A Marginalized Minority: The Fate of Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists in a Time of God

A Marginalized Minority: The Fate of Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists in a Time of God

An article in yesterday’s Record could not escape my notice. Entitled “Graham, Nixon Deride Jews on Tape” the brief piece describes a conversation at the Oval Office in 1972 between president Nixon, and Billy Graham, considered by many America’s leading clergyman, and an icon of religious and moral probity. Lamenting the alleged stranglehold that Jews have on the media, Graham states:

“This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” the nation’s best-known preacher declared as he agreed with a stream of bigoted comments about Jews and their perceived influence in American life.
“You believe that?” says Nixon after the `stranglehold’ comment.
“Yes, sir” says, Graham.
“Oh boy” says Nixon. “So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it.”
Graham then leaves, and a few minutes later, Nixon tells Halderman “You know, it is good we got this point about the Jews across.
“It’s a shocking point,” says Halderman
“Well” says, Nixon, it’s also, the Jews are an irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards.”

We ought to find this gutter bigotry and anti-Semitism, linking the highest authorities of governmental and religious power, revolting, but not surprising. Nixon’s anti-Semitic credentials have long been established. That Billy Graham, a man of such moral rectitude, that before he read an interview he had had with Playboy Magazine instructed an assistant to rip out the pages of offending photographs lest his prurient interests be aroused – that such a man would be a cheerleader for Nixon’s anti-Semitism, should also not totally surprise us. While Graham is acclaimed for his fiscal honesty and his ecumenism within the Christian evangelical fold, the conservative Christianity he represents has long been militant in its zeal to convert the Jews in order to save their otherwise accursed souls. I doubt whether Nixon would have chosen to have had this conversation with his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who would readily fit the category of an atheistic, irreligious Jew – and therefore bastard –whom Nixon is reviling. But in Billy Graham, Nixon certainly found an enthusiastic soul mate.

The obvious target of Nixon’s fear, hate and prejudice is of course the Jews. But I don’t want to focus on anti-Semitism this morning. Indeed public opinion polls, which I will cite in a little while, indicate that anti-Semitism in America has waned considerably since the 70s. The candidacy of Joseph Lieberman for vice-president in the 2000 election is an index of that salutary trend, as I discussed at length in an address during the campaign.

What I choose to focus on today is that group of people who are indirectly maligned in Nixon’s diatribe. It is an association that Nixon dramatizes but which is widespread in American life, as it has been widespread throughout the history of human civilization. In his attack on the Jews, Nixon maligns by name-calling and association. He calls the Jews “irreligious, atheistic and immoral” invoking a triad of slanders implying that there are all synonymous with each other.

To be an atheist is more than to uphold a particular metaphysical position on the nature of reality. Nixon uses “atheism” as a smear word, as it has always been used — at least since Socrates was put to death for the crime of atheism 2,400 years ago. In short, to be an atheist, is to be immoral, and therefore under suspicion and untrustworthy. It is a widespread prejudice, which fails the test of basic evidence. And it is a prejudice that should concern us all in the Ethical Movement, especially at a time when we are at war, and belief in God is invoked as a pillar of American loyalty and patriotism.

We live in religion-saturated times, when the presumption held by most Americans is that religion can only be a source of good. It is a time when political leaders win public acclaim by asking what Jesus would do about the tax issue or gun control. In the last presidential race, the candidates had to each make an issue of their born-again credentials. George Bush, in his acceptance speech, urged our nation “to rise above a house divided” “America wants reconciliation and unity. “ “And we all share hopes and goals and values.” Then Bush said what he wanted from “every American.” “I ask you to pray for this great nation”, he said. “I ask your prayers for leaders of both parties.”

Again, the implications of such an appeal for unity would probably be lost on the majority of Americans. But it should not be lost on us. The assumption is that all Americans pray. And, furthermore, if you don’t, you stand against or at least outside, the desire for unity and reconciliation. The implication is that you are barely within the American consensus at all. Not equally accepted, — at best grudgingly tolerated.

