Why do Americans still hate atheists? Herb Silverman explains

May 04, 2011

Herb Silverman will be online to discuss the opinion piece that ran in the Post today titled, "Why do Americans still hate atheists?" and other facts about atheism. In it, the authors write, "Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently - and uncivilly - declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens."

What's your take? Do Americans truly hate atheists? Will society ever accept them? Ask your questions now and join the chat live Wednesday, May 4, at 2 p.m. ET.

I'm President of the Secular Coalition for America and Professor Emeritus at the College of Charleston. I challenged the unconstitutional South Carolina prohibition on atheists holding public office and eventually won in the South Carolina Supreme Court. I'd like to talk about unwarranted prejudice about atheists and what we should do to change the culture.

 

Would you suggest that atheists be considered a protected class? I am an atheist and am forced to remain partially "closeted" for fear of professional reprisal.

I think atheists should have the same rights as theists, no more, no less. 

I am an atheist. I am happy to say so. I don't feel any hate from believers. Maybe concern, but certainly not hate. I suspect that atheists are hated only in the abstract. People are distrustful of and uncomfortable around atheists as a concept. But not as a real person.

In the South where I live, there is probably more dislike of atheists. I agree that atheists are often hated in the abstract. The best way to change public opinion is for atheists to come out of the closet so that others will recognize that atheists can be good and decent people.

I can't stand religious and non-religious people who are just so sure about their beliefs, that everyone else who differs in their view is just wrong. Count me among the agnostics, because we don't really get proof of any afterlife (or lack thereof) until after we can tell anyone about it. A rude, know-it-all atheist is no better or worse than a rude, know-it-all preacher.

I used to call myself an agnostic because I couldn't prove whether there was or wasn't a god. When I heard that atheists are people without a belief  in any gods, I became an atheist. 

I learned something from a religious scholar that I mentioned to a newspaper columnist who did an article on this and confirmed this with a scholar at Catholic University: there is no evidence that Jesus existed. Despite meticulous records kept by the Romans, the trial and existance of Jesus is mostly missing. Someone found a record that shows someone named Jesus physically existed, but some argue that many of the Biblical stories attributed to him may have been a compilation of stories that previously were attributed to others. As the religious scholars all noted, what binds those of faith is exactly that: faith. One has to have faith in their beliefs in Christianity and in God. Since religion is about faith, shouldn't those of faith understand that those without faith, people who demand evidence and hard facts, are not going to accept something on faith. Why can't the faithful embrace their faith and not be so concerned about those who demand more than faith? I believe if people would just accept each other for who they are regardless, this would be a much nicer world.

I know that if I openly express my views in the workplace I may very well be discriminated against. I will not be offered enhancing job opportunities the same as my "faithful" co-workers. There is definitely a bias against anyone with an athiest viewpoint. Sometimes I'm a bit suprised at just how strong that bias is.

Such prejudice used to be more prevalent about gays and lesbians, until they began coming out of the closet. The more atheists who come out, the better it will be for everyone.

Can you explain your reasons for being an atheist rather than an agnostic?

I can't prove anything either way. An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any gods.

How do secularists/humanists fight the billions spent in Washington by the religious right?

The Secular Coalition for America has lobbyists in Washington. Our mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints and to protect the secular character of our government. It is an uphill battle, but we are moving in the right direction.

How does "hating" anyone jive with being a true christian? Being an atheist may not be for everyone but doesn't Christianity teach acceptance and forgiveness of all? How can they jive hatred with Christianity?

You'll have to ask a Christian. There are parts of their holy book that say to love and parts that say to hate. You can tell a lot about religious people by which parts of their contradictory holy books they choose to follow.

I think it's just Christians who hate atheists. Not Americans, per se.

Perhaps atheism is threatening to those with religious beliefs. They want an eternity of bliss, and don't like to hear from those who think when you die you are dead. 

How often was the South Carolina law prohibitng atheists from holding public office enforced? Even if it never was, I am shocked by it because I believe our concept of religious freedom includes those who choose not to have a religion.

It was enforced against those who were open atheists. It couldn't be enforced against the many atheists who remained in the closet. Even the law was never enforced, the assumption was that atheists are too immoral to hold public office. 

