It seems to me that whenever I get into a conversation about faith and doubt, I always find myself making allowances — willingly — for religion’s many positive contributions to history and culture. How much poorer we would be without all the sculptures, paintings, cathedrals, illuminated manuscripts, music, poetry, traditions, and stories that have been inspired by religious faith! How much darker the world would be without the popular movements led by the likes of Gandhi and King and Desmond Tutu, all of them inspired by their faith to speak out against suffering and injustice!
Despite what I see as religion’s grave flaws, I’m happy, as an atheist, to acknowledge that religious people have accomplished much that is good. (And much that isn’t, but that’s not my focus here.) But often, in conversation, I find that the courtesy is not returned.
Faith in God is credited whenever people of faith do great things; perhaps the achievement is even seen as inspired, as the work of God himself. Achievements by nonbelievers, on the other hand, are not as often seen as being connected to atheism itself. We may readily admit that Bach’s Lutheranism informed his sublime musical creations; do we as readily admit that Einstein’s disbelief in a personal God probably freed his curious mind from the constraints of traditional religion, and enabled him to achieve his great insights into the workings of the universe? Or are we more inclined, in such cases, to see the achiever’s godlessness not as a cause of greatness, but as simply beside the point?
Greg Epstein, in Good Without God, touches on this problem when he describes how adherents of the humanist Ethical Culture movement have often started charities and other beneficial social services, which turn out to be great successes — but are ultimately turned over to be independently run by others with no connection to Ethical Culture. Similarly, we readily acknowledge the connection between the civil rights movement in the US and the religious convictions of its leaders; and yet I was surprised to learn (perhaps others already knew this) that the powerful Leadership Conference on Civil Rights — which helped organize the March on Washington, and is the largest civil rights lobbying group in the nation today — was founded by the humanist A. Philip Randolph, who signed the Humanist Manifesto of 1973 which proclaimed: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
And so it seems that, for one reason or another, atheism has not been as successful as religion in taking credit for the achievements of its adherents. I think this failure to “stand up for godlessness” — to claim godlessness as part of our identity, and as a source of our creativity, morality, and courage — allows people to continue to hold the ignorant attitudes about atheism that they do. How absolutely electrifying it would be if Meryl Streep, an acknowledged atheist, accepted her next Academy Award with the words “First of all, I don’t want to thank God”!
But we nonbelievers don’t generally act this way, and so ignorance and hostility towards us flourishes. In 1987, George H. W. Bush famously said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Nearly two decades later, a 2006 study from the University of Minnesota showed that most Americans still considered atheists to be “self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good,” and that atheists were (and likely still are, a mere four years later) the most distrusted and despised minority in the country; according to the study’s researchers, “atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups […] increasing acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to the nonreligious.”
What a depressing situation. And as grateful as I am to President Obama for his shout-out to nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address, I think we could all do much more to point out the positive contributions atheists have made and continue to make to society.
I’d like to do my part, on this blog, by occasionally highlighting some of the great skeptics in history — perhaps not all of them militant atheists, but all bravely challenging the religious notions of their time. As I continue to read Jennifer Michael Hecht’s excellent Doubt: A History and other books, I’m constantly fascinated to discover how deeply interwoven belief and skepticism have been in the fabric of human society. Religion has gotten the lion’s share of attention; I think it’s time to shine the spotlight on atheism as well.
(Image h/t Allison Kilkenny)