Irreligion in the United States

In various parts of the world, secularism is on a rapid rise, including America. Religion in the United States is a huge collection of faiths, considering the fact that the nation’s foundation is comprised of many different cultures. There is a slow but sure drop in Americans who fall out of belief in religion. In fact, in the 1950s, only 5% of the Americans identified as non-religious. That went up to around 8% in the 1990s and doubled in 2013, according to a national survey by Pew. Today, the irreligion in the United States is somewhere between 20% and 30% of the population, which experts deduce as the highest rates of secularity in history. It is important to note, though, that not everyone non-religious identifies with atheism and agnosticism. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, however, somewhere between 30% and 50% are. Thus, we can conclude that the rise of irreligion in America is directly proportional to the rise of atheism and agnosticism.

The American flag, representing the different states and cultures.

Despite these changes, though, there are studies that point out that there exists an implicit bias against atheists, along with those who do not believe in an supernatural deity. Most people perceive atheists as less, however, believing that they are less moral than religious people. This finding actually comes as no surprise, but social science has long discovered a trend in high rates of “secularphobia”, which pertains to the irrational dislike, fear, distrust, and hatred of non-religious people within American society. For instance, a poll from 2012 by Gallup found that 43% of Americans said they would not vote an atheist for president, which places atheists at the bottom, behind Muslims at 40%.

It is integral to note, however, that secularism is not synonymous with atheism. In the 21st century, secularism is understood as the political wing of American atheists, which is a commitment pertaining to the mere separation of the Church and State.

Although it constitutes an array of different types of nonbelief, irreligion is seemingly most equated to atheism, which has earned the reputation of the scarlet letter. What people do not realize, though, is that intolerance has been around since America’s birth.

The Roots of Discrimination

History reveals that the American apathy towards atheism dates back to America’s birth. Although plenty of colonists came to the shores of the Unites States in hopes of practicing their own faith freely, many of them brought a notion of religious liberty that only extended to other religions, which almost always just applied to other denominations of Christianity. From John Locke came the idea that atheists cannot be good citizens and thus have no place in the social contract, as in his  “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, he wrote that people who deny the being of God cannot be tolerated. Many from this time also believe that religion alone has the power to suppress human passions – from avarice to ambition. Otherwise the unravelling of the United States republican government would ensue.

Despite the seemingly important role religion has to play, one of the difficult issues in governance faced by the Founding Fathers was the question of balancing religious and political liberties. Due to the religious wars and sectarian conflicts that battered Europe in the 17th century, such as the Protestant Reformation, the Founding Fathers placed much effort on striking a balance between the possibility of society’s moral improvement and religious toleration. At this point, however, resources on both humanism and atheism were extremely abundant, as American independence was contemporaneous with French Enlightenment. Case in point was Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature, which framed human nature as intrinsically violent, bringing forth the implication that religion would only give citizens the liberty to commit barbarities. As the pages of history dictate, religion has the tendency to play towards extreme fanaticism, and atheists at that time believed that it could never be tolerated. Some of the Founding Fathers sought more moderate positions, however, which includes Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, all of whom found valuable resources in deism. More popular in higher education, deism sprung from Europe, in response to the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War, concerned mostly with God’s role in history, the justification of religious tolerance by the discovery of universal religious truths, and religion’s place in moral society.

The Founding Fathers as depicted by Mt. Rushmore.

Not everyone found themselves on the same page. John Adams, another one of the Founding Fathers, leaned towards the necessity of religion in relation to maintaining public order and morality. In the decades following the American Revolution, religious freedom found many exponents, while irreligious remained obscure. In fact, the law customarily favored believers over nonbelievers. Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Mississippi in the 18th century had state constitutions that made political office contingent on affirming a belief in God, along with eternal rewards and punishments. Those who resisted were seen as without moral accountability and unanswerable to a higher truth. This bigotry against secularists and nonbelievers often extended into American courtrooms. Witnesses were perceived to be credible only with religious belief. Those who refused to take an oath in God’s name would be barred, deemed completely as untrustworthy. One such instance happened in 1831 in a New York court, accounted for by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French observer. A witness challenged the oath and declared that he did not believe in the existence of God, nor the immortality of the soul. The proclamation caused mayhem, in which the judge quickly sought to restore order. He declared that the United States was a Christian country, and due to such beliefs, the witness was deemed unfit to testify.

The Discrimination against Atheists 

Such is the slippery label of “atheist” in the American context. The label is slapped on those who choose irreligion, and at the same time deliberately avoided by unbelievers wishing to avoid the entrails of its stigma. There’s mud in the category, although many of the unbelieving are all pushed into the same name, and are even questioned about their spirituality. Some believers, meanwhile, use atheism to discredit anyone whom they cannot see eye-to-eye with. Plenty of falsification surround the concept of atheism, and here we debunk some of it:

Atheism is not a religion. 

