“You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”
What is an Atheist?
How can I be an atheist? What does it take for a person to become an atheist? Is there a secret handshake or something? You must ask yourself if you really want to call yourself an atheist instead of a theist? Few people seem to understand what being an atheist is all about and thus what becoming an atheist entails. It isn’t that hard, though.
Here are the steps necessary to become an atheist: Step One: don’t believe in any gods.
That’s it, there are no steps two, three, or four. There are only two options available for everyone: either a belief in the existence of some sort of god is present, or no such belief is present. That exhausts all the logical possibilities. This means that everyone is either a theist or an atheist. There is no “middle ground” where a belief in the existence of some god is a “little bit” there or a “little bit” absent. It’s either there or it’s not.
How you arrive at not believing in any gods may be difficult. For many people, religion and theism have played such central roles in their lives and families that abandoning these things may appear impossible. It may require a great deal of study, research, and contemplation. Many people don’t have the time or inclination. Others may be afraid of what they could find if they start.
What you do after you arrive at not believing in any gods may also be difficult. You don’t have to do anything more to be an atheist, but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing at all left to do. You will have to decide whether you inform others about this and, if so, how you present it. Many people may start treating you differently simply because you don’t believe in their gods anymore. You may have to be concerned about whether knowledge of your atheism will lead to discrimination against you at work, for example.
Being an atheist is easy — all that it requires is not believing in any gods. Existing as an atheist, though, isn’t always easy because so many people think so poorly of atheists especially in the United States. In more secular societies where lots of people are atheists, existing as an atheist will be easier because there is less pressure telling them that being an atheist is immoral, unpatriotic, or dangerous. In more religious societies, the increased pressure will make existing as an atheist very difficult for some.
If atheism is just disbelief in gods, then what is the difference between that and agnosticism? Many people who adopt the label of agnostic reject the label of atheist — there is a common perception that agnosticism is a more “reasonable” position while atheism is more “dogmatic,” ultimately indistinguishable from theism except in the details. This is not a valid position to adopt because it misrepresents or misunderstands everything involved: atheism, theism, agnosticism, and the nature of belief itself. It also happens to reinforce popular prejudice against atheists.
These misunderstandings are only exacerbated by continual social pressure and prejudice against atheism and atheists. People who are unafraid of stating that they indeed do not believe in any gods are still despised in many places, whereas “agnostic” is perceived as more respectable. Atheists are thought to be closed-minded because they deny the existence of gods, whereas agnostics appear to be open-minded because they do not know for sure. This is a mistake because atheists do not necessarily deny any gods and may indeed be an atheist because they do not know for sure — in other words, they may be an agnostic as well.
Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge — it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.
Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.
It is also worth noting that there is a vicious double standard involved when theists claim that agnosticism is “better” than atheism because it is less dogmatic. If atheists are closed-minded because they are not agnostic, then so are theists. On the other hand, if theism can be open-minded then so can atheism.
In the end, the fact of the matter is a person isn’t faced with the necessity of only being either an atheist or an agnostic. Quite the contrary, not only can a person be both, but it is in fact common for people to be both agnostics and atheists. An agnostic atheist won’t claim to know for sure that nothing warranting the label “god” exists or that such cannot exist, but they also don’t actively believe that such an entity does indeed exist.
Bigotry and Atheism
Atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in the United States. Americans are more prejudiced and bigoted against atheists than any other group. This isn’t a subjective perception of atheists, it’s a fact that is reinforced by every study done on the subject. The reasons given for this bigotry are varied, but they are all also generally incorrect in their portrayal of atheists. Atheists are thus hated more for what people attribute to them than for what they really are.
In 1987, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was asked if he recognized the “equal citizenship and patriotism” of atheists in America. Bush responded: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” This answer has become iconic in expression of American, religious, and Christian bigotry towards atheists.
In February, 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was asked if he would be bothered if an atheist were elected president. Gore responded: “No it would not. I think that it would depend on who the person was, of course. But do I believe that someone can have an understanding of our Constitution (and) a true spirit of tolerance without affirming a particular and specialized belief in God? Yes I do. I think that it is incumbent upon anyone who affirms a respect for tolerance.”
