Twenty Inspiring Atheist Quotes

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about atheists is that we lack any purpose in life by virtue of not believing in a higher power (be it a monotheistic God, transcendent spiritual force, or some other supernatural entity or concept). Moreover, this lack of belief is said to not only deprive us of meaning, but also leaves us devoid of morality, happiness, and self-fulfillment — e.g. the angry, nihilistic atheist trope.

As an agnostic atheist myself, I can certainly attest to this not being the case. Not only do I adhere to the values of secular humanism — which include a firm, universal commitment to promoting the flourishing of the human species — but I find purpose in the beauty and experience of life itself: art, love, discovery, creativity, compassion, and more. The joys of connecting with people, improving the lives of others, broadening my sensory and intellectual horizons — these are what drive me to enjoy every day of my finite but fortunate experience.

Of course, I am but one person, so thankfully, an enterprising photographer named Chris Johnson has taken the stereotype to task by directly asking 100 atheists from where they derive joy and meaning in life. He plans to compile these answers in a book, A Better Life:  100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without Godwhich will hopefully go a long way to dispelling this widely held notion.

Salon has highlighted 20 of these inspiring quotes, which I have listed below.

“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”  – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist

“In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me.” – Teller, illusionist

“We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion.” – Adam Pascal, musician and actor

“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”  – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher

“For me the meaning of life, or the meaning  in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle.”  –Teresa MacBain, former minister

“Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help.”  – Erik Campano, emergency medicine

“Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have.”  – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse

“Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant.”  – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists

“I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good.”  – Lynnea Glasser, game developer

“You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose.” – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist

“Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place.”  – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine

“I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge.”  – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer

“I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness.” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist

“I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope.”  – Marlene Winell, human development consultant

“Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience.”  – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist

“There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations.”  – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist

“Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways.”  – Gad Saad, professor of marketing

“If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things.” – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics

Note that most of these statements are hardly exclusive to atheists; I am sure many spiritual and religious folks can relate with the sense of wonder that is inherent in the world around us, and derive their purpose from the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and a better world. But for atheists and others who do not find meaning from a higher power , these motivations and activities are potent enough in themselves, in essence taking the place of any religious or spiritual prescriptions.

I could go at length about this complex and personal topic, but as always these days, time is short, so I will leave you all to reflect on these quotes and perhaps share your own thoughts and motivations. As always, thanks for reading.

Xmas vs. Christmas

There is a common misconception that the word Xmas is an attempt to secularize the Christmas tradition by removing the word “Christ”. On the contrary, the word was used by religious people as far back as the 16th century, mostly as a convenient abbreviation.

The “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word “Χριστός”, which in English translates into “Christ”. (Meanwhile, the “-mas” part is from the Latin-derived Old English word for Mass).

Granted, some Christians regardless dislike the use of “xmas” in place of Christmas, while by the same token many irreligious people prefer the former as a more secular version of the latter.

Religion and Sports

I find that the infusion of religiosity in sports raises some interesting questions.

For one thing, if every team prays to God to win, and winning teams always credit God for their victory, what do losing teams think? That God wasn’t with them? That they’re being punished or didn’t pray hard enough? Why is God choosing sides in a sports match in the first place? Not only does that make competitive sports seem rather pointless, but it makes me wonder why God isn’t busy answering the prayers of devout people who end up dying of cancer or something.

(Note that based on some anecdotal observation, it seems that players from the losing team rarely, if ever, invoke God during post-game interviews, even though those same players are observed doing so after they win – there’s cognitive dissonance for you).

I’ve had these thoughts since the Tim Tebow controversy was first raised a few months ago, which I discussed here. These reflections have been rekindled by an episode of the Humanist Hour podcast titled “Onward Christian Athletes,” the eponymous name of a book written by Tom Krattenmaker that discusses the intersection of Evangelical Christianity and sports, namely within the NBA, MLB, and NFL (I also recommend people check out the Humanist Hour as well, since it covers a variety of interesting subjects.)

To my knowledge, this is the first research of its kind concerning this topic. I’m not too into sports – surprising, I know – but it’s still a fascinating topic to consider given the public role that sports plays in our society (I never knew, for example, that every sports team has a Christian chaplain).

