Who Are You Calling an Atheist?

    By Thomas Larson | 16 October 2016
    Church and State

    Are there any good reasons these days to declare yourself an atheist? Won’t the label’s tribal militancy, its prickly company, its easy derision, dishonor your family, alienate your friends, and upend your career? And if you are one—and you don’t fess up—might not that lack of honesty trouble you? After all, it is the truth, isn’t it? What’s more, if you don’t make the call (choose, instead, the less excitable “humanist” or “secularist”), someone else will mark you, a stamp that may stick, inerasable, like a Sharpie on your forehead. Whosoever’s badge you go with, how high on your chest will you wear it?

    Take the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. When Bill Moyers asked him whether he supported “the effort” by well-meaning people “to reconcile faith and reason,” Tyson said flatly, “they’re irreconcilable.” All attempts to describe science with faith “have failed. Anyone who tried to explain the nature of the universe, based on Bible passages, got the wrong answer.” To the charge that dark matter is God, he perked up: “If that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of ignorance. Get ready to have that [mystery] undone.”

    Because of such statements, Tyson says he’s assailed a few times a month by nonbelievers who pester him: “I thought you were an atheist.” No, he counters, he never uses that word. If he has to have one, it’s “agnostic,” but even that term has scant meaning, he admits, since he’s confident science will solve the “divine” mysteries. Recently, he told Bill Maher that only two descriptors fit him: scientist and educator. Physics has no religiosity, Tyson said. “You don’t ‘believe in’ science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Not only does he sound unfailingly uninterested in religious belief, but Tyson makes no case that he’s agnostic about anything.

    Next, take E. O. Wilson, the self-described “secular humanist” author of The Creation (2006), an impassioned treatise that says among scientists and theologians “living Nature is a universal value.” In the book Wilson imagines a pastor who, he says, should just agree with his irrefutable portrait of the majesty of speciation, the fecundity of life, and the evolution of all beings from a single ancestor. Problem is, the pastor’s side is never broached, its one-dimensionality assumed. While Wilson names God, the afterlife, and salvation through Christ that which “we create for ourselves,” the pastor’s belief in God-as-weatherman, Wilson argues, blinds the world’s faith corps to the human crime of planetary destruction. But he’s no atheist.

    In a later equivocating interview, Wilson says, “I’m not an atheist, because who am I to say there is no such thing as a super valance? I just think that most of what we think about God is something we’ve invented for the benefit of humanity. I’m not agnostic, someone who believes the truth is unknowable. Who am I to say we will never know the truth? I have called myself a provisional deist. That is to say I’m willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven’t really come close to grasping what that might be.”

    With the media’s McCarthy-like probing of scientists and their putative lack of faith, Tyson and Wilson are dogged by the question, is there an atheist in the room? They, like many nonbelievers, worry that by giving an inch to the supernatural shifts the subject from science to woo-woo. Neither Tyson nor Wilson spends a moment thinking about an absent God when applying the scientific method. Yet for both heralding their unbelief is a colossally wrongheaded move neither entertains.

    Biologist Edward O. Wilson says religion should be eliminated.
    Biologist Edward O. Wilson says religion should be eliminated.

    What can avoiding the atheist label tell us about the character of the nonbeliever? Is the term so damnable to the scientist, educator, humanist, or secularist who, if they proclaim their disbelief, risk undermining the knowledge their subjects have derived from tested hypotheses and rational argument? If one sides with the non-deity, is there really going to be hell to pay?

    The squeamishness of the question “Are you an atheist?” bedevils Kimberly Winston, a veteran writer on religion who is Religion News Service’s “atheist” reporter. On the phone we laugh at the ironic title; she quickly reframes it as a “correspondent dedicated to atheism.” RNS is a religiously unaffiliated nonprofit whose specialty is “writing about religion for secular media.” Four years ago, the service hired Winston to cover the rapidly expanding (and fracturing) milieu of unbelief—humanism, secularism, Nones on the rise, and atheism. During her hiring, Winston’s belief, of course, was not vetted; however, she says, as an ex-Methodist, she identifies now as a None. To that point, “many religion reporters,” for example, those who as Catholics report for a Catholic news service, “say that the main job hazard is a loss of faith.”

