Chapter 27. Atheist action.
Coming out as an atheist is the single most important step you can take.
When compared to religion, atheism is an immature and poorly defined movement. But the time has come for us to stop complaining and instead to take action. In this chapter I suggest a few action steps. Hopefully, this list will seem pitifully inadequate as the movement grows. However, from my review of the literature, few atheists are even trying to make specific suggestions. It is not enough to say we should rage against the religious machine, we must act.
Choose one name.
Nonreligious people toss around dozens of names to identify ourselves. We call ourselves brights, evolutionists, freethinkers, godless, heathens, heretics, humanists, infidels, irreligious, materialists, non-believers, non-theists, nones, pagans, rationalists, secularists, skeptics, unbelievers and more. Some day religion will fade and we will not need a name, but until then, we do. Choosing a name is a first step to defining an identity and building pride. Let us stop dividing our energies among numerous names. Let us stick with the term “atheist.”
“Atheist” has been used as a derogatory name and it carries a fair amount of baggage. But it is the most widely recognized term to signify a lack of religious belief. Just as homosexuals claimed the name “gay” as their own, we can claim “atheist” as ours and redefine it. Let us gather under one name, one banner, and define ourselves positively.
Find a symbol.
As the gay rights movement grew, the rainbow flag became a unifying symbol. When a gay person is behind a car with a rainbow flag, he knows he is behind family. When a lesbian stays at a hotel flying a rainbow flag, she knows her patronage is welcome. No atheist symbol has achieved wide recognition. To me, combining the word “atheist” with the footed evolve fish is the most functional symbol that has emerged so far. Using a single common symbol will help us to recognize one another and to build our movement.
Create an identity.
Atheism is more than non-belief. It encompasses a willingness to self-identify as nonreligious, combined with a desire to counteract the negative aspects of religion. Atheists are more open to new experiences than the general population, less inclined to be prejudiced against minorities, and more vocal about their opinions. Look back at the predicted characteristics of atheists in Chapter 4. Part of creating an identity is recognizing what makes us different and celebrating it. We can best counter the negative image religionists have of atheists when we know what is right about us. We will most effectively celebrate our strength when we know what brings us together. When there are five to ten times as many nones as there are atheists, there is an obvious failure to create a positive atheist identity. As we remedy this, our numbers will grow.
Make atheism a civil rights issue.
Atheists are despised minority. Discrimination against atheists is considered to be more acceptable than discrimination against women, older people, Jews, Muslims, and gays. The negative view of atheists, just as with other minorities, is based on prejudice. It is time to challenge that prejudice.
Religion is the first protected category in the Bill of Rights, it is listed along with race, color, sex, and national origin in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Supreme Court has held that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.” In the eyes of the law, atheism receives the same protection as religious belief. The civil rights of atheists should be seen no differently than the civil rights of Jews, Muslims and Quakers.
Atheists should clarify in both the legal and social spheres that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. Only by increasing awareness will we change perception. Identifying atheism as a civil rights issue will bring partnerships with other civil rights advocates. It is time we speak up and take our place at the table. Prejudice against atheists is widespread, but it is unjust, unreasonable and often illegal. Let us use legal and social channels to bolster and enforce our civil rights.
Link with others.
Popular culture pokes a lot of fun at liberals. But shockingly enough, liberals tend to side with religionists when it comes to issues of religious tolerance. It makes me want to shout, “how could you lose the liberals?” In part, I believe, we have lost the liberals because we do not make freedom from religion a civil rights issue, we are not open about our atheism, and we do not ask them for support. It is time that atheists start linking with other groups to build support for our cause.
The women’s movement is another group that should be sympathetic. Both women and atheists are colored bad by religionists. Additionally, without religion, atheists have no basis for opposing women’s rights and equality. We should let women know that we support them and ask them to support us.
Gays are another group. The Christian scripture is unambiguous that gays should be stoned to death. Muslims are even worse. Trying to fit homosexuality into religion is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The fact that so many gays try is a testament to the power of religion. But atheists can offer an alternative. Absent religion there is no reason atheists are concerned about who dates whom, or who marries whom. We should let gays know that we welcome them and that we seek their support.
