Atheists Assemble!

Alfredo Garcia at Religion & Politics offered a report recently from Reason Rally 2012.  The rally welcomed 10,000 non-theists to the national mall to celebrate and recognize freedom from God.  As Garcia notes,

life remains hard for non-theists in the United States. There is, of course, the cultural stigma—of being nontheistic in a nation where more than 90 percent of people believe in a higher power. There is only one openly atheist member of Congress, Rep. Peter Stark from California (who had a video appearance at the Reason Rally). Atheists are viewed more negatively than any other U.S. religious group, with less than half of Americans (45 percent) holding a favorable opinion of them. It can be a lonely existence. With no single umbrella organization to bring non-theists together, individuals can feel isolated, compounded by the fact that the various non-theist organizations are often fragmented in their approaches.

There are a couple of lessons here for those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America.  The first is that conservative religious folks tend to over-emphasize the power and influence of atheism.  Bogeys like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Robert Ingersoll, and the American Humanist Association have been used by generations of fundamentalist activists as warnings of the growing power of anti-God “forces.”

Second, we can see that the real divide in America’s culture wars isn’t between conservative religious people and atheism.  The atheist side is a small percentage.  The real contenders are between conservative and liberal religious people.  The central issues are between contending visions of the role of religion in public life.  In this fight, atheism punches far above its weight.  That is, many religious people in America support the notion that the public square must be resolutely secular.

Finally, as Garcia insightfully notes, though small, the atheist community has long struggled with the stereotype of the aggressive iconoclast:

It’s the image of the atheist out to pick a fight, the unbeliever who is constantly seeking the next debate. As [Paul] Fidalgo from CFI [Center for Inquiry] put it, O’Hair was an “extremely polarizing” figure who “gained visibility for American Atheists but may have been integral in forming the image of atheism in the U.S. as arrogant.”

And, indeed, as Garcia reports, the reliable Richard Dawkins told the assembled crowd that they must go forth to “ridicule and show contempt” for religious people.  Perhaps the menace of atheism–from the viewpoint of Fundamentalist America–comes from this aggressive, arrogant, in-your-face sort of attitude more than from any sense of growing political clout.

Leave a comment


  1. I actually agree with Richard Dawkins on a lot of things, but I can’t help feeling he is politically naive. He is frequently very gentle and reasonable, but his overall image is still one of the strident, aggressive atheist.

    That said, from my standpoint in Britain, it seems amusing that both fundamentalists and atheists see themselves as a persecuted minority. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like neither one is.

    • You make a great point. I take some solace from the tradition of each side rushing to claim the status of a persecuted minority. To me, such claims sound like nothing so much as the squabbles of siblings competing for their parents’ affections. In other words, these kinds of culture wars may be bitter and vehement, but they do not rise above the level of family squabbles. Of course, family fights can be the most vicious. But my hope–a slim one at times–is that the “family” nature of these conflicts may give us room to maneuver, room for healing. Families, after all, also have a lot in common.

      • That’s a very interesting idea. What, other than the tone of the discourse, reminds you of a family squabble?

        I like the idea, but I’m not sure I see the disagreement as a family squabble, because I’m not sure they have enough in common to call it family. Disagreements between Pentecostals and Baptists are family squabbles.

        Disagreements between atheists and fundamentalists seem more doomed to me, because fundamentalists don’t acknowledge reason as a valid method for examining their beliefs, and atheists insist on it. I don’t know how you begin to reconcile that kind of foundational disagreement.

      • Jonny, Right: I don’t want to underestimate the differences along these lines. But I do hear most of the arguments basing themselves on the same political foundations. In the US, that means that (almost) all sides insist that their ideas are the TRUE Constitutional, democratic ones. There are and have been prominent voices who have repudiated this agreement, from William Lloyd Garrison, to HL Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, to the Weather Underground. There have been even more leaders from ethnic minorities who have rejected the US “family” in toto, especially among Native- and African Americans.
        But these days, I’m preparing to go on a family trip to Estonia. My father emigrated from there–fled from there–during the second Russian invasion in WWII. Stalin’s policy during the first Soviet occupation, in my opinion, is a demonstration of a REAL culture war. In Estonia, as in other suspect regions, almost anyone with a formal education was arrested and deported. Schoolteachers forced young children to denounce their own parents’ lack of Soviet zeal. That was an obvious example of a culture war that was not merely a family disagreement. And, as you point out, at the other end of the spectrum, we have Baptist/Pentecostal disagreements that are very clearly family disagreements.
        I suppose I consider America’s continuing culture “wars” to be somewhere in the middle. Richard Dawkins can spout his extremist lines and sell books. Glenn Beck can do the same. But, in my opinion, each of those folks actually help their opposition more than their own side, by providing a loud-mouthed exemplar to fear and hate. In the end, I think Morris Fiorina’s arguments are compelling. Most Americans find themselves somewhere in the middle of most of these arguments.

      • Wow. Well, I take your point. At least both sides are pointing to the US Constitution as a good thing (even if their interpretations sometimes appear as though they’re reading different documents).

        I’m interested to hear (and you hint at it here), your own beliefs and opinions on religion and politics. You keep a scrupulously neutral tone most of the time, with good reason, but I’d like to hear more POV occasionally.

        Unrelated, have you ever covered the fundamentalist enthusiasm for corporal punishment/ paddling/ spanking? I’m planning some posts on it and I’d be interested in your findings.

      • Jonny, I’m working on a book chapter right now about a school controvery in 1950. In this fight (in Pasadena, California), the superintendent was eventually fired for being too progressive. One of the constant complaints among parents and activists was that the allegedly progressive schools had abandoned corporal punishment.
        In some earlier research, I found a lot of talk from the big Christian-school boom in the 1970s and 1980s about the need for corporal punishment in schools. Especially from writers affiliated with A Beka/Pensacola.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: