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A Challenge to Atheists: come out of the closet

In 1987, a reporter asked George Bush senior whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists. Mr Bush's reply has become infamous:

"No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots."

To see how outrageous this is, substitute 'Jews' for 'atheists'. Bush's bigoted remark was not an isolated mistake, blurted out in the heat of the moment and later retracted. He and his spokesmen stood by it in the face of repeated calls for clarification or withdrawal . He really meant it. And knew that it posed no threat to his election. Quite the contrary, it is universally accepted that an admission of atheism would be instant political suicide for any presidential candidate.

The devout Joe Lieberman, who said something a little similar though less scandalous , was presumably added to Al Gore's presidential ticket in an effort to court the Jewish vote. American Jewish voters constitute a respected lobby which, if newspapers are to be believed, is responsible for the USA's relentless support of Israel, the Jewish state whose twentieth-century imposition on Palestine understandably affronted the people who already lived there. As we shall see when we look at numbers, however, it is by no means obvious why the Jewish vote is any more worth courting than the atheist vote. Except that American atheists have never got their act together and formed a proper lobby. If they did, they too could become very powerful. And that is what I want to urge.

To own up to being an atheist in America today is tantamount to introducing yourself as Adolf Beelzebub. Natalie Angier wrote a rather sad piece in the New Yorker called 'The Lonely Atheist '. She clearly feels in a beleaguered and threatened minority, but she didn't tell the half of it. Nor did Dave Silverman whose article, with almost the same title as mine, was brought to my attention after I had written my own . The latest issue of the admirable Freethought Today reprints hate mail received by the Editor after she won a court case upholding the separation of church and state. Some typical examples follow (the style and spelling are part of the Christian charm):

"Satan worshiping scum." "Please die and go to hell." "Hello, cheese-eating scumbags" [That one puzzles me. What's with the cheese? RD] "Their are way more of us Christians than you losers. Their is NO separation of church and state and you heathens will lose . . . I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your God, SATAN." "Hey dude this freedom from religion thing sux . . . So you fags and dykes take it easy and watch where you go cuz whenever you least expect it god will get you." "If you don't like this country and what it was founded on & for [What would Thomas Jefferson have said? RD], get the fuck out of it and go straight to hell . . . PS Fuck you, you comunist whore." "Get your black asses out of the U.S.A." "You are without excuse. Creation is more than enough evidence of the LORD JESUS CHRIST'S omnipotent power [Why not Allah's? RD]. If you think that the mathematical precision that governs the universe was established by random events then you truly are that class of IDIOT that cannot be aptly defined. We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brought it on. My rifle is loaded."

But what, after all, is an atheist? Far from having horns and a tail, an atheist is simply a person who, when thinking about such matters at all, holds a particular view of the cosmos and of human nature. It is an academic matter, like favoring the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, hardly worthy of the sort of social and political ostracism that the word atheist almost universally provokes. In practice, an atheist is a person who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor, Baal, or the Golden Calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods humanity has ever believed in ? some of us just go one god further. Even if we define an atheist more theoretically, as one who seeks only naturalistic explanations and believes there are no supernatural beings of any kind, this surely qualifies as the kind of academic philosophic belief that a person is entitled to hold in a civilized democracy without being vilified as an unpatriotic, unelectable non-citizen, let alone threatened with a rifle.

Nor are we numerically as weak as you might think. The U.S. Census asks no questions about religion, but in 2001 the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), made by an authoritative team at the City University of New York, followed up the 1990 survey known as the NSRI (National Survey of Religious Identification) . It makes surprisingly encouraging reading. Christianity, of course, claims the lion's share of the population: nearly 160 million adults. But what do you think is the second largest group, convincingly outnumbering Jews (2.8 million), Muslims (1.1 million), Hindus, Buddhists, and all other religions put together? The second largest group, numbering nearly 30 million adults, is the one described as nonreligious or secular. That figure has more than doubled since 1990. Numbers of practicing Jews have decreased 10% during the same period. A consciousness-raising exercise that encouraged atheists, including lapsed Jews, to "come out" might have a massive impact on the American electorate, enough to worry the modern-day equivalents of George Bush Senior.

In terms of head counts, then, it is not obvious that a properly organized atheist lobby should have less political clout than the Jewish lobby which it outnumbers ninefold. But when political analysts are asked why the Jewish lobby is so much stronger politically than voting numbers would suggest, they typically draw attention such factors as wealth, influence in the media, education, and intelligence. How do atheists measure up in these departments? Neither ARIS nor NSRI break down their data by socio-economic class, educational achievement, or IQ. But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in Mensa Magazine provides some straws in the wind. Mensa is an international organization open only to those of high measured IQ. Not surprisingly, therefore, its magazine displays an interest in questions of intellectual ability. From a meta-analysis of the literature, Bell concludes that:

Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one's intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious . . ."

