Attack on Atheism
June 1, 2012
Attack on Atheism
Strange but true: Atheophobia

Though it is not exactly hot news, this might surprise our readers as much as it surprised us. In "the land of the free" – the United States of America, atheism continues to be a dirty word and atheists the most stigmatised community. That this is so has been borne out by a number of research studies in recent years. And given the growing Islamophobia post-9/11, the findings of a recent study on the subject by the University of Minnesota are especially intriguing. When asked which group "does not at all agree with my vision of American society", nearly 40 per cent of the respondents identified "atheists". Muslims came second, 26.3 per cent, followed by homosexuals, 22.6 per cent. To the proposition: "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group", the responses were similar. Nearly one out of every two respondents (47.6 per cent) said they would not like their son or daughter to marry an atheist. The corresponding figures for other groups were: Muslims 33.5 per cent, African Americans 27.2 per cent, Asian Americans 18.5 per cent, Hispanics 18.5 per cent. ‘Atheophobia’, it seems, is a far more serious problem in the USA than Islamophobia or homophobia.

So strong and widespread is the stigma attached to being an atheist that for many who do not believe, it takes a lot of courage to say so and its implications are potentially devastating. Here are two examples. An unbelieving woman revealed: "I’ve had people literally, physically back away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home." A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost him his marriage: "My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip and confessed that after I de-converted, she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me."

In the eyes of the believing American public, atheism is synonymous with immorality. But many atheists respond to this baseless assumption with the counterclaim: "compassion is my religion". A professed atheist, Valerie Tarico, recounts her experience at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle where a priest was underlining the imperative of faith: "If the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot." Tarico’s response: "I found myself thinking, if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?" Good question.

We often take the "West" to mean Europe, North America (USA, Canada), Australia and New Zealand with the underlying assumption that "western values" are something they have in common. But on the question of atheism, Europe and the USA are clearly poles apart. Being an atheist in most of Europe is no big deal.

If, on the one hand, atheists are held responsible by many believers for all the ills of American society, on the other hand, recent years have seen the birth of a "New Atheism" which has chosen to launch an aggressive "crusade against belief". For writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, religion lies at the root of all the problems that plague the world. But many atheists themselves fear that this no-holds-barred battle against god can only be counterproductive.

In the nearly two decades of this journal’s existence, a few readers have occasionally suggested that there is no point fighting communalism alone; you must attack religion itself which is the source of this malaise. We beg to differ. Our understanding of and experience in dealing with the menace of communal prejudice, hatred and violence over the years has taught us that equating either communalism with religion or secularism with atheism will get us nowhere.

The deeply religious Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad, we must remember, were proponents of secular politics while the hardly religious Jinnah and Savarkar (Hindu Mahasabha) promoted communal politics. At the height of the Gujarat massacre in 2002 though the gates of the Sabarmati Ashram sadly remained shut, church property was opened up to shelter fleeing Muslims. The report of the Srikrishna Commission which severely indicted the Shiv Sena and the police for Mumbai’s anti-Muslim pogrom in 1992-1993 was the work of (retired) Justice BN Srikrishna, a devout Hindu. RB Sreekumar, Gujarat’s former director general of police, a most courageous IPS officer who has, since 2002, consistently exposed the misdeeds of the Modi government and police, is also a very devout Hindu. Correspondingly, the fact that West Bengal remained "riot-free" throughout the rule of the Left Front tells us something about the morality/ideology of atheists/communists.

As always, this journal defends the right of every individual to believe or not to believe. And it strongly opposes the stigmatisation of individuals for their faith or lack thereof.


Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18    No.166 - Controversy
Beware Of Dogma

Defending atheists: The most stigmatised community in America

Amid western atheist tells of sitting in her lunchroom at work and listening as conversation opened up around her about religious differences. Her co-workers included several kinds of Protestants, a Catholic, even a Jew. Sensing they were in risky territory, they worked to find common ground. "At least there aren’t any atheists around here," one woman said in a warm, inclusive tone.

What’s a girl to do in a situation like that? Should she out herself or just keep quiet? In his seminal book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, sociologist Erving Goffman posed the perennial quandary of stigmatised persons: "To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when and where" (p. 42).