These answers, one from a conservative Christian and Republican and the other from a liberal Christian and Democrat, represent two opposite ends of the spectrum of attitudes towards atheists: one is prejudiced, intolerant, and bigoted; the other is tolerant, open, and welcoming. Fortunately, Gore’s response demonstrates that not all Christians are intolerant of and prejudiced against atheists. Unfortunately, far more Americans agree with the bigoted attitude of Bush than the tolerant attitude of Gore.
Such bigotry and prejudice towards atheists are not a recent development. In her book Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety, Wendy Kaminer cites research from the 1980s showing that Americans believed that freedom of worship “applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are,” but only 26% of Americans agreed that “freedom of atheists to make fun of God and religion” in public “should be legally protected no matter who might be offended.”
Since 71% agreed that atheists who “preach against God and religion” should be denied access to civic auditoriums, it seems clear that making fun of God and religion wasn’t the problem — offending people by openly denying God and religion was. Thus religious theists, including Christians, should be free to promote their beliefs no matter how extreme they are but atheists should not be free to respond, whether by being critical of religion or simply by promoting a nonreligious, non-theistic perspective, because that is offensive to religious theists.
This same research found that only 59% thought that gay liberation groups should be denied access to the same auditoriums to promote gay rights. Remember, this was the 1980s when acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights were much lower than today, but even then gay rights and gay liberation movements were regarded with more tolerance and less prejudice than atheists being critical of religion or promoting a non-religious, non-theistic view of life.
Various surveys done since then display in detail just how bigoted and prejudiced Americans are towards atheists, especially when compared to American attitudes towards other groups.
Atheism and Belief in Spirit
It is a myth that because atheists deny the existence of god, therefore they deny the existence of any soul or spirit. Belief in souls or an afterlife is more often associated with theism than not, but atheism is nevertheless compatible with belief in souls, ghosts, spirits, reincarnation, or an afterlife.
Sometimes this is part of an organized belief system, like Buddhism, while other times a person simply believes in ghosts because of personal experiences. The key to understanding this is to realize that atheism by itself only excludes belief in gods, not necessarily belief in anything else that might be categorized as paranormal or even supernatural.
An atheist can therefor logically believe anything else at all — including souls and some sort of heaven — even if the belief is irrational. This is true whether we define atheism broadly as simply the absence of belief in gods (weak atheism) or narrowly as denying the existence of gods (strong atheism). As soon as you start adding things to mere disbelief in gods, you’re talking about some philosophical or religious system that may incorporate atheism, but which is not atheism itself.
The number of atheists who believe in souls, ghosts, or some sort of life after physical death is probably small — especially in the west. It cannot be denied that there is a strong correlation between disbelief in gods and disbelief in the supernatural generally, which would include souls and spirits. This is because atheism in the west is strongly associated with materialism, naturalism, and science.
The existence of a correlation in a particular cultural context, however, does not qualify as proof of a deeper connection. It does not mean that atheism somehow requires disbelief in anything supernatural. It does not mean that disbelief in gods must always occur in the context of materialism, naturalism, or science. There’s nothing about “atheism” which requires that all of one’s beliefs be materialistic, naturalistic, scientific, or even rational.
This isn’t a mistake that is exclusive to religious theists and religious apologists. Even some atheists have argued that atheism means not believing in anything supernatural; since souls and heaven are necessarily supernatural and belief in them is irrational, then anyone who believes in such a thing can’t possibly be a “real” atheist. This is a bit like Christians arguing that unless someone adopts particular theological positions that have become popular in a particular place and time, then that person cannot be a “real” Christian.
So while it’s incorrect to make generalizations about atheism and atheists, it can be correct to make specific claims about specific atheists. Atheists may not all be naturalists and materialists, but the average atheist you meet in the west, and especially an atheist you meet online, probably is a naturalist and a materialist.
You can’t derive conclusions about atheism and atheists generally from a premise that is false, but you can suggest tentative conclusions about particular atheists once you take the time to ask them questions and understand what they actually think. You will see the former much more often than the latter, though, because it’s a lazy way of thinking and arguing.