(chirp-chirp, chirp chirp) - aside from the deafening silence over this question, what concrete evidence do you really have that anyone is spending much time fretting over your disbelief in a Creator? Personally, I just don't want to have my belief in Christ constantly made a political issue by people like you, who clog up our courts with lawsuits about prayers, statues, and proclamations.Who is suing you over your right to state your disbelief?

Atheists believe that all citizens have the right to profess any belief. We get upset when the government favors one religion over another or religion in general over non-religion. We are a secular country with a secular constitution.

Did you see the case of David McAfee?  He was rejected admittance to a religious studies program at a public university on the grounds that he is an atheist. Are you aware of any legal precedence in this area? By analogy there are people with biology degrees who promote intelligent design and creationism (see Francis Collins).

This sounds more like a church than a religious studies program in an academic discipline. 

Do you think that the opinion among theists that atheists are not as ethical is based on a lack of education/knowledge? It is assumed that ethics/morality came from religion, but those of us who see it logical that those existed prior to any organized religion figure that on our own and are not exposed to that concept in the public realm.

There is a high correlation between educational level and atheism. Often people are prejudiced against the "other,"  who they don't want to get to know. Sometimes they only hear about atheists from a minister who hates atheists.

How do you feel about the "You KNOW it's a scam" billboards? I've felt irritated by the atheist community, as an atheist, because it seems that that's literally not true for theists. They don't know it's a scam. "You can be good without god" is a great message, and also a fact. Which tact do you think will get us further?

I prefer the one you like. However, there are many who pretend to be believers (especially among politicians) because of the benefits they get from saying they believe. They would privately agree that it is a scam.

What can I do as a twenty-something student to advance efforts in the fight for true separation of church and state?

Join a local organization and work within your community. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a fine organization. Check the Secular Coalition for America and its ten national nontheistic organizations. Many have local chapters. 

Data on well being (health, education, crime rates, wealth, etc) suggest a negative correlation between religiosity and most measures of societal health; atheists, as you've argued, tend to rate highly in these measures. But there's a chicken and egg problem here--which comes first, religiosity or societal ills (or conversely, secularism and societal well-being)? Which is the result of the other?

I think education and critical thinking correlate well with becoming non-religious and with being a decent human being.

Why do we have the word "atheist?" What is being an atheist, besides simply not being religious?

It's being good without god. Probably a lot of people say they are not religious because that sounds more respectable to them than saying they are atheists.

There are churches in every village, town etc. all over the United States. But there are few if any in rural communities. Don't you think there should be physical meeting places where nontheists can meet to discuss issues in the community? I think that would help to allow people who are closet nontheists to come out into the open.

I agree. Whether religious or non-religious, all humans need a sense of community. Here in Charleston, South Carolina I helped found the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. There are many such local groups around the country. 

My nephew informed his parents that he is an atheist. They are now threatening to kick him out of the house. Why cannot people of faith let others have non beliefs?

You need to ask people of faith. It is sad that many are so hurtful even to family members for believing something different.  

I consider my faith, or lack thereof, as an ever-evolving rhetoric. I have a hard time convincing people that it is okay, and even encouraged to question even the most deeply rooted beliefs they come across. Would you agree?

I agree. An answer we don't hear enough is, "I don't know."

I don't think it is fair to state it is more in the south than any other area of the US; I think it would be be fair to state that the South is more observant of what was taught to them from generation to generation about God, Man and Country. God was and will always remain number one in every book in the US its not a matter of hate [which in my opinion is a very strong word] of ones beliefs. It is a matter of upbringing and what this country the United States of America was founded.

Most people adopt the religion of their parents and the dominant religion in the country they live. Religion is more about geography than theology.

In your opinion, what can local non-theistic groups do to best address this issue?

Come out of the closet and do good works. It's hard to hate a class of people when you know and like some in that class.

I love the term 'humanist'. It says exactly what I am. I find the god theory on the same footing as alien beings, I just find it hard to believe. But that doesn't mean I'm insensitive, uncaring or evil. I love humanity and I believe in human rights. I often see the most unchristian behavior from the most fervent Christians.

I don't care whether people call themselves humanists or atheists. I call myself both. We should measure others on what they do, not on what they say they believe. 

Should an atheist engage a missionary or church or religious school recruiter at open events like county fairs and festivals?