Krattenmaker, who writes opinion pieces on religious topics for USA Today, explores the deeper meaning, motivation, and psychology of religious athletes, as well as the intentional efforts of religious groups to use sports as a venue for evangelizing. One of the more troubling revelations was the apparent institutionalization of Evangelical Christianity in particular, to the extent that players who are non-Christians, or have a more liberal Christian theology, feel excluded or pressured to conform.

A few athletes even shared their sense of obligation to act as a “platform” for preaching faith, which leaves me to wonder to what extent players are staging their devout proclamations under some guidance. At least one player mentioned how his status as a sports start makes him particularly more influential in proselytizing, even towards people who may otherwise be disinterested. So it’s something to consider.

All I know is that if I were a pious person, I’d rather direct my prayer to help some starving child in the third world, or someone dying of terminal illness, than to win some ultimately trivial game that should be based more on personal skill and fitness than divine intervention. But maybe I’m just being a buzz kill.


The Growth of the Atheist/Secular Movement

Secular people have long been marginalized, if not outright demonized, in our overwhelmingly religious society; those daring to go one step closer and declare themselves atheists, rather than simply nonreligious, garner even more opprobrium. Numerous polls have borne out what anecdotal evidence already tells us: that Godless people are the single most disliked and distrusted demographic in the entire country, in most cases even beating out LGBT people and Muslims.

Thus, it pleases me to see the development of a full-fledged secular/atheist movement that is pushing back against religion’s monopoly on public discourse and morality. Atheists are becoming increasingly effective at mobilizing a previously low-key and disorganized demographic and giving a voice to the growing and significant minority of Americans that don’t identify with any religion (believed to be about 16% to 20% of the population, double what it was two decades ago).

More importantly, these “New Atheists” are not only advocating on behalf of issues that are especially pertinent to secularists, such as church-state separation, but have begun tackling numerous humanitarian and ethical issues, including disease, poverty, and climate change. Though the following Alternet article on the subject is clearly slanted in its views (the author makes it no secret that he’s an atheist himself), his observations are still valid:

When a cause catches their hearts, the atheist community can be a powerful ally. And when a cause catches their hearts in a different way, they can be a powerful opponent.

The American Cancer Society snafu is probably the most obvious example of this. When the ACS turned down the Foundation Beyond Belief’s offer to participate as a national team in the Relay for Life, they apparently didn’t expect much pushback. But when the story broke, it went viral — and made misery for the ACS. For weeks, the ACS was deluged with emails, letters, phone calls, and posts to their Facebook wall. For weeks, their Facebook wall was taken up almost entirely with angry posts about the story. Importantly, while the chief instigators of the rage-fest were atheists, they were quickly followed by a crowd of religious believers, who were just as outraged at the anti-atheist bigotry — and at the rejection of perfectly good money — as the heathens. And very importantly, a flood of people halted their donations to the ACS… including many people who had been regular donators for years.

But there are plenty of other examples as well. The abovementioned American Airlines anti-vaccination ad. The abovementioned Sean Harris protest. The sublimely ridiculous Gelatogate, in which a local gelato merchant in Springfield, Missouri posted a sign in his store window reading, “Skepticon [a skeptical/ atheist conference] is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business”… and then got a faceful of Internet fury when a photo of the sign was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and generally spread through the atheosphere like wildfire… and then backpedaled as fast as it is possible for a human being to backpedal. Like many social change movements, organizing atheists is like herding cats, and it’s not easy to predict which issues will catch their imaginations — but when it happens, the combination of passionate motivation and Internet savvy turns them into a powerhouse.

And very importantly, the atheist movement is increasingly becoming a youth movement. The Secular Student Alliance — an umbrella organization of non-theistic college and high school groups around the United States and the world — is growing at an astonishing rate. In 2009, they had 143 affiliates: in 2012, they had 351. Impressively, their high school rates are climbing at an even faster clip. In 2010, the organization had only four high school affiliates: this year, that number has climbed to 37. And as anyone knows who understands politics getting young people inspired and on board is enormously important for the long-term future of any social change movement. What’s more, many of these student groups are active in service projects and social change activism outside of atheism… and are eager to partner with other groups to get the job done. If you’re in any doubt about the power of atheism to help move political mountains, now and in the coming years — pay attention to those SSA affiliate numbers. And pay attention to how they keep growing… and growing… and growing.

