The Atheist at the Breakfast Table

The Atheist at the Breakfast Table

The new face of faithlessness

from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, June 2012

On a recent Sunday, Ross Harvey sat in the back pew of the North Shore Unitarian Church in North Vancouver, BC. A visiting gospel choir from Oakland filled the vaulted ceiling with soaring harmonies, and Harvey, whose flash of white T-shirt beneath a black dress shirt made him mistakable for a padre at a distance, was among the first to stand and clap and groove at the chord changes, the shared emotion in the room. The only thing preventing full-on abandon was the part himself that was irked by the words. (Later, over soup and coffee in the church basement, he would joke to some of the visitors: “You know why the Baptists are such better singers than us, don’t you? It’s because UUs are always reading ahead to make sure that what we’re about to say we actually believe in. That kind of slows us down.”)

Harvey is an atheist. That he found a church that welcomes him will seem a head-spinning concept to some. Unitarian Universalists are full of questions not answers, heavily into social justice and community service, strong on religious education for kids, dogma-free.  “I remember saying to Gabi, I wish there was a church you could go to where you sang and heard inspirational talks and you didn’t have to get into all that other nonsense,” he says. Gabi was pregnant then with their son, Jackson when they found this one. The first year they joined the church they were asked if they’d be interested in starring in the Christmas pageant. Ross laughed. Then he said yes. His face was equal parts bemusement and the comfort of belonging that Sunday morning as the trio moved up the aisle toward the crèche: Joseph and Mary and Jackson as the baby Jesus.

It’s risky to say anything categorically about atheists – for a more individualistic bunch would be hard to find. But let’s propose that there are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the kind you don’t.

The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.

The kind of atheist you don’t hear about is different—in strategy or temperament or both.

No name has been coined for this much larger cohort of nonbelievers – at least none as catchy as their loud and politicized cousins. If they had a cardinal law, it might be —to paraphrase Paul Kurtz, founder of the freethinking organization the Center for Inquiry—the dignity owed to every person alive.  That “a” in a-theism simply means without, not against belief in God, they point out. Not an adversarial position, in other words: just a position.

In the vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, is where millions of this kind of atheist and agnostics live, more or less quietly, with their families.

Family, indeed, still trumps just about every social force in American life. In their respect for that central role of family, most atheists and religionists are alike. It’s in their interactions with their family, especially with their children, that nonbelievers and believers alike get to figure out what they believe and why. A spirit of inquiry, the open-minded investigation of options that that implies, animates many atheists and agnostics in these vast midwaters. And many seem to take especially seriously the need to find a way to talk to their kids about a religion, in a way that coaches respect for difference but suspicion of doctrine – even the doctrine that there is no God.

Elaine Ecklund had somewhat expected to find this trend—the nonreligious engaged in religious matters. But she professes “deep surprise” at the numbers as the results of her recent survey rolled in.

Ecklund, a sociologist of religion at Rice University and author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, was convinced Americans were getting a cartoonishly distorted picture of atheists, and of their relationship to faith. Because religion and family in the US are joined at the hip, she wondered how atheists and agnostics handle that delicate nexus—a subject about which surprisingly little was known. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, she set out to investigate.

She looked in the place atheists are found in greater concentration than anywhere else: the scientific community. Ecklund went for the cream: tenure-track social scientists and natural scientists at America’s top research universities.

Around 60 percent of them identified as either atheist or agnostic. That’s more than ten times the proportion you’d find in a random slice of Americana, but actually lower than you might expect, given that previous highly-publicized surveys had pegged the percentage of atheists among top scientists at over 90 percent.

Within that group of self-identified atheists and agnostics, almost one in five were part of a religious community—attending a church or temple or mosque with some regularity. Ecklund pumped for explanations. And with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, she published her findings last fall in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Turns out, her subjects’ reasons were mostly perfectly rational – as befit a group that “places a high premium on reason and making sure that they live consistently,” as Ecklund says. Her atheist scientists found themselves in the precarious centre of a Venn diagram. They needed to reconcile, all at once, their identities as scientists, as nonbelievers, and as spouses and parents. They may have had a religious husband or wife. They may have drifted into the pews after they had kids, drawn to the social glue a church community can provide, or the moral structure that kids can benefit from, or the chance to reconnect with family cultural traditions. Whatever motivated them, there they all were, in the church or synagogue or mosque or temple, cheek-by-jowl with believers, and unchallenged in their reasons or right to be there.