The latter not only requires more time and work, it also requires that a person actually be interested in learning about other human beings. It requires treating the person as an actual, individual human being rather than a “type” that can be dismissed without much consideration. This means taking the risk of discovering that they have been wrong and perhaps need to modify their beliefs as a result. Anyone who is at all insecure in their beliefs will avoid this at all costs.
So what does this mean when it comes to whether atheists can be spiritual or not? If the general usage is mistaken and spirituality really is best described as a highly personalized and privatized religious belief system, then the answer to the question is clearly “yes.” Atheism is not only compatible with the adoption of a public, organized religious belief system, it is also compatible with the adoption of a very personal and private religious faith.
On the other hand, if spirituality is treated as “something else,” something fundamentally different from religion, then the question becomes harder to answer. Spirituality seems to be one of those words which has as many definitions as it does people trying to define it. Often it is used in conjunction with theism because people’s spirituality is “God-centered.” In such cases, it is unlikely that you could find an atheist who is “spiritual” because there is a real contradiction between living a “God-centered” life while not believing in the existence of any gods.
Personal spirituality. This is not, however, the only way the concept of “spirituality” can be used. For some people, it involves a variety of very personal things like self-realization, philosophical searching, etc. For many others, it is something like a very deep and strong emotional reaction to “wonders” of life — for example, gazing out at the universe on a clear night, seeing a newborn child, etc.
All of these and similar senses of “spirituality” are entirely compatible with atheism. There is nothing about atheism which prevents a person from have such experiences or quests. Indeed, for many atheists their atheism is a direct result of such philosophical searching and religious questioning — thus, one might argue that their atheism is an integral component of their “spirituality” and their ongoing search for meaning in life.
In the end, all of this vagueness prevents the concept of spirituality from carrying a great deal of cognitive content. It does, however, carry emotional content — much of what people describe as “spirituality” seems to have much more to do with emotional than intellectual reactions to events and experiences. So, when a person is using the term, they are more likely trying to convey something about their emotions and their emotional reactions to things than a coherent set of beliefs and ideas.
If an atheist is wondering if it would be appropriate to use the term “spiritual” when describing themselves and their attitudes, the question that must be asked is: does it have any emotional resonance with you? Does it “feel” like it conveys some aspect of your emotional life? If so, then it may be a term you can use and it will mean just what you “feel” it conveys. On the other hand, if it just feels empty and unnecessary, then you won’t be using it because it just doesn’t mean anything for you.
Although there are a lot of different myths about atheism and atheists, there is one theme which keeps coming up over and over again: the assumption that all atheists share some political position, philosophical system, or attitude. In short, it’s assumed that all atheists believe some “X,” where X has little or nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. Thus theists try to pigeonhole atheists into a single philosophical straight-jacket, be it humanism, communism, nihilism, objectivism, etc. Atheists don’t all believe the same things.
The belief that atheists are more materialistic and worship money more than theists isn’t one that is founded on any evidence, but it is a popular one. A survey done by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology found that atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in America. The most popular reasons cited were “moral indiscretions” like criminal behavior, rampant materialism, and cultural elitism. Evidently being theistic and religious prevents such problems, but since when?
Is it true that atheists are all sex-crazed maniacs and pleasure seekers who care only about getting high? That’s the implication of the popular myth that atheists are hedonists who have replaced the proper worship of the True God with worship of physical pleasures. There is no evidence that atheists are more likely to use or abuse drugs, nor is there any evidence that atheists “worship” physical pleasures like sex, no matter how loosely the term is defined. There is simply no empirical basis for this myth.
How can atheists believe In nothing? Are atheists all nihilists? This question is based upon a misunderstanding of what atheism is. Many theists think that atheists don’t believe in anything at all; evidently, we have no goals, no ideals, and no beliefs whatsoever. Theists cannot understand how it could be otherwise because their beliefs in and about their god often constitute the most important parts of their lives and are especially important when it comes to forming their goals, ideals, morality, etc. Without their god, then, those things can’t exist. Atheists aren’t nihilists.
It’s not common for atheists to be openly described as cynical, or at least inherently cynical, but this seem to be a common attitude which people have about atheists. When atheists appear on TV or in the movies, it’s pretty common for them to be cynical, broken people who have “lost their faith.” God failed them and now they distrust everyone and everything around them. Thus this myth is closely linked to the myth that people are atheists after feeling that God didn’t do something for them. Atheists don’t disbelieve everything they hear.
