Aliens in the Holy Land: American Atheists
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [February 15th, 2002]

            In the New Eden, atheists have historically been viewed as agents of Satan, vile practitioners of unnatural deeds and saboteurs of innocence, truth, and virtue.  While we can’t (legally) be strung up, thanks to a Constitution shaped by Enlightenment minds averse to religious zealotry, we remain repugnant to mainstream America.  An Old Testament mentality underpins the animosity.  American freedom, prosperity, opportunity, and power, the American Way, is sustained (it is thought) by divine favor.  Should atheism flourish, an offended deity will withdraw from the Chosen People his beneficent guidance.  Losing its privileged status among nations, a godforsaken America will, like the Roman Empire or Sodom and Gomorrah, careen to irreparable ruin.  Though irrational, the fear is embedded in the American psyche. 

“Assuming, for the moment, an almighty deity interested in human welfare really exists, in what sense is he to bless us?”

Hence, according to a poll conducted shortly before the last presidential election, 49% of the American electorate wouldn’t under any circumstances vote for an atheistic candidate for president.  Since people like to appear tolerant, even to anonymous pollsters, the figure probably understates the national antipathy.  Because of the hostility, many atheists keep a low profile.  How often does a physician, lawyer, businessman, journalist, teacher, insurance agent, broker, movie star, athlete, salesman, police officer, plumber, roofer, electrician, contractor, or anyone else dependent on public patronage advertise his or her atheism?

            Since 9/11, American atheists have felt more keenly than ever (if that's possible) that we are strangers in a strange land.  Public discourse on the tragedy is steeped in the vocabulary of piety.  The words “God,” “faith,” and “prayer,” ubiquitously invoked, unify the 90% or more of Americans who believe in divine Providence.  Like tribal talismans, the magic words ward off evil.  But in atheists, for whom prayer and faith lack efficacy in a godless universe, the words intensify our sense of being outsiders.

        The parlance of piety baffles us.  Take the words “God bless America.”

            The American scene is dotted with billboards, signs, stickers, and banners blazoning the words.   Grammarians might tell us the words are in the subjunctive mood, not the indicative or the imperative.  They neither inform (God blesses America) nor command (God, bless America).  Instead, they express a wish (May God bless America) or a prayer (Dear God, please bless America).        

But what does the prayer (or wish) entail?

Assuming, for the moment, an almighty deity interested in human welfare really exists, in what sense is he to bless us?  With good health, bouncing babies, self-sacrificing spouses?  Philosophical wisdom?  High IQ’s?  Fat paychecks, sirloin steaks, sport utility vehicles, faster computers, more cable channels, bigger boom boxes?  Competitive Superbowls?  Better facelifts?  Speedier cruise missiles, smarter smart bombs, stealthier stealth bombers?   Continued monopoly on the planet’s natural resources? 

Does, in fact, “America” mean Americans?  And, if it does, all Americans, including murderers, rapists, thieves, swindlers, embezzlers, muggers, liars, cheats, bullies, pederasts, pornographers, conceited airheads, lazy slobs, domestic tyrants, bigots, racists?  Or does “America” refer to land, spacious skies, and amber waves of grain?  Or to some Platonic ideal of government embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, worthy of blessing even if some Americans aren’t?

            Could it be that “God bless America” doesn’t mean anything?  That the words merely have some vague, comforting emotional effect? 

            As priest in chief of a holy land, President Bush habitually uses the language of piety.  In February, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, he urged Americans to turn to prayer in “this time of testing.”  The terrorist attacks had put him, he said, “on bended knee.”

            Why?  Was he petitioning a despot swayed by cowering servility and unctuous flattery?  Is this the despot before whom the 9/11 skyjackers bowed and prostrated themselves five times a day?  Does the Almighty bless the best grovelers?  Is he motivated by vanity rather than goodness or justice?             

Addressing the lawmakers, foreign heads of state, and prominent clergymen in attendance at the breakfast, Mr. Bush extolled faith.  Faith strengthens, faith empowers, faith overcomes every obstacle.  Unfortunately for the befuddled atheist, he didn’t explain how.  Does faith go have anything to do with persistent groveling? 

The president’s faith seems at odds with his fiscal policy.  Faith, he told the assembled dignitaries, “shows us the way to self-giving, to love our neighbors as we would want to be loved.”  He also said we "must never target the innocent."  Presumably, Mr. Bush, a born-again Christian, aspires to follow the teachings of his favorite philosopher, Jesus Christ.  Damning the rich, Jesus championed the poor, the destitute, the marginalized.  Does Mr. Bush’s faith instruct him that the following budgetary measures, which he approved, minister to the downtrodden? 

■ Reducing by 86% the Community Access Program for public hospitals, clinics, and providers of care for people without insurance.

■ Reducing by 40% the Low Income Home Assistance Program for Americans who need assistance paying energy bills.

■ Cutting $60 million from a Boy's and Girl's Clubs-of-America program for public housing.

■ Cutting $700 million in capital funds for repairs in public housing.

■ Cutting $200 million of work-force training for dislocated workers.

■ Cutting $15.7 million earmarked for states to investigate cases of child abuse and neglect.

■ Eliminating program to provide child care to low-income families as they move from welfare to work.

■ Signing a bill that makes it harder for poor and middle-class Americans to file for bankruptcy, even when bankrupted by gargantuan medical bills.

■ Proposing elimination of the "Reading Is Fundamental" program, which gives free books to poor children.

■ Proposing a $2 trillion tax cut, of which 43% will go to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

            To atheists, “faith" refers to a belief not supported by evidence or the facts. We think faith is a poor substitute for observation, experiment, and critical thinking. We see nothing wrong with hoping for the best as long as one is realistic about the outcome.

Despite the bad press, atheists are, on the whole, innocuous.  Most of us are law-abiding.  In fact, only one percent of prison inmates are atheists.  We prize the family.  (Atheists have a lower divorce rate than Baptists.)  We share the American ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity.  We value civility, honesty, kindness, integrity, and courage.  In personality, a cross section of atheists looks like a cross-section of theists.  Some atheists are gregarious and chatty, others quiet and retiring.  Some are studious, a few mindless.  I had rather hobnob with a reflective theist than a dumb atheist. 

When the horrific events of 9/11 are dispassionately considered, atheism looks pretty benign.  The culprit was bellicose theism.  Whatever our faults, we atheists will never kill ourselves or anyone else in the name of religion.

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