Sociologists have long known that people within families can phase in and out of religious commitment according to need, chance meetings, stage of life. Ross Harvey’s story is a case in point.

His parents raised the kids as Christians, but “the kind of Christian that was more religious than spiritual,” as he says. At age 15, Ross dug in deeper, after what he calls a “summer camp of indoctrination,” and became entrenched in the Brethren Christian church for a couple of years. Then came a pivotal moment when the scales fell from his eyes. One of his Brethren leaders, cornered by Ross’s queries, admitted that, yes, Gandhi would be going to hell, by definition of church doctrine. That was enough for Ross. He was out.

His sister, meanwhile, who had never been as deeply “in” as Ross, met a committed Christian, married him, and joined his evangelical Presbyterian church in Australia.

In many ways Ross admires his sister and brother-in-law. “The way they raise their kids is a total inspiration to me,” he says. “They’re caring and they’re involved in their life and their education.” But her religious choice confounds him and tests his patience. “They’re two of the smartest people I know, so for them to go down this road and start believing in Bronze-Age myths is … hard to take.” There are practically grooves in Harvey’s tongue where he has had to learn to bite it. It is all anthropology, he has reminded himself. “We went to church with them last time we visited them in Australia. I kept having to remind myself: Look, Ross: you loved visiting the Hindu temples in Bali. This is just the same.”

Harvey’s journey away from faith separated him, ideologically, from the rest of his natural and extended family. And that, as Californian Richard Wade points out, can be a recipe for drama.

Wade is a retired marriage and family counselor (with a specialty in addiction medicine), who counseled more than 10,000 couples in his practice. He is also the in-house advice columnist for the popular website “The Friendly Atheist” – a unique perch from which to observe the sometimes unbelievable vitriol in the blogosphere around issues of faith, with both sides freed by anonymity to let loose.

Wade, who is 61 years old, 39 years married, and has a 26-year-old daughter, came by his own atheism pretty naturally. He was “brought up on a steady diet of science.” Both parents worked at a major Natural History Museum as exhibit designers and illustrators, and so as a kid he’d go on digs with his parents’ archaeological friends, or help their entomologist friends with specimens in the lab. (He still puts on science shows for children.)

“My parents were basically non-religious,” he says. Wade’s father described himself as an agnostic. His mother’s position was that if there is a clockmaker, He isn’t intervening in the affairs of the universe any more. The implicit family message was that religion wasn’t worth devoting much RAM to.

But in fact Wade devotes quite a lot of RAM to religion—because he has seen how much strife can ensue, among friends and in families, when beliefs collide.

An atheist popping up in an American family can rip that family apart. Wade frequently receives letters about those inter-family tensions. One family member can simply no longer believe, and the rest of the family members simply cannot accept that fact, and the stalemate has become toxic, threatening to overwhelm whole lifetimes of love and goodwill that had been built and banked. There is genuine tragedy in some of these letters, and Wade often meets it with a tone befitting a caring stepfather or a benevolent coach.

“Begin and end every one of these conversations with ‘I love you,’” Wade often counsels. And don’t give up. “People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation.”

In one instance, to a young atheist whose minister father threatened to withhold the son’s college tuition, and whom the young man worried was going to abandon him outright, Wade counseled the son to keep his side of the door unlocked. Assure his parents that whatever happened, he would not abandon them. “We teach others how to treat us,” Wade says.

If Wade is a kind and avuncular atheist, it was not always so. Indeed, he used to plunge into Internet debates on faith sites and delightedly eviscerate the fundamentalists. If there was blood, well, truth is a bloody business.