Jews have suffered horribly at the hands of their co-religionists and therefore are forever vigilant about encroachments in the area of the separation of church and state. Additionally, a large number of people are culturally Jewish, but have no belief in god. Court opinions that effectively hold, for example, that a cross is not a religious symbol, are just as offensive to Jews as to atheists. Jewish people have spent years in the trenches supporting the separation of church and state and battling Christian bias. We should learn from them and link with them where our interests are the same.
As atheists build coalitions, our progress will become stronger and faster.
Engage in political activity.
People widely assume that America’s history of separation of church and state and freedom of religion are all that atheists need to achieve equality. That is not the case. Just as gay rights activists needed to explicitly put their group into anti-discrimination laws and policies, atheists should as well. Start with your employers, ask them to add atheism to their anti-discrimination policy. This will raise awareness that atheists are here and that we have rights. Then, take it to your municipal, city and state governments. It is time atheists have visibility and recognition of our rights.
The fact only one member of Congress admits to being atheist is pitiful. Yet, candidates know of the prejudice against atheists and therefore avoid being identified as such. (Gay politicians suffer similar prejudice, but there are three openly gay people in Congress now. ) Let us support atheist candidates and encourage hidden atheist politicians to “come out.” As the environment changes, more and more politicians will be openly atheist.
Additionally, as discussed more in the “coming out” section of this chapter, write to your elected representatives and let them know your concerns. When you volunteer for political campaigns, be clear about your atheist status. Atheists should become a political force to be reckoned with.
Atheists are falling all over themselves thanking Barack Obama for mentioning us in a speech or two. This is a start, but our goals should be much higher. Just as gays progressed politically from ending harassment to gaining acceptance and are finally working on achieving equality, atheists should demand no less.
Pursue legal remedies.
Lawsuits are one area in which atheists seem to be doing pretty well. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation as well as individual atheists and attorneys nationwide seem skillful in bringing their claims.
However, it is likely that there will be some setbacks in this area. Fifty-six percent of the judges nationwide were appointed by Republicans. The George W. Bush administration was famous for its litmus test for appointees–god, guns and gays. The recent 9th Circuit decision upholding the inclusion of “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance is an example. The author of the opinion was a Bush appointee. The U.S. Supreme Court is stacked with six Republican appointees, only three were appointed by Democrats. The 2010 decision in Salazar v. Buono, upholding the transfer of federal park land to private ownership to maintain a cross, is an example of the shift in the courts. In that decision, Reagan appointee Justice Kennedy, writing for the plurality, seems to use “because I said so” as his justification that a cross is not a predominantly religious symbol:
[A] cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.
State constitutions may provide another resource if the federal judiciary falters. However, even if we face temporary setbacks in the courts, the rising tide of atheist social change will provide an alternate avenue for success. Look at the gay rights movement, with limited dollars and members, they have made great strides. With larger potential numbers and resources, atheists should do even better.
Seek visibility in arts and entertainment.
Because atheism is virtually invisible, it seems that our friends in the arts and entertainment community have neglected us. Just as the media ignored gays 50 years ago, we are ignored today. It is time for us to use the media to create more recognition and a positive image for the atheist community. We need more atheists to come out, and we need the inclusion of atheist characters in the media. Popular media has enormous impact on public sentiment. The progress made by gay characters over the past 50 years can be duplicated by atheists.
Oppose religious myths.
As discussed in Chapter 20, religionists have little problem telling lies. Once people adopt belief in a bearded man in the sky who answers prayers, it is not hard to rewrite U.S. history to say it is a Christian nation or to ignore evolutionary science and not only say the earth is less than 10,000 years old, but to also try to teach it to all school children. Even if you are not “out” as an atheist, you can fight against religious myths and try to limit their impact on society.
At this point in history, the religious mythologists are winning. Only 39% of Americans believe in evolution, 67% believe America is a Christian nation and 55% think the U.S. Constitution establishes the U.S. as a Christian nation. It is time that we organize and speak out against these baseless religious myths.
Build organizational strength.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has 14,000 members and claims to be the largest atheist organization in the United States. It has eight full-time employees and a budget of $2 million. It pales in comparison to religious organizations–the Catholic Church has 68 million members in the U.S., and more than 40,000 working priests.
In general, atheist organizations are disorganized, territorial, and dependent on the personalities and efforts of a limited number of leaders. Religion has millions of employees and billions in assets. For atheists to present a powerful message we need to develop professionally staffed and managed organizations with national scope so that they may become successful agents of change. Donating money, time and leadership will move us toward this goal.
Develop economic power.