So what’s the take-home message?

Atheists are your friend. Or they can be. And they can be a very powerful friend indeed.

Progressive and social-change organizers and organizations are having a hard time seeing the atheist movement as… well, as anything, really. Except maybe as a pain in the neck. Many progressives are undoubtedly aware of the existence of atheists: the atheist community’s efforts at visibility have been paying off, and atheism is being discussed in progressive circles as widely as it is everywhere else. But somehow, while the existence of atheists has become undeniable, the existence of atheism as a social change movement is still largely being ignored. To give just one example: In over 100 panels, training sessions, and other presentations at the upcoming 2012 Netroots Nation conference for online progressive activists, not one is about atheists or atheism. (Conflict of interest alert: I was one of the proposed panelists on a proposed atheism panel for Netroots Nation 2012.)

The article is pretty lengthy, and describes numerous other episodes and developments that speak to the rapid rise of a sophisticated secular movement. As an agnostic atheist, I obviously think this is a positive development that should be lauded, but not because I want to spite religious believers.

The fact is that religion (particularly Christianity in America) has long had disproportionate influence over politics, society, and culture, often to the exclusion of other points of view. Given the growth in both secularism and religious plurality, it’s about time that an alternative perspective is introduced into these public spheres. Americans need a different take on ethics and morality, and the significant minority of us who don’t have a religion need institutions that will speak for us.

Most importantly, these secular organizations will provide another front on civil and human rights issues that should concern all of us. People need to realize that being “Godless” or nonreligious doesn’t make us any less moral or compassionate. We care about the world too, and we’re coming together and creating our own institutions that will allow us to do good things too. That’s to the benefit of everyone.

Controversial Atheist Ad

Below is an ad that a city transit authority rejected on the basis that it could be “deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.”

There is plainly statement being made that could be deemed even remotely offensive. Indeed, there’s no agenda at all besides providing atheists with a venue for meeting likeminded people. Considering that many self-identified atheists necessarily keep their disbelief a secret due to social pressure, the objective is rather obvious (and well-needed, since nonbelievers can feel pretty isolated in certain areas).

Granted, at first I didn’t blame the bus company, which is based in Pennsylvania, for being so cautious. Similar, though more explicit, atheist banners have elicited controversy. Atheists are so reviled that even people who personally identify as such avoid doing so in private surveys. They were no doubt trying to avoid getting roiled up in a debate.

Then again, a report by Justin Vacula, the atheist responsible for the ad, found that this same bus company ran an ad for a political blog that has links to white-supremacist and Holocaust-denying. Either that was a major oversight, or the very word atheist invokes more hostility than a thinly-veiled racist organization. As Vacula rightly notes:

When a governmental entity offers ad space on buses, it can’t discriminate or otherwise ‘pick and choose’ the messages they like and do not like. My “Atheists.” ad is intentionally inoffensive and with a content-free message (I even removed the clouds). COLTS needs to reconsider their decision and stand up for free speech that they should be offering. Atheists should be allowed the same opportunities to advertise just like everyone else.

Furthermore, these buses have regular displays that state “God Bless You,” which reveals yet another example of the pervasive double-standard of our society when it comes to nonbelievers. If this ad had simply said “Christians” or “Jews” followed by contact information, it wouldn’t merit much attention. But the A-word is clearly drawing a line.

Or is it? I wonder how people would have reacted to it. Would there really have been controversy, as the transit authority claimed? If so, what does that say about our level of tolerance as a society? American Atheists plans to sue the agency for discrimination if it doesn’t place the banner, so we may find out for ourselves soon enough.

Survey Shows Decline in Religiosity Among Americans.

Around mid-November, the Pew Research Center, a major polling organization, released the results of its most recent survey, “American Exceptionalism Subsides—The American-Western European Values Gap.” Its purpose was to compare the beliefs and attitudes of Americans with those of four Western European countries: the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.

As with most surveys, it’s vital to understand how the conclusions were reached.* In this case 1,000 participants in each country were asked by telephone the same set of questions, mostly pertaining to notions of “exceptionalism” – i.e. how strongly one feels about their nation’s uniqueness – as well as social and religious values. The overall findings were pretty interesting, and I encourage you all to read it for yourselves. But since it covers a wide range of subjects, I’ll be focusing on the area pertaining to religious.