The four exceptions didn't show the opposite, of course. They merely failed to show statistical significance in either direction. I haven't seen the original 42 studies on which the meta-analysis is based, so I don't know how reliable it is. I would like to see more studies along these lines. Incidentally, many of the brightest atheists in the country are, of course, lapsed Jews.

In 1998, Larson and Witham polled the cream of American scientists, those who have been honoured by election to the elite National Academy of Sciences . Among this select group, belief in a personal God dropped to a shattering 7%. About 20% call themselves agnostic, and the rest are atheists. Similar figures obtain for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists elected to the National Academy, only 5.5% believe in a god. I have not seen corresponding figures for elite scholars in other fields such as history or philosophy, but it would be surprising if they were very different.

We have reached a truly remarkable situation, then: a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the great majority of America's top scientists and probably by the elite intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I am right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it, unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs: American political opportunities are loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.

I am not a citizen of this country, so I hope it will not be thought unbecoming if I suggest that something needs to be done. I have already hinted at what I think that something is. We need a consciousness-raising 'coming out' campaign similar to the campaign organized by homosexual activists a few years ago (although heaven forbid that we should stoop to publicly 'outing' people against their will). Those who come out will by their example destroy the myth that there is something wrong with atheists. On the contrary, they will demonstrate that atheists are often the kinds of people who could serve as decent role models for children; the kinds of people an advertising agent could profitably employ to recommend a product; the kinds of people who are listed with pride on atheist web sites . Their example will persuade even the hate-mongers whom I quoted earlier to reserve their vitriol for worthier targets. And there should be a snowball effect: a positive feedback such that the more names we have, the more we get. There could be non-linearities ? threshold effects: when a critical mass has been attained, there is an abrupt acceleration in recruitment.

I suspect that the word atheist itself remains a stumbling block far out of proportion to what it actually means: and, importantly, a stumbling block to people who otherwise might be happy to 'come out.' Agnostic was preferred over atheist by Darwin himself, and not only out of loyalty to his friend Huxley who coined it. Darwin said:

"I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally... an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

He became uncharacteristically aggravated on the subject. On meeting Edward Aveling, a militant atheist who had failed to persuade Darwin to accept the dedication of his book on atheism , Darwin challenged him: "Why do you call yourselves atheists?"

"Agnostic," retorted Aveling, was simply "atheist writ respectable," and "Atheist was simply agnostic writ aggressive."

Darwin complained: "But why should you be so aggressive?" He went on to suggest that atheism might be well and good for the intelligentsia, but that ordinary people were not "ripe for it." Darwin's attitude reminds me of those latter-day pro-evolution campaigners I have encountered, anxious that atheists should not rock the boat (so assiduously steadied by religious evolutionists, from the Pope to Kenneth Miller ).

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But "agnostic" on its own might suggest that he thought god's existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about both, he considers God's existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy's. Hence the phrase Tooth Fairy Agnostic. Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence. The list of things about which we strictly have to be agnostic doesn't stop at tooth fairies and celestial teapots. It is infinite. If you want to believe in a particular one of them ? teapots, unicorns or tooth fairies, Thor, or Yahweh ? the onus is on you to say why you believe in it. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why we do not. We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists and a-unicornists, but we needn't bother saying so.

Nevertheless, if we want to attract more nonreligious secularists to "come out" in public, we are probably going to have to find something better to stick on our banner than Tooth Fairy or Teapot Agnostic. How about Humanist? This has the advantage of a worldwide network of well-organized associations already in place. For me it suffers from apparent anthropocentrism. One of the main things we have learned from Darwin is that the human species is only one among millions of cousins, some close and some distant.

Another candidate for the banner is "Naturalism." Natural is chosen in opposition to supernatural. Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature, is a non-confrontational atheist who calls herself a "religious naturalist". She adds religious, because, quite rightly, she resents the hijacking by supernatural religions of the poetic sense of awe and wonder that fills the breast of any scientist worthy of the name. I have made much the same point in Unweaving the Rainbow, except that I prefer not to use the confusing word religious. I also think naturalist is confusing, and Darwin would surely agree. To him naturalist meant student of nature, and some of the best naturalists, from Gilbert White down, have been clergymen. Others, perhaps including the British lynch mob which last year attacked a pediatrician whom they had mistaken for a pedophile, might confuse naturalism with nudism.

Perhaps the best of the available euphemisms for atheist is nontheist. It lacks the connotation of positive conviction that there is definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embraced by Teapot or Tooth Fairy Agnostics. It is less familiar than atheist and lacks its phobic connotations. Yet, unlike a completely new coining, its meaning is clear. If we want a euphemism at all, nontheist is probably the best. The alternative, which I favour, is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater.



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