The gay rights movement gained ground when businesses recognized the economic power of the gay community. There is almost no recognition of the economic power of atheists. Some atheist activists are starting at the grass-roots level by marking “god” off the paper currency, or changing the phrase “in god we trust” to “in reason we trust.” Of course, marking money is likely an illegal act, so it might be wise to consult an attorney if you choose to engage in this activity.
Religionists have great economic power. However, atheists can let businesses know that they choose to go elsewhere because of their religious assertions. For example, since 1997 Hobby Lobby has placed full page Christian ads in newspapers on Easter and other holidays. The Easter 2010 ad included three crosses, a biblical quote and an invitation to come to Jesus. Although I am not a regular customer, I wrote the store to tell them I would no longer do business with them and transferred my business to a locally owned store. The least we can do is let them know they are losing customers. If this were a battle on which we chose to focus, a coalition with gays and Jews could potentially triple the impact on Hobby Lobby.
Similarly, some businesses put a Jesus fish in their ads or on their service trucks. To me, this is a sign that they are liars and I never do business with them. If there were a local directory of atheist businesses (like there is for gay businesses), I would use them. As the atheist community grows in size and visibility, the business community will start to respond. We can start small, if you have a business and are not afraid of religious backlash, sponsor a local atheist group or place an ad in their publication. The gay rights movement started with the same small steps and now they have significant national sponsors for their activities.
Additionally, open your wallet for local and national atheist organizations. Religion has become powerful by directing adherents to give 10% of their income to their group. Atheists do not seek to duplicate this madness, but making a few donations of $50 or $100 will help atheist groups grow and give you a feeling of participation in the process. The creationist project “Answers in Genesis” alone had $22 million in revenue in 2008. In contrast, The Freedom From Religion Foundation had $2 million. We are gaining ground, but we have a long way to go to be on an equal financial footing with the religionists.
Create Radio Free Religion.
The 9/11 attacks served as a wake up call for atheists. The attacks were religiously motivated and killed more than 3,000 people. As a direct result of 9/11, the United States initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killing a million or more people. Now religion is not just a matter of creationism and the ten commandments in public places, it is a matter of life and death.
So far, the military approach has had limited success. Guns, planes, bombs and torture have only added fuel to the fire of religious extremists. My suggestion is that we try to erode the religious basis for their violence.
During the cold war, the United States created Radio Free Europe to broadcast anticommunist information to the East Bloc. Let us update the concept and promote antireligious messages by radio, Internet and new media to the world. If only political leaders had the will to question all religion, they could speak to religious extremists, in their own language, about the fallacies of their positions. A friend of mine suggests that if the oppressed women of the Muslim world would all at once tie up (or worse) their sleeping spouses, the region could be freed of religious oppression. The concept is simplistic but powerful. Radio Free Religion could erode the foundations of religious violence and bring about a more peaceful world. This could be done at a fraction of the cost of war and with the impact of words instead of bombs.
Use new media.
Admittedly, I am from a generation that grew up before the advent of the personal computer. But even a primitive like me sees the power of the new media. The Internet, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, and other tools allow people to privately learn about issues, as well as to find socialization and support. Rural atheists can access the same information and support as city folks. Atheist Nexus bills itself as the largest social networking site exclusively for atheists. MySpace had an atheist group of 35,000, the world’s largest atheist group, until MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) deleted it in 2007. Ex-Mormons, ex-Muslims, ex-Scientologists and ex-Catholics all find custom-tailored support online. Meetup.com can tell you where like-minded people are gathering face-to-face in your area. You can watch your favorite authors delivering video lectures (as well as religionists making horrible mis-characterizations of us) on YouTube. The Internet allows us to reach across the world to people oppressed by religion. The Internet is a valuable source of information, interaction and support for atheists. We should make the most of it.
Talk with your ex’s.
The atheist community has a valuable resource in its former religionists. Ex-Mormons, ex-Muslims and ex-Scientologists can, for example, speak more accurately to specific issues that will help convert their brethren into ex-religionists. It would be nice to have a set of pamphlets next to the front door specially tailored to offer to the various brands of religionists who knock. That way we could ask the Mormons to promise to read our brochure if we promise to read theirs. An ex-Mormon could best draft such a pamphlet. The former members of religions provide atheists a valuable window into how and why people leave their religion and we should tap this resource to help duplicate their experiences.
