6 things I wish people understood about atheism in America
10 percent of Americans identify as atheists — but there’s a lot that people don’t know about us.
By Jay Wexler Updated Jun 14, 2019, 9:17am EDT
Illustrations: Javier Zarracina/Vox
The first time I remember openly identifying as an atheist was when I announced to my high school freshman English class that I didn’t believe in God. Later that day in gym, I broke my collarbone playing dodgeball. Was it God’s revenge for my blasphemy? I didn’t think so, but for a while there, I kept my atheism on the down low just in case.
Not anymore. Although I have an affinity for Asian religions like Buddhism and Taoism and even have a master’s degree in religious studies from a divinity school, I’ve been an unabashed atheist for my entire adult life. I’ve taught First Amendment law at Boston University for nearly 20 years, am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state, and have recently published a book called Our Non-Christian Nation, which is about how atheists and other minority groups are demanding their equal place in public life alongside the Christian majority.
As part of my research, I traveled around the country and talked to leaders of minority groups to find out how they felt about the Christian dominance of our nation’s public life. I watched an atheist give an invocation before a town board she had previously sued for violating the First Amendment, attended a Veterans Day ceremony held by a pagan priestess who successfully sued the federal government to approve the Wiccan pentacle for placement on national cemetery headstones, and sat on a 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a goat-headed occult figure that the Satanic Temple wants to put up on government property someday.
The number of people who do not believe in any god has been on the rise in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, close to a quarter of the population identifies as a so-called “none,” up 7 percent from 2007 to 2014. About 10 percent of all Americans say they are atheists, although this estimate may be on the low side. Given our growing numbers, it’s important for non-atheists to understand what it means for someone to not believe in any god. Here are just a few things I would like people to know about atheism and being an atheist in the United States.
1) There are lots of different types of atheists, and we don’t all feel the same way about religion
Atheists all believe there is no god that governs the universe, but other than that, nothing necessarily unites us. I’ve met and talked to a lot of atheists, and I can testify that we are a diverse bunch. For some of us, our atheism is central to our self-identity and drives what we do. For others, it’s just one fact about us among many and really isn’t particularly important.
Atheists come in all political stripes. Some are Republicans; others are Democrats. Probably some voted for Jill Stein last time around. I voted for Bernie Sanders. Some atheists think religion is ridiculous or generally awful, while others don’t think about religion at all, and still others think religion is fine, or even a force for good. Personally, I’m fascinated by religion and am a strong believer in religious freedom, although I don’t like how most religious beliefs these days tend to push people in a politically rightward direction.
It is definitely true that some atheists are angry — at religion, at religious people, at the government — but not all of us are. Some are fabulously happy, but not all of us are. I’m neither angry nor happy. I think of myself as a “sad atheist.” I would like nothing better than to believe that some omniscient and all-powerful being created the world for some purpose. That sure would be nice! It would certainly relieve some of that “the world is meaningless and I am just standing on a giant rock swirling pointlessly through the universe” angst that I sometimes feel. Unfortunately for me, I just don’t believe there’s a God or lots of gods or a Tao or anything else that makes sense of the world. There’s just us. And maybe some space aliens, I guess, but they don’t really help.
2) Atheist organizations are starting to do better at helping people and promoting social justice
Say what you want about religious institutions like churches and temples, but they do tend to help a lot of people — at least those people who believe the “right” things — and are good at creating a sense of community among like-minded believers. Although of course individual atheists do plenty to help others, we usually don’t think about atheist groups or communities coming together to provide services for those in need, at least not in a self-consciously atheist way. But that is changing.
This is something I learned as I researched my Our Non-Christian Nation book. For one thing, I got to know a lot about the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic religion that venerates Satan as a symbol of rebellion against oppressive authority. TST, as it’s often known, counts its followers in the tens of thousands, was just recognized as an official religion by the IRS, and is active throughout the country, with a particularly strong presence in New York City, Arizona, and Seattle. Its chapters organize all sorts of campaigns to help people, from collecting menstrual products for people in need (“Menstruatin’ With Satan”) to providing socks for the homeless (“Socks for Satan”) to donating diapers to families who need them (“Diapers for the Lil’ Devils”).
Similarly, when I attended the annual conference of an organization formed to help nonbelieving high school and college students called the Secular Student Association in July 2016, I learned that getting out and helping people is a key concern for young secularists. Speaker after speaker urged the atheists in the audience to go out into the world and actively serve their communities. For instance, in his opening talk, Fernando Alcántar, a former religious youth leader turned self-described “gaytheist,” told the audience that atheists can’t just be “busy reading papers and making discoveries,” leaving the business of saving people to churches and religion. The theme for the group’s 2019 conference, by the way, is “Better Together: Creating Meaningful Community.”