Who can forget Joseph Lieberman’s religion-driven remarks that our Constitution grants “freedom of religion” not “freedom from religion?” And that we cannot “indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religio?.” Lieberman quickly retracted these remarks after wrist slapping by some of his more secularly committed Jewish brethren. But we should not assume that these were momentary slips. Lieberman, going back at least to his days as Connecticut’s attorney general, has been in the vanguard of trying to destroy the wall of separation between church and state, and replace it with government support of religion. This dangerous position is widely shared in places high and low, and its acceptance is steadily creeping upon us. It disenfranchises those who are not religious, as Lieberman’s comments are a form of atheism baiting. It is a way of shoring up traditional religious constituencies by scapegoating those who don’t believe in God.

Since September 11th, this assumption has been severely reinforced from high places, especially from our attorney general, who assures us that God is on our side in the war of terrorism. God, patriotism, national security, loyalty and love of our country make up a tight bundle. To question one segment is to question them all.

The evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, has noted, “Society bends over backward to be accommodating to religious sensibilities but not to other sensibilities. If I say something offensive to religious people, I’ll be universally censured…But if I say something insulting about Democrats or Republicans or the Green Party, one is allowed to get away with that. Hidden behind the smokescreen of untouchability is something religions have been allowed to get away with for too long.” Dawkins is certainly correct about such religious immunity from criticism.

A well-publicized Gallop poll conducted in 1999 revealed some interesting, and overall favorable successes in the field of tolerance for diversity. In that poll 92% of Americans claimed that they would consider voting for a woman for president, up from 76% in 1978. 95% percent reported that they would vote for a black, up 22 points since 1978. 92% said they would vote for Jew, as opposed to 70% in 1978, and only 54% in 1937. Even gays have made noteworthy advances. 59% of Americans said in 1999 that they would vote for a homosexual for president, compared to only 26% in 1978. But despite all the emphasis on tolerance and diversity there is no saving atheists. Only 49% of Americans said they would consider voting for an atheist for president, up only 9% since 1978. Of the eight categories surveyed, atheists are the lowest on the list by far.

According to Michael Comartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington “Throughout American history, there has been this belief that our country has this covenant with God and that a deity watches over America.” And he is assuredly correct about that, which of course, leads to the normative assumption that atheism, or whatever variant of unbelief, so-called, is practically unpatriotic.

In 1966, the famed sociologist, Robert Bellah, published an essay entitled “Civil Religion in America” which has become a classic in the annals of the sociology of religion. Bellah begins by citing an excerpt from Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 20, 1961 in which the young president says, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing, and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

According to Bellah, Kennedy’s invocation of God, indeed every president’s invocation of God, especially at high ceremonial moments is not mere sentimentalism, nor is it a strategy to avoid losing votes, though it may be that too. According to Robert Bellah, alongside the dominant Christian religion, and all other specific religions, there is another bona fide religion, which almost all Americans hold in common, which he calls the civil religion. Among the tenets of this religion, is the belief that behind the American people, the American government, and the American political leadership there is God, and that we and our leaders owe our ultimate allegiance to God. God is the ultimate sovereign, not the people. It is this allegiance that gives America ultimate significance.

Nor is the God of Civil Religion merely a deistic, Watchmaker God. He is a personal providential God, who is involved in history and has a special concern for America. The Civil Religion is replete with biblical imagery and archetypes though it makes no reference to Christianity. So the assumptions of the Civil Religion is that America is the new Promised Land, and Europe is the biblical Egypt from which Americans have made their exodus. — which would make George Washington our Moses. Americans are the new Israelites and the new Chosen People. If Washington is the new Moses, then Lincoln is the new Christ in all but name, having been martyred that our nation be saved. In Lyndon Johnson’s first inaugural we find the biblical idea of covenant.

They came here – the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened – to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.