    The new None label is far less onerous than atheist. Their belief, adorably postmodern, is in “nothing in particular.” Nones, Winston says, are confineable because they are mostly young, ambivalent about voting, and reject institutionalized religion, though some are spiritually turned and pray to God. Many a None are also atheist in whose thinking Winston has found predictive patterns. Multiple interviews tell her that atheists possess liberal social values, vote Democrat, have higher education, and live outside the Midwest or the South, where it’s punishingly divisive to be out. (The broadest nonbeliever category is humanist, she says: as long as humanist is chosen, the person can be an atheist, secularist, skeptic, or None—as antireligious as Marx and Lenin—and let it go at that.)

    To be clear, Winston asks interviewees how they describe themselves, faith-wise. If the atheist self-identifies, she asks “How did you get there?” Amazed, Winston says, seven out of ten times, she hears that Richard Dawkins was the cause. Losing one’s religion is a de-conversion, she says; being de-converted by a Dawkins’ book is also a textual conversion, not unlike St. Augustine’s was with the Bible.

    Though atheism is spreading by way of pop culture and the internet’s viral-video highway, the reluctance to identify as atheist remains equally strong. Once a month Winston runs across a person who says she’s an atheist but will not allow her name to be used. Why? The core dodge is, “I’m not out to my family yet,” which puts Winston in a pickle. An anonymous source loses veracity, especially if the personal story is compelling. Winston had to mask one woman with a new location and a new name because her family said they’d kill her, were she ID’ed. An “honor killing,” since she was de-converting from Islam.

    The atheist brand can be dicey when it’s felt as trading one set of abusive practices for another. There are, Winston says, “people who’ve been damaged and left religion, seeing it as an evil—think about those sexually abused by a priest as a child—and people who aren’t damaged and have just fallen away.” To be a new atheist may re-traumatize a fragile self whose new clan enact rules of loyalty and brotherhood as religions (and the military) do. If any community does more harm than good via the community’s authoritarianism—why join?

    Which leads to the oddity of atheist branding as a badge of survival (the convention of American Atheists are, Winston says, overrun with such zealots). The impaired, large in number, have had to rally against the Catholic priesthood, against the promise that prayer can heal, against the televangelist’s prosperity gospel, against a God who has waxed indifferent to their plight, against the putative nobility of salvational suffering.

    The perception is that if High Profile you (a Tyson or a Wilson) join or subscribe to the atheist faith, you’ll be coopted by the cause, you’ll become a polarizing political figure, and you’ll live in fear that if atheism were U.S. currency, you’ll be on the $10 bill. Just inquire of Arizona Congresswoman Krysten Sinema, an ex-Mormon, who seemed tight with the nontheistic sect and then, once elected, would only declare, in None parlance, “I’m not a member of a faith community.” She escaped, perhaps rightly so, the activist cauldron of some secularists who hoped to claim her for their very own. Still, Winston is perplexed by smart people who self-censor: “Just to admit you’re an atheist—it’s not as if you’ve said I want to murder somebody or I worship the devil.”

    I think atheist disavowal is not about the importance of unbelief. I think it’s about self-regard, reputation, and public relations. I think it’s about the perceived reasonableness, maybe politeness, of not being doctrinaire, which “atheist” suggests. And I think, especially for big-ticket scientists like Tyson and Wilson, it’s about the complex system of media relations that cares nothing—its maliciousness is merely mechanical—about what you or I believe. Atheist denial or embrace centers on how the message of the scientist/educator, the humanist, or the atheist gets delivered in our culture, how crucial developing and “staying on message” is to the sales force of a public career, and how bad the consequences can be when others define and control who we are.