Disclosure feels risky because it is. In 2008 Atheist Nexus gathered "coming out" stories from over 8,000 visitors who described themselves as atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic, sceptic and so forth. Some of the tales are painful to read. One woman said: "I’ve had people literally, physically back away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home." A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost his marriage: "My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip and confessed that after I de-converted, she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me." Elsewhere a young woman tells of losing 34 Facebook friends when she announced her lack of belief.

The consequences of anti-atheist stigma are public as well as private. Most self-described atheists are acutely aware of survey results showing that US atheists are less electable than reviled minorities, including Muslims and gays. Six states (in the US) still have laws on the books that ban non-believers from holding public office. A Florida minister whose de-conversion recently made national news said that job interviews were cancelled when prospective employers found out.

In the minds of many believers, atheism is linked with immorality and despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, religious leaders reinforce this stereotype. I once attended a Palm Sunday service at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle. The minister was determined that his congregation should believe the resurrection of Christ to be a physical, historical event. He said: "If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot." I found myself thinking: if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?!

Anti-atheist stereotypes work to bond believers together in part because many Americans think that they have never met an atheist. A stigmatised minority can be the nameless, faceless "other" that people love to hate as long as members remain nameless and faceless. But as the gay rights movement has shown, things get more complicated – and attitudes start changing – when we realise we are talking about our friends, beloved family members and co-workers. Coming out has been such a powerful change agent for gays that atheists (along with other faceless groups like Mormons and women who have had abortions) are explicitly taking a page from the gay rights movement and launching visibility campaigns.

That is easier than it sounds. Among atheist and humanist leaders, passionate disagreements have erupted about what kind of visibility will actually help advance acceptance and rights for those who eschew supernaturalism. 

As a social cause rather than just a life stance, atheism was catapulted forward by 9/11 and the ascendancy of the religious right. Cognitive scientist Sam Harris says that he began writing The End of Faith the morning after seeing the trade towers bombed with jet fuel and airline passengers. Biologist Richard Dawkins, who had previously hosted a gracious series of televised interviews exploring faith and non-faith, shifted tone and became a patriarch of antitheistic activism. Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote his scathing indictment, God Is Not Great. Doubters started coming out of the closet. I myself began publicly challenging evangelical Christian teachings when George Bush pointed to heaven to indicate where he had sought advice before invading Iraq.

It takes energy and guts to buck taboos and norms as strong as those surrounding religion and so the first out the door were antitheists who felt so strongly that they were willing to throw themselves into the fray, do or die. The "New Atheists" attracted a preponderance of young males who largely fit godless stereotypes: some defiant, some nerdy, many hyper-intellectual. All were, for one reason or another, either impervious to rules protecting faith from criticism or willing to pay a price for breaking those rules. 

Some of these firebrands can be counted among today’s leaders and many have kept an edge that is honed by the seemingly relentless assaults on science and civil rights perpetrated by Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. They remain fiercely defiant, unapologetic about their scorn for religion, willing to use shock tactics if that’s what it takes to break what they see as a terminal religious stranglehold on society. Several years back, a group called the Rational Response Squad promoted a "blasphemy challenge" urging people to videotape themselves denying the holy spirit because one Bible writer calls such blasphemy an unforgivable sin. In 2010 a Seattle cartoonist launched "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" after learning about death threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone for depicting Muhammad in (the animated TV series) South Park. This winter, American Atheists provoked quite an outcry with a billboard that quoted a Bible verse: "Slaves Submit to Your Masters – Colossians 3:22". 

The organisers of these irreverent events see them as advancing values that they cherish deeply – perhaps one could say values they hold sacred: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom from cruelty grounded in dogma or superstition. And yet criticism of such in-your-face attacks on religion has often come from people who share their goals. As the atheist visibility movement has expanded, quieter, more diplomatic leaders have emerged. Many of them insist that aggressive confrontation does more harm than good – that atheists need to be changing stereotypes, not reinforcing them and that there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Biologist PZ Myers and Harvard Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein have staked out two very different positions in the naughty-or-nice controversy. Myers writes a popular blog, Pharyngula, which evolved from a primary focus on biology and politics to include broad-based uncensored anti-religious news and commentary. Myers doesn’t suffer fools lightly and makes no bones about letting people know that he finds most religion not only destructive but also stupid. Epstein, by contrast, seeks to build ethical and spiritual community that builds bridges between faith and non-faith. His Humanist Community Project encourages humanists to develop the traditional virtues of religion: communities built around shared values and social service. Where Myers might rail against "faith in faith", Epstein’s colleagues find common ground with open, inclusive religious groups like the Interfaith Youth Core.