Unsurprisingly, the data bears out the findings of previous studies that show Americans to be far more religious than their European (and other developed world) counterparts.

Half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives; fewer than a quarter in Spain (22%), Germany (21%), Britain (17%) and France (13%) share this view.

Moreover, Americans are far more inclined than Western Europeans to say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values; 53% say this is the case in the U.S., compared with just one-third in Germany, 20% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 15% in France

Compared to our own historical standards, these proportions are far lower (though not dramatically so). In fact, this very questionnaire has been carried out before, as part of the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Survey. Since the same demographic sample size has been asked the same questions regular for a decade, we can determine the trend over time.

For example, the question “Do you consider religion very important?” showed a 9% decrease since 2002, (falling from 59% to 50%). In contrast, the European results for the same question remain far lower than the US in both periods, and much less variable – Europeans remain consistently secular.

But despite the trend, we’re still uniquely religious for a nation with our level of overall human development, the result of many complex social, political, and even economic factors (which will be discussed at a later post). But the survey didn’t just reinforce already established observations, since the levels of religiosity were broken down by demographics, yielding interesting results. I’ve posted the data below, with my own analysis.

One interesting confirmation that has been established anecdotally is that attitudes to religion vary pretty considerably based on gender: women are much more likely than men to consider religion as being very important to their lives (59% versus 41%) and to believe that a belief in God is necessary for morality (58% versus 47%).

Indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, the nonreligious community is quite male-dominated, especially the further up you go in terms of disbelief (irreligious women tend to be more spiritual and take a friendlier stance towards belief; the more anti-religious or outright disbelieving the group, the fewer women you’ll find represented). Most people who identify as explicitly atheist, or who are public advocates of religious skepticism, are males, including the most prominent figures in the movement. This sex-imbalance isn’t lost on the secular community, and there’s much internal debate as to why it exists (again, best left for another post, though you’re free to share your thoughts).

Perhaps a little less surprising, but still important to consider, is that older people (50+ years) tend to be far more pious than young ones (18-29) at around 56% versus 41%. Even the middle-aged group (30-49) was slightly more religious at 48%, suggesting a generational correlation – the further down the age bracket you are, the more secular you tend to be (note, by the way, the distinction between secular and atheist – you can still have a religion and be the former – it just means you’re less pious, such as not going to church or not following all the doctrines). Interestingly, there is far less difference between these age brackets when it comes to the question of whether theism is a necessary prerequisite to moral behavior, suggesting the pervasiveness of the myth that godlessness leads to evil (a sentiment I’ve discussed at length).

Then there is the effect that a college education has on religious attitudes. A common assumption is that a higher level of education, particularly in the sciences, erodes religiosity. While there are a lot of caveats, by and large the majority of scientists, academics, and philosophers identify as secular (as far as we can tell). In any case, it’s interesting to note that there is little difference between those with a college degree and those without a college degree, as far as the importance of religion (47% vs. 51%).

Yet, the gap is far wider when it comes to the question “is it necessary to believe in God to be moral.” Among non-college degree holders, 59% believe there is a connection between belief in God and goodness, while only 37% of college-educated people agree. My theory for this concerns public consciousness: the average university body is both secular and diverse, so you’re much more likely to encounter more non-religious people (among others) than you would elsewhere. This exposure to godless folk, many of whom may leave a good impression, forces many to moderate their view as far as making this connection.

It is also worth mentioning that the religious attitudes of self-described political moderates are a lot closer to conservatives than to liberals. When asked whether it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral, 66% of conservatives agree, compared with 52% of moderates and 26% of liberals. Generally speaking, American society has traditionally been far more conservative comparatively speaking, than those of other wealthy nations (even our resident leftist party, the Democrats, is tame by the standards of other nations). People who describe themselves as politically moderate may therefore be conservatives in practice, although that goes into a whole other issue concerning self-reporting bias and defining political identity.  It could simply be that religious is so prevalent in our society that religion pervades even those groups who, in other countries, would otherwise be secular.

[As an aside, this would explain the Obama administration’s tendency to pander to conservative views about contraception and gay marriage, or why the healthcare reform that it pushed through was more akin to a previous Republican plan than a  more leftist single-payer system – heck, a lot of Democrats opposed it as well.]

