Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why Is Atheism Distrusted?

Atheism appears to be the most popular belief to “distrust” in the United States. This does not surprise me, nor does it really worry me. In a country where faith in a fairy tale is very popular, those who choose not to play the game tend to be disliked by the participants. Imagine a basement full of geeks playing dungeons and dragons; sure the dwarves hate the orcs, but both of them (and even the elves) hate the older brother who barges in and asks where the dungeon master left the keys to the car right when the legendary Crystal Goblet of the Hydra is being unearthed from its millennial resting place...

According to many polls, atheists are not people who would be considered worthy candidates for the presidency. Atheists have been banned from serving public office or swearing testimony in court (the ban stands in 6 states, including Arkansas, but cannot be enforced due to being unconstitutional). Only one congressman, Pete Stark (D-CA), has admitted publicly to being an atheist.

Non-believers make up over a tenth of the population in every poll taken this decade, yet their lack of representation even overshadows that of women. There are 74 female representatives (out of 435) and 17 female senators (out of 100), constituting 17% of both the house and senate; at 51% of the population, this makes women’s current representation 33% of what it would be if it were a perfect representation. With one representative (that we know of), that gives atheists a .2% congressional presence (and I rounded up… generously). Going by recent polls of 16% of the population being non-believers, about 1.25% of atheists are being represented in congress.

To be honest, none of this worries me. For one, there have been very few directed attacks against atheists, perhaps because there is rarely a place we all gather together. It’s hard to target something like an idea when the person isn’t seen practicing anything that would suggest their stance. Other than the ban on public oaths, and the use of the term “god” on my money and in the pledge of allegiance, I have very few problems with how atheism is treated from a legal standpoint. I have no interest in an “atheist agenda,” nor would I vote for someone simply because they were atheist. In fact, it makes one begin to wonder, what is it about atheism that people claim to dislike?

I have compiled a list of the complaints I have heard over my years of engaging the faithful in conversation/debate/argument. The complaints tend to fall into one of a series of concerns:

1. If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from running naked down the street molesting children with a heroin needle sticking out of your arm while throwing acid on puppies?

2. Oh you’re just young, it’s a phase (not really a concern, just a condescending remark).

3. I’m sorry you had a horrible experience with religion, but at MY church, we…

4. So what do you think happens after we die?

People who ask some form of #1 are under the sad, misguided notion that people get their morality from their faith. You may get ideas for which signs to print up at your next protest or be told how to vote by your faith, but those things are less morality and more the ease with which the flock is controlled. I am not saying religion isn’t a great way to get people mobilized to ban something others enjoy, I’m just saying it’s irritating.

Which leads me to the jackass who thinks they’ve “been there.” You know the type: they were religious until they went to college, then they stopped going for four years, got married and had a kid. In a panic, they realized they had no clue how to raise a child, so they turned to the cheapest support they could think of in a pinch: religion. Here’s a marvelous system that will teach your children who to love (at first, everyone), who to hate (queers and the godless, once you’re old enough to ask about them), and even how to behave… sort of. Sure, most of the ten commandments don’t really apply to children, but you tell yourself that religion will somehow transfer “values” into your baby through the osmosis of the magic voodoo gathering every week.

Why is it that so many people think that because I am no longer Catholic, I was raped by a priest? Don’t get me wrong, they like boys, but the kids they bang grow up to become priests more often than atheists. They like a priest who can keep a secret. But in all seriousness, you don’t need a traumatic event to one day realize it’s all bullshit. Trust me, you can just wake up one day and see the world for what it really is: a lucky wet rock hurtling through space around a nuclear furnace. Sounds ridiculous when you think about it.

Since I seem to act like I have all the answers, why don’t I let you in on the secret of what happens after we die, right? Unfortunately, I have little knowledge of the subject. If I had to guess, I would have to say that the eternity of death will be like the eternity before birth; largely uneventful for ourselves, but pretty exciting for everyone who’s alive. There's a lot of big questions in life, and while some people will be happy to claim to have the answers, there's no comfort in the end for those who believe an attractive lie.

I always much preferred the idea of reincarnation over an afterlife, not because I would like to be reincarnated, nor do I have any recollection of a past life. Rather, I find a romantic notion in believing that I should do my best in this life, since maybe the decisions I make in this world will affect me later when I come back. Why not fight for the rights of women, gays, and minorities, in case you come back as one? It hasn’t worked for India; they had/have a rigid caste system and believe those born in a low caste deserve it. I suppose people have a way of turning all good religious ideas into systems of oppression.

However, the most insidious atheist bashing is abstract. It is rarely expressed in the presence of a known atheist (and we can go covert, in moments of boredom). Atheists often get attributed many characteristics they don’t usually possess: a desire to recruit; a legislative agenda meant to oppress the religious; associations with everything from drugs to gothic rock music.

I would be foolish to say no atheist recruits (Richard Dawkins does, which offends the religious because he stole their idea of spreading viral ideology). However, I do not recruit. I see the necessity of religion as a sandbox to play in, away from the patio where the grown-ups are busy. I have no desire in dragging so much as a single person even capable of faith into atheism, for fear their belief will poison the well of scientific objectivity with fetid dogma.

As for the belief by the religious that atheism threatens religion in any way, reality paints a different picture: religion is an elephant running in fright from the mouse of atheism; neither is in competition with the other, as each fills a completely different niche in the environment, but the elephant is capable of great harm to the mouse (once it realizes it).

However, the ultimate problem with trying to criticize atheism is that nothing can be definitively pinned on atheism, as it defies any clear, concrete base of belief. Rather than get to know each individual atheist, it’s easier to try to picture atheists getting together to do unsavory things you tell yourself happen nightly in the homes of such awful people (I call it the Heathen Fantasy, where believers picture atheists as living in the movie "Eyes Wide Shut"). It’s far easier to assume there’s something linking all of these people who rejected such a perfectly reasonable belief as that of a bearded, flying daddy-figure.

I know I must have missed something, and a believer somewhere won’t hesitate to remind me of what specific nuance of the whole debate I have neglected, but that about sums up everything I have heard people complain about when it comes to atheism. There is one final note I have uncovered in my studies, however, that points me to an underlying factor that some of the faithful probably think, perhaps unconsciously.

Religion is, above all else, a system of formalities. Religion is not about ethics or even gods, it’s about everyday rituals and behaviors. At the core of religion is the “Bless you” when someone sneezes. At the very heart of faith is the “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukah” you say to coworkers around the holidays. Religion includes suspiciously eccentric dietary restrictions (Christianity being the only exception I can think of, and even then there were centuries of “no meat on Fridays”). In the end, religion is a contagious form of OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is a system of checks, rechecks, and mental assurances that put us at ease. Anyone who has dealt with a person with OCD knows how irate they get if you are not accommodating of their eccentricities. I have seen this same behavior in the religious.

Some of us just don’t think stepping on a crack will break our mother’s back, sorry.


  1. Excellent post, I think you summed it up quite well!

  2. Also, I liked it so much that I linked it to my blog, which is private, but if you'd like access, you can email me at ballroom.margo@gmail.com. (Abandoning Eden has access, too.) Thanks again :)


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