The consequences of anti-atheist stigma are public as well as private. Survey results show that US atheists are less electable than reviled minorities, including Muslims and gays. Six states in the US still have laws on the books that ban non-believers from holding public office

Blogger Greta Christina has said that atheists should "let firebrands be firebrands and diplomats be diplomats". She argues that both confrontational and collaborative tactics made the gay rights movement stronger and will do the same for non-theism. But what kind of confrontation? Ugly partisanship can backfire. For example, Fred Phelps and Sean Harris give homophobia such a vile face that they trigger disgust, pushing people in the opposite direction. Some atheist activism may do the same.

Even reasonable confrontation tactics can backfire – especially in the hands of a hostile journalist. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today attended the April Reason Rally in DC, a gathering she described as "hell-bent on damning religion and mocking beliefs". There she found plenty which, when taken out of context, could be used to reinforce stereotypes. Her article headlined with a quote from Richard Dawkins encouraging non-believers to "show contempt" for baseless dogmas. It was accompanied by a picture of Jen McCreight (of the Secular Student Alliance) cheerfully carrying a sign that read: "Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion… I am". Other speakers were depicted as ornery, offensive and more than a little scary. 

Ad campaigns by non-theist organisations reflect a struggle to find messages that connect with either teetering believers or closeted sceptics while avoiding backlash. In 2009 a London publicity campaign went viral internationally with bus ads proclaiming: "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". A variety of billboard campaigns have followed, some more provocative than others: "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence"; "You Know It’s a Myth. Solstice is the Reason for the Season"; "In the Beginning Man Created God"; "We are all Atheists about Most Gods; Some of Us Just Go One God Further"; "Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club". All have drawn protests or vandalism from indignant theists.

It may be almost impossible to avoid causing offence while challenging the religious status quo. Non-theist organisations have traditionally ignored communities of colour but African Americans for Humanism recently launched an outreach campaign with the tag line: "Doubts about religion? You’re one of many". Billboards and posters show faces of familiar black leaders as well as ordinary group members. Coalition of Reason organiser, Alix Jules of Dallas says that even this understated approach is plenty controversial for two reasons: Almost 90 per cent of African Americans express certainty about the existence of god and honouring religion is seen as a matter of loyalty.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Humanist Canada wanted to run a bus campaign that said, simply: "You Can Be Good Without God". But the public bus agency refused the ads because they "could be too controversial and upsetting to people". One reader commented: "I think we should make atheist ads as innocent and non-confrontational as possible. Not because we should avoid controversy but because we will get the controversy no matter what we put up and the kinder and gentler our message, the more obvious the hypocrisy of our critics. I’m hard put to think of one more innocent than this one, though."

Humanist blogger and speaker James Croft, a doctoral student of educational philosophy at Harvard, insists that it can be done: "There are ways of conveying our values that are both strong and civil, which avoid insults and (except in certain cases) ridicule without giving one inch of ground on the battlefield of our core values. All the evidence shows that this hybrid approach is more effective than simply seeking to be likeable or relying on confrontation alone."

In their effort to find the balance that Croft calls "strong and civil", the Freedom From Religion Foundation has moved towards more personal messages, ones that offer a glimpse into a godless individual (or family) rather than some form of universal claim. Since 2007, they have purchased billboard space for messages, including "Imagine No Religion", "Beware of Dogma" and "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief". But their latest campaign, "Out of the Closet", puts real names and faces together with simple statements of values or disbelief: "Atheists work to make this life heavenly," says Dr Stephen Uhl of Tucson on one sign. "Compassion is my religion," says Olivia Chen, a Columbus student who appears on another. A recent campaign in Clarksville, Tennessee, merely shows a young woman identified as Grace beside the words: "This is what an atheist looks like".