So the religious the make-up of this country is pretty complex, and is rather uneven depending on one’s background. Also consider that this poll was relatively simple as far as determining the extent of American piety (for example, belief in creationism, the Rapture, etc). But it gives a pretty good picture, and reveals that the US is slowly but surely becoming more secular overall. Consider the changing attitude towards homosexuals, with 60% of Americans saying that homosexuality should be accepted, a 9% increase since the 2002 (though still far lower than in Europe, with 81% support in Britain or  91% in Spain). There’s a similar and gradual increase in the acceptance of evolution and gay marriage, especially, once again, among the young.

If current trends continue along the same pace, the United States may eventually become as secular as the rest of the developed world, which will have vast implications for our society and politics (which are both becoming more polarized along religious lines). Consider that an increasing number of younger people are more secular, tolerant, and pluralistic than the proceeding generations, suggesting that such changes may be inevitable, barring any significant changes (such as another “Great Awakening”).

*I understand that most surveys, like social studies as a whole, should be taken as rough approximations rather than watertight measurements. The nature of studying human beings, especially their beliefs, is complex and can only be accomplished with sample sizes that reflect different demographic groups. Of course, sociological research shouldn’t consequently be dismissed outright, but should instead be reviewed with an understanding of the caveats. My analysis takes all this into consideration.




The Plight of Minority Atheists

African-Americans are known for being one of the most pious communities in the country, even by the rather high religious standards of the United States (which is the most devout nation in the developed world by a hefty margin). There are many proposed historical and socio-cultural reasons for this, but it remains a given among Blacks and non-Blacks alike that religion, particularly Christianity, is an inseparable part of Black culture and identity.

