Report

The Lonely Life of American Atheists

By | May 24, 2012

A woman wears an atheist symbol as an earring.

(Flickr.com/shanelin)

There may be no “church” for the unbeliever, but there can at least be one big party. In late March, more than 10,000 people gathered on a rainy Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. The Reason Rally 2012 was billed as the largest collection of non-theists ever assembled on the National Mall. Armed with lawn chairs, umbrellas, and posters, they came: humanists, atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and a myriad of other self-identified non-believers. One held a sign, which read, “Atheism: it stands to reason.” An individual dressed as Jesus riding a dinosaur walked around the grounds. The event promised to provide the big names and sounds of unbelief: headliner Richard Dawkins, the modern emblem of atheism; Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old who successfully sued to take down a prayer banner in her high school and was dubbed an “Evil Little Thing” by her state representative; and the sounds of Bad Religion, the 1980s punk rock band.

David Silverman, president of the American Atheists organization, started the formal planning for the Reason Rally two years ago. It was “Dave’s baby,” according to Roy Speckhardt, director of the American Humanist Association (AHA). The idea sprang up during the Bush reelection campaign, at an annual meeting of the directors of the nation’s largest non-theist organizations. The event was meant to provide a solution to the problem of fragmentation among unbelievers and non-theist groups. The wide assortment of identities among non-theists—from agnostics to religious Humanists, apatheists to freethinkers—has always made it difficult to join together around a common cause. Not all non-theists agree on whether or not religion should be challenged in the public sphere. Not all non-theists agree on the details of the separation of church and state.

They can all agree, though, that 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.

The Reason Rally was meant to solve this problem. Flanking the concert stage were two large television screens, which broadcast the message that this was “a rally to empower a generation, a rally to counter negative stereotypes, and to remind our nation, its citizens and elected officials that our numbers are rapidly growing and we have a voice.” As Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), put it, the goal of this rally was to “show policy leaders that … we are big and that, even though we argue a bit, we are still united.” Overall, “it will show folks who maybe are not out of the closet that there is a vibrant, positive, energetic community.”

Just before 10 a.m., Silverman walked on stage to introduce the opening act. Clouds continued to roll in; rain would continue throughout the day. But at the podium, Silverman stood tall in his deep red shirt and tartan tie and furrowed his brow before proclaiming: “Welcome to history.” He said it quickly, almost haphazardly, but I kept wondering: How much of this really is history?
 

IN HIS 1964 BOOK, Varieties of Unbelief, the religious historian Martin E. Marty set out to analyze the origins and types of unbelievers in the United States, a group he dubbed “invisible.” Hovering at just around 5 percent of the population, unbelievers were then demographically absent from the larger picture of U.S. religion. “Measurable disbelief is so rare,” he wrote, because of “the apparent absence of unbelief on a broad scale in contemporary America.” The book came out, though, at what could be considered a watershed moment for non-theists in America. The Supreme Court had just given its ruling in Abington v. Schempp (1963) that public school-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional. That same year saw the beginning of the American Atheists organization and the rise in prominence of its founder, the woman who would come to be labeled as “the most hated woman in America”: Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The American Atheists organization, of course, was not the first non-theist association in the United States. Freethought and ethical societies had existed for more than a century before O’Hair. But O’Hair’s actions and presence took unbelief out of its invisibility and launched it into the public sphere in a way the country had not seen since the “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll spoke in the late 1800s. Although the number of American non-theists remained relatively stable throughout her tenure with American Atheists, the organization reached a level of notoriety that none of the meager organizations before her had been able to attain. And she remained, for better or worse, the emblem of unbelief in America until her death in the 1990s.

Things have changed considerably since the days of O’Hair. Although she is still remembered, names like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or the late Christopher Hitchens are more likely to come up when Americans talk about unbelief. Demographically, as well, the number of those who identify as “unaffiliated,” claiming no religion, in national surveys has increased to more than 16 percent of the population. And organizationally, there are possibly more non-theist organizations than ever before. From the Secular Student Alliances on university campuses to larger bureaucratic bodies like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the number of associations has increased, especially since the 1990s.

What has not changed much, though, is the image of the non-theist that O’Hair left in her wake. It’s the image of the atheist out to pick a fight, the unbeliever who is constantly seeking the next debate. As Fidalgo from CFI 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.” More recent non-theist leaders (like the late Hitchens) are often perceived as relishing these same antagonisms.

In talking with rally leaders and attendees, it was clear this arrogance was in contention. Time and again, I heard the same answer: “We’re not so bad.” Tom Ikelman and Wendy Hoffspiegel flew into D.C. from Sacramento to attend the rally. Both are active in the Sacramento Coalition of Reason and said they “still feel a lot of pressure to be quiet” about who they are and what they do. Coming to the rally, they said, was a way for them to show that “we’re good Americans like everybody else.” David Underwood of Syracuse, N.Y., said the rally would “get people to put a face on [unbelief].” On being open about his atheism, he said, “I was afraid at first, but the more people you tell, the more surprising reactions you get.” Kent and Canaan Reiersgaard from Seattle found that the rally was about “honoring the fact that in addition to religious people there are a lot of nonbelievers as well.” They compared the atheist community to the LGBTQ community in terms of marginalization, an analogy that popped up time and again. “People disagree on religion but they don’t disagree on doing good,” they told me. “All people speak the language of good.”

To be sure, the event included jabs and jokes about religion. Dawkins, for one, told the crowd to “ridicule and show contempt” for religious people. But for most of the attendees I met, ridiculing religion was not their primary motivation. The rally was more about people who themselves felt ostracized finding likeminded thinkers, even a community of them. “Not everybody can stand alone,” said Reginald Joiner of Chicago. The rally and other non-theist community groups are “for people to stand together.”

To the people I spoke to in the crowd that day, this really was an event in history: a unique time when their unbelief was not questioned or suspected; a day in which they could be who they were and not feel the social stigma that they felt otherwise. “This is what an atheist looks like” said one of the posters. But more to the point was another that said, “Let us be us.” In the end, the day was not about the absence of God. It was about the presence of unbelievers.

Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University. 

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