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Bad news for atheists

Electing a black president has caused a rise in hate crimes, but no one is less popular than Godless blowhards.
A church on Lopez Island, Wash.

A church on Lopez Island, Wash. Chuck Taylor

In an election cycle where we learned (with relief) that an African-American man can be elected president we've also seen evidence of continuing discrimination. Anti-gay marriage measure Proposition 8 passed in California, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes are up since the election. In the "Reich" of Idaho — which has worked hard to make us forget the Aryan Nations era — school kids chanted "Assassinate Obama!" on the school bus and a man suggested a public lynching for the new president by hanging a noose from a tree.

Will we ever get over prejudice? Slate magazine takes a look at the prospects for various other identity groups — Jews, women, gays, Mormons, etc. — in the years ahead and assesses their prospects for attaining the highest office in the land. A Gallup poll from 2007 revealed — early in the election cycle — that a majority of Americans say they would vote for a Jew, woman, Hispanic, Mormon, thrice-divorced person, 72-year-old geriatric, or homosexual for president. In general, electoral tolerance for diversity seems to be growing.

Who scored less than 50 percent? Which group remains at the bottom of the presidential barrel in terms of public opinion? Atheists. Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, told Slate's writer via an e-mail that "Atheism spells political death in this country." American is not yet ready for an unbeliever, secular humanist, freethinker, or heathen in the Oval Office.

It's interesting to know that even a convicted felon like Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens fared better than an out-and-out atheist would have. Slate notes that there is only one member of U.S. Congress who is an admitted atheist, Rep. Pete Stark, a Bay Area Democrat. But even Stark goes to church: he's a Unitarian.

I can understand that any group might become unpopular if its most vocal proponent is lefty apostate political writer Christopher Hitchens who, by the way, has his moments (I think he clearly kicked butt in this debate on religion.) Atheists are often terribly obnoxious blowhards who try to woo the world with the absolute rightness of their logic.

Hitchens rails against the sky-God dictatorship of monotheism. He compares God to North Korea's lunatic strongman Kim Jong Il — amusing but not likely to win over wavering Christians, Jews, and Muslims. And his rants are against not only God but religion itself. This turns off even many non-believers who still make room for in their lives for the sacred and mysterious. Militant atheism is not content to argue against God, but faith itself.

But militant atheism bravely carries an important banner by demanding that arguments in the public square come down to more than simply, "because God said so." It patrols the borders of church-state separation. And its adherents also carry water for many religious minorities by expanding the boundaries of religious tolerance. If American can tolerate its irritating atheists and if the definition of religion covers all faiths and non-faiths, then big tent covers pagans, Swedenborgians, even Scientologists.

However, demanding the removal of the crutch of religious conviction from public debate threatens to effectively silence most moralists and religious hypocrites (so who'd be left, Vulcans?). And it robs our rhetoric of some its most soaring achievements and ability to inspire: "Thank logic, almighty, we're free at last" won't move many people.

That makes Hitchens and his ilk the great American party-poopers, and no one likes those, one reason why Hitchens' minority group has little shot at the White House. Americans want to be led by people like us, not people who tell us how foolish our deepest convictions are, even if they have a point.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 2:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Good point. Let's stop being bigoted against people who don't look like us and shift out bigotry to people who don't think like us. Brilliant. After all, the important thing is to continue to be a bigot. A day without bigotry is like a day without sunshine.

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

There are a whole lot more people out here who eschew organized religion than others might think. It took me a helluva long time to be able to say out loud "I'm not a Christian" because I was always worried about how others would react (and still do; it isn't like I carry a picket sign down the street). While growing up in a Central Washington town, it became clear that the role of the churches was to dictate behavior and form a basis for personal judgment. It isn't that I don't have a sense of spirituality, but I don't feel the need to have a group lined up that believes as I do in order to bolster myself. When I do choose to attend church, it's usually a Unitarian service. At the same time, I attend fundraisers and special events for all different religious faiths. What is this country about if not religious freedom? ...but somehow the notion that freedom includes the right NOT to believe has gotten lost in the mainstream.

debbalee

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't tell people I'm atheist. I'm afraid I'd lose my job. If I could, I'd tell every religious person to wake up and realize you only get one shot at life, so make the most of it. But I can't. If I were to say to people that believing in a God is a waste of time, they look at me like I just kicked their dog. But I don't have to make the case... if God were real, he's pretty much the lamest "god" I've ever heard of. Think of all the hate in the world, all the death, violence, war... if God is so good, why can't he even get a majority of "the people made in his image" to believe in him?

