By Tom Krattenmaker
Being an atheist is not easy in this age of great public religiosity in America. Not when the overwhelming majority of Americans profess some form of belief in God. Not when many believers equate non-belief with immorality. Not when more people would automatically disqualify an atheist for the presidency (53%, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll) than a gay candidate (43%), for example, or a Mormon (24%).
Anti-atheism might have found its ugliest public expression during an episode in the Illinois Legislature this spring. As atheist activist Rob Sherman attempted to testify against a $1 million state grant to a church, Rep. Monique Davis railed, “This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. … It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! … You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!”
Lest we dismiss the legislator’s harangue as an anomaly, consider the organizations that bar atheists from membership — the Boy Scouts of America and American Legion, to name two, as well as some local posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — and the conspicuous absence of openly atheist politicians on the national stage.
Mindful of atheism’s reviled reputation, a new current in non-belief is intent on showing the public what atheists are for. You might be surprised by what’s on their short list. Because, save for the belief-in-a-deity part, it sounds a lot like what most Americans value. Care for one’s community and fellow human beings, love of country and cherished American principles, the pursuit and expansion of knowledge — these are the elements of the new “positive atheism.”
A new face
The reputation of atheists has not been well-served by the surly attacks on religion by some of atheism’s highest-profile torch carriers. From the best-selling atheist manifestos of recent years to Bill Maher’s new Religulous movie, the loudest voices of non-belief have exhibited much of the same stridency and flair for polemics as the religious fundamentalists they excoriate.
But if Margaret Downey keeps making progress with her campaign to show a different face of atheism, it’s possible to imagine the day when avowing one’s non-belief will not be political suicide. (It seems to be just that today, given that only one member of Congress, Rep. Pete Stark of California, has revealed that he does not believe in a deity; in view of polling data suggesting that some 5% to 15% of Americans are atheists and agnostics, it seems certain there are at least a few more non-believing senators and representatives in the halls — and closets — of Congress.)
Downey, having recently finished a stint as president of the Atheist Alliance International, is now organizing a non-believers’ unity convention to take place in 2011. She is the poster person for positive atheism, a term she uses for a new face of atheism that emphasizes the good things in which non-believers do believe.
Downey does not move in the ways of the late atheist spokesperson Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was known for her caustic mockery of religion and its followers. And despite Downey’s friendship with the outspoken atheist author Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame (who likens the religious indoctrination of kids to child abuse), Downey is more interested in building bridges than walls.
In an episode earlier this year in the Philadelphia area, where Downey lives, the stage appeared set for an atheist-vs.-Christian billboards shouting match: Downey and colleagues had posted a billboard on Interstate 95 saying, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone,” prompting a local Christian congregation to erect signs with a counter-message promoting God. Instead of escalating the billboard battle, Downey and company asked those who put up the pro-belief sign to join forces and volunteer with them for a Philadelphia charity. The people from the Light Houses of Oxford Valley congregation accepted the offer and teamed up with the atheists to spend a half-day sorting and packaging food for the needy.
“My goal is to teach by example that we believe in the importance of helping improve the human condition,” Downey says. “We atheists simply add one more ‘o’ to our belief system — we believe in good.”
The spirit of positive atheism infused this fall’s convention of the Atheist Alliance, which comprises nearly 60 U.S. atheist groups with combined membership of about 5,000. Attendees gave blood and had their hair shorn for use in cancer patients’ wigs. At last year’s convention, Downey presided over a baby-naming ceremony, where parents and their supporters exalted wisdom, love, honesty and the beauty of nature, and the newborns were given not godparents, but “guideparents.”
The leader of positive atheism certainly is not above going to court to protect the rights of non-believers. But in a holiday-season episode last year, Downey and her free-thinking allies responded to a crèche and menorah in front of the Chester County Courthouse outside Philadelphia not with a lawsuit, but a display of their own — a “Tree of Knowledge.”The 22-foot-high evergreen was decorated with color copies of book covers, the titles included the Bible, the Quran and numerous other works on religion, atheism and evolution.
When it comes down to it, the positive atheists aren’t inventing something new so much as highlighting something that has long been true about atheists. Namely, that non-believers have always stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens doing the things Americans generally do: working hard, obeying the laws, helping the needy and doing what they can to improve their communities.
Let’s recall that invective from the Illinois legislator who could not tolerate the malevolent presence of — gasp! — an atheist in “the Land of Lincoln.” Monique Davis’ reference to the revered 16th president is instructive, although not in the way she intended. Lincoln’s own story teaches a cautionary lesson to those who would exclude and condemn some Americans on the basis of their religion, or lack thereof.
Honest Abe’s example
Davis might be surprised to learn that Lincoln himself was frequently attacked by politically active pastors in his time. As the author Susan Jacoby documents in Freethinkers, her 2004 book on the history of American secularism, presidential candidate Lincoln rued the opposition he faced from 20 of the 23 Protestant ministers in his hometown of Springfield, Ill. Earlier in his career, Lincoln complained about opposition from religious figures who warned Christian voters against him on the grounds, Lincoln wrote, that “I belonged to no church (and) was suspected of being a deist.”
Lincoln — the man accused of insufficient piety in his time — is appropriately lionized today for his unswerving courage and moral clarity. Honest Abe’s example strongly suggests that we all think twice before asserting that our religious camp has a monopoly on truth and virtue. And that we acknowledge that non-believers — who can be found all across the landscape engaging in acts of decency and battles for justice — are worthy citizens in a country whose Constitution imposes no religious test and whose tradition cherishes freedom of choice in all matters religious.
Yes, there is a place for atheists in the Land of Lincoln. Especially in the Land of Lincoln.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published in the spring.