BORN ATHEIST
Chapter 2. Religion is powerful.

Religion is the world’s most powerful institution.

In fact, very little is known in social science about the economic operation of religious
institutions. The entire subject has been largely cloaked in secrecy by the religious groups
themselves and avoided by polite journalists and researchers
. Authors John Heinerman and
Anson Shupe

[T]he inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils. Catholic
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor


Religionists act as if they are a vulnerable minority under attack by atheists. But look
where the power lies. Have you heard of an atheist city, with its own police force and
army? There is none. But certainly you have heard of the Vatican City, a city-state in
Italy ruled by the Pope, complete with police, soldiers and a $356 million annual
budget. Every American President since Eisenhower has met with the sitting Pope. But
politicians’ obsequiousness is not limited to Catholics. Most recent American
Presidents have met with the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk believed to be an earthly
incarnation of a Bodhisattva. During the 2008 American presidential campaign, each
candidate appeared at preacher Rick Warren’s church. Each candidate professed his
Christianity and the winner, Barack Obama, invited Warren to deliver a religious
invocation at his inauguration.

Money is a measure of power. As the second quote at the start of this chapter notes,
there is very little research about the amount of money religious institutions collect and
control. In the U.S., religions are exempt from reporting to the Internal Revenue
Service. Rick Warren’s church discloses that it has an annual budget of $30 million
and 400 employees. The Charity Navigator Website reports that in 2007 Americans
donated an estimated $300 billion to charity, with the largest portion going to the
350,000 American churches. “Giving USA” estimates that Americans donated more
than $106 billion to religious groups in 2008, about $400 per religious person in the
United States. The total worth of these organizations, which have been around for
years, is unknown. No government agency collects the information, the media does not
inquire, and the churches do not reveal it. But with an annual income of $100+ billion
and years to gather assets, the figure would be astonishing.

The power of religion is not limited to money, religionists also have manpower. Just
take a look around your neighborhood. A “google maps” search shows there are 12
churches within one mile of my home. Each has an impressive building and most have
several full-time employees. If you live in a small town, you will likely find the house of
worship sitting in the most impressive building in town and located on the nicest piece
of land. If each of the 350,000 churches in the United States has just three employees,
there are more than a million Americans working full-time on religious practices. When
you add the number of religious volunteers, and estimate the number of religious
adherents who are willing to act on directives from their church, the numbers are even
more staggering. Think of how many people you see with crosses around their necks,
religious tattoos on their bodies, fishes on their cars, or talismans dangling from their
rearview mirrors. Each demonstrates at least enough dedication to his religion to
advertise it to the world. At least 245 million Americans describe themselves as
religious, only about 2.15 million call themselves atheists.

The number of people employed by religion today is impressive, but not new. For
thousands of years religion has dominated society. It is little wonder that religionists
are expert at indoctrinating children into their system. Religion applies its rituals days
after birth, and stays in its members’ lives through childhood, adolescence, marriage
and death.

Religion controls more than money and manpower. There are about 1,600 religious
television and radio stations in the US, accessed by 141 million Americans monthly.
Each major American religion runs countless religious schools. Catholics alone run
7,500 schools with an enrollment of 2.3 million students. The U.S. has about 900
religiously affiliated universities. Numerous divinity schools and seminaries teach
religionists how to promote their cause to the general population. The commercial
media, which earns its living pleasing the general population, never steps too far from
the religious agenda.

Although history is full of conflicts between religions, religionists in the United States
seem to be building an alliance–an alliance against atheists. For example, while
running for president, Mitt Romney, a Mormon (see Chapter 8 for more about
Mormonism), sought to align himself with long established religions and against what
he called the “religion of secularism,” when he said:

    [I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by
    some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain
    any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place
    in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America--the
    religion of secularism. They are wrong. …We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we
    do indeed trust.

    [God] should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and
    during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our
    public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the
    foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the
    affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who
    gave us liberty.”

    Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important
    question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these
    American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a
    steadfast commitment to liberty?

    They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral
    inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of
    different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.
       