It is Bellah’s contention that our public life, our civic life, is riddled with this language that reflects real beliefs, sincerely held assumptions about America and its exceptional place in God’s plans.

Bellah’s essay is not composed from empty cloth. Major themes of American history exemplify it. The Pilgrims believed that they were the new Israelites building a New Jerusalem on a hill. The Mormons, who made the great trek across America, likened themselves also to the Israelites in the desert, and refer to all non-Mormons as gentiles. The Westward expansions were inspired by the notion of Manifest Destiny. Martin Luther King, continuously validated the justice of the Civil Rights movement by invoking expanding circles of authority. It is just he often claimed, because the federal laws of the land say it is just, because the Supreme Court says it is just, and because God Almighty says it is just.

And on its malignant side, America’s exceptionalism has motivated the genocide of the American Indian, American imperialism, and our righteousness, if not our cruelty in war.

The point of all this is that Bellah’s thesis, which is true as far as it goes, again leaves no place for non-believers. They are simply not considered. Yet there are sub-traditions in American life of skepticism, deism, agnosticism, atheism, free thought and humanism, which though treated as invisible in Bellah’s essay, are as American as apple pie.

But let us ask why it is that atheism has been such a source of fear, contempt, and an object of slander. As a smear word atheism has often been used not to mean atheism proper, but such concepts as witchcraft, materialism, being diabolically inspired, heresy, religious dissent, or otherwise holding to beliefs that were not in conformity with the consensus of the dominant faith. Throughout history those convicted of atheism could and did face the death penalty. Converting to atheism, or influencing someone to become an atheist, remains a capital crime under Islam, though the death penalty is sporadically enforced for this purpose.

Let me also make clear, that I am using the “atheism” as a shorthand way to discuss all beliefs that do not invoke the idea of a God or even a divine principle, such as agnosticism, secularism, free thought, skepticism, rationalism, humanism or Ethical Culture as most of us understand it.

So why is it that atheism receives such a bad rap? In order to grasp the marginalized position of agnostics, atheists, humanists and the like, we need to understand that we cannot divorce religion from politics and the way in which religion is used and manipulated for political interests. Religious scriptures and traditions are filled with commandments, doctrines, practices and beliefs which become prominent, or are played down or ignored dependent on the political uses that are made of them. In short, religious expressions are molded by the political environments and interests in which they find themselves.

To give a controversial example, take Islam and the veiling of women. The Koran itself does not mention veiling, but it does mention that women need to be modest in appearance. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where patriarchy is overwhelming, woman where a veil. In France, Turkey and Qatar, women generally do not wear the veil. In Egypt and Jordan some women do, others don’t, often depending on class background. In Iran, shortly after the Khomeini revolution of 1979, some women who themselves were not religious starting wearing the veil, as an expression of contempt for the Shah who forbade it, and saw doing so in a progressive light. Religious practices ebb and flow, and many disappear depending on political and cultural elements that have nothing to do with the religion per se.

The promotion of belief in God cannot be completely understood, I think, unless we understand the tremendously useful political role that belief in God plays. I look at this in two broad ways.

First, the promulgation of belief in one God is a powerful organizing tool. If we are all children of the same heavenly Father, then we are all bound together as brothers and sisters. We are all, in the final analysis, obedient to the same divine order, the same rules, the same ultimate authority, for whom a requisite attitude of humility is due. An invocation of God and His authority is an invocation to human unity. Once so unified, human subjects are more vulnerable to manipulation by those who hold earthly power, whether for good or ill. With God invoked human believers are more prone to be inspired to do His bidding, and His work, which of course, can be known only through his human interpreters, who after all are men. Consequently when they interpret the divine will they cannot avoid articulating their own interests.

Moreover, God is understood to be the ultimate source of all goodness. To stand within the consensus of God-belief is to be on the right side of the Author and Creator of the Universe, the All-powerful. An archetype of religious thinking is to separate those who share God’s purpose and those whose stand against it. To cleave from one another the saved and the damned. It is this power to bind together those in an in-group and separate the in-group from the out-group, that transforms God into such an inspirational military tool. It should not be difficult to understand how in times of war, when the need for nationally unity is heightened, loyalty to God overlaps with loyalty to country. God and country become increasingly merged.