But one day something prompted him to step back from himself.  He was browsing the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, which he calls “the world’s largest text-only bar room brawl.” An American woman who had converted to Islam had told her story—and been engulfed in flames. Abuse rained down on her from the atheist commentariat, and “she just took it and took it,” Wade recalls. The whole episode “woke me up to how brutal I was,” Wade recalled in a recent exchange on camelswithhammers.com. This woman’s amazing patience deeply impressed Wade. And “I began to realize that I could do this in a completely positive and constructive way.” He developed a phrase that became his de facto motto: “Agreement is not important—only understanding is.” The difference between Wade’s old position and this new one is the difference, you might say, between radical honesty and compassionate honesty. Remembering the smartass he used to be helps Wade counsel atheists who are tempted to stoop to sarcasm and insult. “When you want someone to see things more clearly,” he’ll tell them, “don’t start by poking them in the eye.”

Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British woman who called herself “Christmas Elf,” and described her fairly common dilemma thus: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas Pageant at her church. Kind of awkward, as she is an atheist. Love and familial duty was suddenly colliding with an uncomfortable personal sense of hypocrisy. She was leaning toward helping with the pageant. What did Richard think?

He was with her. “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents,” he said. “You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.” By Richard Wade’s lights, there are times to be fiercely principled, and times to be pragmatic, and you have to do the calculus case by case. When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy. And that, Wade believes, is the key to dealing with anger and hurt in a family divided by faith.

“I have a saying: ‘Speak with your ears instead of with your mouth,” he says. “Hear your words as if you were the person who is listening.”

Of all the family issues atheists and agnostics deal with in a faith-based country, raising children is perhaps the most complicated. Wendy Thomas Russell, a writer in Long Beach, CA, found herself drawn into this world, and its twists and turns, partly by accident.

Raised in small-town Missouri, Russell drifted in her teens from any pretense of religion. (Her mom was Presbyterian; her father, it turned out, was never a believer, but Russell didn’t learn this fact until she was in college.) As an adult, she found herself increasingly uncomfortable about the Clintonian “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to religion that had become her default position. It seemed cowardly. Because, hey: this was important stuff – too important to avoid for fear of ruffling feathers. Bit by bit, she “inched out of the closet” as an atheist.

And then came the day of the ambush.

“I was driving her home from preschool one day, and Maxine” – her then-five-year-old daughter— “popped up from the back seat. She said: ‘You know what, mommy? ‘God made us.’” That bit of news, Russell says, had come from her little Jewish boyfriend, who had learned it at home and brought it to school.

Russell was struck dumb. It felt like a no-win situation. “I was worried about telling her: ‘That’s not true.’ Because then she brings that back to school. ‘My mommy says that’s not true.’ And now you’ve created tension where there doesn’t need to be any.” Plus which, Russell has some quite religious family members, “and I’m now thinking about what might be repeated in the wrong company.” Some people of faith see a pretty clear distinction: being an atheist yourself is one thing; foisting that view on your kids is quite another.

In that moment Russell’s book was born. Relax, It’s Just God is a survival guide-in-progress for atheist and agnostic parents. The book is deals with practical matters, like “How to talk to your kids about death without evoking the comforts of religion.” “The question,” she says, “is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we’re being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can’t fall back on what we ourselves have learned before.”

After her daughter’s bombshell Russell had wandered, still reeling, into the kitchen where her husband Charlie was cooking dinner. She told him the story. Charlie, who is an attorney, heard her out, then, coming closer, offered his own submission. “To me, it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”

And that has become a foundational principle for her. No one particularly cares about our private beliefs: it’s what we do that gets up on the scoreboard. That perspective has further helped her talk about religion in an even-handed way – as neither a good nor bad thing in itself (as evidenced by terribly bad and the surpassingly good things different people do in its name). Look at the outcome, not the input.

Last year, Russell penned a widely read essay in The New Humanist called “Ten Commandments for Talking to your Kids About Religion: Exposing your Kids to the World’s Religions While Being True to Your Own Values,” where she worked some of this out and packaged it in Cliff-Notes form.

