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Nones Sense

The group of people commonly referred to as Nones includes atheists (I am one), agnostics, secular humanists and a variety of other skeptics and freethinkers all of whom have one thing in common–they are not affiliated with any organized religious group. Although some of them do believe in a Creator or some form of Supreme Being, most are nonbelievers, albeit with varying degrees of conviction.

But they also have one other characteristic in common. If they reveal their disbelief–especially if they use the word “atheist,” then they become targets of criticism, victims of ostracism and charges of “anti-Americanism.”

After years of affiliation with groups of nonbelievers, including the current group of octo- and nona-genarians, I regularly meet with, it is apparent that Nones are seen by many mainstream believers in the same negative way that they view homosexuals. We are outcasts whose values are misunderstood, ignored and generally rejected. Moreover, as with homosexuals, many of us are intimidated enough to remain “in the closet.” Many have never revealed to their families and closest friends that they do not believe in God for fear of the emotional damage it might cause to the families, friends and, of course, to themselves. If they do reveal their true beliefs they try to avoid talking about the subject, except within the safety of our meetings.

As an example, even in discussing the writing of this piece, I have been advised to consider the implications of identifying the group “of octo- and nona-genarians” because it might be undesirable. Undesirable” to whom? Closeted members of the group? Their families, friends and business associates?

And why would one have to be concerned about publishing an article that is not advocating violence; the overthrow of the government; describing explicit sexual imagery; or solicitation to commit crimes?

The answer is simple; many believers consider it impertinent to criticize or reject what they claim to be the fundamental concepts that “our country is founded upon.” It is deemed “hostile” to openly say what we truly believe: that there are no supernatural beings such as gods, the Devil and angels; or mythical places like Heaven and Hell; and that intercessory prayer is ineffective and miracles exist only in the minds of the beholders. We say this because we respect the values of science and we believe in the natural world as the only world. We are frequently told that they do not mind it if we don’t believe as they do, so long as we do not openly express our disbelief.

So we sit at public meetings and remain silent while someone offers a Christian prayer. We pledge allegiance “under God” when we do not believe in that construct. We hold hands at a large dinner table while someone says grace. We are afraid to say that we approve of a billboard that simply advocates membership in an atheist organization. We have our freethinking publications sent in “brown paper wrapping.” We withhold our criticism of Mother Theresa’s policy of refusing contraception to AIDS-ridden Africans because of her “adored” status. We listen politely at secular musical performances while the group sings, “Jesus outshines them all.” We even have to accept being told that our awe and wonder for nature is “really” our disguised belief in God, that we are in denial about our spiritual side. Who is in denial about what?

In short, we often fail to exercise our freedoms of speech and belief lest it tar us with the brushes reserved for people like the late Christopher Hitchens, outspoken biologist Richard Dawkins, and popular writer Sam Harris–all of whom are vilified by believers because they dare to write assertively about what they feel is true.

At the very least, we are considered to be antagonistic, even destructive, members of our society, especially when we speak up against religious incursions into government, education and medicine. While Christians (mainly) and Jews (somewhat) and even Muslims (rarely) are allowed to express opinions based upon their religious doctrine and are considered reasonable in their preferences, Nones are seen as aggressive, spiteful and even anti-American when they oppose unconstitutional practices such as official prayer at government meetings, placement of monuments such as crosses, pictures of Jesus, and stone replicas of the Ten Commandments, outside of courthouses and on government property. The perpetrators of these illegal acts are defended while those of us who dare to object are turned into the perpetrators.

In the Old south there was an expression that went, “If you’re white you’re all right. If you’re black, stand back.” This is the way it is with Nones. As long as we stand back, we are probably going to be ignored or left alone, but if we express a viewpoint that (even though it is based upon a constitutional guarantee) opposes the religious establishment, we are the perpetrators; we are the ones responsible for causing disruption in society.

It is no accident that of the 545 members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, at most only two or three of them have ever identified themselves as Nones or (even worse) as outright atheists. They recognize that doing so would destroy their political futures. But if twenty percent of the general population is calculated to be Nones–about 60 million people–then in a body of 545 members, just by chance there should be over 100 Nones.

Fat chance. Or slim chance. Or no chance.