It depends on the context. If a minister is open to dialog, that's fine. I don't want to be a screaming in-your-face atheist evangelist. I'll leave such  behavior to Christians.

I am aware of the billboard campaigns calling on the faithful to question their beliefs. Are you aware of any cinematic attempts being made to popularize an image that more accurately represents mainstream atheism? I believe that contemporary culture absorbs information more readily through video.

There are atheists on YouTube and other media. Check out Mr. Deity. 

As a member of the LGBT community, I am always astonished at the way people of a persecuted or misunderstood subculture have a tendency to insulate themselves within the group to avoid the stigma of the outside world, and people who don't agree with them. Non-theism and LGBT communities have a quite a bit in common. Do you think this insulation helps or hurts sub culture community at large?

Here in South Carolina, we have a Progressive Network, where minorities try to cooperate. I think helping one such persecuted minority helps all.  

Then you were already an atheist and just discovered how to word it. I fluctuate between thinking of myself as an atheist and an agnostic. I've always thought it odd that religions tell people such specifics to believe in, so I got turned off to that. On the other hand, there are times when I think maybe there is something larger than myself out there.

It's more important how you live your life than what label you give yourself.

Do you think the US will ever remove the tax-exempt status of churches?

The government should not favor religion over non-religion, including tax favoritism. I doubt you will get many politicians to agree in the current environment. 

The article today mentions studies that indicate secular Americans don't fare as well as religious Americans regarding mental health or subjective well-being, whereas Denmark, being host to a much larger secular population, rates as one of the happiest nations. How important a role does the discrimination American atheists experience play in the overall indicators of happiness? Do you think a more open and accepting environment, such as in Denmark, would significantly improve the mental health and well-being indicators for secular Americans?

I think such an open society would improve the mental health of almost everyone.

When in history has atheism proved to be a more peaceful, productive and safer world?

There have been many holy wars fought in the name of religion. Atheist leaders may have started wars, but not in the name of non-religion. I think we will have peace in the world when there is peace among world religions.

It seems to me that anyone who would hate an atheist is extremely insecure in his or her own faith. It is as if they have to degrade others in order to justify or enhance their own belief system

I agree.

I am a rather recent atheist, one who became one only a few years ago. I am in my 40's. One thing I miss is the sense of community from a church. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions as a replacement for this sense of community I once had?

Find an atheist or humanist community nearby. There might be a local organization. Sometimes you can find such a community within the Unitarian Church, which is accepting of atheists. 

Do you see feminists as having the same PR issue as atheists? I know many women who say "I'm not a feminist but..." and then proceed to declare support for legal and social equality for women. They assume all feminists are man-haters who want to do away with marriage and the family. Similarly, I've encountered a few atheists who believe there are no gods, but stay away from the term atheist because they falsely assume that all atheists want to destroy religion. In my case, I describe myself as "not religious" since I don't see any evidence to take any position on whether gods exist - if I believed that they exist or that they don't, that would be claiming to hold knowledge that I don't have.

You don't need proof to say you don't believe in any goods. Believers should supply evidence for why they believe. 

What are some effective ways to raise awareness about atheism?

Come out of the closet and encourage others to do so.

I think there is some fear. And, it's easier to go through life just believing in someone else's set of rules. My sister, as an example, when asked what she has against homosexuals will just say "my religion tells me it's wrong." She will not THINK about it. Her religion says it's wrong, so those people are to be feared or pitied.

Critical thinking should be encouraged regardless of belief. 

You say you define atheism as "someone without a belief in any gods." I've more commonly heard it defined as someone who believes there is no god, which is much more definitive, and why I've always considered myself agnostic (absence of proof either way). Where are you getting your definition, and which one do you think is more common?

Atheist organizations define it the way I  do. They can't prove there are no gods, but don't believe because they find no evidence for the existence of any gods.

As some of the earlier questions have suggested, there is much more dispute about the meaning of these terms than your answers recognize. I consider myself agnostic because I don't believe in a god, but I also don't believe firmly that no god possibly exists. But atheists whom I know are just as certain in the absence of any god as evangelicals are in the existence of one (and are nearly as proselytizing). In fact, an atheist friend told me that agnostics like me are just wishy-washy, because of our refusal to embrace such certainty.

I'm sorry to hear of such an intolerant atheist. Most that I know welcome people who call themselves agnostics. We need to cooperate and work together.