Is Atheism a Religion?
Many Christians seem to believe that atheism is a religion, but no one with a fair understanding of both concepts would make such a mistake. The truth is that atheism lacks every one of the characteristics of religion. At most, atheism doesn’t explicitly exclude most of them, but the same can be said for almost anything. Thus, it’s not possible to call atheism a religion. It can be part of a religion, but it can’t be a religion by itself. They are completely different categories: atheism is the absence of one particular belief while religion is a complex web of traditions and beliefs.
Are atheists anti-Christian? Although this is by no means true of all atheists or atheism itself, there is some validity behind the perception that atheists are anti-Christian and it should be taken seriously. There is no ignoring the fact that many atheist web sites and atheist books spend a great deal of time with the doctrines and beliefs which are specific to Christianity or, at the very least, to traditional forms of Western monotheism while at the same time ignoring other religions and more general theistic beliefs. Why is that? Atheists aren’t necessarily anti-Christian.
Are atheists bigoted against Christians? This is similar to the claim that atheists are anti-Christian because of the time they spend on critiquing Christianity; it is, however, a more general assertion and merits being addressed separately. Is it a legitimate complaint that atheists are bigoted when it comes to Christianity? That is to say, are atheists intolerant of Christianity, Christian beliefs, Christian institutions, etc.? Even if this is true, what impact if any does this have on atheism and atheists’ critiques of Christianity? Atheists aren’t necessarily bigoted.
Are atheists anti-theistic or anti-god?: Atheism and anti-theism so often occur together at the same time and in the same person that it’s understandable if many people fail to realize that they aren’t the same. Making note of the difference is important, however, because not every atheist is anti-theistic and even those who are, aren’t anti-theistic all the time. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods; anti-theism is a conscious and deliberate opposition to theistic belief. Many atheists are also anti-theists, but not all.
Are atheists anti-religion? Atheists are often seen critiquing religion, so the perception can develop that atheism itself must be an anti-religious position — but this is not true. Atheism is simply the absence of beliefs in gods and is a position which can occur inside or outside the context of religion. Thus, an atheist might be devoutly religious, devoutly anti-religious, or completely apathetic with regards to religion — exactly as is the case with theists. It all depends on the individual and what ideas, beliefs, or principles they have aside from atheism.
Do atheists prevent their kids from learning about religion, and religious beliefs? Because most atheists are not religious, it is understandable that most atheists aren’t going to make an effort to raise their children in an explicitly and deliberately religious environment. Atheists are unlikely to raise their children to be Christians or Muslims. Does this, then, mean that atheists are also trying to keep religion away from their children? Are they afraid of their kids possibly becoming religious? What are the consequence of hiding religion from someone? Atheists don’t all hide religion from kids.
Can atheists be religious? Atheism and religion are often portrayed and treated as polar opposites; although there is a strong correlation between being an atheist and being irreligious, there is no necessary and inherent connection between the two. Atheism is not the same as being irreligious; theism is not the same as being religious. Atheists in the West tend not to belong to any religion, but atheism is quite compatible with religion. Theists in the West tend to be religious, but theism is compatible with irreligion. Atheism is not the absence of religion, the absence of belief in the supernatural, the absence of superstitions, the absence of irrational beliefs, etc. Because of this, there is no inherent barrier preventing atheism from being part of a religious belief system.
So why does the confusion exist? Quite simply, most religious belief systems (especially those dominant in the West) are theistic — they include belief in the existence of at least one god and this belief is often a central, defining characteristic of that religion. It would be very difficult for a person to combine atheism with adherence to such a religious faith because doing so would require redefining the religion to such an extent that most members might not recognize it anymore.
Can atheists Be spiritual?: The problem with answering such a question is that the term “spiritual” is so vague and ill-defined most of the time. Usually when people use it they mean something similar to, but nevertheless very distinct from, religion. This is probably an improper usage, however, because there are very good reasons to think that spirituality is more a type of religion than anything else. Yes some atheists are spiritual.