Like Commandment 3: Don’t Saddle Kids with Anxiety Over the World God. “Kids may pledge their allegiance ‘under God,’” it reads in part, “not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes.”

Or Commandment 8: Don’t steal your child’s ability to choose. “There’s no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there.”

If there is a Golden Rule of parenting for the new, new atheist, perhaps this is it. In a 2006 study of 300 self-identifying atheists, University of Manitoba psychologist Bob Altemeyer found that while they were very confident in their own beliefs (just one percent conceded any doubt in their position), almost all placed great stock in letting kids reach their own conclusions on religious matters. And Elaine Ecklund, while studying a more specialized population of atheists and agnostic, found the same pattern too.

In fact, one of the prime reasons her scientists flirted with religion was to expose their kids to many religious traditions “so that they did not inadvertently indoctrinate them with atheism.” That, after all, is the scientific method: you gather data and test it and emerge with the most sensible, replicable conclusion. “They’re participating in religious communities primarily for reasons that, ironically, are shaped by their identity as scientists,” Ecklund says.

Ecklund’s irreligious scientists gave three other main reasons for taking their kids to church. Those reasons were “having a religious spouse,” “providing kids with a sense of moral order and community,” and “as a way of following up on traditions.”

Norman Tepley was not part of Ecklund’s study, but some of those reasons resonate with him too.

Tepley, a retired physics professor at Oakland University near Detroit, was a founder of the Neuromagnetism Lab at the Henry Ford Hospital, where he still works part time. He is an atheist who goes to temple, well, religiously. It is the Birmingham Temple, founded by the “atheist rabbi” Sherwin Wine, who was killed in a car crash in 2007. Wine stressed that religion is only a small part of Jewish tradition. “If you look at Jewish history,” says Tepley, “there were people who persevered and survived in a hostile world because of their character, their literature, their songs, their common history.” That, not anything supernatural, is what he and his fellow congregants come to celebrate. (In the Birmingham Temple, tellingly, the Torah is stored in the library, not the room where services are held.)

The comic essayist Anne Lamott once made the distinction between “Moses-y Jews” and the “bagel-y Jews” — the latter of whom come solely for the cultural trappings and amscray before any religion breaks out. Sherwin Wine defined a kind of secular Judaism whose commitment goes deeper. Formally, it is secular humanistic Judaism, which implies a certain duty of mutual care. As Tepley puts it, “We believe in each other and have responsibility for each other.” That duty of care, further, extends to anyone who walks through the door. The temple “accepts anyone who wants to call her- or himself a Jew as a Jew – we don’t have a conversion process.”

Tepley was raised by observant Jewish parents who celebrated the holidays and kept a kosher home. Norman and his brother were bar-mitzvahed. But cognitive dissonance soon ensued. “In religious school, God was frequently presented as just and merciful. But questions arose about how a just and merciful God could allow the Holocaust—I know I wasn’t unique in asking that.”

His atheism was eventually cemented in a natural scientist’s way. “I did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation,” he recalls. “What’s the likelihood, starting with a universe of fast-moving and colliding hydrogen atoms, of producing living cells and eventually animals?” That’s of course an argument theists deploy to argue for intelligent design – the spectacularly unlikely chain of perfect conditions. “But what’s missing is mention of the incredible amount of time for nature to perform every possible experiment. We’re talking about billions of years of random collisions. I decided it was pretty certain life was going to evolve over this time, 20 or so billion years, just from the laws of physics.”

So far, so scientific. But Tepley, unlike many of his colleagues, ended up back in the pews. The reasons for that, apart from the charismatic pull of Sherwin Wine, circle around his Dad.

“My father – who was a strong personality, a wonderful guy — often spoke of how many generations back the Tepley (originally Teplitsky) name went, and they were all Jewish. And without talking about it directly, he made it understood that the tradition had to be preserved.”