A/gnosticism deals with the question of whether or not one knows, or even can know, if god exists. A/theism deals with the question of whether or not one believes god exists. So I am both agnostic and atheist, because I have no idea if god exists but I don't believe he does. But really, I find that most people who claim agnosticism are atheists, in that they have a lack of belief in god; they just don't want to call a spade a spade, so sit on the fence claiming agnosticism. For some reason, they (and believers) also think atheists are anti-god zealots, which I think is untrue. I think most atheists would believe in god if there were any objective proof of his existence. But we just can't believe in something for which there is a lack of proof. It's a fine, but important, distinction. (From a proud CofC grad)

Nice to hear from a grad. I still don't care so much about the atheistic/agnostic label. I care about forming communities where we can cooperate to change the culture.

The real question is, how many atheists are spreading mass hate and promoting death all over the world in the name of their beliefs. I believe the comparison to their religious counterparts would be staggeringly lopsided. Whether you call it holy or not, its still mass murder.

Look at the theocratic countries and secular countries in the world. Which cause more death and destruction?

Really, does everyone have a need to feel persecuted? I hear this from my fellow Christians, I hear it from Jews, and it seems that atheists want in on the action too. I'm short and bald, should I be a protected class too because studies show short people are less economically advantaged? Sheesh. (I say this with general support for removing the requirement for a belief in a Supreme Being in order to hold office in South Carolina).

I think we should not persecute anyone based on looks, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. 

Mr. Silverman: Have you heard of the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt? He along with others have made some strong arguments about the evolutionary/socia/anthropological utility of 'Religion'.

Religion might have been a means for survival in a harsh world, just like eating all the food available was. Times have changed.

Personally I think the key to solving this cultural divide lies in improving the US education system and to include in the curriculum empathy development courses. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree. Education and critical thinking are needed more than ever.

As someone who's both gay and an atheist, I agree with you and the others talking about how these things affect the workplace. Things are far, far from being equal in that regard for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (and even worse for transgender people), we share the same moral judgment that I've seen for people of non-Christian faiths, particularly atheists. I'm glad to see you telling atheists to "come out" as well, I truly believe that visiblity debunks the stereotypes people have of us. Do you know of any type of employee resource groups or organizations to help non-theists deal with this in the work place? The climate at my office feels like being "openly" atheist is a direct attack on my Christian coworkers and I'd love some advice about what to do to show that it's not the case--they don't believe me when I say it outright!

If you can find others in the community or the workplace who share your views, such views might change. Different workplaces have different rules. 

This is a fascinating topic. I have felt such relief and freedom since I admitted my atheism to myself and am getting used to calling myself an athiest. There are challenges, though. We live in a fairly liberal, diverse area and my daughter was still teased and told she loved the devil becuase she doesn't go to church.

It's a good opportunity to talk to her about unwarranted  prejudice and how proud  you are of her for the way she sticks up for what she believes. 

Without quibbling over what atheism means, I do think we need three words to define three positions - belief that gods exist, belief that gods don't exist, and no belief either way. The second and third ones are not the same thing. What is your opinion of that idea?

There are lots of labels. an apatheist is one without a belief and doesn't care. An ignostic is one who doesn't know and doesn't care. I don't see all these distinctions to be of primary importance. Those of us who aren't theists conduct our lives as if there is no god.

Do you think a true scientist can have a belief in god?

Some do. But well over 90 percent in the National Academy of Sciences don't believe in a personal god.

The National Day of Prayer seems to be blatently unconstitutional in that it 'establishes' prayer by legislation. The courts don't want to deal with the merits, so they say no one has standing to sue and allow it to proceed. How do you deal with this inequity?

We keep trying. At least we raise our voices so others will learn there are many non-believers in this country. 

Source?

We've heard privately. Soon a book by Daniel Dennett will be coming out where priests and ministers talk anonymously about their lack of belief.

Religion is fading out in Europe, it's not being suppressed nor is there any effort being made to kill it off - it's dying of old age. Will that ever happen here in America, will it just roll over and die?

We are moving in that direction. More than 50 million now acknowledge they don't believe. The proportion is highest among young people, who are also more tolerant on other issues like gay marriage. 