Should atheists respect religion and theism? For religious theists, their religion, religious beliefs, and theism are very important to them. They hold their beliefs and institutions in high regard, so become defensive when irreligious atheists are sharply critical of religion and religious beliefs. Theists demand that atheists show more respect and tolerance, but is this justified? What are they really asking for? It can be argued that they are demanding others admire and defer to their religion, which is an illegitimate demand. Religion & theism must earn respect.
Are there any atheistic religions?: Although most religions are theistic, which means that belief in a god or gods is incorporated into its doctrines, there are a few religions that are atheistic. Such religions may simply reject belief in any primary creator god, may dismiss the possibility of gods as irrelevant, or may even go so far as to reject and deny gods entirely. Whatever the case is, people can be adherents of these religions without bothering to believe in any gods, thus allowing for a person to be a religious atheist.
Defining religion. It would be very ethnocentric if we allowed ourselves to define religion in general solely based upon our encounters with a couple of specific religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is a much wider and more varied religious universe out there than those three faiths represent. Religion is a human creation and, as such, it is just as varied and complex as human culture generally is.
For example, many forms of Buddhism are essentially atheistic. At most they regard the existence of gods as possible, but often they dismiss gods as simply irrelevant to the important task of overcoming suffering. As a consequence, many Buddhists not only dismiss the relevancy of gods, but also the existence of gods — they are atheists, even if they aren’t atheists in the scientific, philosophical sense that many atheists in the West are. So, yes, atheists can be religious.
There are not only very old and traditional religions like Buddhism which are accessible to atheists, but there are modern organizations as well. Some humanists call themselves religious and many members of Unitarian-Universalism and Ethical Culture societies are also nonbelievers. Raelians are a relatively recent group which is recognized as a religion legally and socially, yet they explicitly deny the existence of gods.
There is some question as to whether such forms of humanism do qualify as religions, but what is important for the moment is the fact that atheist members themselves believe that they are part of a religion. Thus they do not see any conflict between disbelieving in the existence of gods and adopting a belief system which they consider a religion — and these are atheists in the Western sense of scientific, philosophical atheism.
The answer to the question is thus an unequivocal yes: atheists can be religious and atheism can occur in conjunction with, or even in the context of, religion.
Where do people go when they die? Are heaven and hell real? Intimidating atheists through threats of torment: One common logical fallacy is argumentum ad baculum, which literally translated means “argument to the stick” and which is commonly translated to mean “appeal to force.” With this fallacy, an argument is accompanied by the threat of violence if the conclusions are not accepted. Many religions are based upon just such an tactic: if you don’t accept this religion, you will be punished either by adherents now or in some afterlife. If this is how a religion treats its own adherents, it’s not a surprise that arguments employing this tactic or fallacy are offered to nonbelievers as a reason to convert.
What If atheists are wrong and god exists? Aren’t you afraid of hell? Don’t you worry about what might happen to you when you die? No. If there is a god who punishes people for rational doubt, why would you want to spend an eternity with it anyway? Such a capricious, egotistical, and nasty god wouldn’t be much fun. If you can’t trust it to be as moral as you are, you can’t trust it to keep its promises and make heaven nice or even let you stay. Not spending eternity with such a being doesn’t sound like much of a loss. Atheists have no reason to fear hell.
Isn’t atheism too much of a risk? Isn’t it safer to bet on god & Christianity? This question, which is really just a simplified version of Pascal’s Wager, is one of the most popular questions which religious theists — particularly Christians — pose to atheists. It must sound very appealing, reasonable, and rational to them, otherwise atheists wouldn’t have to hear it so often. Unfortunately, Christians who bring this up reveal that they haven’t done their homework because there are a number of very obvious and easy objections to this which they seem completely unaware of. Theism and Christianity are not safe bets.
Are Christians and religious theists no worse off if they are wrong? Pascal’s infamous wager consists of two sides: the idea that atheists are worse off if they are wrong and the idea that theists are no worse off if they are wrong. This is supposedly what justifies saying that atheism is a “bad bet,” though religious theists who raise this argument tend to focus on the suffering that awaits atheists if they are wrong. Sometimes, though, they get defensive about atheist critiques by saying that they are no worse off if they are wrong, so why do atheists care?
