At the time, I wrote the following to address some questions I'd received--first from believers, then from nonbelievers--about the origin and purpose of the day, which we called, simply, "I am an Atheist". The first of two parts begins below:
Whether you are religious, secular, or irreligious, I hope you'll take the time to read some of my thoughts today on the significance of this event to me, and what I think events like it can mean in the future for the atheist community.
In Part One below, I will try to answer the question "Why have an atheist pride day?"
In Part Two, I will address some questions raised about this event by the atheist community.
WHY HAVE AN ATHEIST PRIDE DAY?
Atheists are a part of your life
There are likely between 125 million and 250 million self-proclaimed atheists living in the world today. Nearly another billion identify as non-religious--and that's not even including China! The United States alone is home to more than 12 million atheist or agnostic citizens, and another 36 million who identify as non-religious.
Let's put that in perspective. That's as many atheist or agnostic Americans as there are Mormon (LDS) and Jewish Americans put together; that's six times the number of Muslim Americans, or ten times the number of Hindu Americans.
Here's what I hope you take from these numbers: of the dozens of people you already interact with every day, many are nonbelievers. We're a cognitive minority; you can't tell who we are just by looking. And--and this is important--you can't tell us by our behavior.
I'll talk more about atheist stereotypes later, but know now that "atheist" describes what we don't believe, not what we do. Atheists can be found among the ranks of philanthropists, serial killers, and everyone in between. We have a wide range of personal moralities, political philosophies, and thoughts on the human condition. If you tell me you are Christian, I know nothing about whether you're a good person; if I tell you I'm a nonbeliever, you know just as little about me.
Atheists deserve the same respect and status as believers
Since September 11, Muslims have been unfairly stereotyped by many here in America and the rest of the "Western world". Historically, Jews have borne a similar burden. Cultural minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans are also often maligned. Homosexual men and women are sometimes similarly thought of in reductive, simplistic terms.
Most of us, I hope, recognize that these stereotypes are insulting, dehumanizing, and simply wrong. They are all based around the notion of the "Insidious Other"--a minority operating within our midst who seeks to do us harm / irrevocably change our way of life / take advantage of us. These notions are horrific.
I should make clear: I am not suggesting that the way atheists are treated in America today is equivalent to the historic injustices that other groups have faced. We are not denied respect or equality simply because of the way we look, or some aspect of our biology, and we have not had to face the overt prejudices and violence that other oppressed minorities have.
However, we are still stereotyped and still held in suspicion by many of our neighbors and fellow citizens. "They can't be trusted," some say, "where's their morality?"
Look at the numbers here. If you haven't seen them before, you may be surprised:
The full UMN study referenced is no longer easily available online, but here are some things to take away:
53% of Americans surveyed say they would not vote for a presidential candidate under any circumstances if he was an atheist. Compare this with 43% for homosexuals, 11% for women, and 5% for black candidates.
39.6% of Americans said atheists "[do] not at all agree with my vision of American society". Compare that to 26.3% for Muslims, 22.6% for homosexuals.
47.6% of Americans said "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry [an atheist]". Compare this to 33.5% for Muslims, 27.2% for African-american, and 11.8% for Jews.
Why? Study after study has shown that religious affiliation has essentially ZERO correlation to moral behavior.
People tend to trust what's familiar and distrust what's foreign. It's why, at one scale, Christians are comfortable with their own but suspicious of Muslims, and it's why, at another scale, believers are suspicious of those without belief.
This distrust of "the other" may be part of human nature, but it's wrong and it's harmful. I just don't know how to shout this any louder.
Christianity can be used to justify good deeds, but it's also been used to justify atrocities. The same can easily be said for almost any religious belief, and the same is true for NO religious belief.
Before writing us off as amoral or immoral hedonists, consider reading some of the great defenses of atheist morality that exist. Here are some starting points:
You may disagree with some of the notions, but don't doubt that for many of us nonbelievers, morality is a serious subject, central to our being.
Dispelling myths about atheism
So atheists aren't immoral by nature. What else are we, or aren't we? That question doesn't have much of answer, because atheism isn't a system of belief.
Atheism really just means "without god" or "without religion". The word tells you what atheists are not, but it doesn't really say what atheists are.
Some atheists say they know there is no supernatural cause, no god. Others say that it's impossible to know that kind of thing, but that they believe there's no god.