Are New Atheists strident, hostile, aggressive or militant as they are often characterized or are theists hypersensitive about assertions that deny the sacred quality of their beliefs thereby implying that everything that is meaningful to them is a lie or a delusion? Or is the answer "Yes, to both."?

New atheists are asserting their right to be proud atheists, not staying in the closet. Religious criticism should be as acceptable as political criticism or movie criticism. 

The sum and substance of the message of many of the chatters here. How surprising from such a class of people who are "more moral" than believers. Funny how people who profess a belief in "tolerance" are often the most intolerant of those who believe in God.

We may think believers are wrong, but we think they should  have the right to their opinion.  We don't consider them inherently immoral simply because they have a belief in God. 

I grew up and still live in the California, where I have (except for a few situations with very religious friends) usually felt comfortable talking about my atheistic beliefs. Do you think discrimination against atheists is a regional issue in America, and maybe something egged on by extremist pundits from certain media networks? Or do you observe it as something that's still very real and widespread?

I think in an educated and diverse community, you're likely to find less prejudice

At the end of the day, a lot of decisions are supported by the faith of people surrounding you and working for you. The sphere of that support is very much based on common beliefs. Even among atheists themselves they are a decentralized group, which seems to limit their ability to unify and lead.

Bringing independent-minded atheists together is a bit like herding cats. We are making some strides with the Secular Coalition for America (secular.org). 

When I posted the original article, "Why do Americans still hate atheists?" the comments on my facebook went immediately to the topic of morality and the need for a higher power in order to possess morals. What is the most effective way to swiftly argue against that point?

Those who believe in a higher power don't agree on the higher power and what he wants of us. That has brought about much hatred and war. Putting love of a god above love of fellow human beings has caused much harm in the world.

Your response to my question made no sense at all. UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara) is a public university, not a church. Religious belief is not criteria for admittance to an academic program at public universities. Admittance requirements are test scores, LORs, writing samples, GPA transcripts.

My answer was directed at someone who said he couldn't get into a religious studies program because he is an atheist.

Do you think the low amount of stated Atheists in the U.S. is an accurate portrayal? It seems to me that a lot of people who aren't ardent about their lack of belief say in public "I believe in God" to avoid nasty looks or being ostracized, that's it more of not dealing with being hassled.

I agree. The more that come out of the closet, the more acceptable it will be for others to do likewise. 

Why would Americans hate someone for not believing in God? I can understand them thinking they are superior, that they're going to Heaven and the atheist is not. But why would someone speak up and say "I can't believe that," when it really has no impact on them? What do you think?

Some have been taught we are immoral because we don't believe in a god. Some might be afraid of questioning their own beliefs, as we do, because of fear about where it might lead. 

Demographics show the younger generation to be the least religious, and secular student alliance groups are thriving on campuses nationwide. How do you expect this to affect acceptance of nontheists in American society? Do you expect the trend to continue?

I'm optimistic about the future. While there is still discrimination against African-Americans here in South Carolina, nobody is trying to justify slavery.

I as a christian do not hate Atheists what I dislike is that one person in the 60's basically destroyed a way of life that the american principles were founded on. I think that while prayer itself provided a form of discipline that was good for all ages I believe the courts went to far. I think the courts could have offered the opinion to state and remove a spoken prayer versus a moment of silence or medition or something of that nature. But by removing all aspect we removed one very small part of an overarching piece of discipline. Just like today, i see kids that don't stand for the national anthem yet we were taught that you stand, remove your hat and place your hand over your heart. But you would also stand for any other countries anthem out of respect whether you agreed with it's politics or not. However having said all that I believe it was Aristotle who said the kids today are unruly, they don't respect authority, their undiscipline etc. Nothing has changed in all the generation since that time. Yet we survive. If you believe in nothing who am I to say your wrong or right, but don't knock my ability to hae as you said it Faith in my beliefs. Good discussion.

A moment of silence is still permissible. The court ruled that the government can't favor one religion over another or religion in general over non-religion. My students are still allowed to pray before my math exams, as many do, though I've found through the years that studying is more effective.

In US, sometimes I feel it's too much of catholic faith imposed on others - Jesus did this, Jesus can do that... I know many atheists, I feel they are better human being than some regular church goers. Your thought?

I agree. We should measure individuals by how they treat others, not by their professed religious beliefs.

