American Atheists and the Fight for Respect by Donald McCarthy

Distrusting Atheists

America has an atheist problem. In 1987, then Vice President George H. W. Bush said in response to a question about atheists, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” I find this a little alarming considering he went on to become president of the United States. But this would be 20 years ago. Surely things have changed?

Not so. During our current GOP primary, Newt Gingrich claimed that secular atheists, in league with radical Muslims, are planning to take over America. Could you imagine if instead of atheists Gingrich said this about Jewish people? The out roar would be massive. Unsurprisingly, there was no out roar, only laughter at the fact that Gingrich seemed not to realize that radical Islamists would despise atheists. I think this was a missed opportunity to point out just how disrespected atheists are in American society.

For example, a recent study concluded that only 40% of Americans would vote for a candidate that was an atheist regardless of that person’s political viewpoints. The study even concluded that hiring was affected by atheism; if someone was an atheist and was applying for a job as a teacher or social worker they were less likely to get it than a religious person. Remarkable! It is astounding to me that so many people have such a deep distrust of atheists. What have we ever done?

“Atheists” Who Aren’t Atheists

One of the problems is that knuckleheads like Sean Hannity repeatedly claim that past dictators such as Pol Pot, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were atheists and therefore atheists shouldn’t be trusted. Now I could point out that a lot of religious people have been monsters, too, but that doesn’t mean we should damn the whole religion. But that line of thinking accepts that Hitler or Stalin or Pot lived as atheists. They did not. Hitler, for instance, believed in the Christian God and discusses this in Mein Kampf.

Stalin did not believe in God but instead presented himself as a Godlike figure. He treated his rule as if he was divine and people were to worship him as such. This is why there were so many statues built of him and why his word was considered supreme. In essence, the entire country was an organized religion and Stalin was the god.

Did Stalin actually believe he was godlike? Probably not, but he ruled the Soviet Union as if he was. Pol Pot did something similar. In these cases it would be much easier to make an argument against organized religion as opposed to atheism.

The Immoral Atheist

There is also a belief that atheists cannot be moral as they have no religion to garner a set of rules from. If they do not learn religious law then they will never be able to truly know what is right or wrong.

This argument is beyond preposterous. I do not need to read the Bible or go to Sunday school to know that killing someone is immoral. A simple awareness of reality tells me that another person has their own thoughts, beliefs, and experiences and it would therefore be heinous of me to kill them.

Plus, if reading the laws of God made people moral then why do we have religious folks killing people? I could point to Al Queda or to the Crusades or to any list of murderers, many of whom are religious, to show that religious people are capable of hateful behavior.

But Don’t Atheists Hate Religious People?

In recent years we have seen the rise of famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Many of these famous atheists tend to argue against religion, believing that it has a detrimental effect overall. I tend to agree with this statement. Does this mean that I hate religious people? Of course not. Most of my friends are religious to some extent or another. Arguing against organized religion, from an atheist’s perspective, is not dissimilar to arguing against poor eating habits. Pointing out that poor eating has detrimental effects does not mean that one hates obese people.

Atheists are not all that different from other people who share a common thought. Some atheists are arrogant and rude while others are kind and generous. The same can be said for the people who make up any religious group.

The distrust and disrespect towards atheists needs to stop. America is a country which claims to welcome people of all types. Believe it or not, this also has to include atheists. Atheists may not have an opinion that is popular at the moment, but that does not mean that they should be looked down upon or ostracized. It is time to accept that atheism is not hateful or destructive; it is simply an opinion on a philosophical question.

Donald McCarthy has written news articles, op-eds, books reviews and short fiction. He lives in New York and attends Adelphi University. He is one of the few people on the planet who does not like cheese.