Haven’t scientists, philosophers and theologians proven that god exists? There is a common belief among many theists that there are strong philosophical or theological arguments which have proven that God exists, thus rendering disbelief in God perverse at best. This is not a claim that there exist philosophical arguments that make theism reasonable or the existence of God plausible; rather it is a much stronger argument that theism is necessary and the existence of God definite. This is incorrect and it gives theists a false sense of security in their beliefs. God’s existence hasn’t been proven.
Intelligent people throughout history have believed in god, why don’t atheists? It is true that smarter people than I and many other atheists have accepted theism and religion — but so what? Smarter people than you have rejected your brand of theism and your brand of religion in favor of some other type of theism and religion. Smarter people than you have rejected theism and religion entirely, leading an entirely atheistic and irreligious life. Do you think you’re better or smarter than they were? Is this a reason for you to drop your theism and religion? Of course not. Theism of intelligent people isn’t relevant.
How can atheists be certain that god doesn’t exist? When theists ask how and why atheists can be certain that no gods exist, they do so under the mistaken assumption that all atheists deny the existence or possible existence of any gods and that such denial is based upon certainty. Although this is true of some atheists, it is not true of all — indeed, it seems unlikely that it is true of most or even a significant minority of atheists. Not all atheists deny the existence of all gods and not all of those who do claim absolute certainty.
Being irreligious is risky. Many associate atheism with anti-social and even criminal behavior, but such assertions are usually little more than that: bare assertions without substantiating evidence or arguments. The most people offer may be question-begging claims about religion and god being necessary for moral behavior. Here, however, we have a new twist which claims that there is a physiological, biological reason behind people – or at least men – rejecting religion and gods. Unfortunately, it’s rife with flaws. Being irreligious is not like criminal behavior.
Christianity and Atheism
Most “battles” in the Christian Right’s so-called Culture Wars can be best understood if seen, at least in part, as attempts to reassert and enforce Christian privilege in modern society. One of the hallmarks of modernity has been the rooting out of various forms of illegitimate privilege, with Christian and religious privilege being among the last. Thus, it is hoped that reasserting special privileges and deference for Christianity and Christians will help hold the line against modernity.
Defenders of Christian privilege in the law commonly argue or assume that the absence of explicit endorsements of religion generally and/or their religion in particular (like in Ten Commandments monuments) is unconstitutional hostility towards their religion. This assumes the justification of privileges for Christianity because there are no endorsements of other religions, such as Hinduism, yet no one claims this as an example of hostility towards them.
Christian privilege and public schools. There are many ways in which Christians have fought for Christian privilege in schools: organized prayers, using schools as permanent churches, Christian-specific prayers and speeches at graduations, holding graduations at churches, etc. It is argued that the religious preferences of the majority count for more than the religious equality of the minority. Non-Christians are told that they must be “tolerant” of Christians using the state to further their own religious interests.
Christian privilege and politics. The most visible example of attempts to assert Christian privilege in the political realm may be the efforts to insert sectarian prayers into political events, like town council or school board meetings. Rather than stick with generic prayers or even permit prayers from multiple religions, Christians insist that Christian-specific prayers are both appropriate and preferable. If the majority is Christian, then their religious beliefs should be accorded a privileged status by government bodies.
Christian privilege and entertainment. The idea that Christians should be privileged in entertainment comes up when there are complaints about negative portrayals of Christians and Christianity. It would be a problem if only negative portrayals existed (imagine if Jews were always depicted negatively), but the existence of any negative images can receive a harsh reaction. There are also complaints about the lack of Christian-specific entertainment in the mainstream media, as if they shouldn’t cater to the widest possible audience.
Christian privilege and culture. Cultural privileges for Christianity come up when Christians insist that their religion deserves special recognition, extra deference, and more respect. Sometimes, Christians act as though other religions are inferior and don’t merit equal consideration. Examples of this include the claim that only “Merry Christmas” is acceptable while “Happy Holidays” is not, or the idea that Christian holidays, but not non-Christian ones, can be recognized as government holidays.
Christian privilege as majority rule. A common defense of Christian privilege is the idea that Christians are a majority, and in a democracy, the majority rules. If Christians want to shape legal, political, and cultural institutions to express their religious values and to privilege both Christianity, that’s what being a Christian Nation is all about. In a liberal democracy, however, the rights and equality of all are protected. Christians can no more vote to privilege Christianity than whites can vote to privilege their race.