Or at least it was, until a small but growing number of nonreligious African-Americans began to “come out,” organize, and raise attention about their disbelieving status – something that was largely unheard of, much less acknowledged, by the public until a recent article in the New York Times (note that I’m sure a few minor publications, as well as periodicals within the secular community, have discussed the issue, but theTimes is the first prominent one to address it).
“My mother is very devout,” said [Ronnelle] Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”
This was in 2000, and Mr. Adams did not meet another black atheist in Washington until 2009, when he found the Facebook group called Black Atheists, which immediately struck a chord. “I felt like, ‘100 black atheists? Wow!’ ” he said.
Indeed, the few nonreligious African-Americans I know have confirmed this sense of isolation. Less than 0.5% of Blacks identify themselves as atheists, and some polls even yield zero respondents for that category. Given that self-identified atheists are also a tiny minority – 2% to 10%, depending on the poll – that makes black nonbelievers a double minority. Consequently, many of them have only recently found others who relate with them, and even then it tends to be only a handful, mostly through the internet. Increased organizing and the use of social media are helping to bridge the gap slowly but surely.
In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.
Feeling isolated from religious friends and families and excluded from what it means to be African-American, people turn to these sites to seek out advice and understanding, with some of them even finding a date. And having benefited from the momentum online, organizations like African Americans for Humanism and Center for Inquiry-Harlem have well-attended meet-up groups, and others like Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers have been founded.
Given that 88% of African-Americans are absolutely certain of their belief in God, and a good half of them attend church regularly, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to fit in. Having an online group and holding some gatherings with local atheists doesn’t substitute the deep sense of community that is intertwined with religious institutions. Most black communities are centered on faith-based organizations or churches, which tend to play social, religious, and cultural roles that pervade every aspect of individual and community life. 
Islam and other religions are represented in the black community, but with the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian.
“That’s the kicker, when they ask which church you go to,” said Linda Chavers, 29, a Harvard graduate student. The question comes up among young black professionals like her classmates as casually as chitchat about classes and dating. “At first,” she said, “they think it’s because I haven’t found one, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I know a few great churches,’ and I don’t know a nice way to say I’m not interested,” she said.
Even among those African-Americans who report no affiliation, more than two-thirds say religion plays a somewhat important role in their lives, according to Pew. And some nonbelieving African-Americans have been known to attend church out of tradition.
While this issue may be more pronounced among Blacks, it’s hardly unique to them. Many people, religious or otherwise, are drawn to religion for the social cohesion. In many areas of the country, your best chances to meet someone, find a job, or receive some sort of social or economic support is through the local church. So opting out, even as a disbeliever is out of the question – it’s just too impractical, even when you don’t count the peer pressure and ostracizing that may follow. I suspect many people who claim to be religious, even in surveys, are secretly more undecided than they let on. It must be difficult to choose between risking isolation and maintaining a façade.
According to Pew, the vast majority of atheists and agnostics are white, including the authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
Jamila Bey, a 35-year-old journalist, said, “To be black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be black.” She said the story the nation tells of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights is a Christian one, so African-Americans who reject religion are seen as turning their backs on their history. This feels unfair to Ms. Bey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and whose father is Muslim, because people of different faiths, and some with none, were in the movement. The black church dominated, she said, because it was the one independent black institution allowed under Jim Crow laws, providing free spaces to African-Americans who otherwise faced arrest for congregating in public.
Recognizing the role of churches in the movement, Ms. Bey still takes issue when their work is retold as God’s. “These people were using the church, pulling from its resources, to attack a problem and literally change history. But the story that gets told is, ‘Jesus delivered us,’ ” Ms. Bey said. “Frankly, it was humans who did all the work.”
I’ve often heard the argument about Christianity’s contribution to social justice, and how that in large part won over Blacks and other minorities to greater piety. While the great works of Christians should not be understated, I ultimately think it’s perverse to credit God for the achievements of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Certainly, many people who fought slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were pious (though others, like Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll, were not). But so were the ones who defended them. It was, after all, the Southern “Bible Belt” – then and now the most religious part of the country – that was the last holdout for enslaving blacks and denying them their civil liberties. The KKK, from its inception, was an explicitly Christian organization, as are many White Power groups to this day. Even the Apartheid regime of South Africa, perhaps the most racist institution of all, predicated its legitimacy on Christianity. If God or Christianity had anything to do with emancipating blacks in and of themselves, than these bigoted groups would never exist, and the South would have been the first region to abandon these ethical travesties, rather than the last.
As for the “whiteness” of the nonreligious community, particularly the more outspoken bits, it’s a problem that many secular groups and leaders have acknowledged and tried to address for some time. The reasons for this are pretty complex, tying in with the socioeconomic inequities between Caucasian males and everyone else (and that in turn has many complex factors behind it as well).
Globally, a number of non-white nations, such as Botswana, South Korea, Japan, and China, have large nonreligious or atheist populations. But by and large, especially within the US, it does seem to be the purview of older white males, and thereby perceived as such – women and minorities without religion may thus feel just as out of place among fellow secularists as they do among their more devout demographic group. If trends persist, that will change eventually, but in the meantime it will no doubt be challenging, though it’s already being attended to.
The Facebook discussion boards for these groups often become therapy sessions, and as administrator of the Black Atheist Alliance, Mark Hatcher finds himself a counselor. “My advice is usually let them know you understand their religion and what they believe, but you have to take a stand,” he said.
This strategy has worked for Mr. Hatcher, 30, a graduate student who started a secular student group at the historically black Howard University. For two of his Facebook friends, though, it has not worked, and they moved to Washington, not to sever ties with their families as much as to keep their sanity.
Now that Facebook groups have connected black atheists, meet-ups have started in cities like Atlanta, Houston and New York.
On a gray Saturday in October, 40 members of African Americans for Humanism, including Mr. Hatcher, Ms. Bey and Mr. Adams, met at a restaurant in Washington to celebrate the first anniversary of holding meet-ups. Speakers discussed plans to broaden services like tutoring and starting a speaking tour at historically black colleges.
“Someone’s sitting on the fence, saying, ‘I go to church, and all my friends and my family are there, how am I supposed to leave?’ ” Mr. Hatcher said on stage. “That’s where we, as African-American humanists, say, ‘Hey look, we have a community over here.’ ”
After the speeches, Mr. Hatcher looked at the attendees mingling, laughing, and hugging one another. “I feel like I’m sitting at a family reunion,” he said.
Raising public consciousness is a major concern for atheists and other secularists. Like other minorities before us, we’re keen on making society more aware of our existence and our ideological positions, so as to make demonization and marginalization less effective. It’s harder to be bigoted or ignorant of a group when it’s out in the open on the public stage and able to speak for itself. Plus, you can reach others who had felt too alone or afraid to come out. It’s all about building a community, just as our religious contemporaries do.
Though his atheism is a well-worn subject of debate with his wife and his mother (a minister), Mr. White, a 41-year-old Austin-based writer, avoids discussing it with the rest of his family. Though he won’t attend Christmas services this year, and hasn’t in years, he said, his family assumes he’s just “not that interested in religion.” To say explicitly he is an atheist, he said, “would break my grandmother’s heart.”
The pressure he feels to quiet his atheism is at the heart of a provocative statement he makes on his blog: “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”
Over the phone, Mr. White said he does feel respected for his education and success, but because he cannot talk freely about his atheism, it ultimately excludes him. When he lived in Los Angeles, he watched gang members in their colors enter the church where they were welcomed to shout “Amen” (they had sinned but had been redeemed) along with everyone else.
“They were free to tell their story,” Mr. White said, while his story about leaving religion he keeps to himself — and the Internet.
None of this is surprising in a society where atheists are as distrusted as rapists, and being a nonbeliever is viewed as synonymous with immorality and dishonesty. White’s account also reminds me of the fact that less than 1% of all incarcerated people identify as atheists – the overwhelming majority are believers to some degree, mostly in Christianity. A belief system where forgiveness and salvation can be attained by nothing more than prayer and obedience does little to encourage moral behavior and self-correction (and for the record, I’m well aware that many Christians don’t adhere to this doctrine, even though there is Biblical justification for it).
At any rate, I feel for any of the nonreligious among you who must contend with this sense of separation and exclusion. As an Arab, I can’t say there are too many outspoken religious skeptics out there, though I am sure there are a lot more who keep it in private. Most Lebanese, who are greatly divided along sectarian lines, subsequently identify as Christian or Muslim largely in a cultural or parochial sense.
My own family, like most of the Lebanese Diaspora, is Christian, but they’ve always been tolerant and accommodating, for which I’m grateful. Given that I’ve got Hispanic descent in a mostly Latino area and am pretty Westernized to begin with, I don’t feel as culturally distinct as a Black person or Muslim Arab would – so being part of the wider secular community isn’t as challenging.
Still, if there’s one thing all we nonreligious folks share – regardless of background or label – it’s that we’re all terribly misunderstood and negatively treated, and seek to change that together.

