Have you ever heard a prominent person say publicly, “I don’t believe in God,” or “I’m an atheist”? I’ll bet you haven’t. In fact I have never even heard an ordinary citizen being interviewed on TV make either of those statements. Every hour of the day, especially in the wake of accidents or other misfortunes, we hear people say publicly, “I thank God for saving my life,” or “God was with me,” but I’ve never heard anyone on a talk show or other program deny that the outcome of any given event just happened–that there was no divine intervention–that s/he was a nonbeliever.
Even in casual discussions, people who are not believers in religion rarely make admissions of disbelief in supernatural forces. The reason for the paucity of declarations seems plain and simple to me: they’re afraid. The climate in twenty-first century America, a land that has been built with the help of, and has always admired its freethinkers, is hostile to expressions of religious skepticism, agnosticism, freethought, and atheism.
Listen to prominent scientists, many of whom would have to be in one of the preceding categories by virtue of their profession, listen to them discuss cosmology and evolution–and I’ll bet you’ll never hear any of them say unequivocally, “I don’t believe in God.” In my opinion, it is so threatening to admit in public that one rejects the supernatural theistic line, that the subject is usually avoided altogether or else word games are employed so as to leave open the possibility that one is a believer. Stephan Jay Gould’s game was NOMA, nonoverlapping magesteria, by which he dodged the entire issue.
Even world-famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking, to my knowledge, has never made an open statement of disbelief. In his best-selling book “A Brief History of Time” he makes numerous references to God, and in one outrageous sentence he says if we could unravel the mystery of the Big Bang, “then we would know the mind of God.” In that same work he describes a meeting of scientists, including himself, at the Vatican, in which the Pope told them that it was alright for astronomers to study the origins of the universe back as far as the Big Bang, but not to attempt to understand what went on at that moment, or before it, because that was the domain of religion and not science. Instead of criticising the Pope’s admonition, Hawking jokingly demurs something about not wanting the Pope to get God mad at him. When I asked him via e-mail why he makes constant references to God, his graduate assistant responded (after my repeated proddings for more than a month), “When Professor Hawking uses the word ‘God’ he refers to the natural laws of the universe.”
It is a sickening fact that in today’s fundamentalist-dominated America, expressions of atheism are tantamount to revealing one’s disloyalty, subversion and even criminal involvement. Atheism is either perceived to be unacceptable, or is unacceptable, to the majority of America, and because of this we atheists are relegated to a closet position similar to that of homosexuals in years past. How could it be any other way when the climate of the country is established by George W. Bush who, when he speaks publicly, sounds more like a Baptist preacher than the president of a country founded on ideals of individual freedom?
While he is entitled to believe anything he wants as a private citizen, it is offensive to listen to him assure bereaved families that their loved ones are looking down upon them from heaven and that they all will be united some day in Paradise, that The Good Lord will take care of them, that we should all pray, and, of course his nauseating “God bless you” after each public utterance.
Bush, as president, is (or should be) the representative of all our beliefs and philosophies, all of our laws and principles, which include religious freedom and separation of church and state, yet he conducts himself as if there are no other ways of thinking except his born-again-Christian way.
By most reliable estimates and surveys, there are about thirty million agnostics, atheists, humanists and other nonbelievers in this country. They are all entitled to the same rights and privileges as the other 250 million citizens, including the right to be free from fear of expressing their opinions and beliefs. It is, therefore, a disheartening and frightening picture of the distortion of power, and, unfortunately, no surprise that you will rarely see or hear anyone say in public, in the bastion of freedom, The United States of America, “I don’t believe in God.”