And so there is, in the Tepley home, the celebration of the Sabbath, the singing of Hanukah songs. There is a certain amount of judicious editing of the rituals and prayers – replacing those with supernatural underpinnings with newer, culturally based ones. “We light candles because they’ve been part of every Jewish holiday,” he says. “They’re a great attraction to the kids.”

Tepley has three children. None of them observe the faith. They don’t go to the temple, nor do their children — Tepley’s grandkids. “My two sons were bar-mitzvahed but they drifted away very soon afterward. I would like them to come back, but I would not like to drag them back. They are all very accomplished and very good and something to be proud of. I guess that’s what’s important.”

Would his father be disappointed to see them break that link in the chain?

Tepley leaves a short beat. “I think he would, yeah,” he says softly.

Research science is an international, collaborative venture. Ideas tend to be stronger than politics and affiliations jump borders. You could argue that science by its nature promotes open-mindedness just generally. In that light it’s not surprising that even irreligious scientists would take a test-everything approach to religion, especially if they have young families.

“If your kids have questions they think can be answered by learning about religion, by golly let them seek answers,” says Juli Berwald, an Austin, Tx-based science writer with a Ph.D. in oceanography. “There’s no worry that it will uproot your belief system as a scientist parent because science isn’t about belief.” A bigger speed bump for her and her husband, she jokes, was the cost of Hebrew lessons and Sunday school. “I like the seeking,” she says. “I just hate the price tag.”

Unlike that of their “New Atheist” forebears, the approach of many mid-spectrum nonbelievers is not tactical. For them, religion isn’t something to do complicated ju-jitsu against; it’s just, well, honestly, not that big a factor in their lives. And this is the first generation to think like this.

“I actually find I have a lot more in common with moderately religious people than I do with militant atheists,” says Wendy Thomas Russell. “And I think most moderately religious people would find they have more in common with me than they do with fundamentalist factions. Those of us in the ‘middle majority,’ as I call it, we’re more interested in people’s personalities than they are in people’s faith. Humor, I think, is a far greater bond than religion. Intelligence, too. If I think a person is funny or admire a person’s mind, I don’t give a damn what faith that person practices. And I think — I hope — most people feel the same about me.”

Here is what an increasingly pluralistic world does: it creates the possibility that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us – including religion. And that rule holds into our closest relationships. As prohibitions of marrying “outside the faith” slowly fade into irrelevance, a mismatch of faiths doesn’t necessarily preclude successful partnerships. Love can happen without it; indeed, love can actually trump religious affiliation.

The American playwright Geoffrey Naufft, in his acclaimed play Next Fall about a kind of inter-faith Odd Couple (one’s a committed Christian and a committed atheist), uses a clever plot device to explore some of these issues. Luke, the Christian, has been struck by a taxi and lies comatose in hospital. As Adam, the atheist, keeps a bedside vigil, family and friends from both sides stream in and bump against each other in that pressure chamber of that hospital room, as the story of the two men’s unlikely union unspools in flashbacks.

Naufft is himself a kind of “middle-majority atheist,” in Wendy Russell’s coinage, and he partly modeled the character of the caustic and judgmental Adam, after himself—or at least the self he used to be. Naufft grew up without religion, the child of two unobservant mixed-whatever parents. What softened and gentled him, Naufft recalled, in a recent interview with the New York Times, was meeting and befriending deeply religious people inside and out of the theatre world whom he came to greatly respect.

“It’s really easy to write off people with any kind of religious belief, especially if they’re fervent,” he said. “But what I saw was a struggle, internal turmoil, to exist in the world and hold on to your beliefs, the things you grew up with.”

The chorus of religious tolerance grows, in America and beyond.

In mid-February the Supreme Court of Canada penned a landmark ruling, a libretto for a new era. A French-Canadian Catholic couple had been fighting to exempt their high-school children from a province-wide Ethics and Religious Culture course — fearing it would weaken the kids’ commitment to their singular family faith. They claimed the course violated their freedom of religion and conscience.

Madam Justice Marie Deschamps saw it differently. “Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute indoctrination,” she wrote. To suggest as much, Mme Deschamps continued, amounts to a willful blindness to modern multicultural society.