The God Discussion

If anyone is looking for a half-decent online community that speaks to the religious, nonreligious, and everyone in-between, than check out the God Discussion. Though it seems geared more towards secular people – including the spiritual, unchurched, or those in transition – it does seem to keep a pretty a welcoming and open-minded approach to religious perspectives. There’s even a section titled “Understanding Faith,” which tries to present a level-headed analysis of various religious beliefs.

I’ll admit that while I’m a pretty strong Secular Humanist, I’m always open to dialogue with the “other side.” I don’t care much for trying to stay neutral in these discussions: it feels patronizing, disingenuine, and a bit aimless. Besides, one can still take a strong position on something while maintaining an open-mind. I highly doubt the various religious and supernatural claims out there, but it is not out of any visceral or spiteful intentions. And while I retain my skepticism, I still concede to the ever-present possibility that I could be wrong. Hence the importance of constructive discussion.

So for those of you who have similar inclinations towards being dialectical and receptive to other ideas, give the site a browse. It’s not professional by any stretch given it’s nature, but it’s still an interesting and encouraging idea.

Debunking Atheist Myths

Shout out to Random Ntrygg for bring this to my attention. Surprisingly for me, has a concise but informative page that addresses quite well some of the most persistent – and often absurd – myths about the nonreligious. It’s a pretty easy read, and each of the sections link to more detailed but easy to absorb articles that expand on each point. Among the misconceptions that are tackled:

  • Atheists are miserable nihilists without purpose
  • Irreligious people have no morals
  • Atheists aim to impose a tyrannical secular agenda.
  • The nonreligious are satanic or otherwise evil
All of this is authored by Austin Cline, who’s been educating people on behalf of these subjects for a decade and a half. He has a background in both philosophical and religious studies, and also had prominent stints in both the Council for Secular Humanism and the Campus Freethought Alliance. I rather like the short but sweet message on his profile:

Both atheism and agnosticism are neglected in popular culture, despite the popularity of recent books by atheists. When was the last time you saw an openly atheist politician, an article on atheism in a major periodical, or anyone discussing secular humanism as a serious alternative to religion?

