When I was seven years old, a boy told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I fired back, telling him, and the rest of my second grade class, that there was no such thing as God.
Thank Go[o]d[ness] Mrs. Galbraith was a proponent of free speech.
What an astute little girl I was. In the midst of fiery confrontation, I held my ground in the name of reason. I drew a logical parallel between what had been described to me as two omnipresent old men — both invisible, intangible, insoluble, and, I was promised, infinitely benevolent.
But given the way I was raised, my behavior was less than surprising.
My spiritual upbringing was never passively ambivalent, nor was it simply void of religious undertones. Instead, I was actively taught that God does not exist. I was brought up as an atheist, and my upbringing stands.
My name is Katie Engelhart and I am an atheist. And I’m terrified to write it. Because at the risk of sounding sensational, this classification qualifies me for membership in the most distrusted and despised minority group in the country.
It goes without saying that the United States is a deeply religious land. In the context of this election, religious discourse has been tempered with lively calls for ‘religious tolerance.’
And that’s just hunky-dory. But the fact is, ‘religious tolerance’ hasn’t overshadowed God’s presence in the campaign. Because the suggestion is always this: politically speaking, whatever faith you have is OK… as long as you have faith.
A 2007 Gallup poll shows that 53 percent of Americans would vote against a “well-qualified candidate” if they found out that he or she was an atheist. In all of American history, there has only been one openly non-theistic Congressman: Pete Stark, a Democrat serving California’s 13th District.
Yes. This election has shown us that Americans are willing to overlook a lot — black skin and breasts, for instance. But we can be sure that if political candidates don’t espouse some kind of religious view, they won’t even make it onto the ballot, [Goddammit]!
And that fact has allowed discrimination against atheists to become the most widely accepted intolerance in the U.S. of A.
Imagine if John McCain stood up in front of a crowd and said, “My Caucasian heritage informs my politics.”
Off with his head!
But we don’t flinch when similar declarations are made about religion.
“I’m rooted in the Christian tradition,” Obama has said. “I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power.”
That statement is a slap in the face to the 16 percent of Americans who don’t identify with a religious group, or who self-identify as atheist or agnostic (according to the Pew Forum). More than that, it’s blatant and unapologetic discrimination. I find it disturbing that remarks like these are voiced openly in the public square.
It’s interesting to consider the extent to which this phenomenon is ‘American.’ Two weeks ago, Canada had a national election. I consider myself to be a well-informed voter. Still, [with God as my witness] I have no idea whether any of the Prime Ministerial candidates even believe in God. And you would be hard-pressed to find mainstream Canadian politicians making broad appeals to faith.
The stigma attached to the word ‘atheist’ is profound. For me, it’s more difficult to talk about than any other issue. When asked — “What are you?” — I usually launch into a complicated explanation of how “Technically speaking, I’m half Jewish and half Protestant.”
Technically speaking? What [the hell] am I talking about? I don’t believe in God. That makes me an atheist. Full stop.
I think that my discomfort is rooted in the fact that conversations between atheists and people of strong faith are inherently challenging. Because ultimately, atheism and religious belief are irreconcilable.
It’s one thing for a Christian to say to a Muslim — “Sorry, Pal. I think you’ve got God’s words kind of mixed up.” It’s another thing entirely for an atheist to say to a religious follower — “The truths you hold are, at best, things of fiction and, at worst, lies.” Being told your religious conclusions are wrong is tough. But being told that your entire approach to the world is flawed is insufferable.
Politically, I think a lot of anxiety about atheism is tied to popular views about accountability. We think that if a candidate is religious, he will feel accountable to some greater power. We posit that his fear of judgment will drive him to do good. But what if [heaven forbid] we end up with an atheistic president who is accountable to no one? [Well, I’ll be damned!]
According to the University of Minnesota “Study on American Attitudes Towards Atheists and Atheism,” an atheist is the LEAST LIKELY person that an American would vote for. Yup, having ‘Hussein’ as a middle name has been a liability for our Democratic darling [God bless him!]. But it doesn’t compare to the political suicide that identifying as an atheist would bring about.
So what can we do? Richard Dawkins, one of the great geneticists of ou r time [a true godsend!] is swinging back with his “OUT campaign,” which encourages atheists to “come out” of the religious closet. He even sells T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with a huge, scarlet “A” for Atheist.
Sound excessive? No more so than wearing a Star of David or a cross around your neck.
“Coming Out” is about fighting against the stigma surrounding the ‘Atheist’ classification.
The fact is, a lot of you are atheists too, especially if you grew up in an educated, urban environment. But, unlike me, you probably feel culturally affiliated with a religious community. And so you’re able to hide under umbrella religious categories. But why does ‘cultural affiliation’ trump ‘religious belief?’ In other words, why are you a Jew who happens to doubt God’s existence, instead of an Atheist who enjoys the occasional Shabbat dinner?
I continue to struggle with this issue [Lord help me!]. Why do I find identifying as an Atheist so hard? Truthfully, part of me is still afraid that God will hate me for it.
Will stacks of this [godforsaken] issue of The Sun be used to block my entrance to the pearly gates of Heaven?
We’re all ripe with contradiction.
Voltaire, the most prolific Enlightenment scholar, spent his professional life speaking out against religion and the religious institution. On his deathbed, he called for a priest.
No one can be sure what happened. I’d like to think his last words were, “Just kidding!”
Katie Engelhart is a senior editor at The Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t Kill The Messenger appears alternate Thursdays.