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My Cup is Half Full—Why I am Optimistic about the Rights of Nonbelievers

“I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” – Vice President, George H. W. Bush, 1987

“Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all.” – President George W. Bush, 2002

Those two quotes, to me, are symbolic. They mark 15 years of progress for rights of nonbelievers. A Republican president, supported and elected by theocrats, acknowledges that nonreligious people can be good. Ludicrous comments by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming secularism for the destruction of the Twin Towers were condemned by virtually everyone including President Bush. Similarly asinine comments by leggy columnist and talking head Ann Coulter got her fired from National Review. Ben Stein, actor and conservative writer, immediately apologized for making comments insulting to atheists. I see all this as the beginning of nonreligious people getting equal rights.

The main reason this is happening is that our ranks are growing. The increase in the number of nonbelievers goes hand in hand with the increase in how we are seen in society–the larger and more visible a minority we are, the more respect we will get. According to the monumental 2001 American Religious Identification Survey prepared by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the percentage of people calling themselves “nonreligious” more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, and 14.1% of the US population call themselves nonreligious. If that is not reason for optimism, I don’t know what could be! Another reason for this is that American culture is getting more diverse. The United States has benefited from the “brain drain” from other countries and many professors, scientists and doctors are from abroad with different religious beliefs than are dominant here.

Why are there more nonreligious people today than ten years ago? I think there are many reasons, including the Internet, religious scandals, monumental advances in science and an improved and increased portrayal of freethinkers in popular media.

In early 1994, I wrote what I believe was the very first article dealing with the Internet and atheism. In this article published in Freethought Today, I predicted that the Internet would potentially be the greatest thing to ever happen to atheism. Currently, The Secular Web, the largest atheist-related website, gets approximately 350,000 unique visitors per month and 200,000 hits per day. Many other atheist/humanist related websites are also very popular. The Internet is helping more people access information relative to atheism than ever before. More importantly, the Internet reaches an important demographic which organized atheism/humanism has generally been unable to reach: young people. This is critical as when people intellectually mature they have readily available sources for the atheistic point of view. In years past, this information was generally not available. I think my prediction of eight years ago has come to pass, and I claim no psychic powers.

Another reason why the ranks of nonbelievers have increased is the occurrence of religious scandals, from the protestant televangelists of the late eighties to the molesting priests of today. Aside from the horrors that the victims of these scandals face, these scandals do have a side benefit in that they bring religion into the realm of questioning. Religion can’t be regarded as beyond reproach when priests are molesting six year-olds or mansion-dwelling televangelists are swindling elderly people out of their pensions and are involved in sex scandals. Learning of these scandals often catalyzes a rethinking of one’s religious beliefs.

As history has shown, scientific breakthroughs tend to make religion superfluous. It happened with advances in evolutionary biology, astronomy and cosmological physics. Two advances are currently emerging that also threaten religious dogma. These are the genome project and cloning. With the human genome project, scientists are understanding what makes everyone unique at the DNA level. As this progresses, life become less mysterious and more scientific. It also will have benefits in preventing genetic diseases and enhancing the quality of life of humankind. The controversial advances in cloning cut at the philosophical concept of identity, which often has spiritual overtones. If scientists can clone life in a laboratory, what need is there for a deity?

Possibly the most important reason for an increase in how nonreligious people are perceived is the amount of atheism and satire of religion in popular culture. Atheists have always been well-represented in intellectual publications. Fine atheistic writers like Katha Pollitt and Wendy Kaminer write for The Nation and other intellectual political publications. Atheists dominate science and are well-represented in academic writings. Where we have lacked is in popular culture. Traditionally, nonreligious people were portrayed as sinful or lost in movies or TV programs. If there were an atheist character, that person was evil or misguided and eventually “saw the light.” Religion was beyond reproach. This has changed.

First of all, radio “shock jocks” have done a lot to knock religion off its high horse. I mention this genre first for a couple of reasons, first, they are typically on the air over twenty hours per week and, second, they reach millions of people, many of whom are extremely dedicated fans. This genre, of course, is not for everyone and shock jocks do tend to offend some.