The religious alliance has succeeded to a great degree. Although 65% of Americans
believe that more than one faith can lead to eternal life, an amazing 57% think that
belief in a god is necessary for a person to be moral. Religionists have done a great
job creating prejudice against atheists. A now famous Gallup poll reports that in
choosing an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate:

      94% of Americans would vote for a Black,
      92% would vote for a Jew,
      88% would vote for a female,
      72% would vote for a Mormon,
      55% would vote for a homosexual, but only
      45% would vote for an atheist.


A 2006 study shows Americans ranked atheists at the absolute bottom of a list of
minorities including Muslims, gays, Hispanics, Jews, immigrants and racial minorities.
Just a few years after the religiously motivated 9/11 attacks, Americans ranked
Muslims more highly than atheists! The report noted that while Americans have
become much more accepting of other racial and religious minorities over the past 40
years, attitudes toward atheists have hardly changed.

American politicians have learned this well. While there are 535 members of Congress,
only one, California Democratic Representative Peter Stark, is willing to acknowledge
that although he attends a Unitarian Church, he does not believe in a supreme being.
In fact, the constitutions of nine states contain provisions similar to this one from
Arkansas, “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil
departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”

Religionists have asserted their political power in Congress. Religionists succeeded in
putting “in god we trust” on the one cent coin in 1864. They prevailed in adopting “in
god we trust” as the national motto of the United States in 1956, and starting in 1957
the phrase began appearing on paper money. It completed its spread to all paper
money by 1966.

Similarly, in the 1950’s a Catholic men’s group called the Knights of Columbus
endeavored to add the phrase “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance. They gained
the support of President Dwight Eisenhower who heard a sermon that said, “Apart from
the mention of the phrase ‘the United States of America,’ . . . [the Pledge of Allegiance]
could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a
similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow.” The sponsor of the
resolution said, “An atheistic American . . . is a contradiction in terms.” Congress
passed a joint resolution changing the Pledge and Eisenhower signed it stating, “From
this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and
town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people
to the Almighty.”

Religionists recently became upset when the new $612 million Capitol Visitor’s Center
did not include the motto “in god we trust” in its architecture. By a vote of 410 to 8, the
House of Representatives approved making a costly change to put the words on the
building.

Politicians follow the lead of their religious supporters and freely disparage atheists.
When a reporter for American Atheists asked Vice President (and presidential
candidate) George Herbert Walker Bush, “Surely you recognize the equal citizenship
and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?” Bush replied, “No, I don’t know that
atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This
is one nation under God.” When the American Atheists organization wrote to every
member of Congress asking that the newly elected President Bush be censured for his
statement, not one member of Congress replied.

Politicians return the favor to religionists for their support. In 2008, “born again
Christian” President George W. Bush departed and Barack Obama came in with the
motto, “change we can believe in.” But in fact, Obama has both increased funding to
religious organizations through his “faith-based initiatives” and invoked Jesus more in
his speeches than former President George W. Bush.

Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said, “Religion is regarded by the common
people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Politicians are acutely
aware of the power of religion and cater to the wishes of religionists to stay in power.

The power of religion extends beyond money, manpower, political power and media
control. Religion has woven itself into the fabric of our society. Religion permeates our
lives. Many of our names come from the Torah or Bible. Think of how many people you
know named David, Mark, John, Mary, Sarah or Deborah. Each time you call their
names you make a biblical reference. Circumcision, a Jewish, Muslim and partially
Christian rite is still practiced widely in the United States. We use phrases like “thank
god,” and “bless you,” with careless regularity. Our legal system is based on the
religious concepts of choice and free will. Religion pervades our thoughts and
language in ways it is impossible to measure. Religion’s tentacles spread through our
art, music, laws and government. Religionists like to pretend they are under attack by
secular America, but the religionists roost in a place of power and are firmly in control.

Religion is the world’s most powerful institution. It has money, manpower, media,
politicians on a leash and devoted adherents who will go so far as to kill on religious
orders. I emphasize this for two reasons. First, religion is firmly entrenched in a position
of power. It is able to set the terms of the debate between religionists and atheists.
Second, one must wonder why religion is so afraid of a small, disorganized and
despised minority like atheists? Religionists act very much as if they are aware that
atheists are right. The next chapter examines who acts like they are right by looking at
how each group treats its members who quit.
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