Contrawise, to deny a loyalty to God is to deny, or at least raise suspicious about, one’s loyalty to society, the political order, and one’s earthly rulers and their purposes. It is for reasons such as this that atheists are to be ignored, suspected, marginalized, or even worse.

But there is more. One of the greatest of human fears is that of social disintegration, social disorder, that is, anarchy. One doesn’t have to be a Sigmund Freud, to recognize the capacity of human beings, to be rapacious, violent and brutal, in short, throw off the veneer of civilization and revert to savagery and become bestial. Anyone who has witnessed a crazed mob rudely gets the idea.

Christianity is predicated on the notion that man is a fallen creature, totally lost and depraved without God’s grace. It says in Romans 13: “Everyone is to obey the governing authorities, because there is no authority except from God, and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God. So anyone who disobeys an authority is rebelling against God’s ordinance, and rebels must expect to receive the condemnation they deserve.” The perfect formula for political conservatism, issuing from the authority of God. In the Islamic tradition, it states that it is better to suffer a hundred years of tyranny, than one night of anarchy.

This fear, and the corresponding need for order, has been virtually universal. It has long been assumed, especially in the West, that the uneducated masses of human beings are especially vulnerable to social chaos. The external force necessary to keep the masses in line is religion, with its carrot of heavenly reward and its punishments of everlasting hell fire. Indeed without such external goads, the masses of men could not be moral at all. Civil obedience, and morality in general, must be reinforced by the promises and threats of a judging God. To question or deny such a God is therefore to sanction social disorder and morality itself. Hence to be an atheist is tantamount to being not only outside civil society, a purveyor of social discord, it is to be immoral. Could there be few people more deranged, and more despised than the atheist? For millennia, the answer was “no.”

Even the most Enlightened thinkers held this view. It was Spinoza, an exponent of 17th century rationalism, and one of the seminal thinkers of democracy and political freedom, who believed that an highly educated elite could base their morality on philosophy, but the masses needed religion in order to be moral. For Spinoza, religion was the poor man’s philosophy.

John Locke was the most important founder of the modern, secular democratic state based on the sovereignty of the people, constitutional government and the separation of powers. Locke had penned a famous “Letter on Toleration” in which he stated that no one had the right to punish his neighbor by the civil law for different religious practices, even if they were in error, since the neighbor injured no one but himself by his error. But Locke’s tolerance yielded wide exceptions. Among those not worthy of complete tolerance were atheists. Because, Locke reasoned, atheists could not take oaths, and if they could not take oaths, they could not be trusted as fully supportive of the civil state and the social order. In a way that reflected a widespread bias of the Enlightenment, Locke didn’t find a place for Catholics in civil society either, for the center of their authority was not in the people, but in the Pope, and so likewise they could not be trusted.

Locke, of course, had great influence on our own Thomas Jefferson, and his commitment to religious freedom. Jefferson, who was himself accused of being an atheist by his political enemies, in part on the grounds that he liked to hang out too much with French intellectuals, aimed, as did the other Founding Fathers, in separating civil and religious life from each other, by attempting to make religion a private matter as much as possible. Jefferson had gone beyond Locke, and whatever his own personal likes and dislikes, expanded the range of Lockeian tolerance in civil society to make it complete. Jefferson was among the foremost apostles of free inquiry as the vehicle to establish truth, and this extended to religion also. Jefferson, who was harassed by dogmatic ministers most of his political life, had said, “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned…What has been the effect of coercion? To make half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.” And it was Jefferson who famously wrote in a way that got him into trouble with his religious enemies, “It matters to me not whether a man believes in twenty gods or in no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” In other words, let one’s religious beliefs be private and separate from his or her practical and civil affairs.

