Those Weird Atheists
Copyright © 1999 by S. A. Joyce.
Mirrored with permission from:

Although there have been non-believers and skeptics as long as there has been religion, atheists have recently received an inordinate amount of unfavorable publicity. Modern anti-atheist sentiment had its roots in the nineteenth century, when new scientific discoveries unexpectedly debunked popular religious creation myths. Angry reaction was sparked among religious fundamentalist splinter groups, and the fuss and bluster attracted public attention. Soon fundamentalists, long considered extremist crackpots, found their ranks of followers swelling as considerable numbers of the public sided with them in reaction against the "godless scientists," and the movement took off.

But the worst of it came down in the twentieth century, as news of the atrocities of the new Soviet regime filtered out to the West. Following the Russian Revolution, the Marxists had done everything in their power to obliterate established religion, in the belief that only those who rejected religious allegiances could be regarded as true patriots of the Soviet state and unwavering supporters of the communist system. Naturally there was a global backlash. Within its borders the Soviet Union was able to steam-roll such objections with threats and brute force; but outside the Soviet sphere reactionary sentiment in favor of religion was bolstered by such repressionist tactics. It was a natural (if rather irrational) response to view communism, and anything associated with it (including atheism) as evil.

By the time of the McCarthy era in the United States, anti-atheist sentiment had become rabid; since all communists were atheists, it was erroneously but ardently argued, then all atheists must be communists! If an American at that time had the audacity to express a disbelief in God, he was likely to be publicly condemned as a communist sympathizer, even if in fact he had no such political leanings. He could wake up one morning to find himself without a job, his home mortgage foreclosed, and his children expelled from public school. In the anti-communist hysteria, the United States of America was taking on many of the fear-and-hate aspects of the very regime whose policies it ostensibly opposed.

Then along came Madalyn Murray-O'Hair and the now famous organization which she founded, American Atheists. Her militant activism forced people to take a second look, not so much at atheism itself, but at the coercive religious influence which government was more and more permitting upon itself, which frequently led to religiously biased public policy in direct violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Largely through O'Hair's efforts the American public (at least the intellectual portion of it) was gradually re-educated to the facts that godless-communist-atheist is not a single word, and that people can disbelieve in God and still be patriotic and law-abiding Americans, with solid moral values and a love of liberty, and fully entitled to all the rights enjoyed by their fellow citizens. She reminded us that the underlying vitality and creativity which had propelled America so far so fast in less than two centuries was born, not of the singularity of belief traditionally enforced by the Old World, but of the diversity of belief (including even disbelief) exemplified by the New World. And she presented as evidence of this that many of America's most prominent benefactors, such as Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Twain, Edison, and Einstein, to name but a few, had been atheists, agnostics, deists, and other freethinkers outside the religious mainstream.

Unfortunately, in her role as "America's most visible atheist," Dr. O'Hair's attention-getting public demeanor also fueled a public misperception that perhaps all atheists were like her -- maybe not "evil," but abrasive, loud, and offensive, with an anti-religion axe to grind -- at bottom an image not too dissimilar from the "wild-eyed college radical" stereotype which the McCarthy faction had promoted. While O'Hair had succeeded in reaching those who listen with their minds, the more emotionalistic majority remained as convinced as ever that atheism was a disruptive influence and that atheists were undesirable troublemakers.

But in fact, most atheists are quite unassuming. The average atheist is your neighbor down the street, the smiling check-out clerk at the discount store, your child's school teacher, your family doctor, your stock broker, your plumber, your auto mechanic. He (or she) has a family and friends. He goes to work every day. He grumbles about prices and taxes. He participates in community activities. Quite likely he is a military veteran. And on election day he votes for Democrats or Republicans. He is a capitalist; he saves or invests regularly, and he may even own his own business. He is ordinary in every sense -- except that he does not find the conventional rationale for belief in the supernatural at all convincing.

The average atheist is comfortable with his own religious point of view, and has little if any interest in converting others to it. But by the same token he does not appreciate others, whether strangers, friends, or family members, badgering him to accept their beliefs and traditions. And he certainly resents the effort of government, acting on behalf of religion, to indoctrinate his children in the public schools -- using his own tax dollars to do so! After all, the average Christian American would be outraged at the expenditure of tax money to promote non-Christian religion in public schools; why then should non-Christians (including not only atheists, but followers of other religious persuasions) be expected to sit quiet and uncomplaining while their own government attempts to christianize them and their children?

No, aside from their rejection of belief in the supernatural, atheists are no different from anyone else. As free citizens they believe as they see fit, and respect the freedom of others to believe differently. Like anyone else, they feel entitled to their belief, and are justifiably annoyed at anyone who dares insinuate that they are not. And they are sick and tired of being portrayed as "bad" people by ignorant political demagogues and other panderers of fear and hate. Weird? Not at all; they're just as normal -- just as human -- as you and I.

= SAJ =

The author grants permission to copy and distribute this document, in whole or in part, provided that remarks are neither taken out of context nor edited to distort their meaning, and provided that credit is given to the author, and provided that no charge whatever is made for such copies or distribution without the author's written consent.

Graphic Rule