No monotheistic religion is correct, but we treat them with kid gloves. For democracy to remain strong, the wall between Church and State must be unrelenting. We've turned America into the lands of England we eschewed 233 years ago. I hope that this is actually religion's Final Act, as it does little but increase the divisions in this world.

drumcat

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I believe that religion has very little to do with deep belief (I mean, really, people...) and more to do with business. Big business. The good ol' boys club taken to the nth degree in all its various forms. I agree totally with drumcat. Morality and spirituality have nothing to do with whether or not you believe in the fairytale--whether it's JC, aliens or the Big Blueberry Muffin in the sky. If JC and his dad were looking down at what his "children" do in his name everyday (for centuries!), he would drink and cry himself to sleep every night. When you hear someone--anyone--talking about "god's will," run like hell. They'll stop at nothing and claim it was "god's will."

MaryW

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I believe that religion has very little to do with deep belief (I mean, really, people...) and more to do with business. Big business. The good ol' boys club taken to the nth degree in all its various forms. I agree totally with drumcat. Morality and spirituality have nothing to do with whether or not you believe in the fairytale--whether it's JC, aliens or the Big Blueberry Muffin in the sky. If JC and his dad were looking down at what his "children" do in his name everyday (for centuries!), he would drink and cry himself to sleep every night. When you hear someone--anyone--talking about "god's will," run like hell. They'll stop at nothing and claim it was "god's will."

MaryW

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

"Atheists are often terribly obnoxious blowhards who try to woo the world with the absolute rightness of their logic."

This kind of statement is terribly biased and unfair. Sure, some Atheists are this way, but EVERY belief system has people who do this. The fact that you can even point to Christopher Hitchens as the foremost fundamentalist Atheist says something - there are way to many Christian examples like this to count. In this country where Christians are the majority, they often have the luxury to express fundamentalist opinions knowing everyone around them agrees.

crowinck

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

In the sentence "Americans want to be lead by people like us, not people who tell us how foolish our deepest convictions are, even if they have a point," the verb you wanted is "led," not "lead," which pronounced the sam way but refers to a metal. This is the sort of thing that a spell checked will not catch--an alert proofreader well grounded in basic English grammar is required.

--Harrybari

Harrybari

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

It's a mistake to cite the passage of California's Proposition 8 as an example of burgeoning bigotry. The issue is not one of denying a group (gays and lesbians) a right that they would otherwise enjoy. The issue is overturning a court order that established an entirely new and novel definition of the term "marriage" wholly outside the political process. And lest someone accuse me of being anti-gay, I am perfectly sanguine with civil unions. I just believe that words have meanings and redefining them to meaninglessness does nothing to advance society at all. No doubt some gay-bashers voted yes on the California proposition. But I would wager that many more who are otherwise sympathetic to gays in the discrimination they face voted for it as well.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I agreee with your idea that atheists have served an important role in our democracy, but I take issue with painting all atheists with the "obnoxious" and "irritating" brush.

Sure, there are some atheist blowhards out there, but I have yet to have one show up at my door uninvited or accost me on public transport in an effort to convince me to think like them. The same cannot be said for the "religious" minded, who also see fit to force themselves into every public occasion--business, or government, private or public with some insipid ceremonial prayer.

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Back in the 1970s, my (then) wife and I were visiting in her hometown in Texas. At some social to-do, one of the neighbors asked me whether they would see me in church on Sunday. I replied "No, I'm an atheist," which received a non-committal "Oh" as a response. Later, my wife said to me "When you tell people down here that you're an atheist, they think that means you get to choose which church you go to on Sunday."