In a way that reflected the spirit of the times, it was our own Felix Adler who took the radical step in the 1870s of declaring that the capacity to be moral did not have to rest on theological belief. There is no necessary correlation in our ability to be moral and whether we are theists, atheists, humanists or secularists. Adler believed, and so do I, that the wellsprings of ethics are many. Secular philosophies can support one’s ethical behavior, and uneducated people, who barely articulate any philosophy at all, can be among the most decent. Common sense and basic experience should tell us that. On reflection, could anyone honestly say that a person who does not believe in God loves her children any less than one who does? Would an atheist be less inclined to help a blind person cross the street than one who believed in God, or believed in the resurrection or the revelation on Sinai? I don’t think so.

If one actually believes that atheists and other non-believers are less moral God-believers, then they have to entertain such beliefs on blind faith, because no evidence supports this assertion. In one classic study, sociologists at the University of Washington compared students who were part of the “Jesus people” movement with a comparable group of professed atheists, and found that the atheists were no more likely to cheat on tests than were Christians, and no less likely to volunteer at a hospital for the disabled. Recent studies compiled on the religious views of federal prisoners show that non-believers account for less than 1% of the total, which is significantly lower than their percentage in America as a whole.

The Christian Right seems never to tire of telling us that divorce is a product of moral breakdown in American. Yet a survey published in December 1999 found that Baptists, from which most born-again conservative types emerge, have among the highest divorce rates of any denomination, weighing in at 29%. Mormons, who are renowned for their family values show a 24% divorce rate. But the lowest of all the groups surveyed were atheists and agnostics, at 21%, considerably below the national norm.

Of course, a traditional God-believer would tell us that the moral atheist of today is merely freeloading on the religious capital of the past. They are living on the moral aroma of religion, its doctrine and authority, even as they deny religion and God.

I don’t believe this, and have long held that it is a form of religious propaganda, however sophisticated. In Adler’s view, and my own, a moral sense comes first. It is primary. Many philosophers believe that human beings are endowed with an innate moral sense, as they are with a sense of beauty, which can either be trained or neglected. Darwin held that morality exists because it is necessary to cooperation as a pillar of the survival of the species, and thereby is built into our social condition as biological creatures. Some primatologists have observed what they define as rudimentary moral behavior in chimpanzees, yet it is doubtful that these apes profess a belief in God or regularly attend church.

But the millennial prejudice against atheists, agnostics, humanists and religious dissenters dies hard, and may always be with us. Despite the fact that the US Constitution never mentions God, and explicitly bars a religious test for public office, it was not until 1961, in the Torcasso v. Watkins case that the Supreme Court definitively ruled that an atheist could hold public office. Torcasso, a member of the American Humanist Association, was barred from becoming a notary public by the State of Maryland, which held that one had to believe in a Supreme Being to hold that office.

Perhaps agnostics, humanists and people like us are swimming against the tide. Perhaps humankind is by nature a “homo religiosus” with religion hard-wired into the brain. Perhaps. But in an eloquent article written in defense of her own atheism, and published in the New York Times Magazine in January of last year, Natalie Angier a brilliant science writer for the Times, said, *

I am not so sure. Religion may be innate, but so, too is skepticism. Consider that we are the most socially sophisticated of all creatures, reliant on reciprocal human altruism for so much of our success. We are profoundly dependent, on the good will and good behavior of others, and we are perpetually seeking evidence that those around us are trustworthy, are true to their word, are not about to desert us, rob us blind, murder us as we sleep. It is not enough for as newcomer to tell us: “Open your door. Trust me.” We want proof. The human race resides in one great Show Me state. If we are built to have faith, we are threaded through as well with a desire that our faith is well placed.

Hence a built-in place for inquiry, skepticism and religious doubt.

Is it possible that humanists, atheists and their kin can achieve full acceptance in American society and be beneficiaries of this new wave of tolerance and diversity? Can this millennial prejudice be overcome? Or are we confined forever to the margins?