    I base all this on the alliance of media and celebrity in our time. As consumers of ideas, we need to know the nonbeliever’s claim as well as who’s making it. If we know who is making the claim (why causes deploy movie stars wherever possible) and to what group he/she belongs, then we or our procurers can rouse an audience, sympathetic to the idea. A position on any issue is far more important than the content per se of the idea. Why? Positions and passions determine audiences, and audiences for commercial and noncommercial media (Fox to PBS) are critical for anyone and her struggle to get talk-time and be followed. (One no longer reads or listens, one follows.) Seventy-five thousand self-published books come out every year in America—no one reads them unless they stir a pre-stirred cauldron of social interest.

    What new media—think TV news, blogs, and book/lifestyle packaging—is really good at is highlighting religious-secular differences, typically the emotional extremes, and their real or imputed political motivations. For the most part, media doesn’t analyze these motivations. Media searches for dissonance: black lives vs. blue lives. Media pits opposing sides to fulfill media’s set attention spans—headline to Frontline. Media radicalizes religion and atheism equally. Media suggests our motives are not philosophically involved and, therefore, reducible to gross simplicity: Joan of Arc vs. Stalin.

    These days we make it personal. “Without religion” is that which you have lost or given up—and are freed from. “With religion” is that which has been revealed to you—and now are found. In both cases, the person’s emotional condition is the measure, not the idea. (Mr. Newton, we sit in awe of your discovery of gravity, but tell the Holy See how did it make you feel?) Minding the dichotomy, visual and auditory media favor its spokespersons to be perfervid (overwrought, burning) about what they do and don’t believe in. (To be an atheist, one is often required to go to the mat for the belief; you will be slapped back, so there’s nothing avuncular about the stance.) Without such élan, your comment thread won’t grow and you won’t get much airtime.

    Fascinating to me is that all this quarrelsomeness about religion has arisen in, and because of, the digital age. The antireligious mainstream still centers on Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, the YouTube clubhouse of the New Atheists. (Post-demise, Hitchens’ writing and videos, collected on Kickass Torrents, total 93 gigabytes. Harris is the most indefatigable disbeliever around, no doubt energized by his huge Twitter and podcast following approaching a half-million.) I doubt the “New Atheist” title, hardly new in philosophy, was chosen by these four. Nevertheless, they have not shunned its viral appeal.

    Tom Flynn has written that the phrase was relaunched to bolster sales of books and lectures, especially with Harris’ The End of Faith and Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism—made new or born again—is now a marketplace brand on which godless authors platform their e-books, podcasts, TV interviews, and TED talks, thereby cameoing themselves and feeding their products’ marketability: to a publisher’s and a publicist’s approval. This mix of facile technology, targeted audiences, and soapbox ego has found its atheist legs, heart, and head.

    When it’s overhyped, atheism, at least, in America, becomes carnivalesque—a sideshow whose seriousness is easily rerouted by live media exchanges, oppositional smack-downs, and adolescent foolishness. Of the latter, one of the most madcap is the catfight Ken Ham, founder of the creationist museum and CEO of the Ark Encounter theme park, is relishing with the Tri-State Freethinkers. The freethinkers, 1500 strong, seek to attack Ham’s soon-to-open Genesis-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky. They want to buy billboard space for this Ham-handed message: “Genocide and Incest Park: Celebrating 2000 Years of Myths.” No outdoor advertiser has signed on to post the satirical taunt. Which is too bad for it gave Ham the opportunity to gloatingly tweet: “The secularists aren’t out for free exercise of religion but to impose their anti-God religion on the culture.” I’ll see your idiocy and raise you mine.

    Though I’m not sure what an “anti-God religion” is, Ham, for me, wins this one easily. Calling a Christian theme park genocidal and incestual is, well, more than stupid in the context of the American South, animal salvation, and mythic wonder (Game of Thrones, dudes.) Does anyone think accusations of “genocide and incest” are effective against Ham and his Ark? Religion exists to make theater of the unbelievable, which the Ark legend does and which will, guaranteed, thrill the Southern brethren by the tens of thousands. Religious spells work half via material prop and half saccharine emotion—such exaggeration easily trumps ridicule.