3) Seemingly little things that religious people might not even notice can really drive us atheists bananas, and for good reason
If you’re a religious person, a monotheist perhaps, do you ever wonder why atheists get so bent out of shape by the fact that “In God We Trust” appears on our money and “under God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance? I mean, what’s the big deal, right? Shouldn’t we just chillax?
Well, how would you feel if the dollar bill said “There Is No God” and the Pledge of Allegiance proclaimed that we are “one nation under no God whatsoever, yay”? How would you like it if your kids were forced to say that every day before class?
I have a very clear memory of leaving out the “under God” part of the pledge when I was forced to recite it in elementary school, and I’ve talked to countless other atheists who have similar memories. When the government forces you as a kid to affirm something about the nature of the universe that you think is fundamentally incorrect, it tends to stick with you.
4) There’s a big difference between private individuals promoting their religious beliefs and the government doing the same. But this doesn’t mean the government cannot promote facts and ideas that are inconsistent with some religious beliefs.
Everybody in the United States has the right to practice their religion and to talk about how great it is and even to try to get other people to believe it too. Atheists recognize this (and of course we can do the same), but as minorities, we also understand that the government is in a different position than the people it governs. In the United States, the government represents all its citizens, which means that it should not and (if the Constitution is interpreted correctly) cannot promote one religion over others or religion over non-religion. That’s why no matter what the Supreme Court decides in the next few weeks, it is not okay for the state of Maryland to sponsor a 40-foot-tall cross on government property, even if that cross also happens to be a World War I monument.
Perhaps you’re wondering: If the government can’t promote religion over non-religion, doesn’t that mean that it also can’t promote non-religion over religion, and doesn’t that in turn mean that public schools can’t do things like teach evolution or give out condoms? As someone who has taught and written about church-state law for nearly 20 years, I’ve heard and read this kind of argument more times than I can remember.
The answer to this two-part question is yes and no. The government cannot promote atheism over religion, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean the government cannot do things in public schools and elsewhere that happen to be inconsistent with what some religious people believe. Teaching evolution and giving out condoms might be at odds with what some religious people believe, but they’re not the same as saying that there’s no god.
As an atheist, it frustrates me when people say that public schools promote a secular worldview because they’re not allowed to sponsor prayers or do other things that some religious people would like them to do. If this is unclear, try this thought experiment that I often raise when I’m teaching students about the First Amendment: What would a school (private, of course) truly dedicated to promoting atheism look like?
It wouldn’t be subtle. It wouldn’t just teach evolution; it would teach explicitly that the Bible’s creation story is flat-out wrong. It wouldn’t just not lead kids in prayer; it would lead kids in a “there’s no god, there’s no god” chant. Now, that’s a school I’d really like to teach at, but the fact that such a thing is almost unimaginable in today’s society (while of course private schools that explicitly promote the divinity of Jesus Christ are everywhere) just goes to show how marginalized atheism really is in the United States.
5) Atheists and other secularists are getting pretty good at participating in public life
In Our Non-Christian Nation, I discuss the many ways that atheists have started to demand their rightful place in American public life. The growth of the aforementioned Secular Student Association is one such example. Atheists have also succeeded in putting up symbols and displays on government property celebrating the absence of god, including an atheist monument in Bradford County, Florida, and all sorts of godless displays around the holiday season.
Atheists have also begun offering invocations before town boards all around the nation. Many of these have been quite good. I mentioned earlier that I watched an atheist give an invocation before a town board she had previously sued. Her name is Linda Stephens, and her speech was inclusive and inspiring. “It is important to remember that we are all linked by our common humanity and our shared origin,” Stephens said. “When we work together to move our town forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our community, our state, and our nation.”
6) Atheists are not going away anytime soon
While the Christian majority has occasionally welcomed atheism into the public square, often our presence has been met with ridicule, anger, and derision. Displays have been torn down, school groups have faced hostility by teachers and administrators, and board members have occasionally left a meeting room rather than listen to an atheist invocation. Incurring that kind of disrespect is a risk of standing up for what you believe in, or, in our case, standing up for what you don’t believe in. But that’s okay; we atheists tend to have thick skin. We have been putting up with this kind of treatment for a long time, and our numbers are still rising. In the future, I may still be a little sad, but atheism as a whole will likely become a loud, mainstream, and inescapable force in American public life.
Jay Wexler is a professor of law at Boston University. He is the author of six books, including Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in American Public Life. Prior to teaching, he worked as an attorney at the US Department of Justice and as a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the US Supreme Court. He tweets @SCOTUSHUMOR.
Illustrations by Javier Zarracina