Atheists in America

atheist homeSome people say this country is one White House Bible study away from a Christian theocracy, but President-elect Dwight Eisenhower may have summed up the religious sentiment of the nation best when he said, in 1952, "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." A new University of Minnesota study, which has received precisely no coverage yet, found that people rank atheists below gays, lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims in "sharing their vision of American society." A press release from the University of Minnesota expounds:

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. "Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years," says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study's lead researcher.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje of the San Antonio Express-News looks at a few local atheists and finds out they don't like the negative coverage they often receive:

Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion in public life concur.

"Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America," says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It's still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that's not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they're not supposed to voice those views, so they don't. But it's still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists."

Stoeltje's piece, which came out a few days before the University of Minnesota study was released, describes the difference between atheism and agnosticism and talks about the difficulties of being irreligious in a religious society:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the "values voters" of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge -- abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And that which I excerpted is precisely how much she substantiated her statement. What about the religious rhetoric of Presidents Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and Carter -- to name, well, the last four presidents? Does it make sense that religious rhetoric is more prevalent in the public square than it was when, say, St. Abraham Lincoln was president? Almost every president has used civil religion to advance his political goals, and the current president is no exception. Apart from her claim's questionable veracity, Stoeltje should have substantiated it.

And regarding her parenthetical about Christianity . . . What, exactly, is specifically Christian about the civil religious rhetoric of today? Civil holiday celebrations, funerals and memorials are all interfaith. President Bush goes out of his way to praise Islam in his speeches. And the name of Jesus just got banned from the Indiana legislature. I'm sure we can find any number of politicians who still use Jesus or specifically Christian tenets to advance their political goals, but they are not doing it any more than was done years ago.

Stoeltje missed an opportunity to highlight how civil religion -- which tries so hard to be inclusive and bind the electorate together for the goals of patriotism and nationalism -- still manages to alienate those who don't like the God-talk. We all believe in the same God, worshiped by different names, civil religion tells us. But what if you belong to a religion that has no god or if you are not religious at all? Or what if you don't agree that all people worship the same God under different names? Where do we fit in civil religion?

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