Atheist visibility is more than ad campaigns. In 2009 psychologist Dale McGowan, editor of Parenting Beyond Belief, launched the Foundation Beyond Belief, a tool that lets the non-religious visibly contribute to non-profits working on education, health, human rights and the environment. Last year the foundation added a donation category called "Challenge the Gap" that builds bridges by contributing to the work of religious groups with shared values. Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist hosts news and commentary of interest to young non-believers – absent the edge that characterises an earlier generation of blogs. He brings more humour than anger when he talks with secular student groups about outreach. Small local groups are doing their part. Seattle Atheists dress as pirates and carry a Flying Spaghetti Monster in summer parades. But they also participate in food drives and blood drives. They hand out water during an annual marathon. The aim is not only to make themselves more visible but to show that they too are compassionate members of the community of humankind.

As non-believers gain recognition as normal and ethical members of society, I think we will find that confrontation diminishes and bridge building grows. It is not only that both are necessary but that one paves the way for the other. The Stonewall riots and San Francisco drag scene laid the foundation for Feather Boa Fathers and It Gets Better and pride parades that include local businesses and church banners. Early feminists who stayed defiant even when beaten and jailed made way for the apple-pie tactics of MomsRising which has stencilled messages on onesies and delivered cookies to congressmen to get their equal pay message across. In the words of Ecclesiastes, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." The questions are in each case, to whom, how, when and where.

Greta Christina has estimated that atheist visibility is about 35 years behind the gay rights movement. That sounds close. We will have caught up when a majority of Americans know they know a non-theist – and that friends, family members and fellow citizens really can be good without god.

This article was published in the online magazine AlterNet on May 4, 2012.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 - Cover Story

The stigma of being an atheist

An empirical study on the New Atheist movement and its consequences

In 1963 the sociologist Erving Goffman published a book that has become part of the canon in social psychology, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which he defined stigma as "an attribute that is deeply discrediting". Those who are stigmatised are "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one". Further, "sometimes it [stigma] is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap" and that in extreme cases, a stigmatised person is "bad, dangerous or weak".1 Then there is the issue of "coming out": "To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when and where."2

That atheists are stigmatised in the United States was dramatically illustrated by the University of Minnesota researchers Penny Edgell and Joseph Gerteis in their frequently cited 2006 article ‘Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’, in which they present data indicating that atheists are much more stigmatised than other historically marginalised groups: "Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatised groups."3

Margaret Downey began collecting discrimination narratives through the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) she founded in 1993.4 Downey has collected hundreds of detailed stories of atheists losing their jobs, facing abusive family situations, being subjected to organised campaigns and even death threats. More recent work by the staff at the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers documents the hostile environment for atheists in the military.

The "New Atheists" are not so new

There has been a "freethinking" movement in the United States for a very long time, even predating the outspoken 19th century orator Robert Ingersoll. Indeed atheists have had many champions over the centuries, from the European thinkers Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant and more recently in the United States, Madalyn O’Hair, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan. The so-called "New Atheists" – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) – are but the latest in what is now a more widely publicised movement.

Media attention on atheists in the United States has been on the increase in the last half decade and includes highly publicised debates between believers and non-believers, bus advertisement campaigns, numerous editorials and documentaries. An impressive rise in Internet-based social networking sites specifically for atheists has occurred, most notably Atheist Nexus which in just over the first 14 months attracted well over 15,000 members worldwide and had 1,00,000 unique visitors every month.

Despite all of this attention, there remains in the public mind a very monolithic and negative image of atheists and there seems to be no end in sight to this particular dimension of the culture wars. Ray Comfort, in the ‘Introduction’ to his special 150th Anniversary Edition of The Origin of Species, writes: "It’s rare to find an atheist who doesn’t embrace Darwinism with open arms. Many believe that with creation adequately explained by evolution, there is no need for a god and no moral responsibility."5 This stereotype about non-believers is pervasive and distressingly common among Christians, especially in the American South. The sad fact is that Comfort is but one voice among many working to perpetuate the marginalisation and even demonisation of atheists. That non-believers are decidedly not a homogeneous set of amoral individuals may be obvious to those who are close to this topic but much work remains to more completely address the negative stereotypes.