If I said I was an atheist (or freethinker, as I prefer), I'd be treated with fear and haterd and never ever ever get a promotion.

As more people come out of the closet and are shown to be good and decent people, the more that will change. Are you sure you would be hated? Some have thought similarly and were pleasantly surprised when they came out.

A community center, community library, coffee shop... Or do you only want to discuss community issues with those whose beliefs/non-beliefs align with yours? I don't see a benefit in segregating ourselves. Won't that just make people think we're that much more different than them?

Some need a sense of community to know they are not alone. For some, that is the only place they feel they can be open about their beliefs. I think all people should have a community if they want one and also be able to have discussions with people who have different worldviews.

It is sad that some feel threatened by folks that have a thirst for scientific evidence. Our planet is beautiful and mysterious, but some humans would rather believe in campfire stories than physical evidence. Is it that difficult for modern humans to say we just don't know if there is no evidence? Religious folks often tell me their belief is rooted in their conversations with God. How do you respond to that?

I assume the conversation goes only one way. I'd be interested in knowing what language God speaks and what he sounds like. 

If that is indeed the case, then the faithful must not believe so strongly after all if they can be so easily pursuaded. An exaggerated example would be if I go up to you and say "I think I'll have a beer" then you turn into an alcoholic.

There are many slippery slopes. My questioning of parts of the Bible led me to atheism. I'm pleased that I reached that stage. Others fear it.

I think non-believers can also find homes in many Humanist congregations of the Unitarians. There is also Ethical Culture which has a long standing tradition of non-theism. The DC Area has congregations in DC, Northern Virginia and Baltimore. I think it is tremendously helpful, especially with children, to define ourselves by what we believe (the inherent worth of all people) than what we don't (a man-god in the sky) for example.

I'm an atheist, but by one measure I might be the most "religious" person in the world. I am a member of three religious organizations: Society for Humanistic Judaism, American Ethical Union, and my local Unitarian Church.

Is that individual donations to pay a preacher are tax deductable! That's like getting a tax deduction for paying a lobbiest.

Our tax code should not privilege religion over non-religion.

NO. my Jewish colleage thinks I"m gonna burn in heck too. He told me it's a pity I can't be Jewish, but at least I should practice the religion of my 'people (who he doesn't know).

I assume your Jewish colleague is Orthodox. I think religious fundamentalists of all stripes have more in common with one another than they do with the liberal religionists in their own religion.

I have read that the founding fathers were themselves quite unreligious, yet many do still seem to believe (as in the previous poster) that the US was founded on God (specifically a Christian God).

Whatever the religious views of our founders, they established a secular nation with a godless Constitution. I'll give anyone $1000 who can find the word "God" in our Constitution.

Many religious moderates and also agnostics find some athiests to be too pushy with their beliefs (technically lack thereof). As an anti-theist i find myself mildly embarassed myself by some of the more in-your-face athiests too sometimes. Yet, the amount of wickedness religions can imply and impose should inspire some call to action and rebuttle. How can we make what I believe to be educational conjecture seem less imposing?

By showing that your actions and treatment of others are consistent with your beliefs. 

I know hundreds of atheists. I do think there is distrust and discrimination against them. Here's my theory: at least half of all atheists I know are Jewish. Jewish and atheist can co-exist, since for most folks you were just born Jewish, and not believing in God doesn't disqualify you. Further, the history of persecution (and not just Hitler) makes it abundantly clear that 1. God doesn't exist, and 2. believers aren't ethical people. So here's my explanation: about half of all the dislike and discrimination against atheists is really anti-Semitism. What about the other half? It's simple: we know something is true that believers fear is true. So they transfer/project that fear onto us.

I think there are many haters in the world, some of whom are anti-Semites. Such haters usually hate many classes of people.  For instance, I don't know anyone who hates gays and doesn't also hate atheists.

I have only told close friends about my atheism, as well as my immediate family. It does feel like I am "closeted," while relatives and friends routinely post religious statements or outright preaching on Facebook or say it as a matter of conversation. I do feel like if I was more open about it -- or at least as open as they are about their faith -- that I would be looked down upon. Pitied, at the least. And I live in a metropolitan area, and have a professional government job -- not exactly living in a small town in Mississippi. I suspect that this is a common feeling. How do you recommend that we increase atheistic tolerance?