If I have any typos in this post, it's because God is punishing me for being an atheist.

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

This is such a complex issue I’m finding it hard to even write about it. As one who leans towards atheism (Agnostic is such a loose label) I loudly applaud any and all efforts at separation of Church and State, and find many fundamentalist movements (Christian, Muslim, Hindi etc) to be the harbingers of violence and barbarity. At the same time you watch in wonder at some of the social progress that faith has wrought—abolition and civil rights, the South African miracle, and liberation theology.

So perhaps it’s the extreme position from any standpoint that needs to be avoided. I find Hitchens to be an insufferable gassbag, although his book is compelling. And I find many preachers in American pulpits terrifying in their myopic vision of where Gods attention lies ( on football games, and in Prosperity Theology.) and yet I see good works in shelters, and kitchens, and other agencies. To the religious I would suggest that most atheists have struggled with this fundamental question of the universe, God and Man, and have just come up with a very different answer than you, but that does nothing to in any way threaten your viewpoint. To the atheist, I would suggest that its not a spiritual persons lack of intellectual rigor or easy acceptance of convention, but rather a sense of something other that motivates them. And they are of no real threat to your viewpoint.

It is interesting there is one idea that essentially precludes someone from holding public office—atheism. It doesn’t matter if, as an atheist you have a reasoned ethical code of behavior, or a record of achievement, or even rational answers to societies most pressing issues, your atheism will keep a majority of people from voting for you. But it is reassuring that attitudes can change, that as time passes we might just form a more perfect Union.

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 3:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Harrybari:
An alert proofreader well grounded in basic English grammar is required.
Indeed. However, proofreaders don't proof for free... and have you heard of Crosscut's recent financial troubles?

Paddystclair:
As one who leans towards atheism (Agnostic is such a loose label)

It is, but I can't call myself an atheist, since, to me, an atheist is one who actively does not believe in God, or gods, just as a religious person is one who actively does believe in God, or gods. While I am not the latter, I can't say I'm the former, either. I, like you, lean toward atheism... but am not there yet. "Agnostic" is the term I find describes me best.

So perhaps it's the extreme position from any standpoint that needs to be avoided. I find Hitchens to be an insufferable gassbag, although his book is compelling. And I find many preachers in American pulpits terrifying in their myopic vision of where Gods attention lies ( on football games, and in Prosperity Theology.) and yet I see good works in shelters, and kitchens, and other agencies

Absolutely. It usually is the case that extremes are to be avoided, I think. Except I must disagree with you as regards Hitchens: not only is his book great (though I prefer Dawkins'), he's a most entertaining speaker. Seeing him at Town Hall last year was a memorable experience.

But it is reassuring that attitudes can change, that as time passes we might just form a more perfect Union.

I think this will ultimately happen. As I commented back in August (http://crosscut.com/2008/08/28/2008-election/17217/):

I do wonder whether we'll see an avowedly atheist or agnostic president in my lifetime. In 1999, Gallup reported that a presidential candidate being an atheist would be a deal-breaker for 48% of Americans. That was down from 77% in the 1950s, but was still by far the highest number among a field that also included gays (37%, down from 74% in the late '70s), Muslims (38%), Mormons (17%), women (8%), Baptists(!) (6%), Jews (same as Baptists! but down from 47% just before WWII), blacks (5%, down from 63% in 1958), and Catholics (4%, down from 30% just before WWII). The atheist figure has gone up since, to 53% in 2007.

The good news is that, for example, Jews, gays, and blacks are far more acceptable as political candidates than they used to be. And as everyone is well aware, we have just elected our first non-white president. But note that the figure for atheists has gone up...

I also do wonder if figures would be different if people were polled about agnostics as well. "Atheist" does have negative connotations, which, I think, is partially behind the Brights movement. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement)

I think, as usual, it's a matter of fear.

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 7:30 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't believe any of this.

I saw "Christopher Hitchens rails against" and I started thinking about all the things he doesn't rail against, hmmm, nothin'. I believe he will have another drink.