Atheist organizations seem to be dominated by older, college-educated, white men. We need to be sure that the full spectrum of atheists feel welcome within our group. Women, young people and people of color should all have a role. Where are our American Indian members? Where are our Arab members? Where are the laborers and the rural residents? Class and education should not be seen as membership criteria for our club. For example, Vietnam has one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world. Is the waitress or dishwasher at your favorite Vietnamese restaurant aware of your local atheist organization? Does she feel welcome there? Or will she go from an atheist perspective to believing America is a Christian nation and concluding her children should be churched in order to assimilate? Let us make every effort to reach out to the rainbow spectrum of atheists and potential atheists and strive to make them feel welcome in our movement. People from all backgrounds should serve as role models and leaders and further expand our diversity.
The phrase, “we are everywhere” should be more than an empty statement. Atheists around the world are seeking to obtain support or to give it. In places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, atheists exist at all levels, they are just waiting for the environment to become safe so they can make their non-belief known. We should help to create the environment where they feel comfortable expressing their views. Pressure can be placed on oppressive regimes to recognize the right to freedom from religion.
Additionally, we can learn from progressive countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Japan about social change that lessens the danger and influence of religion. Studies of atheism can be translated and shared via the Internet. Atheists are not limited by religious borders or cultures. We are everywhere, and we will gain strength through mutual support and information sharing.
Religion is powerful and atheism is despised. Perhaps this explains why there is very little scientific study of atheism and religion from an atheist perspective. Right now, atheism is a movement of armchair philosophers, me included. We sit around making guesses about why atheists are a minority and religion prevails. Pollsters give us numbers to look at, but they rarely get to the reasons for conduct. It is time that we demand and fund studies that show what factors make some of us atheists and others religionists. Let us study why some Muslims reject their religion and its violent tenets. How can we help others to duplicate the process? How can we assist religionists to see the lie in the bearded man myth and start living a life based on reason? It is time for atheists to move from guessing and philosophizing and apply the science of which we claim to be so proud.
Talk with religionists.
Religionists are not the enemy. They are simply people infected with the religious virus, usually at a young age. Knowledge and rational thought are the cures. In order to stop the destructive effects of religion—anti-intellectualism, subjugation of women and the environment, murder, suicide bombing and the threat of myth-motivated nuclear war, we must accelerate the rising tide of atheism. Polite people do talk about religion. The longer religionists can insulate themselves, the longer religion will last. Atheism is not broadly accessible to those who are not looking for information about it. But by being open and discussing atheism and religion, we make it more accessible and more human.
Hunsberger and Altemeyer found that a majority of religionists who became atheists were motivated by intellectual honesty about the inconsistencies of their scriptures. In order to accelerate the change, we should talk to religionists about this. It may entail learning a bit about their scriptures, listening politely to their perspectives and planting the seeds of rational thought and skepticism. In their limited study, Hunsberger and Altemeyer found it took religionists from six to fourteen years to become atheists after they first felt doubt in their religion. So we should not be surprised when religionists do not change after one conversation. We should study how and why religionists adopt rational thought and seek to duplicate and refine our strategies. There is too much at stake not to do so. It is not enough to sit back and say, “religionists are crazy and there is no use talking to them.” They are crazy, but they are crazy and in control, with their hands on the triggers of guns and the detonators of weapons of mass destruction. The time for deference is over. The time for action is now.
The most important action step of all is both simple and complex, that is to come out as an atheist. Just as with gays, everyone knows an atheist, everyone respects an atheist, they are just unaware that the person is an atheist.
It is time that we tell people who we are. Does your spouse know you are an atheist? Does your family know? Do your neighbors know? If not, tell them.
The same cautions that apply to gays coming out apply to atheists as well. Young atheists should think carefully about whether their revelation will threaten their physical or financial well-being. It is not that an atheist student should never risk having his family’s financial support cut off because of his disclosure, but he should carefully evaluate if it is worth the risk.
Atheists should also carefully consider how coming out may affect their work. Discrimination on the basis of irreligion is illegal, but as other minorities know, discrimination can be quietly invidious. Unless your boss says, “I did not promote him because he is an atheist,” it may be difficult to prove discrimination.
But after giving the issue careful thought and protecting your financial and emotional position, I encourage you to have at it. I have been openly atheist for all of my adult life and I have found the gains far outweigh the losses.