Some nonbelievers dislike the term atheism and prefer agnosticism. Others dislike agnosticism and prefer atheism. Atheists are often very exact with their definitions. Get three of us in a room, and you'll probably come out with four labels.
All of the words you may have heard--ALL of them--have more than one interpretation. Atheist, Agnostic, Agnostic Atheist, Deist, Panentheist, Pantheist, etc. You may be interested in exploring some of these terms at the links below:
Some atheists subscribe to explicit philosophies of morality and ethics, while others really just follow the Golden Rule as much as possible. Most atheists are humanists--people who believe that ethics can be derived from purely human sources.
I would guess that most atheists would call themselves naturalists as well--people who believe that there is no "supernatural", and that all phenomena are explainable in principle solely through natural causes / laws.
Most atheists are outraged at any attempts by government or society to impose measures of faith on them. But we disagree amongst ourselves about what deserves that outrage.
- Tests of faith for public office? We're angry.
- A Christmas tree up in the city square? Some are angry, most aren't.
- A crucifix up in the city square? We're angry.
- "Under God" or "In God We Trust"? We're angry in principle, but most of us have been conditioned to ignore these phrases. The fact that we're used to them doesn't make them appropriate.
If I had to guess at some other trends, I would say that atheists are probably a bit more sensitive than the general population on issues of discrimination, since they are subtly discriminated against as well. The atheist population is probably more scientifically-minded, since the methods of science help flesh out a naturalist viewpoint.
But I'm not sure; there's just so many of us, from so many different backgrounds! There are atheists on the far left and right of the political spectrum. There are rich atheists and poor atheists and kind atheists and cruel atheists. Some of us are confrontational and others are not.
If you want to know who we are--and I hope you do--the best thing to do is just ask.
No one should have to live in the closet
So today is a day to stand up and say "I'm an atheist, and I'm proud". For people like me, this is an exercise in community and solidarity. For others, it may be an opportunity to take a bold, first step in acknowledging and declaring their personal beliefs. I want to help you understand how difficult this can be.
Think back to your childhood. Maybe you remember the exact day, or maybe not, but one morning many of you woke up and realized, "Wait! There is no Santa Claus!"
For some children, this moment may be crushing. "I loved Santa and relied on Santa to bring me presents if I was good and take pictures with me at the mall, and he's...gone! It was never true!"
That can be hard enough! A comforting blanket from our youth has been taken away, leaving us alone and vulnerable.
For atheists, it gets worse. Imagine that you share your new, scary conclusion with your parents or friends, and get these responses:
- "What are you talking about? I see Santa every year!"
- "That's crazy! Who do you think brings us presents!"
- "Do you know how insulting that is to Santa Claus? You're on the naughty list for sure!"
Everywhere you go, people know Santa Claus exists. They look at you with scorn and confusion--something must be wrong with you, to deny Santa Claus. Do you hate Santa, is that why you would say such horrible things?
Is this the world you would want to face, or would you hope for honest conversation and acceptance, with people willing to discuss the existence of Santa with you without getting angry, without condemning you? Even if you're wrong about Santa, you deserve more respect than what you've been given.
Millions of atheists have to face this world. Imagine being in that position. You don't have to agree with us, but please, sympathize!
The social pressures against standing up to say "I don't think there is a god" can be immense! What if my friends won't speak to me anymore? What if everyone I know thinks I'm going to hell? What if people look at me suspiciously for the rest of my life?
Again, I say: I'm not asking you to agree with our philosophy. But what kind of faith is so weak that a dissenting voice must be ostracized, must be mocked, must be tormented?
Today is for all of the people who've overcome those difficult situations, but it's also to tell those who are still closeted, still scared of the world that awaits their honesty: you are not alone.
Standing in solidarity with those who cannot
I just described the immense social pressures that a religious world places on the nascent atheist: pressures that can lead to guilt, hypocrisy, depression, and worse. And that's in America, an ostensibly free country.
Some countries require their citizens to declare a religious affiliation, or else they are denied rights. In Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere, citizens have been arrested for "atheistic beliefs".
There are only a small number of countries in which publicly acknowledged atheism isn't a severe handicap to something--public office, equal rights; sometimes even maintaining freedom itself.
The burden on atheists in these places to keep from coming forward is severe. It's no wonder that more don't. So today is also about these silent atheists, oppressed by circumstance and unable to break free. Because they cannot stand, we stand for them.
Part Two, answering some objections raised by fellow atheists