Many of the issues around atheists and agnostics and family may soon be moot. Secular humanism won’t be a minority position under scrutiny, because it will have become, well, quite normal. The fastest-growing religious position is “none,” according to 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, a huge study sponsored by Trinity College. The faithless have almost doubled in number in the last 20 years – to around 15 percent of the population. So sharp is that spike, the report’s authors concluded: “The challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”

About the only spiritual position rising as quickly as Atheist/Agnostic is SBNR — “Spiritual But Not Religious”—according to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Indeed, some scholars describe a kind of phase change in North American religion, with unprecedently large numbers of people constructing their own, private and highly individualistic faiths, which observe no dogma but honor deep feeling and a strong hunch that there is something to be reckoned with beyond what can be logically understood. This tribe has, to paraphrase the philosopher and author Sam Keen on his own experience, abandoned the formal encampments of religion, headed out into the open desert, and found something there under the stars that they are not afraid to call sacred.

But they can’t talk about it, because language fails. The words mean so vastly different things to different people as to be almost meaningless.

Almost half of Elaine Ecklund’s scientists who called themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” nonetheless also described themselves as “spiritual.” But when Ecklund pressed them to explain what they meant by that, it became clear they were quite far from New Age mysticism or hopeful magical-thinking. These were beliefs, as Ecklund put it, “more congruent with science than religion.” Being “spiritual” meant trying, for example, to behave ethically, or to use one’s talents to advance social-justice issues. Or else it was an aesthetic thing, an appreciation, or gratitude, for the complexity of life. (“Like Spinoza,” on political scientist said of his “spiritual commitments,” “I see beauty and value to everything around me.”)

“I hear people toss around the term “spiritual” for want of a better term, and some even say ‘for want of a better term’ when they use it,” says Richard Wade. “We ought to come up with a better term, possibly based on psychological and sociological thinking, even if we have to coin an entirely new word.”

Some of Ecklund’s irreligious scientists aligned themselves with eastern philosophical traditions. Indeed, that’s how Ross Harvey puts the “spiritual” in atheism as well.

Having abandoned the Christianity of his youth, Harvey grew attracted in his early Twenties to Taoism, with its circle of life. (The tattoo over his heart is the yin/yang symbol.) Shortly after, teaching English in Japan, he more formally began studying Zen Buddhism. Then, when a beloved cousin disappeared under suspicious circumstances, a new kind of quest for meaning ensued. Religion hadn’t offered up answers to his questions, but the questions — big and timeless ones, the Whys of philosophy rather than the Hows of science — asserted themselves anew.

“I don’t believe in God, but the fact that we’re alive and conscious is to me a kind of spark” for investigation, he says. “What’s my relationship with the universe, since I am conscious?  That’s my spiritual journey. To figure out how I fit in here, and to figure it out without gods.”

As he grows up, Harvey’s two-year-old son Jackson will likely find himself asking the same big questions his father asks now. But as for his position on faith, we cannot be sure. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to believe what our parents believed – and the pattern holds too, though somewhat less strongly, for atheists and agnostics. On the other hand, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz will get to test his theory that, paradoxically, a loving atheist Dad stacks the odds toward his son becoming a believer – because children, by Vitz’s reckoning, tend to equate a loving father with a loving Father. You might think of the whole enterprise as a large-scale social experiment. No one can perfectly predict the outcome. A small but growing literature, with titles like Parenting Beyond Belief, and Between a Church and a Hard Place, documents the effort in real time of a new generation to turn the childhood of their kids, without God, into an apprenticeship in tolerance.

Cue “We Are The World.”

But Richard Wade offers a word of caution. Atheists need not – and should not, in his view – become so conciliatory to the American religious majority that they’re reduced to silently gumming their dinner in the corner. Taken to its extreme, the image of the “kinder, gentler atheist” becomes almost a joke.