When you come out, consider the following:
Write letters. When is the last time you wrote to your elected officials, told them you are an atheist, and expressed your concern about an issue within their control, for example, not using government money to fund religious institutions (such as the “faith based” federal initiatives or many school voucher programs)? We will never gain visibility and power unless we speak up and insist that we be heard.
Join organizations. Numerous atheist and atheist friendly organizations work hard every day to protect and promote the rights of atheists. Join one, two or more. Your efforts will assist them in their cause and their meetings and publications will help keep you aware of issues and remind you to remain out and active.
Display a bumper sticker, button, or T-shirt. Your automobile, bicycle or body can serve as a mobile atheist billboard. Put an atheist fish on your car, stick a button on your coat and decorate your coffee mug with a message. Your statement will support other out atheists, encourage those not yet out to consider taking the plunge, and educate the general public that we are here, and in many instances, we have a sense of humor. And when you see an atheist stating her opinion, give her a wave, a thumbs-up, or an encouraging comment. We are everywhere, we just have not yet learned to show it.
Educate around the religious holidays. Religious holidays offer an excellent opportunity to educate the public that atheists exist and that our beliefs may be different from theirs. At a minimum, when someone wishes you “Merry Christmas,” wish them a “Seasonal Solstice,” say “ho, ho, ho,” or something that does not create the impression that you share their belief. Around Christmas time, I do not have time to give everyone the long version of why I do not celebrate, but usually about one in five times I do. People have been surprised, but never have I had a bad reaction and sometimes it has lead to interesting conversations. This has been an especially easy way for me to educate my neighbors that I am an atheist, after all, they brought up religion.
Choose a day. The gay rights movement anchors gay pride day (and now often gay pride week) to the start of the Stonewall Rebellion, June 28. National coming out day for gays is on the anniversary of their largest march on Washington, October 11. These events provide an opportunity for activities, media coverage and a special place on the calendar to consider how much you are out and to whom. Atheists should not pass up the opportunity to pick a day and do the same. Any day will do. Charles Darwin was born on February 12, the same day as famous American skeptic Abraham Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.” Interestingly, a notable book concludes that Lincoln was gay.
But back to the subject at hand, let us declare February 12th Freedom from Religion Day, a day to discuss our atheist predecessors, atheist beliefs, to remind ourselves to come out, and to educate the media and the public about our issues. Let us have the Mayor and the Governor recognize our day by proclamation (in less progressive areas you could call it “Freedom of Religion Day,” while still emphasizing atheist issues). February 12 can be our atheist pride day and national coming out day, all rolled into one.
Teach your children. One of the most surprising conclusions in Hunsberger and Altemeyer’s book Atheists is that most atheists surveyed would not teach their children to be atheists. The parents said they would just allow the children to figure it out on their own. On one hand, not teaching your children shows great confidence that the truth will prevail and they will grow up atheist. The good news is that children of atheists tend to grow up as atheists, no matter what their parents say. However, this strikes me a little bit like saying you will not teach your children about drugs and alcohol, you will just let them figure it out on their own. Why take a chance that children will experiment unadvised with drugs, alcohol or religion? In our lifetimes, we have learned something about powerful forces. I believe it is our obligation to teach our children what we have learned.
Exhibit pride. Gay people were once a hated minority. Over the years, societal perception of gays has changed so that being gay has become, for most people, an interesting aspect of an individual’s personality, not a stigmatized status. Part of the reason for the change is gay pride.
Atheists should learn a lesson from this. Atheists have engaged in rational analysis of religious claims and rejected them. Atheists have chosen a harder road. Where religionists pray, atheists analyze and decide. Where religionists give responsibility for their decisions to their bearded sky father, atheists take responsibility for themselves. Where religionists are expected to sin and be forgiven, atheists expect themselves to do right and to analyze and learn from mistakes. Atheists have not taken the easy way out. Further, atheists have gone beyond the agnostics and “nones” to stand up and be counted as people who reject religion, despite the social costs. Rather than keeping this aspect of your personality in the closet, display it with pride. We are atheists, out, loud and proud.
Coming out conclusion. Coming out is an individual process. Only you can determine how and when to do it. But if the experience of the gay rights movement is predictive, coming out will accelerate our agenda more than any other strategy. And our membership is not limited to 3% or 5% or 10% of the population, once the ball is rolling, atheists will become the majority. Coming out as an atheist is the single most powerful step you can take to change the world.