Recent efforts to describe and more thoroughly understand the non-religious segment of the population in the United States have yielded rich and instructive data. In his 2009 article ‘Profiles of the Godless’, Luke Galen provides a useful survey of this growing body of literature as to the characteristics of atheists: the surveys consistently report that atheists are predominantly male, highly educated and overwhelmingly liberal. My research reported here is intended to expand on this data set so that we may better understand the stigma in order to attenuate it.6


The survey "Coming Out as an Atheist" was live on the Atheist Nexus website ( for four months, from September to December 2008. During the time the survey was up news of its existence spread throughout the Internet on various atheist-oriented websites, blogs and listservs (most notably when it was mentioned by PZ Myers on the Pharyngula site Although the vast majority of the questions were in a forced-choice format, one question was open-ended and over half of the respondents took the time to describe a situation where they had felt some stigma associated with being an atheist.

All forms of data collection present unique challenges and problems, including the use of the Internet. Nevertheless, the data obtained in this study do provide insight into the lives of the self-identified atheists who completed the survey. These are individuals who: a) have access to the Internet, and b) feel comfortable enough in their atheism to seek out communities online where they could speak with similar individuals. Although findings from this study may not be generalised to all atheists, research by Nadine Koch and Jolly Emrey suggests that Internet research conducted on marginalised populations may have more generalising power than previously thought.7 For example, they found that demographics for gay/lesbian samples obtained from Internet communities mirrored gay/lesbian population demographics. Furthermore, demographics of those participating in the survey were nearly identical to those who chose not to participate. And the psychologist Sam Gosling and his colleagues, after an extensive study on Internet-based research programmes, concluded: "Evidence so far suggests that Internet-based findings are consistent with findings based on traditional methods."8 Research supports the possibility that there is a strong social desirability bias – people are more honest when they don’t have to interact with the real person – in telephone surveys and that more valid results may indeed be yielded by online surveys.9


The population represented in this survey of 8,200 respondents looked very similar to other survey populations of atheists10: many more males (74 per cent) than females, highly educated (62 per cent with college or graduate degrees), overwhelmingly white and very liberal (42 per cent). Though most (71 per cent or 5,398) of the respondents were from the US, the survey was completed by significant numbers from around the world (29 per cent or 2,218) and thus allows some suggestive comparisons.

Respondents were offered nine options: Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Bright, Freethinker, Sceptic, Naturalist, Non-believer and Other, in answer to the question: "Which word below do you most often use to identify yourself?". The overwhelming majority – 71 per cent – responded with "atheist". This result remained roughly steady when controlling for gender, age and geographic location. Interestingly, there was no close second place in terms of the preferred label, with none of the remaining options attracting much over five per cent of the responses. Of note is that in answer to the question: "How comfortable do you feel being labelled an atheist?", people from the United States were far less comfortable being labelled an atheist (54 per cent) as compared to those in, for example, western Europe (73 per cent).

The remaining 29 per cent however are spread over scores of different terms. Many respondents indicated that what they call themselves depends on the social context. Although many had very serious and thoughtful alternatives such as: "rationalist", "critical atheist", "antitheist", "teleologist", "non-theistic Reconstructionist Jew" or "Gnostic atheist", others had more whimsical responses such as "Pastafarian" and "Anti-Christer." One that perhaps captures the essence of this entire semantic struggle answered "midway between atheist and agnostic, waiting for atheist to lose its social stigma". Herein lies the crux of the problem. The stigma.

The stigma associated with being an atheist

In response to the question: "Which best describes your realisation that you are an atheist?", 19 per cent of those from the US indicated: "I have always known" compared to 33 per cent from the UK and 39 per cent in western Europe. For most atheists (56 per cent), this realisation was a gradual process over months or years.

In answer to the question: "How often did you attend religious services when you were growing up?", the data indicates that 64 per cent of those from the United States attended a house of worship at least a few times per month. Religious service attendance was much lower for those in other nations, with only 33 per cent of western Europeans indicating they went to services that often. Results for other nations include Canada 52 per cent, UK 43 per cent and Australia 45 per cent. While only 15 per cent of those from the US indicated they never went to religious services, the numbers are higher for other nations: Canada 21 per cent, UK 29 per cent, western Europe 27 per cent and Australia 15 per cent.

