Polling has consistently shown that the one group of people Americans will not vote for are nonbelievers. It’s pretty easy to recognize why: Americans tend to be religious people who equate morality with religion; Americans only recently finished fighting off an atheist Communist menace; many Americans don’t know any nonbelievers. The question for nonbelievers, then, is how can we make Americans like us? This is a question particularly pertinent to the Swarthmore student body because so many of us are nonbelievers, and because so many of us aspire to lives of public service.
I have only one real answer to this question, and it came to me a few weeks ago while I was reading the New York Times. There was an article about Michael Bloomberg’s decision to invite an atheist organization to his annual conference on faith. At the conference, religious leaders worked to establish interfaith relationships, discuss some of the serious issues tackling the city, and generally work towards finding ways to unite New York City’s diverse faith groups and tackle New York City’s common problems.
According to the article, the atheists were welcomed by the religious leaders and everyone hit it off and had a fine time. (New York City is a pretty liberal place.) A few of the faith leaders were invited to say prayers and speak to the groups, though the atheists, being a relatively small contingent, were not invited to the podium. After the event, the reporter asked Jane Everhart, director of communications for the New York City Atheists, what she would have said had she been invited to speak.
Her answer is astounding. Atheists, she suggested, could have delivered an “invocation that was about ending all invocations.” In other words, the atheist leader wanted to deliver a prayer that people would no longer pray to God. Is there anything she could have said that would have been stupider and less sensitive? Did she not realize that this was a convention to foster interfaith dialogue and that requesting that all the venerable religions represented at the conference no longer pray to their God would, well, go against the conference’s explicit purposes? Shouldn’t she have planned to deliver a speech along the lines of “Though we do not share your faith, or indeed anyone’s faith, we are determined to work to end poverty in the city and to continue to work towards creating a more open and tolerant society?”
Well, she absolutely should have.
Now, I don’t want to read too much into this situation. Perhaps this woman was just particularly inept and therefore not representative of atheist or agnostic leaders. More likely though, she was one of those particularly bellicose atheists who write angry books and who you can read about on the news. Either way, I don’t believe in God and I’m quite certain that this woman doesn’t represent me—though I’m pretty sure that she does represent a larger trend. So, putting aside for the moment that agnosticism is not a religion, or even a coherent belief system, let me say that we, rational, reasonable, agnostics and atheists—who don’t believe in God and understand the potential harms of religion but don’t think it’s our place to go around and tell people their beliefs are absurd and who sometimes wonder if our beliefs aren’t equally absurd because what do we know we’re just humans— have a real and major problem. The agnostics and atheists who represent us, and our interests, are far more hostile to religion than we are.
I don’t have hard statistics on this, but I’m quite sure it’s the case. Nearly every nonbeliever you read about or hear about on television has some bone against the religious. Whether it’s Christopher Hitchens with his witty contempt, Richard Dawkins with his sneering contempt, Bill Maher with his astonished contempt, the only alternative nonbelievers seem to be able to get are the agnostics like Dick Cheney, who go on television and say that while they haven’t managed to find God, they’ll search their souls until they do. When, for the most part, agnostics are people who neither hate religion nor are searching for it. It’s not a fundamental part of our lives, because how could it be? There are no daily rites and rituals to declare your skepticism with the entire notion of God. And because for the majority of agnostics their agnosticism is completely unremarkable, few of us would consider joining a group for agnostics, let alone leading one. But the vacuum has to be filled by somebody, and therefore, the people who represent agnostics are utterly unrepresentative of agnostics. The only people who could possibly care about leading a group of agnostics are the atheists for whom it is a positive belief. These are people who think the world would be unequivocally better without religion, and who don’t mind saying it to an assembled group of priests, imams, and rabbis.
And these are the people who Americans will continue to think of when they’re asked “Would you ever consider voting for an atheist?” And that, I think, is a real problem.