You Are Friends With an Atheist

By David Swanson

If you live in the United States, you are almost certainly friends with at least one atheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, skeptic, or unaffiliated humanist, whether you know it or not. And your friend almost certainly endures prejudice and unequal treatment, whether you know it or not. And your friend is roughly as decent, good, loyal, honest, courageous, and generous as your other friends, and you know it.

The March 2009 American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College and the March 7, 2009, National Journal article on “Rise of the Godless” present a wealth of data. Let’s look at the survey first:

When asked for their religious affiliation, 15 percent of Americans say none, but only 0.7 percent say atheist and 0.9 percent agnostic. However, when asked if they believe in God, 2.3 percent say “There is no such thing,” making most of them atheists who do not like or understand the label “atheist,” 4.3 percent say “There is no way to know,” making most of them agnostics who don’t like or understand the label “agnostic” (or, in another interpretation, atheists not quite comfortable in atheism), another 5.7 percent say “I’m not sure,” making them also agnostics or atheists-lite, another 6.1 percent refuse to answer, and 12.1 percent say “there is a higher power but no personal God” making them either atheists of theists depending on whether you conceive of a “non-personal God.” This leaves 69.5 percent who say “There is definitely a personal God.” Chances are that all your friends are not in that 69.5 percent. Chances are that at least one of your friends is in the 18.4 percent who do not profess belief in a God or a “higher power.” Chances are, in fact, that at least one of your friends is in the 12.3 percent who openly say (at least to pollsters) that they doubt or disbelieve. These people are pretty evenly spread around the United States and are not all congregated in some godless metropolis far from your unenlightened region of the country. While acceptance of atheism clearly varies drastically from place to place, its existence does not.

Most of the other data that the survey provides adds to our knowledge about that 15 percent who profess no religious affiliation, a group that, no doubt, has great overlap with the 18.4 percent who don’t speak up for God or a higher power. While 52 percent of Americans are female, only 40 percent of those with no religious affiliation are female, so you are a little more likely to have a male atheist friend than a female one. Your atheist friend is also significantly more likely to be young than old. According to another pollster cited in the National Journal, 25 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 profess no religious affiliation. Your atheist friend is a little more likely than your Christian friends to be neither married nor divorced. Your atheist friend could belong to any racial or ethnic group but is a little more likely to be of Asian heritage than a randomly selected person. Your atheist friend, if over 24 years old, is also slightly more likely than the norm to have graduated from college.

Those who get along without God are not lynched or stoned in this country, but neither do they have equal rights or acceptance. They encounter prejudice and cruelty on a personal level often. They pay taxes that support “faith based” programs and discriminatory organizations, as well as proselytization in the military, they see religion and religious based pseudo-science imposed on their children in public schools, and the stigma attached to their free-mindedness restricts their participation in public life. There are probably 20 atheists in Congress, but only one who admits it, and he won’t use the word. President Obama’s parents were both atheists, whether or not they used that word for it, and he got along fine without religion but would not have gone far in politics had he not adopted it.

There is a parallel in the campaign for equal rights for atheists with the campaign for equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people, but it is inexact. The more atheists can come out of the closet, the more they will be accepted, and the more they will then be willing to come out of the closet, etc. But, unlike the myth of gay proselytization, there really is a significant danger / promise that in opening society to atheism, more people will be converted to atheism who were never atheists before. From a broad view of society this would likely be a good thing. Less religious nations than ours tend to be more charitable, less violent, less accepting of suffering at home or abroad, and less prone to war. But from the point of view of the religious proselytizer, there is a danger here that is more real than the danger the “gay agenda.” A closer analogy is the danger that accepting African Americans might lead to your child marrying one. Fortunately, fewer and fewer Americans view that as a danger. But check out this statistic: A 2003 survey asked Americans what group they would not want their child to marry a member of. Twenty-seven percent said African-American, 34 percent said Muslim, and 48 percent said atheist.

The strange thing is that while there are more non-theists now in the United States than gays, Hispanics, Jews, and perhaps African Americans, there is less of a movement on their behalf. One problem is, of course, the greater stigma and prejudice. Another is that atheists look exactly like everyone else. But a movement is growing, and the relatively newly formed Secular Coalition for America ( ) is leading the way. Seventy-five percent of secularists who voted, voted for Obama, so alliances are likely with Democrats, as opposed to Republicans. But “likely” is an overstatement, of course. Democrats are not exactly known for their courageous stands on behalf of freethinking, although they do have a tradition of standing up for some types of minorities. There is also the problem of disagreements over and misinterpretations of the agenda shared by the godless. For example, the National Journal highlights the longing to clone human beings, something I have no longing for at all.

The National Journal describes a division in the movement between “Malcolm-X type militants … and Martin Luther King-type integrationists.” This makes very little sense to me, except as a description of personality types found in any human population. There is a distinction between wanting to convert the religious to atheism and wanting to create acceptance for atheists. But I see another division that, I think, is more unique to this movement and more problematic for it. That is the division between those who want to push for social acceptance and civil rights for atheists, and those who want to put more of their energy into figuring out how to live without religion, talking to each other about it, creating substitutes for churches, and debating exactly how one can be moral without a mythical daddy figure to threaten and reward you for it. A lot of people who care deeply about civil rights, including atheists, have no sense of loss over religion, but a lot of other people have more need for direct community and reassurance than for lobbying Congress. Both approaches are needed. When you find out who your atheist friend is, you can offer to help.

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