    With any exaggeration and ridicule comes volume, and the shrill pleasure of shouting atheist! from the mountaintop. So says Jeff Archer, a godless septuagenarian from San Diego, who is famous for the twenty-five-year legal battle he and others waged to remove a giant concrete block cross, a.k.a. a memorial to veterans of the Korean War, from atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, California. The litigation pitted secularists against cross supporters—several court decisions found that the cross violated the establishment clause and had to be removed. By 2015, the land, cleverly deeded from city to state to federal ownership (the anti-cross forces were triple-crossed), was finally sold to a private group by the Department of Defense for $1.4 million. Those spates toughened Archer’s atheist hide. “Why shouldn’t I call myself an atheist? Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t want any Goddam symbol of it in my backyard.”

    The problem, he says, is that too many nonbelievers cower behind agnosticism. “They’re afraid of what they truly are.” (He recalls the poisonous rhetoric of Madalyn Murray O’Hair who tagged agnostics, “gutless atheists.”) He notes that in the cross battle, the media often portrayed him and other plaintiffs as atheists, which pissed him off since it had nothing to do with church-state separation. Journalists, he railed, “never call the mayor [of San Diego] a Catholic, which she was” or, for that matter, Dick Cheney an Episcopalian, which he is. “That would be absurd.” Taking pleasure in naming and unnaming himself, Archer schooled reporters with angry letters and received apologies, in print and on air. He says even Christians joined the cause. “They were frightened by a government exercising any control, good or bad, over their religion.”

    (Meme: Bill Flavell / Facebook)
    (Meme: Bill Flavell / Facebook)

    Far more pit-bullish than Archer is David Silverman, president of the 7000-member American Atheists, and the author of Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World (2015). “Everyone who fits the description of atheist should use the word—if they can,” he tells me, taking, as it happens, a day off from protesting the Ark Encounter in Kentucky (no doubt adding to the theatricality). “They have a social and personal responsibility, a patriotic duty,” to use the term. Silverman calls those who identify as humanists and secularists “cowards.” They aren’t “doing their civic duty.” They “do wrong by those who want to come out as atheists but can’t.”

    An example: in 2001, President George W. Bush banned stem-cell research and it was, according to Silverman, the lack of a unified response by nonbelievers to decry his decision that kept the ban in place for eight years. If everyone who opposed this policy spoke out together as atheists, which he estimates to be one-quarter of Americans, the continued separation of church and state interests would prevail.

    Silverman has no truck for brand reluctance. To him, the “hurt your family” argument is “passive-aggressive bullshit: if that’s the case, your family is held together by a lie.” He’s sympathetic to those who’d lose a job or career if they came out. He’s livid about the persecution of atheists. “We are the most hated group in America. If the church-attending atheist doesn’t speak up, he’ll never stop hearing,” from the pulpit, “just how bad his atheism is.” Staying closeted means, ironically, that atheists support their own oppression.

    Star of the occasional Bill O’Reilly dismissive interview, Silverman has no problem with being branded, Atheist David Silverman (“America’s loudest heathen.”). What really gets his goat is the phrase, “self-professed atheist. You don’t say that for a Jew. Or a Christian. You don’t claim to be a Jew or a Christian. You are.” Besides, he reiterates, “If you don’t believe in God—and you hate the word atheist—you’re still an atheist. If you don’t believe in a supernatural intelligence, you’re also an atheist. That’s the only word you should be using.”

    His opponents, he says, “use the word as a brand, a negative, but I see it as a positive because every time you use the word atheism you’re committing an act of humanism.” Silverman also maligns the Nones whom he calls atheists as well. “It shouldn’t be about the rise of the Nones; it’s about the rise of the atheists. We are the ones who are rising, the ones who are soaring. None is a euphemism. Look at how we’re fighting [over this term] amongst each other.” “It should be about atheists and theists—not about meaningless words like None or spiritual or agnostic. Those words just cloud everything.”

    Back to the Ark Encounter. It is, Silverman says, the embodiment of evil: “What was the crime of all those Noah’s Ark didn’t save? They were evil. They were outsiders. If you look for evil [references] in the Bible, it’s always about the out-group, those who believe in a different God. Noah’s Ark fosters the out-group mentality. Anyone outside that group—you’re evil. That’s what we’re protesting.”