Christian privilege as surrogate for other privileges. Is it possible that efforts to assert Christian privilege is a mask, conscious or unconscious, for other sorts of lost privilege that can’t be publicly asserted? Those who most often assert Christian privilege are also those who would benefit most from white privilege or male privilege. Some of the areas where Christian privilege is being asserted, like the context of equal rights for gays, are areas where male or white privilege would also make gains by implication.
De-Christianization vs. secularization: Defense of Christian privilege often occurs in the context of complaints about the secularization of society. In reality, people are complaining about the loss of Christian hegemony and unjustified social privilege, not secularization. They are lamenting the de-Christianization of American society rather than its secularization. Both are occurring, but Christians try to create illusory solidarity with other religions by pretending that the losses to Christianity are losses to all religions.
Future of Christian privilege and religious privilege. What is it about some people that they have such a pressing psychological need to feel superior to someone – anyone – in society? There are men who need women to be inferior, Christians who need non-Christians to be inferior, religious believers who need nonbelievers and atheists to be inferior, citizens who need foreigners to be inferior, and heterosexuals who need gays to be inferior. Why can’t those who are different be equal in their differences?
If we were dealing with actual rights, like the right to speech, then claims about discrimination and persecution would be justified. As it is, though, the truth is that Christians are losing privileges – they are losing the ways in which they have been treated better than everyone else. Because of this, they are not actually being discriminated against; instead, traditional discrimination against others is ending. It’s not unlike how the elimination of “white privilege” was perceived by whites during the Civil Rights era.
Religious privilege – and especially Christian privilege – is one of the few traditional privileges that continues to be openly defended in modern society. Other forms of privilege, like white privilege and male privilege, may continue to exist but it’s regarded as impolite to actually argue in defense of them anymore. Perhaps one day religious privilege will go the way that white and male privilege are going, but it won’t happen without much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of some conservative Christians.
We should expect to see assertions of Christian privilege continuing to play an important role in social and political debates in the coming decades. Look for it behind the scenes in other issues – you can already find it, for example, in the so-called Christmas wars and arguments over gay marriage. In these debates people talk about the importance of religious values, but many are simply seeking to have the state endorse their vision of Christianity over all other possible positions.
If you don’t have to prove that there is a god, then I don’t have to prove that there isn’t.
ATHEIST CHURCHES – Nonbelief System
On a clear, sunny July morning, as churchgoers all around Houston take to their pews, dozens of nonbelievers are finding seats inside a meeting room in a corporate conference center on the city’s west side to listen to a sermon about losing faith. But first there’s the weekly “community moment” – remarks on a chosen topic delivered by the group’s executive director, this time focused on how we’re hardwired to read sensationalized news – as well as announcements about an upcoming secular summer camp.
The men speaking before the assembled gathering – executive director Mike Aus, who regularly leads the group, and Jerry DeWitt, a visitor who heads a similar gathering in Louisiana – are both deeply familiar with the idea of Sunday ritual. Just a few years ago, they were Christian ministers active in the pulpit. Today they’re both nonbelievers leading secular /Sunday services.
This is Houston Oasis, a church that’s not a church. It was started in September 2012 to foster community within Houston Atheists, a group formed through the online social-networking portal Meetup that claims to be the site’s largest association of atheists. Each Sunday, Aus welcomes his congregants at the door before leading them through many of the motions of a religious service. There’s music, meet-and-greet time, guest speakers and Aus’ message, which is part TED talk, part uplifting reflection ln the wonders of the world – this world – around us.
But Oasis is careful not to get too churchy. There’s music but no congregational singing. There’s time to shake hands with your neighbor but no moment of silence. Because while it has all the markings of a church service, Oasis is designed to appeal to those who long for the rituals of old-time religion but have lost faith in its doctrines.
Oasis is one of a growing number of so-called atheist churches in the US. Most are connected to Sunday Assembly, a London-based organization on a globe-trotting mission to launch 100 assemblies in 15 countries by the end of the year. About a dozen are already operating in the US; almost twice that many are planning to open.
