practicing “Pagan rituals,” her campaign would counter by simply stating that she believes in a secular approach to government.

While encouraging that she is willing to represent her country on the merit of her ability to do so alone, it is discouraging that she is forced, it seems, to distance herself from atheism and other terms that describe a non-believer, using verbiage that puts down those that do not believe in God. Just as the word Muslim is used as a political smear, politicians seem to avoid “atheist” as well.

Thus, we are forced to ask: How is simply not believing in something, and admitting it, offensive? Why is it that people of faith demand that others share that belief? Why can’t we all just root for our team in peace?

Well, over the years, prominent atheistic authors haven’t done themselves, or atheists in general, any favors, in making bold, divisive statements that further pull us apart, rather than open up doors to understanding each other. For a long time now, atheists have been accusing religion of being ignorant—of being unscientific and preferring blind faith over critical reason. Atheists often argue that religious people are not merely ignorant; they’re also dangerous. Religion is not merely irrational; it’s toxic and high-risk. It sets man against man and produces carnage. It causes people to fly planes into buildings after reading holy books. Atheists lash out against the Bible, its translation errors, internal discrepancies, and countless textual complications.

The four most prominent atheistic authors are Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, who collectively are often called the “new atheists.” Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett dissmisses faith in a higher power by explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious adherence7. Sam Harris cites contradictions in the Bible as evidence that it is not divine and criticizes those religious and intellectual moderates who try to find a common ground. Christopher Hitchens declares that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” And, Richard Dawkins, in his novel, The God Delusion, asks us to imagine “a world with no religion …no suicide bombers, no 9/11 no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles,’ no ‘honor killings,’ no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money.”

Richard Dawkins takes it a step further even. He argues that parents do have rights over their children, but that those rights are not absolute. Just as parents are not permitted to beat their children, they should not be allowed to brainwash their children into their religious faith. In a sense, argues Dawkins, you are retarding your children’s future development by implanting myths into their young heads that they will have a very difficult time getting rid of later. Intense stuff, and you can see how this type of talk would rattle a conservatives cage.

Even the aforementioned Bill Maher, while often making very solid points about the benefits of being an atheist, knocks faith often, with lines such as, “Faith means the purposeful suspension of critical thinking. It’s nothing to be admired.”

But it is hard not to see their point. These bold statements do not only act as a thorn in the side of the religious zealots, but also as a voice of reason; a necessary opposing perspective that is grounded, and realistic. Atheists (Deist, Agnostics, etc.) are not clouded by agendas. They tend to be very humanistic people, living in the now and caring about what happens around them, as, after all, that is all they have – this lifetime.

Atheism (and Deism! – a belief I continually see on the rise) is not dangerous. No battles have ever been waged in its cause, or lives lost in its name. In fact, it is the opposite that often holds true. It can be argued that the type of religious fundamentalism we see in America is just as dangerous as the violent fundamentalism we see in the Middle East. Although Christian extremists, by and large, do not resort to violence, they do work towards weaseling their way into our democratic system, to attempt to mold the country to the likes of their narrow world-view. In so many ways their attempt to merge church and state is crippling to real progress, to our nation thriving. As we watch Fundamentalism in the Islamic world drive to destroy all infidels, we witness a Christian Evangelical Movement in the United States desire similar goals in they want a Christian Nation, and want the entire world to also be Christian. Honestly, it is scary stuff. And, this past week we were handed a prime example with the government shut down of how the power of a few extremists can potentially hurt us all.

Outspoken atheists, however, walk a fine line. And often they find themselves lambasting religion in order to garner acceptance for their atheistic stance. Instead of simply pointing out their beliefs and explaining why they came to this conclusion, they so often drag the beliefs that so many hold so dear rigorously through the mud.

But that could be the result of being pushed into a corner one too many times. From being persecuted for ages. From being scoffed at. Atheist have a right to not believe, and should be granted that right – especially in the light of the fact that nobody can truly prove otherwise.

Religion, it must be said, certainly has many positive attributes. It is irresponsible in the scheme of this discussion to not consider its merits, of which there are many. First and foremost it brings people together, creating community. It has inspired many to greatness, and given those in need strength and hope. It is a mechanism for the transmission of education and ethics to future generations. It has helped feed the hungry, and house the homeless. And, possibly most importantly, it gives people who have lost loved ones (all of us) the belief that they may possibly see those people again. Basically, it gives us all hope8.

Many of us make the mistake of confusing God and Religion. It is true that atheists don’t buy into either, but most reasonable, modern-day non-believers certainly do not have a problem with God, with spirituality, and they surely understand the idea of yearning for more. But organized fanatical religion – that they often have a problem with – has been more about control than anything. Organized religion is guilt producing, uses control and scare tactics all invoked by an imaginary (possibly) parent figure up in the sky – who looks down upon us judging and watching, demanding that you follow his orders to a T. Enforcing a set of laws, which in fact are human systems, concocted in order to define God for a governing bodies purposes and motives. Naively separating the world into two parts, Good and Evil, and blindly taking the stance that those that don’t stand with you in your beliefs – are against you. It’s damaging to a society. And dangerous to the world as a whole.

The real enemy here, and there is one, isn’t atheism, or Catholicism or Judaism, or Islam. It isn’t any religious group at all. It is Fundamentalism. It is dangerous to hold firm to a stance that you have it all figured out. That you and your sect alone hold the truth regarding God, and all your actions are based upon this “truth,” empowering you to stop at nothing to share this world-view with others.

The take home point is simple. We are all in this together, and this country was founded upon one principle above all others – and that is the freedom to be who you are. If you want to be an atheist, great9. If you want to be a fundamentalist, great. Just do everything in your power not to be an asshole about it.

  1. The most common number you come upon is that 1 in 5 Americans do not affiliate themselves with a religion. This does not imply they are atheist however. Other sources exhibit the fact that people with no religious affiliation now make up the third-largest global group, behind Christians and Islamist. []
  2. The examples of right-wing religious sects, and politicians, berating the “godless” are ample. To numerous to go into as that exercise could hijack the purpose of this piece – which will reveal itself as we progress! []
  3. 10.5 Tips for Atheist Coming Out []
  4. Gallup poll from June []
  5. This is the first time in a poll such as this that that number has been above 50% for an atheist candidate. []
  6. 10 members of Congress don’t specify a religious affiliation, but Sinema is the only one to actually declare ”none.” []
  7. His research into clerics who are secretly atheists and how they rationalize their works is fascinating! []
  8. God, it could be argued, is a popular concept not because people have reasoned it through and proved it true, but because humans are terrified of the opposite notion: If there is no God – is all this for nothing? []
  9. This is interesting: An Atheistic Church gaining some real steam. []

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