Despite the religious resurgence I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, I think there are some signs of hope. First, let’s be clear. Though those who declare themselves atheists on repeated polls, come in at merely 4 or 5% of the American population. But if we include among these all those Americans who identify as agnostics, humanists, skeptics, rationalists, secularists, free thinkers and the like, and add those who respond that they have no religious beliefs at all, then the numbers jump to over 8% and some polls indicate as high as 15%. These numbers are not small. If all such persons comprised a single denomination, even the smaller number, would form the third largest denomination in the U.S., after Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, making it larger than the number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists put together. Perhaps this point needs to be driven home to our politicians.

Secondly, while many people are religious and claim a belief in God, without more probing we know little about the depth of their belief. One thing we do know is that religious belief is radically changing. It is becoming more freelance, more individualized, more cafeteria style. The God of today’s believer, we can bet, has less to do with the traditional God-on-high taught by theologians, and is more personal, more pragmatic, and in many cases more humanistic. It is more fluid and flexible, less exclusive and more tolerant.

A recent article detailing the complexities of contemporary Judaism in America described the renewal of Jewish of life, and the paradox of Jewish belief. In a paragraph of the article entitled God at the Margins, the writer noted,

Belief in God is nearly universal among Conservative and Reform synagogue members. With this said, even many synagogue goers hardly share in the view of God held by many leading Jewish theologians. For most of them, God has no special relationship to Jews, offers no special revelation to Jews, provides no particular providence over Jews and promises no messiah to the Jews. All is universal and personal. So few Jews go to synagogue looking for God, and few find God there. Like other Americans, few Jewish worshippers take the content of prayers very seriously, even among those who “pray” with fervor. Rather they seek tradition, familiarity, comfort and community, and if lucky they find them.”

This is a startling revelation. For religion is certainly changing, and I would suggest in a more humanistic direction.

And finally, with all the God talk in the air, especially since 9/11, I detect, wisps of a counter trend. The fact that Osama bin Laden was inspired by religion and his God has not been lost on many Americans. The fact that Messers. Falwell and Robertson used this tragedy to try to win brownie points for their deeply reactionary religio-political agenda by blaming it on secularists, atheists, liberals and gays, has created something of a backlash and has gotten many Americans to think twice about politicized fundamentalists as sowers of intolerance. I have also noted a response by the media, which lately seem to be giving less exposure to such religious extremists.

Does this signal the overcoming of thousands of years of prejudice? No, it doesn’t. . But it may be a step in toning down the gratuitous, hateful and reflexive anti-secularist rhetoric that has so contaminated American political discourse for the past two decades. And that’s a sign of hope.

I want to close with a personal credo, which need not be yours:

I am a naturalist, an agnostic and a humanistic. As a naturalist I believe that nature is all that there is, and it is enough. As an agnostic, I do not affirm what I cannot know. In this sense, agnosticism is a statement of my humility, a bulwark against embracing illusions. It is also a defense against idolatry – a source of reverence for nature and life. My agnosticism is not a negation, as it is a cleansing which permits me to construct those values which give my life meaning and dignity. My humanism is the expression of those values. It is the passion for life. It the shared project of building a better future. It is an identification with what I believe is timelessly worthwhile. It is the splendor of living this moment, here and now.

Dr. Joseph Chuman
3 March 2002

* I have borrowed frequently from Ms. Angier’s article in this talk.

One Comment

  1. I am in the same boat. I really want to bleeive there is a God and I would like there to be a continuation of my soul. I become very depressed when I think about God. I am 61 years old and have struggled with this since I was about 17 years old. When I start obsessing about this I consider suicide as good idea. At my age I have learned not act on that decision. However, I cry when I realize I do not bleeive in a spiritual world. I can love nature, family and considerable more ideas. I want to bleeive in a greater inteligent power/source. I want to know how and please do not say Just have faith:. I want to know how other non-believers cope. Thank you

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