America doesn’t need more God. It needs more atheists.

By Perry Mitchell | 25 October 2023
Letters to a Free Country

(Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash)

As he notes, this is Perry Mitchell’s fourth guest essay, and I’m grateful to him for them. Most of my readers will be, too. As he says, I think a majority of readers of Letters… are non-religious, but I don’t know that for sure (no dogma tests to read my stuff, of course). Those of you who are religious will not agree with Kate Cohen’s headline, but I think you’ll learn things from her—and from what Perry Mitchell writes as well. Enjoy.

~ Ed Buckner

This is my fourth guest essay for Ed, and I’m beginning to see a pattern: In each of them a main theme is my goal of normalizing the word “atheist.” I want it to be as acceptable as Methodist or Catholic or Islamic or Buddhist. Why shouldn’t it be?

After all, atheist is just one among a huge array of religious/spiritual choices anyone can make. But I know how far we’ve got to go before we get atheist normalized – starting with the fact that only 3 to 4 percent of Americans identify as atheists.

So imagine my surprise when a friend sent me the link to Kate Cohen’s Washington Post essay with that headline you see above.

Cohen had me at those two short, bold sentences.

They’re so simple, so direct and – of course – so true. Then her essay just gets better and better. She believes the quickest way to get those “more atheists” can be found in most of you who regularly read Ed’s Letters to a Free Country.

And why would that be?  Well, if you don’t already identify as an atheist, there’s a very good chance you identify as an agnostic, a none, a humanist, a secularist, a  freethinker, or as “spiritual but not religious.” So you’re already on the path away from religion, right?

Now Cohen has one question for you:

Ask yourself: Do I think there’s a supernatural being in charge of the universe? If your answer is “no,” you’re an atheist. That’s it – you’re done. No suing, signing, marching, debating, or tweeting required. You don’t have to do anything with that information. But if you do choose to share it, you may find you know far more atheists than you thought.

Identifying yourself as an atheist is both hard – and easy.

For Cohen coming out wasn’t easy – for starters, she’s a woman and a mom with three children. Here’s the female part first: According to Wikipedia, only 3.1 percent of US adults identify as atheists, but 4% of males identify that way, while only 2 percent of females do.

Which means women are only half as likely as men to call themselves atheists. So we not only need more atheists, as Cohen’s headline says – we also need a lot more women atheists. That’s another reason I admire Cohen so much: she’s overcome a number of fears in coming out atheist, particularly the fear of not being liked.

She states

When I started raising my kids as atheists, I wasn’t particularly honest with the rest of the world. I wasn’t everybody’s mom, right? Plus, I had to get along with other people. Young parents need community, and I was afraid to risk alienating new parent friends by being honest about being — looks both ways, lowers voice — an atheist.

But, in addition to making me be honest inside our home, my children pushed me to start being honest on the outside. In part, I wanted to set an example for them, and in part, I wanted to help change the world they would face.

It shouldn’t be hard to say you don’t believe in God. It shouldn’t be shocking or shameful. I know that I’m moral and respectful and friendly. And the more I say to people that I’m an atheist — me, the mom who taught the kindergarten class about baking with yeast and brought the killer cupcakes to the bake sale — the more people will stop assuming that being an atheist means being … a serial killer.

And then? The more I say I’m an atheist, the more other people will feel comfortable calling themselves atheists. And the stigma will gradually dissolve.

Can you imagine? If we all knew how many of us there are?

But before Cohen could get to that atheist (uh,) Nirvana, she had to get past a lot of other negative connotations piled onto the perception of atheism.

Being an atheist, she writes,

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 ‘Pieta.’  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.

Given all this, it’s not hard to see why atheists often prefer to keep quiet about it. Why I kept quiet. I wanted to be liked!

However, once Cohen committed to identifying openly to be an atheist, she had a big realization …

Atheists must accept that people are allowing — we are allowing — women to die in childbirth, children to go hungry, men to buy guns that can slaughter dozens of people in minutes. Atheists believe people organized the world as it is now, and only people can make it better.

No wonder we are “the most politically active group in American politics today,” according to political scientist Ryan Burge, interpreting data from the Cooperative Election Study.

That’s right: Atheists take more political action — donating to campaigns, protesting, attending meetings, working for politicians — than any other “religious” group. And we vote. In his study on this data, sociologist Evan Stewart noted that atheists were about 30 percent more likely to vote than religiously affiliated respondents.

We also vote far more than most religiously unaffiliated people. That’s what distinguishes atheists from the “nones’”— and what I didn’t realize at first.

Atheists haven’t just … rejected belief in God. (Though, obviously, that’s the starting point.) Where atheism becomes a definite stance rather than a lack of direction, a positive belief and not just a negative one, is in our understanding that, without a higher power, we need human power to change the world.

Cohen nails this crucial point of why you should identify as an atheist – and I couldn’t agree more: in fact, I titled my second essay for Ed, on 22 March, “Another Huge Reason You Should Come Out as an Atheist: Politics.

I go into more detail about specific political issues, but Cohen’s and my main point is exactly the same: being politically active as an atheist is crucial if you want to stand up for your belief that no supernatural being is going to save the world. We can’t leave that incredibly difficult job up to the Guy in the Sky – because he’s not there. So there’s no getting around it: the future of our country, of our entire world, is up to us.

Let’s review … and end with a terrific surprise

1.  Kate Cohen is clearly a down-to-earth, insightful, honest writer, and you should read her entire Washington Post essay. Here’s the link.

2.  Cohen is a mom who lives on a farm with her husband and three children – atheism needs more voices like hers to combat the smug, pedantic, older-guy stereotype of atheists. (And, no, I don’t mean Ed—or me.)

3.  Cohen isn’t trying to de-convert any religious person; she’s encouraging those of you who already – in your heart of hearts – don’t believe any supernatural beings exist. Which is, of course, the core definition of an atheist. She wants you to see the value, the freedom, the honesty of coming to grips with that. And that often means living up to your atheism openly and stating clearly, “I’m an atheist.” No more “I’m just not religious” … no more “Oh, I don’t go church anymore” … and please, especially, no more “I’m spiritual but not religious”.…

4.  Now for the Surprise Ending: Cohen has a just-published book about her experiences with becoming an “out” atheist … what?  Wait, Perry, there’s a book, too?! Yes, I got my copy right after I began writing this essay. It’s titled We of Little Faith and subtitled, Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too).  From what I’ve read so far, you need to get a copy as soon as possible.

New Rule: Atheists Day | Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)

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