Where your atheism proudly. They might look down at you initially, but that likely will stop when they see you are an accomplished person who doesn't look down on himself. You've stopped believing in a god, but you don't feel you've lost anything of value.  

I'm getting tired of politicians using moral issues as a call to vote these days (abortion, same sex legislation etc.). How do we change a system that is so deeply rooted in exploiting religious factions?

I support democracy, which means I also support an educated and informed public. Politicians are more followers than leaders. 

The Atheists I know love to bash religion and make fun of "believers," especially Christians. They also seem to be on a crusade to stamp out anything that has to do with God in the U.S., ie. removing the cross from the Mojave National Preserve War Memorial or deleting God from our currency and pledge of allegiance and the list goes on. Do you think the Atheists who participate in anti-religious but mainly anti-Christian fervor has anything to do with your question? And for the record, I'm not an Atheist hater...

Atheists don't want to stamp out God, only prevent government endorsement of God or religion. Nobody has a problem with religious symbols on private property. Ask yourself how you would feel if "In Muhammad We Trust" was on our currency. Or Zeus? That's how atheists feel about "God."

I'm somewhat dumbfounded by the claim that atheists are a group that experiences oppression. Atheists are certainly no more oppressed at present in our country than Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, Tea Partiers, athletes and reality TV stars. I'm sure the GLBT and ethnic minority communities would find it hard to relate to the "oppression" that an atheist experiences...

I don't claim that atheists are the most repressed group, but they are the most closeted. We have many Jews, Mormons, Tea Partiers, etc. in Congress. How many open atheists? Only one, Pete Stark. Do you really believe Congress doesn't contain dozens of atheists?

Don't you agree that a lot of this gets back to the basics motivations of power and money in terms of associating atheism and "godlessness" with bad anti-social amoral behavior. I am not saying there are not sincere believers even at the top of the religious organizations, but everything they stand for and their ability to obtain funding, status and essentially power of people's minds and wallets and property stands on a foundation of taught belief versus objective rationality. Organized religons have a long history of using any tactic necessary to overcome opposing views, including violence and open discrimination to protect their status. Slurring athetists to try to keep them at the fringe of society is one of the easiest and most used.- but the threat of non-believers seems to me always the one they fear the most, even more so that contrary religous views in most cases, because it is the most fundamental challenge to the entire edifice of the power structure built to perpetrate their base of power.

Good point. If people are skeptical about religion, they might be skeptical about what they are told by those in power.

Being an atheist is not an option for someone in the medical profession, my job is to help people heal and it would have a detrimental effect if they thought I did not believe. I live the theory of whatever *works* for you. The key word being works as I have seen stage 4 cancers that could have been successfully treated in people who eschewed modern medicine. With this in mind, is there a word for this type of belief system? I'm not concerned with anyone's beliefs in the afterlife.

Not everyone wants a believing doctor. If I walked into an office where the doctor asked me to pray with him, I'd be out of there. I do think the doctor should learn about the patient and do what works best for that individual. 

Thanks to all who participated in our chat. I’m sorry there wasn’t time to get to all of your questions. For those who asked about national nontheistic groups, please check the member organizations of the Secular Coalition for America (secular.org). For those who wanted to know more about local groups like the one we have in Charleston, South Carolina, please check the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry (lowcountryhumanists.org).

Herb Silverman

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Herb Silverman
Born in Philadelphia, Herb Silverman received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Syracuse University and is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. He has published over 100 research papers in mathematics journals, a couple of books on Complex Variables, and is the recipient of the Distinguished Research Award.

In 1990, a colleague pointed out that atheists were ineligible to hold public office in South Carolina. After an eight-year battle, Herb won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which struck down this religious test requirement. He founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, SC, and is founder and faculty advisor to the College of Charleston student Atheist/Humanist Alliance. He is a board member of the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International, and Humanist Institute, as well as advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance and member of the Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Herb has appeared in a number of debates, including one at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England on the topic: Does American Religion Undermine American Values? He has spoken at numerous freethought conferences and given sermons at Unitarian churches. He has had many articles in freethought publications, writes for Secular Nation, has a book chapter called "Inerrancy Turned Political" in The Fundamentals of Extremism, and is an "On Faith" panelist for the Washington Post online.
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