Wednesday 22 April 2009

When will U.S. atheists come out of the closet?

Yesterday it was announced that an atheist is going to join BBC's religion board. This is bound to have an impact on religion-related programming across Britain.

Here in the United States, however, atheists are still very much in the closet, accustomed to hiding during the thirty-year reign of terror by the U.S. evangelical movement.

Look at the polls, for example. When people talk to pollsters, they often lie. It has already been established that they lie about how often they vote, go to museums, go to symphonies and operas, give to charity, have sex, and use drugs. Often pollsters are reporting the self-image of American people, rather than how they really live.

This includes going to church. A number of national polls have consistently said that over 40 percent of Americans claim they go to church each week. But independent studies show that the figure is actually 21-26 percent. That, incidentally, is the size of the Republican party these days: currently they’re down to 25 percent of the country.

So, at least a third of religious people are liars and hypocrites. And since millions are lying about going to church, we can assume that many are also lying when they say they believe in God. And then of course there are all the people who claim to be religious, but admit that they don’t go to church. So some of them don’t really believe, either: when they say they’re Catholic, they’re really saying “my parents were Catholic and I got married there, but I haven’t been to Church since Monte Carlo night.”

Likewise we can assume that we have many, many political leaders who don’t believe in God.

But how many politicians are willing to say so publicly? One guy, Congressman Pete Stark. And he didn’t start his career that way – he didn’t reveal his “preference” until he was 75 years old and had already served 24 years in Congress, in a seat that is so safely Democratic that he beats his opponents by about 3 to 1. So that isn’t exactly high on the Nathan Hale Scale of Bravery. Bu he’s ahead of everybody else.

In our political world, being an atheist is more horrible than being gay (Barney Franks is out of the closet), or soliciting in a public toilet (Larry Craig), or patronizing prostitutes (Vitter), or killing someone in a car crash (Kennedy, or even Laura Bush), or using illegal drugs (our last three presidents), or molesting children (Foley), or not paying your taxes on time (seemingly half of Obama’s cabinet), or being a proven criminal (dozens of examples from Marion Barry to Ted Stevens). Recent polling says that more than half of America would never vote for an atheist presidential candidate; the number of people who are willing to vote for an atheist actually dropped from 49 percent to 37 percent. Attacking atheists is the one form of bigotry that apparently is still okay.

Name another minority of 15-30 million people, who have almost no voice in government. Blacks, Jews, Mexicans...? Nope. The closest example is our 3 million Native Americans, but even they get land, casinos, an entire bureau of the Interior Department to take care of them, and the occasional politician.

And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody that this one minority, the atheists, has no voice.

For 30 years, meanwhile, our political discourse has been dominated by the three pillars of Republican arch-conservatism, and two of them have a strong under-current of evangelical stupidity: the ethos of the god-guns-gays culture warrior, and the messianic, God-told-Bush-to-invade-Iraq Crusader lunacy of the neocons. It is only because of the donations to the Republican party from religious loons, and their obnoxious insistence on ramming their views down our throats, that we have spend so much time arguing about their cherished issues.

Look at how much time we have wasted arguing about abortion, school vouchers, school prayer, intelligent design, putting the Commandments in courtrooms, stem cell research, euthanasia, cloning, civil unions, HPV shots, contraception, sex education, faith-based initiatives, banning books, assisted suicide....As though we don’t have more serious issues to discuss, like two wars, a dying industrial base, and a Depression. Not only do the evangelicals own the Republican agenda, even Democrats feel the need to kowtow to them.

Just imagine, if the evangelicals had not been so powerful, and we had spent the last 30 years thoroughly debating, not the abortion issue, but the health care issue, for example, or the issue of defense spending. Just think how much more informed our electorate would be right now on the issues that really matter.

For 30 years, the voices of religion – fear, hate, illusion, intolerance and wilful ignorance – have dominated our political life. As for the voices of atheism – logic, reason and tolerance – not only are they being ignored, but no one even acknowledges their existence. If you asked one of our political leaders what they think of atheists and their views, you would get a blank stare, and some serious stammering and backpedalling.

Atheists potentially have more to offer America than any group. Philosophy and politics cannot work without clear thought, logic, and a resistance to fallacy, and atheists play that game better than anyone out there. And the tide is turning: virtually everything religious people believe – from the pseudoscience of Genesis, to the absurdity of heaven and hell and the resurrection and other miracles, to the rigid and intolerant moral views on everything from gays to genocide to slavery – is slowly being exposed as fallacy.

So when do the grownups get their turn? And when can we have an actual atheist political leader who isn’t 77 years old?

The thing is, we already have atheists among our political leaders. We just need them to come out, the way Stark did.

Come out and lead! If the evangelicals can launch a 30-year revolution of suicidal folly, we can do the same, and save the country!

Religion has had a 3000-year head start, and has had nothing useful to say for centuries, whereas atheism as a movement has barely begun. What happens when we can finally use the truth to counteract the centuries of religious lies? Already the third largest U.S. religious group, behind Catholic and Baptist, is “none”. Twice as many Americans have great confidence in science, as in religion. Could reason kill religion for good in 100 years?

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