9.11.2005

Atheist Family Values

Amid Religious Rhetoric, Atheists Seek a Hassle-Free Life

from Miami Herald

Melissa and Chanse nibble on sandwiches and fries at a San Antonio, Texas, coffee shop.

Their 5-year-old son, a brown-eyed boy named Echo, sits between them in the booth. Like parents everywhere, they gently admonish him to sit still and finish his scrambled eggs.

Melissa and Chanse are atheists. They don't believe in God and they're raising their son to question God's existence. They're part of a small but substantial minority that swims against the overtly religious mainstream of America, a spiritual tenor that has grown more strident in recent times as issues of faith increasingly become entangled with politics and public policy.

The couple has agreed to talk about their beliefs - or nonbeliefs - but they have declined to have their surname used because Chanse's mother works in an office run by conservative Christians.

Such is the quandary of being atheist in America today.

The public face of atheism in recent times has been Michael Newdow, who filed a lawsuit over his daughter's having to repeat the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually dismissed his case, stating he did not have proper parental standing on behalf of his daughter.

The story made headlines for months, but many atheists don't want headlines or scandal. They simply want to go about their own lives without hassle or pressure.

"People will say to you, `You're an atheist, you must worship Satan,'" Melissa says. "They don't understand that if you don't believe in God, you don't believe in the devil, either."

Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion concur.

"Atheists are not very well thought of in America," says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It's still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that's not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and evangelicals, but they know they're not supposed to voice those views, so they don't. But it's still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists."

The overwhelming majority of Americans profess some religious faith, although far fewer actually attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the "values voters" of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge - abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, faith-based initiatives, the right to die.

Judges rule for and against the public display of the Ten Commandments. Politicians seem to compete with each other as to who can most earnestly profess spirituality. A movie portraying the last hours of Jesus' life breaks box-office records. An openly religious president proclaims that Jesus was the philosopher who had the greatest impact on him.

And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, found the percentage of the population that describes itself as "nonreligious" more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people. The only other group to show growth was Muslims.

"Right now, the fastest-growing religious identity in America is the nonreligious," says Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based group that champions church-state separation and works to educate the public on nontheism.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 16 percent of Americans (about 35 million) consider themselves "unaffiliated" - a category that includes "unaffiliated believers," "secularists" and atheists/agnostics.

Atheists and agnostics are lumped together, says Green, because they share so many similarities. But there is a subtle difference: Atheists forthrightly affirm there is no God; agnostics simply say as humans we can never know. Together, they comprise about 3 percent of the American population.

Green says atheists/agnostics as a group tend to be well-educated and politically liberal (although, he says, there are atheist Republicans). They tend to be younger, not older, and male more than female.

But what, exactly, do atheists believe in if not in God?

In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn't exist. They don't cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together.

"And to anyone who really believes they would actually steal or murder if there simply was no God, I would say, `Please, keep your religion,'" quips Bobbie Kirchart, president of Atheist Alliance International.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am just now entering the world of secular reasoning and scientific thought from my old world of Mormonism. I'm finding that it is possible to teach my children how to be responsible adults and respectable citizens without religion. But it is hard to believe this way among a sea of believers in our community and family ties.

August 27, 2010 8:33 AM  

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