It’s startling to read the poll results about how much Americans distrust atheists. The reasons aren’t obscure, but let’s consider the numbers first. An ABC News survey asked more than 2,000 people if they would disapprove of a child who wanted to marry an atheist. Almost half (47.6 percent) said yes. The move toward inclusiveness has been more successful with every other group that this question was posed about. Comparatively, a third of respondents would disapprove of their child marrying a Muslim and just over 27 percent an African-American.
Is this a statement about how the American melting pot is faring? Or is it more about the fact that atheists, who didn’t use to have a very public face, are loudly represented by gadflies like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins? Abrasiveness rarely wins friends – or in-laws apparently. When it comes to marrying someone from other minorities – Jewish, Hispanic, Asian – the disapproval rating falls below 20 percent and plummets to 6.9 percent if a child wanted to marry a conservative Christian. That figure is especially telling, since dogmatic atheists chiefly draw vocal opposition from Bible-believing fundamentalists.
For a politician the indicators are clear: don’t step on God’s toes. And why should a presidential candidate take an atheist position, or any position outside the mainstream? We are a secular republic, but what politicians want, basically, is approval. Turning God into a political issue will never be a pure or clean issue. Believers and nonbelievers cover a wide spectrum of American opinion. Although statistically we are among the most church-going countries compared to Britain and Europe, for example, we are also free-thinking. In the context of rationality and scientific inquiry, no faith can claim that their version of God has been validated through rigorous proof or scientific evidence, just as atheists cannot claim that their position has been validated.
Which opens a wide field for reinventing faith on a higher ground, above rancorous prejudice and inflexible belief. Thomas Jefferson held such a position, and so do forward-looking spiritual movements today. Or should we say inward-looking, since religion has steadily found a more tolerant home outside organized faiths, with people seeking their own God by walking the spiritual path as individuals. Officially, we are a nation of believers, but if you examine the social fabric more closely, I think we are more a nation of seekers, on all fronts and not just religion.
The ABC poll asked a second question, about which groups did not share the responder’s view of American society. Atheists led the pack with almost 40 percent, the next highest number being 26 percent for Muslims. Even a more outspoken gay community campaigning for same-sex marriage rated only 22 percent. This is nowhere near perfect by the standards of political correctness, love thy neighbor, and the melting pot but to my mind surprisingly tolerant except about atheism. Of course, it’s not as if atheism is seeking to be popular. It’s an embattled, contentious minority by choice, so far as public relations go, and I imagine that in more restrained circles, such as universities, nonbelief is respectable and widespread. After all, Darwin, Marx, and Freud head the long list of modern minds who jettisoned the God of organized religion more than a century ago, and most of the founding Fathers wouldn’t pass a Bible test given in Southern Baptist Sunday school.
Polls and casual observations cannot determine whether God exists or not. The arrogant reputation of outspoken atheists may derive, at bottom, from their disdain for the world’s great sages, saints, and intelligent believers who experienced some kind of divine presence. The fact that this is a lively question is the most encouraging sign. Better to live in a society with a healthy mix of belief, skepticism, curiosity, argument, and confusion than one where God, or godlessness, is officially sanctioned and woe to anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
Published by the Washington Post OnFaith