But whereas Sunday Assembly is largely a top-down movement, atheist churches are also sprouting from the ground up. DeWitt,, a former Pentecostal preacher, runs the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, La. In Tulsa, Okla., the Rev. martin Lavanvhar, a Universalist, has created a separate service for humanist. Along with Houston Oasis, Texas also hosts the North Texas Church of Freethought, and in April, Kansas, City, Mo., began its own Oasis, using Aus’ service as a guide. As more former churchgoers identify as atheists, some are turning to these gatherings each week for social support.
The rise of theist churches is part of a growing willingness by many atheist to adopt secular versions of religious practices. It’s also a result of more everyday nonbelievers, and even clergy, “coming out” as atheists and reflects a modest mainstreaming of atheism across the US. As one example, since a Supreme Court decision in May that upheld prayer before town-board meetings, nonbelievers in several communities have delivered the public invocations after the court acknowledged atheists’ right to do so.
While 1 in 5 Americans claim o religious affiliation (up from about 1 in 6 five years ago), almost 6% now explicitly identify with atheism (the lack of belief in God) or agnosticism (the view that knowledge about God is unknowable),up from 4% in 2009. “You can’t help but think that more atheists will come out,” says Dan Courtney, a member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, who gave an invocation on July 15 in Greece, NY, the town at the center of the Supreme Court ruling about prayer at civic meetings.
But the very concept of an atheist church – and even the term itself – is anathema to many in the moement. Some believe it’s too much like the very thing they disavowed in the forst place.
Aus’ gathering in Houston is aptly named: it is very much an oasis. For the majority of city residents who claim a Christian denomination, Houston offers a host of megachurches, including two of the nations’s larges Baptist churches, along with the bigges of them all, Joel Osteen’s nondenominational Lakewood, which averages 43,500 congregants weekly. “Churchgoing is part of the warp and woof in this part of the world,” Aus says. “When you’re surrounded by a predominant Christian culture, there’s a need for even more support.”
For years, Aus preached at a progressive, nondenominational church in Houston, and he readily admits to having been a “cafeteria Christian.” “I never believed in hell,” he says “Ever.” He always loved going to church and the community it nurtured, but by the late 200s Aus realized he needed to leave the ministry. He first joined the Clergy Project, an online group of hundreds of active doubting preacher, then in March 2012 he declared himself an theist on the MSNBC program Up With Chris Hayes.
Being an atheist may be America’s last closeted identity, but the door has been opening over the past decade. In the 2000s the so-called New Atheists, led by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, provided intellectual support to nonbelievers through a series of books and articles that often tore religion into pieces. As nonbelievers have increasingly come out publicly, that hard-line approach has given way to amore accommodating stance toward believer. A number of academics and authors have recently espoused the benefits of religious practices and institutions minus the theology. Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, argues that religion should be understood as an explanation of the origins of the world and the afterlife as much as a set of rituals and social practices. Chad Seales, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says that in the study of religion, “belief is a bit overrated. The practices are what shape us.”
Houston Oasis has become so popular that the group plans to double its meeting space. Aus says he’s heard from people in several cities looking to start their own secular meet-ups. The Humanist Community at Harvard, which hold a similar service each week, recently began an initiative to provide resources to atheist gatherings to keep the momentum going.
A number of atheists, however, are against the very idea of an atheist church, including Bill Maher, possible the country’s best-known nonbeliever. “It undermines the whole point of atheism, because the reason why people need to get together in religion is precisely because it’s nonsensical,” Maher says, arguing that people of faith need strength in numbers to support their belief systems.
But in a sense, that is exactly why atheist are getting together. In a country that still tilts skyward, nonbelievers need their own strength in numbers, even if that means imitating old-time religion. “There are a lot of people in the free-thought movement who say, Well, this is just mimicking church, “Aus says. “But if we don’t offer regular human community and support for nonbelievers, it would be detrimental to the movement.”
At the end of the service at Houston Oasis, many of its members continue the conversation at a café. Some discuss Aus’ thoughts on how we’re hardwired to respond to sensational news. Others ask about his journey away from church. But mainly they talk about the little things: their plans got the evening, work, their favorite TV shows. Aus would say this urge to gather is simply human nature. But their weekly ritual, free of any predetermined belief, is something else too. It’s something they can all believe in.