Mr Baker

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 8:09 p.m. Inappropriate

about that proofreading thing, have you posted an unpaid intern position at huskyjobs?
As a rapidly aging and middle aged COM major I can tell you that the weekly email from the mothership in room 118 listing the intern and job listing I think only had one posting from you folks last fall, I could be wrong.

Mr Baker

Posted Thu, Nov 20, 8:10 p.m. Inappropriate

btw, I am no example to judge the good students by.

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Nov 21, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Part of the problem is the word "atheist" itself. It was hijacked in the 1960s by anti-theists like Madalyn Murray O'Hair for their war against religion. Nowadays, most people associate atheism with open antagonism towards religion. But if one is truly atheistic, religion is simply not part of his life. Opera may not be part of his life either, but so long as he is not compelled to finance opera, he doesn't waste precious time thinking about opera. He is an anoperaist, to invent a word. So what do you call people who are not agnostic; that is, people who believe it's possible to know the nature of the universe (even if we don't completely know that nature yet), but are not actively anti-religious? I don't know, but I gotta go - I've got an opera to protest...

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Nov 21, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Dbreneman: I learned the term 'apatheism' yesterday when reading about the Brights (see my above comment). Perhaps that would work? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheism

Posted Fri, Nov 21, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

To B Lukoff

So perhaps, to make the division more succinct, I would term myself a political atheist in that I adamantly call for the separation of Church and State, while being in a theological sense an Agnostic, thinking that there is the possibility (probability) of there being much more to the Universe than I perceive or understand, but am unwilling to apply divinity to. (In this case unwilling meaning that I have no rational reason to apply divine nature to the unknown.)

Another example of politics and theology not being well matched.

Posted Sat, Nov 22, 8:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Neither "atheist" or "agnostic" quite captures my views on religion, either, which go roughly as follows:

Every theory of god that humans have proposed to date is clearly false. Each of them flies in the face of science and logic, and in most cases, the charade couldn't be more transparent. I know Jesus wasn't the son of god, just as certainly as I know that Elron Hubbard was not a prophet, and that Mormon underpants are no more holy than microfiber boxers I bought from Nordstrom (which are quite comfortable, I might add).

However, I can't rule out the possibility that, as our understanding of the universse grows, a compelling theory of "god" might emerge from the natuaral sciences.

Sean

Posted Sat, Nov 22, 9:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Pretty funny that Harrybari complains about typos and yet his post contains many: "sam" for "same", "checked" for "checker", "well grounded" for "well-grounded". If he wants to pick nits, he should not ignore his own.

sarah

Posted Sun, Nov 23, 12:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Most atheists are pretty quiet about it - like people of most religions. Then there are people in all religions who feel their faith is only valuable if they can make everyone else share it. There are fundamentalist atheists, and they're as scary and obnoxious as fundamentalists from every other tradition. I don't see how that particularly tarnishes atheists, or why it justifies a view that atheists are more worthy of discrimination. That there are blowhard zealot hypocrites from the evangelical right don't mean that all Christians are like them or condone them, and the same goes for atheists. Christopher Hitchens speaks only for himself.

Posted Mon, Nov 24, 4:33 p.m. Inappropriate

You have to love America. Everyone can talk, talk, talk about ANYTHING. This country lets everyone hold their own individual opinions, views, attitudes or whatever regarding Faith, Religion, God, or whatever regarding their life. Myself, I could care less what anyone thinks of Religon, for or against. Just do not ring my doorbell please.

FedWay

Posted Tue, Dec 2, 7:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Harrybari . . . did you mean "spell check" (rather than spell checked)? Just wondering.

ps_90_12

Posted Thu, Dec 11, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Christopher Hitchens is not necessarily a spokesman for atheists and non-religious people.

Kamille

Posted Mon, Sep 7, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm glad I'm Native American and don't have to put up with powerful communist telling me I HAVE to separate spirituality and politics. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Not on Indian land. American's screwed up.
-To the Great Spirit.

Frugie

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