I’ll say. I know plenty of people on both sides – religious and not – could stand to learn more about one another’s positions and perspectives. I’m just as frustrated at the ignorance of some of the irreligious towards faith as I am when it’s the other way around. I’m tired of so many faithful not even trying to understanding our point of view on the matter (though I’m encouraged and grateful towards those that do).

It’s very clear that our society – in media, pop-culture, public discourse, etc – is geared in favor of faith and at the expense of nonbelievers. Someone could publicly express their religious convictions without much fuss, and perhaps even a good bit of admiration. Yet to do the opposite – to raise doubts, criticize, or assert a skeptical position on religious – leaves you to be branded as strident, trouble-making, and even a bad person.

This is hardly conducive to any productive dialogue, and represents just how unbalanced the power dynamics between the two factions are. If one side can’t even make it’s case without meeting a torrent of ad hominems and outright smear campaigns, then there’s clearly a problem as far as intellectual openness is concerned. That’s something honest religious people should be as troubled by as their secular counterparts (and, to their credit, many of them are).

Ultimately, I’m not asking for people to join my side – most nonreligious people I know aren’t concerned with recruiting. We just want to be heard on equal grounds, and given a chance to be understood beyond these baseless and often outright vile accusations.

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God

As many of you know, I’m a dedicated Secular Humanist and Freethinker, but I nonetheless strive to understand other religions and to engage in constructive dialogue with believers of all faith traditions. This doesn’t mean I won’t debate or argue if it comes to it, as it quite often does. I’m not at all trying to be patronizing. I just want to further my own knowledge while hopefully doing the same for them on behalf of my point of view.

To that end, I’m very receptive to any sort of outreach effort or study that furthers this understanding, if only to satiate my curiosity. I’m always intrigued about why people believe what they do, what motivates them, and how it effects their personal lives. This is especially true of religion, which evokes such powerful reactions in people, and is the source of more passion and contention than almost anything else.

God in particular is even more intriguing, as he – or she, it, or them, etc – transcends any organized belief system. God is a concept that is distinct from any other doctrine or dogma. He can take any form or type – from a loving, actively involved parental figure to a detached watchmaker that set the universe in motion and nothing more. In my view, God and religion are largely human projections, and subsequently prone to much subjectivity. It seems that everyone has their own individual notion of what God is and why.

Therefore, with all that said, I’ve taken an interest in a book published a few years ago titled “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God,” written by Guy P. Harrison, a columnist and travel writer with a background in history and anthropology. The concept is simple enough: he went around and asked different people of different faith traditions what motivated them to believe in God. Though a rather basic question, it elicited some interesting responses.

To my knowledge, very few people have ever done a project like this despite it’s relative simplicity, so it’s pleasing to see something like this out there. Though Harrison is an atheist, he makes no effort to argue or proselytize on behalf of that – he just wants to know what makes believers tick. Such an approach is more productive in my opinion: while it’s important to challenge one’s beliefs and have a hearty but well-meaning debate, listening is just as crucial and fruitful. Shouldn’t we at least try to understand what we’re arguing against?

As one would imagine, the reasons given are pretty interesting. Aside from some expected ones – a fear of hell, a desire for eternal life, playing it safe (aka Pascal’s Wager) – there were others such as “smart people believer what I do,” “millions of people share my beliefs,” or “people have gone to heaven and returned.” I’m not quite sure if there are literally 50 distinct reasons why people believe, but it wouldn’t surprise me given the many creative ways we justify all sorts of beliefs.

It’s interesting that their reasons are very different from the ones religious leaders, apologists, and theologians make – it shows that most people, unsurprisingly, aren’t applying some high-minded notions for why they believe, but simply go with more practical or personally intuitive ones.

In some ways, that could be troubling, as it suggests that most people don’t even really think of the complexities of their own religious claims – the various logical, rational, and philosophical issues to be addressed. On the other hand, it shows that many religious people aren’t necessarily looking for anything more than personal comfort and a worldview that suits them – religion is just their way of adapting, and they have no intentions to impose on others (though a large number of them do).

Whatever you take away from it, this is definitely a book I encourage others to check out, be they believers or not. I’m definitely interested myself.

If anyone wants to learn more, listen to this interview with the author on Point of Inquiry.