Wade recently performed a clever thought experiment. To test whether it’s possible for atheists ever to be truly inoffensive – that is, to see whether it’s not their manners but their very existence that people object to — he dreamed up the most benign billboards imaginable. (Sample: “Please Drive Carefully.”) Each is just a simple message or a big dumb happy picture, with smaller type identifying their sponsor: Atheists of America.

Wade posted his fake billboards online. The post went viral on Tumblr. A collection was enthusiastically taken up, and some billboards are now actually being constructed. (One of the slogans already in beta: “Kittens are Cute.”) “The ads don’t challenge any religious ideas at all,” Wade says. “They only implicitly challenge negative beliefs that people have about atheists.” If you see one and are irked, it’s worth asking yourself why. If you see one and laugh, well, that’s probably the best icebreaking, stereotype-smashing outcome atheists can hope for.

And there will come a day – perhaps it is very much closer than we think — when “going to exhausting lengths to avoid “offending” people will be beside the point.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Wade says. “Atheists will never go back to the invisibility and inaudibility of only haunting ivy-covered halls or espresso cafes.”

NOTE that this is a longer version of the story that appeared in print. The PT story appears here:

www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201204/the-atheist-the-breakfast-table

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4 comments

  1. Bruce, Thank you for an excellent, well-researched, and balanced piece.

    Forgive me but I think you give too little weight to the ‘a’ in atheism, and wonder where *you* stand. My wife and I are bringing up three young Catholics, but I am an atheist, and when my children come of age they will have access to my full perspective via my writings. In the meantime my wife and I are conflicted about what we should say to them about my strong anti-theist convictions, which influence my view of organized religion, science, politics, etc.

    If you are interested to discuss, feel free to contact me. All the best, FXW

    • brucegrierson says:

      HI Frank.

      Thanks for weighing in.

      It’s tricky, no? How honest to be with little kids about your own religious views?

      You ask where I stand. I will tell you — and this will explain why it seems like I go light on the ‘a’ in atheism. I was impressed and moved by all the people I spoke to for this story. But I can’t in good conscience call myself an atheist. I’m agnostic.

      Possibly revealing too much here (aren’t I supposed, as the writer, to be detached and objective?) but I go to a Unitarian Universalist church. What separates UU from plain secularism, or service-centred humanism, as I see it, is that it assigns to deep human feelings a kind of sacredness.
      I’m with the philosopher (and author most recently of The Absence of God) Sam Keen on this. He long ago abandoned formal religions, but not religiosity per se which I take as a mix of a sense of wonder and a sense that we have a duty to each other. (And whether or not that feeling is just an evolutionary trick designed to get us to assemble in groups to get productive stuff done, who cares?)

      Radical honesty vs. radical compassion: that’s the big impossible question at the centre of this whole issue, imho. bg

      • William R. Dickson says:

        It seems strange to me that you identify as agnostic, but avoid the label “atheist.” Most of us atheists are agnostics; we don’t believe (meaning, we cannot answer “yes” to the question “do you believe that at least one deity exists”), and are therefore atheists, but we also recognize that the existence or nonexistence of deities can’t be proven, or even tested, and are therefore also agnostics.

        Agnosticism isn’t a middle ground between theism and atheism; there is no middle ground between theism and atheism, any more than there is a middle ground between symmetry and asymmetry. If you’re not one, you’re the other. Agnosticism is a position on an entirely different question, and is perfectly compatible with atheism.

  2. Bruce Dame says:

    I claim for myself the label Atheist. That is because I am not a “Theist.” Yet I suppose I am an agnostic about whether or not there is some dimension of the cosmos which could be a “Spiritual” plain. Neither am I “Anti-theist.” There are too many people who derive meaning and comfort from their “Faith.” I will, however, confront harmful, hateful, pernicious religion when appropriate.
    Like Sam Keen, whom I met decades ago, I am a former ordained minister, now retired.
    I defined myself for you because I would guess (only a guess) that this might help you clarify your philosophy. A Theist is one who believes that there is a personal god who acts in the world to influence people and events. If you are unsure about that, then “Agnostic” would be an appropriate designation.
    Thanks for you fine article! (I too attend UU in Boston).

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