The King of Shock Jocks, Howard Stern, regularly satirizes religion and psychics. While he doesn’t call himself an atheist, he refers to religion as “bobbemyseh,” the Yiddish word for nonsense. Several years ago, he had the greatest solution to the priest molestation problem: Fabio, male supermodel and margarine spokesperson, was a guest on his show. Fabio had been a student at a Catholic boarding school growing up in France. Stern opined that a good solution to the priest problem would be to station any would-be priests at Fabio’s school, as any abstinent man who could resist Fabio was safe for the rest of the world. When a drunken caller was irked at something irreverent Howard said, Howard replied, “I can’t believe there’s a god stupid enough to create an idiot like you.” Stern also routinely satirizes religious apparitions and psychics like John Edward and Miss Cleo, explaining in detail how psychics do hot and cold readings. Stern has an audience of 20 million, mostly people who would not encounter atheism in more respected forms of media. His approach of “reason through ridicule” reminds me of the old H.L. Mencken quote that “one belly laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.”

Another “shock jock” is Los Angeles based Tom Leykis, an outspoken atheist. Leykis frequently has a segment called “Ask the Atheist” where callers ask him questions about atheism. As can be expected many of this callers are ignorant theists who challenge him. With a quick, sometimes acid wit he answers them and always comes across looking more reasonable than they. Leykis has also been at the forefront of the priest molestation crisis in Southern California. Thanks to one caller and Leykis’ persistence, a molesting priest has been removed from a school where he was teaching. Leykis has also begun a weekly feature called “Tom’s Confessional” where people who had been molested by clergy call up and describe their experiences. If the victim is willing, Leykis’ producers contact the relevant civil authorities. There has been no shortage of callers and several members of the clergy are being investigated due to the Leykis show.

Religious satire and atheism can also be found in other forms of popular culture. The animated series The Simpsons and South Park have a long history of religious satire. One episode of South Park features a view of hell filled with everyone from ministers to entertainers. When a protestant minister in hell protests, Satan explains that he chose the wrong religion and that Mormonism was the correct one. Heaven is shown full of men with white shirts and black ties. Other comedy television shows, such as Mr. Show and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show regularly feature skits satirizing religion. The Daily Show features a segment called “Godstuff” where Jon Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs) runs clips of televangelists ranting and then comments on them in an irreverent way. Jen, one of the major characters in Dawson’s Creek, a show hugely popular with teenagers and young adults, is an atheist. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why conservative groups want this show off of the air. Detective Laura Ballard, a character in the critically acclaimed NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street, was positively portrayed as a “die-hard agnostic.”

Legendary comedian George Carlin is routinely critical of religion and has a hilarious bit in which he claims not to believe in God, but in Joe Pecsi because Joe “looks like a guy who can get things done.” Other comedians, including Rick Reynolds, Jeneane Garafalo, Bill Maher and the late Bill Hicks, have used their stand-up acts to effectively satirize religion. “Sin City” magicians Penn and Teller, both hard-core atheists, claim that atheism and skepticism are an integral part of their successful stage show. During an appearance on (Mormon) Donny and Marie Osmond’s television show, Penn and Teller signed an autograph for them. Penn signed, “There is no god.” Teller followed, “He’s right.”

Mainstream movies like The Contender and Contact feature atheistic characters in leading roles and in a positive manner. Other movies such as Sirens and Chocolat give whimsical views of humanism overtaking puritanism, in the forms of sexuality and gourmet chocolate, respectively.

Rock music, especially modern or alternative rock, often has atheistic or skeptical overtones. Along with his schlock persona, Marilyn Manson’s lyrics and performances are laced with antireligious messages. Bands such as Godsmack, Nine Inch Nails, Everclear, Rage against the Machine, Tool, Metallica, R.E.M., Bad Religion and Rush feature atheistic lyrics, though more subtly than Manson. Bad Religion has a famous symbol, a “crossed out cross.” Their lead singer, Greg Graffin, splits his time being lead singer for the band and working on his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Cornell University. Rush has a long history of skeptical and humanistic lyrics. Their 1991 album Roll the Bones may be the most atheistic album in the history of rock music. Rush’s lyrics are so deep that, along with his wife, atheist philosopher Robert Price, a Jesus Seminar Fellow, wrote a book analyzing the philosophical vision of Rush.

This shift in the portrayal of atheism in popular culture is critical. These days, atheists are in many forms of media and are usually portrayed matter-of-factly. This helps the image of nonreligious people as it helps to destroy stereotypes and prejudices against us.

Where do we go from here? I think the best thing we as atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc., can do is to set good examples. When people get to know us, like us, and respect us, and then later learn we are atheists, we help destroy stereotypes and prejudices people have. People learn that we don’t have horns, we’re not evil and we have similar attributes as they do. We’re simply your friendly godless neighbors.

[Editor’s note: The author wishes to thank members of the Internet Infidels Discussion Forum who provided many useful ideas.]