Atheists are not a collective, as atheism does not equate to a single identityDespite not being a religion, atheism is protected by the same Constitutional rights that protect religion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that atheism is a religion, despite what many believe (an analogy is helpful: atheism is a religion like fasting is a dish). Atheists’ lack of beliefs is protected the same way as a believer’s beliefs. All atheists believe there is no god that governs the universe, but other than that fact, nothing necessarily unites them as a single “religion.”  There are no positive beliefs or attitudes which can be assumed on the part of all atheists. For instance, although many atheists identify as nihilists, that cannot be true for all atheists — in fact, it isn't true of the vast majority of atheists. The religious majority, due to the stigma, frequently fall for logical fallacies, due to the prescribed intolerance against nonbelievers stemming from precepts in the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths.

Atheism does not equate to absence of morality. 

Nonbelief has always been seen as a moral deficit, but its impacts root back to the 20th century. In 1959, Roy Torcaso, an atheist from Maryland, petitioned to be a notary public without the oath declaring belief in God. He found himself on the losing side of the state courts, where the Maryland Court of Appeals supported the state’s constitutional atheist ban in resolute grounds: the denial of any moral accountability renders a person incompetent to hold public office. Torcaso would ultimately win by unanimous decision through the US Supreme Court

To many Americans, being an atheist means a deficiency in morality, which is deemed a treacherous marker. Although professed religious belief as prerequisite to holding public office bears no more weight, the modern times still dictate hesitation, doubt, and anger. 

The concept that atheists have no reason to be moral without religion or a god may perhaps be the most prevalent and repetitive myth about atheism. The perspective comes up in different forms, but all of them are based on the assumption that the only valid source of morality is a theistic religion, which depends on the current speaker, but it mostly boils down to Christianity. Without Christianity, they conclude, people cannot live moral lives. As we have seen, this has been fed to many of colonial quests, a reason to reject atheism, paganism, and other religious beliefs to convert to Christianity. Atheism operates in the belief that our brains naturally enable our conscience, which then determines morality, which is based on empathy, reason, compassion and reciprocity. These enable people to distinguish good from evil - love thy neighbor from stoning people to death, for example.

Evolution does not mean atheism. 

The longstanding clash between science and religion will never cease to exist, and the validity of evolution is part of the many issues. One group believes in creationism, a concept which imposes that a single divine ruler, in this case being God, made every aspect of the universe. But strong evidence on the evolution of organisms have been found, and is actually believed by many, including all atheists. This has garnered a bad name for evolution, which completely rebukes the belief that everything has come from God. Evolution, however, despite theorizing that life originated from dead matter and evolved into more complex forms, does not necessarily constitute that there is no God. No one can prove where life originated, and unless one can ask more about meta-laws that govern the universe, it cannot be deduced that the theory of evolution should be bound to the truth of atheism. This notion only drives people away from the prospect of science, and perhaps the reason why some human beings who seemingly have already undergone evolution still believe that the Earth is flat.

Why should this all matter?

America is composed of many religions, and it's only natural that people start accepting the concept of irreligion.

Majority of Americans still refuse to have openly atheist educators teach their children, much less marry them. This transcends to politics, too, as surveys show that many of them would prefer females, gays, Mormons, and Muslims to become president, anyone other than an atheist residing in the White House. Some of them go back to roots, as well, as they object to keep nonbelievers from procuring other offices, even that of notary public. Atheists remain barred in the Masonic Lodge, even in the Boy Scouts of America despite opening its organization to girls and gays, under the belief that they cannot have anyone who refuses to pledge “to do my duty to God.”

Such discrimination is both a cause and an effect of the crude approach to parsing belief, and the belief in God still often means the absence of any other meaningful and moral beliefs. This has made atheists a minority that has become easy to revile, and the perception is unfortunately, very apparent in America. Irreligion in the United States is continuously shunned and categorized under “atheism”, with the insistence that America is a Christian nation is fueled.  Nationalism has been tied to religiosity, often leading into bizarre, uninformed outbursts such as President Donald Trump’s declaration – Americans don’t worship the government, they worship God. From the lips of a racist, misogynist, and chronic rabble-rouser, liar, and fact-denier, a proclamation of the belief in God is deeply ironic. 

As what his remarks suggests, the current administration refuses to build a wall between the Church and State. Apart from the animosity towards atheists, manifestation of the resurgence of the Christian nationalism has been seen in the deliberate discrimination against Jews and Muslims, excluding anyone from the godly vision of America. And yet the chauvinism has long been predated: its roots burrow deep in the intellectual history of the United States, and a stubborn anti-intellectual impulse, which pertains to the failure to respect what the irreligious actually believe.

The gigantic terrifying atheist is just about as dangerous as the holy verse-shouting, intolerant religious zealot.  The failures of perception pose the biggest threats, as actions matter more than beliefs.

Putting it mildly, irreligion in America is still wrapped in stigma. Still considered a controversial issue, few and far between and negatively received are the works illuminating the majority’s illogical and sometimes inhuman perception of the non-religious, agnostics, and atheists in the United States. Highly beneficial to eradicating this stigma is logical discourse, which unfortunately, Americans now have a big problem with.

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