Being an atheist in America

Seattle Travel Blog

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Before coming to America I knew that religion was a far more powerful force here than it is in Australia. But what I didn't suspect was that atheism would also be so different between the two cultures. In Australia around 64% of the population, if pushed, would call themselves Christian and 31% would say they are not religious or wouldn't even bother answering. This isn't that different from the US, with 77% Christian and 14% not religious or not answering, especially after you take into account the different urban/rural balance.
The big difference is really in the attitude of the religious. In Australia, even the 64% who are notionally Christian poke gentle fun of the 7.5% of the population that goes to Church weekly, calling them "God Botherers", always pestering with their prayers, and they don't tend to make religion the defining part of their life. Religion doesn't enter politics, with atheist Prime Ministers like Bob Hawke being elected without any fuss, and of course women have the right to control their reproductive health, children should be given sex education and drug users should be given access to clean needles. In America, on the other hand, 26% of the population goes to Church weekly, 41% go regularly and 80% believe in miracles, actually thinking that their god directly intervenes in our life. This population is loud, abusive and has cowed or cajoled the rest of the religious population into providing them support even on extremist issues. Jerry Falwell can safely come out and say that 9/11 was caused by "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union and the People For the American Way", John Hagee can say after Hurricane Katrina "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgement of God for that", Pat Robertson can accuse left-wing professors of all being "racists, murderers, sexual deviants and supporters of Al-Qaeda" and Fred Phelps can say "God hates fags", yet the only one punished by mainstream American Christians is Phelps, who committed the additional sin of being anti-American. The others, extremists by any consideration, are considered respected spokesmen for the religion.

The religious extremists in America have (successfully) stolen patriotism and tied it to Christianity. They have been rewriting history, claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, despite many of the key Founders being non-Christian (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Tomas Paine were explicitly not Christian, George Washington and James Madison were careful to never proclaim a position) and the first government unanimously endorsing the Treat of Tripoli, stating "The United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion". Instead, they cite their own success at rebranding America as the basis for further stealing America for the Christians - the addition of "In God We Trust" on the coins in 1864 and "One Nation Under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. With the gain of power they are wielding it to cement their position and to crush dissenters. They have made criticism of religion such a crime in the public sphere that even gross abuse is not punished if it has a religious basis. This year we saw an 11 year-old girl slowly die of diabetic ketoacidosis over the span of 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness, because her parents refused to allow her to take simple insulin injections to save her life and instead relied only on prayer. The police didn't even take the other children away from these criminally negligent parents, simply because their excuse was religion.

Consider the issue of religious terrorism. From the headlines, it would be assumed that most cases of religious terrorism in America are performed by Muslims. Far from it, Christian terrorism is much more common. On the issue of abortion alone, Christian terrorists groups such as the Army of God, Aryan Nations, Christian Patriots, the Ku Klux Klan and the Lambs of Christ perform multiple attacks every year. Only 8 people have been killed by Christian terrorism since 1993, but this is largely due to police intervention, as the number of attacks is astronomical - in the past 30 years there have been 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, 3 kidnapping, 655 bioterror threats, 41 bombings, 173 arsons, 91 attempted bombings or arsons, 619 bomb threats, 1630 incidents of trespassing, 1264 incidents of vandalism and 100 attacks with stink bombs. This is nearly one act of Christian terrorism against reproductive clinics or staff every two days for 30 years, and ignoring threats, trespassing or vandalism, it is more than one case of Christian terrorism that could have resulted in death every month for the past 30 years, based on a single issue alone. Yet how often do we hear about Christian terrorism on the news? How often do moderate Christians condemn extremist Christians? The extremist group is so large it has cowed the moderates into keeping silent and wordlessly supporting their coup.

This religious extremism is also directed against atheists. The discrimination is rife. 53% of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist as President, regardless of party or experience. There are no elected Governors, Federal Senators or Supreme Court Judges who are not religious. Less than 1% of Congress is not religious. No President in living memory has been non-religious. The broad cultural perception of atheists is immorality and criminality, even though (despite judicial bias) atheists are heavily under-represented in prisons (only 0.2% of inmates). The Boy Scouts' official position is to not allow atheists in as Scouts or Scout Leaders and the American Heritage Girls are the same (Girl Scouts are starting to allow in some non-theists). Discrimination, exclusion and persecution of children is bad enough, but the bigotry extends further, to violence. The University of Florida student who recently abducted a communion wafer has received hundreds of pieces of hate mail and death threats. The student would be wise to take them seriously too. Consider the murder of Larry Hooper in 2005 by his extremist Christian roommate Arthur Shelton, explicitly because Hooper did not believe in God. At the trial his family came to the court room and screamed out against "the people from hell, evil and devils", "the one good thing of all of this is that another atheist is dead and the world is better off for it" and "the only good atheist is a dead atheist".

It is this violent and discriminatory climate that has, in my opinion, altered American atheism. In Australia choosing to be atheist is like choosing boxers over briefs - nobody cares except your partner, and it is your private decision unless you chose to proclaim it to the world. In America, that decision has real consequences and so many are afraid to come out as atheists. In Western Europe 70% of the non-religious use the word atheist, while in America even the non-religious shy away from the label, with less than 3% using it. In Australia I don't even know if we have atheist groups, it is so completely unnecessary. In America, under barrage from religion constantly, irritated and offended by people saying "God Bless You" every time I do something nice and recoiling when I respond that I am an atheist, I sought out the company of atheist groups and was shocked at the wide array available. The first event I went to was with the Seattle Atheists/Agnostics Meetup Group, and the edge of persecution was noticeable right from the start - you needed to join before being told the location, and the reservations are all made anonymously with the host institution simply being told "if anybody asks for 'the meet-up' send 'em our way". Discussion was not the casual and light chuckling about the odd quirks of the religious the way it is in Australia. Instead you can hear the hurt of people being forced to hide their position on religion at school or at work for fear of being treated differently, people exiled and disinherited from their family, people rejected by their partners, people forced to live a secret life. On the positive side you can also hear the tone of defiance and even challenge in their voices, daring religion to strike them again.

The demographic tide away from religion is turning in America. The proportion of young adults today who are not religious is 25%. As long as Americans can block the religious extremists from legislating religion and stifling education, in twenty years it will be as effortless to be an atheist in America as it is today in Australia. But for the present, I have only the greatest admiration for those Americans who have the courage to withstand the overwhelming pressure and declare themselves atheists.
alyssa_ob says:
Interesting perceptions. I wonder if this is different in other places in the country? I don't recall this being an issue where I'm from, but then again, I grew up with a good friend who's family was atheist and we just accepted it.
Posted on: Feb 25, 2015
ModernDayNomad says:
I really enjoyed reading this. You might like to check out the book: Atlantis by J.A. Harris, which is about how religion has become the biggest threat to our species and the planet itself.
Posted on: Nov 13, 2011
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