    The number one crime atheists commit, of course, is blasphemy. Several scriptural verses call derogatory speech against God or Christ a sin that cannot be forgiven. Such a sin is, for the faithful, very bad while, for the atheist, it’s an essential premise. Atheists blaspheme the deity by claiming he doesn’t exist, he’s never existed, or he’s dead. To faith mongers, those who utter these denials are pariahs, criminals, even terrorists.

    In Islam, Sharia Law declares that apostates, those who question or denounce the faith, should be killed. While countless nonbelievers in Muslim countries face persecution, in Bangladesh, five atheist bloggers and their publishers were murdered in 2015. In the West, one may associate with religious groups or criticize them freely. But it’s quite another thing to assert one’s freedom from a religion and then have to pay for it with life or livelihood.

    Not long ago, after a Recovering From Religion meetup, I interviewed a married couple who were rectors of a church in Atlanta, Georgia, and who announced in the sect’s newsletter that they’d lost their faith but wanted to stay in the community. The pair was sent to solitary confinement: no neighbor spoke to them, friends stopped visiting, their grown children avoided contact for two years, and they lost their jobs. The husband told me, “Talk about sin! There is no sin like leaving church, after you’ve been brought up in it.” Both said the foulest part was enduring their own shame and self-loathing for falling into the salvation well and trying to crawl out. To escape the fury, they moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, an outpost of sanity and tolerance.

    I found the pair both frightened and proud of their new status. They were anguished and enraged, absurdly self-surprised. They sported a kind of antireligious lingo, acquiring the discourse after going Google-crazy and reading a trove of anti-God books. It was as if they needed the atheist lingua franca to make sense of how they’d been robbed. It struck me that what these new atheists really wanted was a replacement community—similar to the one they had as Christians—where they’d feel safe. What was offered, though well-intentioned, was an empty vessel: amateur counseling, no resources, no ritual, no music or art, a few self-help brochures, and a soul-killing library meeting room.

    If you’re a doctor, professor, attorney, athlete, or member of a religion, the structure of engagement within the clan—personal, professional, geographical—is clear. Joining an atheist group is mere sanctuary. Yes, there are issues to support and an enemy to fight. But scant training, belief, knowledge, or dedicated space exists. The passage in, however, is highly emotional—for many, the loss of faith can be devastating. (The Clergy Project has documented and ministered to such damage with some success.) Thinking about those freed Christians, I wonder: if you no longer believe in a religion, does becoming a secularist or a humanist do any good? Sudden liberation is, no doubt, exhilarating. And there are good people who’ll befriend you. But does membership and meetings and conventions, the language of complaint, confer purpose? Perhaps to be lost after de-conversion means you will remain lost. For a long time.

    I wonder, too, whether becoming an atheist may be less about embracing a new identity and more about relinquishing all identities, finding comfort in being without one. In the meantime, a restless anonymity may occupy your character as you untie the bonds, refashion your goals, and find like minds. An atheist life, like any life, has meaning when the liberated become likeminded, create an expressive community where a culture of being without religion evolves, be it through literature, art, music, film, science, ritual, or learning. Maybe it’s time to launch, #Atheistlivesmatter.

    What we learn about branding is that the deepest marks insure long-term loyalties to a product, person, or idea. The mark, like a myth, remains fixed to its initial referent. Actually, it’s less about the brand and more about how the brand gets animated and reanimated with those things a society values. With religion, we’ve lived for centuries with faith institutions and their brands. A Catholic school. A Bible-based commandment. Evangelical voters. Christian forgiveness. Mother Teresa. Sisters of Mercy. Campus Crusade for Christ. Thoughts and prayers. Islamic purity of women. The Holy Month of Ramadan. The sacred music of Bach. And my favorite: America, a Christian nation. (I’ve just read that the percentage of Americans who believe we are one has dropped precipitously in this century to 40 percent.)

    How do nonbelievers compete? They can’t. Not yet, at least. It’s just not kosher to tout humanist judges, non-faith-based charities, or atheist voters in any election. Every generation of atheists and humanists has to realize they are inheritors—in the world because of the 5000-year (Judaic) and 2000-year (Christian) religious yokes, in the world as a rejoinder to or a negation of superstition and myth, of divine agency and holy books. When will we ever get beyond these ramparts? Who can say. Religions and their affiliations have been the supreme, self-anointing avatars of what many still regard as the social good. It will take decades of shaping a nonbelieving culture before any atheist/secularist/humanist/None label and its referent can meet, let alone turn back, the religious juggernaut.

    Thomas Larson is a journalist, critic, and memoirist. He is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness, The Saddest Music Ever Written and The Memoir and the Memoirist. He is a long-time staff writer for the San Diego Reader, Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth, and a regular contributor to The Truth Seeker, America’s oldest free-thought magazine. An active member of AWP and Nonfiction Now, Larson teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. He is available to speak about his book on heart disease, to hold workshops on “Writing the Memoir,” to edit nonfiction manuscripts, and to lecture on American music and nonfiction narrative. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.

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    5 COMMENTS

    1. So interesting. I have been an atheist since I was 18. Reading Bertrand Russell in college and a having an atheist roommate who liked church services and dragged me to them. I was a half-hearted Episcopalian with non-religious parents, so nothing held me to one view, esp after I saw at the end of that exploratory year that it was all the same nonsense.

      I especially like your statement: "I wonder, too, whether becoming an atheist may be less about embracing a new identity and more about relinquishing all identities, finding comfort in being without one."

      I don't hide my atheism from anyone, but don't feel the need to join a like-minded group. I subscribed to Free Inquiry magazine and to Sam Harris podcasts and, honestly, was bored out of my mind. Thanks for all the insights!

    2. I've always found it curious and interesting and a little upsetting that us nonbelievers haven't found or settled on a descriptor that isn't rooted in a word that is tied to religion. Atheist, agnostic, apostate, nonbeliever, unbeliever, nonreligious, anti-religious, unchurched, unchristian, godless, skeptic, blasphemer, infidel, heretic, heathen, pagan, etc., all suggest that an adherent is against or outside the norm. Probably because, like all minorities, the non-religious have always been defined by the powerful institutions they don't belong to, and are seen as enemies of. As the ultimate outsiders, they are at the mercy of the powerful and so have been given ultimately pejorative names. Even secular and humanist (which I tend to like) are defined in the dictionary as being apart from religion or religious institutions. But I prefer those words to describe myself because they connote being someone who is working in favor of a different, rational belief system not just against another one. But I get that someone who is actively working against organized religion might want to self-describe as atheist or anti-religion to drive home the point. Still, how interesting it would be to exist in a world in which religion was but a curious, minor anomaly and would be routinely described with terms like non-rational, supernatural, mythological.

    3. I think I can understand why folks like Neil DeGrasse Tyson don't like to publicly identify as atheists. It's not because they fear being branded as such, but simply because they don't see the need to attach a label to themselves as if it somehow defined who they were. If you don't believe in the existence of Bigfoot, for example, is there any reason to go around identifying yourself as an abigfootist? Simply labeling oneself as a Skeptic or a Critical Thinker should be enough to indicate to all concerned that you don't believe in anything supernatural or that flies in the face of accepted scientific knowledge without good evidence to support it, and that would include God as well as unicorns.

      Having said that, though, it's important to remember that there aren't a majority of people here in the U.S. making laws, teaching our children, etc., who feel it's their mission in life to make sure we all share their beliefs in Bigfoot, alien visitations, homeopathy, or whatever. So it really doesn't matter whether or not people know for sure whether you share those beliefs or not. Sadly, however, there are plenty of theists trying to rewrite or draft new laws specifically designed to impose their religious beliefs on other people. And there are plenty of theists who are trying to make sure their religious beliefs get taught in public schools alongside (if not in place of) science. Which is to say the stakes are a little higher when it comes to a belief in God (or lack thereof). So, while I respect the desire to avoid labels that one may feel are unnecessary, I also think that high profile atheists would probably do a world of good for society as a whole by publicly identifying as such.

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