If you are expecting me to launch into a diatribe about people who do not believe in God or religion, forget it. I don’t much care what anyone believes so long as they are not trying to convert or kill me for what I believe. Unfortunately, history and our present times are a testament to the way religion has proven to be the justification for slaughters of every description.
“Atheists” is a groundbreaking study conducted by Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, recently published by Prometheus Books ($20.00) and a slim, paperback volume best read by people such as psychologists, sociologists, and those interested in religious studies. Hunsberger was a professor of psychology until his death in 2003 as is his collaborator, Altemeyer, who teaches at the University of Manitoba. They had previously collaborated on “Amazing Conversion: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion.”
To my surprise, virtually no studies have been conducted to determine why people become atheists. Most of us are aware of atheists only when one of them institutes a lawsuit involving the separation of church and state. The notion that children cannot pray in school, as do lawsuits to remove “One Nation Under God” from our coinage or to remove a religious symbol from display tend to annoy a lot of people.
Religion in American life became a hot political issue when the Supreme Court permitted abortions under the penumbra of “privacy” rights. It flared up again as a right to die issue, but again the courts ruled this was a private matter to be determined by individuals, family and the advice of physicians. It drives the debate about same-sex marriage. Despite the passion of the Religious Right, these issues, for good or ill, appear to have been settled in the minds of most people.
While America’s Founding Fathers all believed that religion served a useful purpose for the maintenance of a civil, secular society, they all knew well of the evils that ensue from too much church involvement in the affairs of state. They took care to protect freedom of religion, but also to create a form of government in which religious values might inform legislation, but not be “established” as a requirement of citizenship.
For the Founding Fathers, you could be a good American even if you did not believe in God. This is a good idea considering that two out of three American adults do not go to church every week. At 32%, those Americans who do attend church still outnumber the 20% in Canada and the 14% in England. By most definitions, America remains a nation in which religion plays a role in people’s lives, even if they are not active in either church or synagogue.
As the West either loses or ignores religious faith, the Middle East, the cradle of three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is a cauldron of religious fervor, pursuing an Islamic Jihad throughout its own region and exporting it in the form of terrorist attacks worldwide. Westerners are baffled and angered by a “religion” for which war and murder is a duty.
We have far less to concern ourselves when it comes to atheists. Indeed, one trait they tend to share in common is a saintly tolerance for all lifestyles including homosexuality, though “the rise in apostasy in the United states has occurred primarily among persons with weak ties to organized religion who have been driven from their faith by the behavior of the ‘religious right’” according to the study.
Atheists are people for whom the teachings of religion simply do not make any sense. Burning bushes, resurrection, the trinity, life after death, heaven and hell, are illogical by atheist standards. Science, however, is based on the logic of reproducible results and, not surprisingly, atheists have a great fondness for science, noting among other things that there are many more galaxies than the one in which we inhabit a tiny planet.
Almost always arriving at their rejection of religion on their own, atheists tend to keep their views to themselves. The study found that atheists are more self-aware and more resistant to conformity than others. They also tend to excel at critical thinking.
“Religion’s big enemy in losing the battle for these minds proved not to be Satan, but its own scriptures, its various teachings, and its history,” say the study’s authors.
As best as can be determined, only 3% of Americans are atheists. What matters most to them is their personal integrity. They are, almost by definition, the least authoritarian of groups you can find and the least likely to attempt to convert someone to their views.
The common perception is that Christian “fundamentalists” are growing by leaps and bounds, but those in America who identify themselves in this fashion peaked in 1987 and their numbers has since dropped to 30% of all Christians by 2004. Of any religious group, fundamentalists are those least liked by atheists.
Interestingly, American atheists are more likely to object to abuses of power by government than most people. A “Born Again” President such as George W. Bush is viewed as a danger to our constitutional system by atheists, as are members of Congress for whom religion is a determining factor in law making.
Conservative and Libertarian political values, smaller and less intrusive government, fiscal prudence, laissez faire capitalism, and individualism would seem to suit most, but not all, atheists better than some form of socialism or One World Government philosophy.
Whether we want to or not, all Americans and other Westerners find themselves locked in a life and death struggle with the newest religion on the world scene, Islam, barely 1,400 years old and a strange conglomeration of things borrowed from both Judaism and Christianity, but mostly reflecting the warring society of Arab tribes in the seventh century AD. It, too, has devolved into many sects, all convinced they possess the “true” Islam as cobbled together by the self-proclaimed prophet, Muhammad.
One can only imagine what atheists make of this insanity, but whether for God or nation, both or neither, we shall be fighting for our lives for decades to come.