In response to the question: "Do you feel any stigma related to your atheism?", the data indicate a dramatic difference between the US and other western nations. While only 16 per cent of those from the US indicated they felt no social stigma related to their atheism, the numbers were much higher in other nations: Canada 38 per cent, UK 68 per cent, western Europe 68 per cent and Australia 56 per cent. On the other end of the response scale, the numbers tell the same story: 18 per cent of those from the US indicated they felt a strong social stigma related to being an atheist compared to only 5.8 per cent in Canada, two per cent in the UK, one per cent in western Europe and three per cent in Australia.

The survey’s most visceral responses addressed the assumption that atheists have no morals. Indeed the stories tell of atheists not just being seen as amoral but decidedly immoral. One woman from the Bible belt wrote: “Many times I’ve been told: ‘What stops you from going out and killing people?’!!”

In response to the question: "In general, how stigmatised do you feel atheists are in your culture?", the contrast between the responses from those in the US were dramatically different from those in other nations. The choice "not stigmatised at all" generated only two per cent of those from the US compared to 14 per cent from Canada, 46 per cent from the UK, 52 per cent from western Europe and 33 per cent from Australia. On the other end of the scale, 55 per cent of the US respondents indicated that atheists were "very stigmatised" compared to only 17 per cent from Canada, four per cent from the UK, three per cent from western Europe and four per cent from Australia. One of the most consistent patterns related to stigma was within the US. On every question, the four regions used for comparison – Bible belt, Midwest, West and North-east – the percentages for each response remained in the exact same order through all measures.

Social repercussions of being identified as an atheist

Three questions in the survey asked the respondent to predict the repercussions should they be identified as an atheist. These questions were all phrased as follows: "Do you feel that there would be any social repercussions if people in your [workplace/family/local community] found out that you were an atheist?" The results indicate significant differences between the US and other nations in all three scenarios.

While 57 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the workplace, only 12 per cent of those from western Europe felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 35 per cent, UK 15 per cent and Australia 24 per cent.

While 61 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the family, only 20 per cent of those from western Europe felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 46 per cent, UK 22 per cent and Australia 27 per cent.

While 68 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the local community, only 18 per cent of those from the UK felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 48 per cent, western Europe 22 per cent and Australia 31 per cent.

When examining this data set broken down by region within the US, the pattern mentioned above again manifests itself. In all three scenarios, it is the Bible belt and the Midwest where the repercussions proved to be the most severe. It is with the family where there is the most fear of repercussions, with both the Bible belt and the Midwest in double digits predicting major repercussions. That females comprised only 25 per cent of the respondents to this survey certainly raises some important questions beyond the scope of the present article. There has been little research on how the stigma of being an atheist varies by gender. The present data suggest that being an atheist is more difficult socially for females than for males. In the present data, females differed somewhat from males: they were slightly younger on average and significantly more liberal, with 53 per cent reporting themselves as "very liberal" compared to 38 per cent of the males.

In response to the question: "Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?", 78 per cent of the females reported at least slight stigma as compared to 69 per cent of the males, indicating that the stigma is moderately greater for a female. Restated, while 20 per cent of the females said they felt no social stigma, 30 per cent of the males put themselves in that category.

While 46 per cent of the females believed there would be no social repercussions if people at their workplace found out they were atheists, 55 per cent of the males felt the same, indicating that more females than males feared at least some workplace repercussions.

The data with respect to social repercussions if family found out they were atheist are very similar to those found regarding the workplace: 41 per cent of the females felt there would be none while 50 per cent of the males reported the same.

Though the national and regional differences regarding perceived stigma are interesting, I think there is a greater need for deeper research into its gendered nature.

"And God Bless America!"

Atheists are marginalised and made to feel uncomfortable when a major political official ends her/his speech with "and may God bless America" or when grandmother asks "who is going to say grace?" before a holiday meal.

In two survey questions: "Which best describes how you feel in more intimate social situations where religion is invoked (for example, a pre-meal prayer with family or friends)?" and "Which best describes how you feel in public gatherings where religion is invoked (for example, when a speaker refers to god or says a prayer)?", the results were dramatic. Respondents indicated overwhelmingly that they felt at least a slight discomfort in both situations: 79 per cent of all respondents were uncomfortable in intimate social situations and 82 per cent felt discomfort with regard to public settings.

The vast majority (86 per cent) of the females reported feeling at least slight discomfort while a slightly smaller – but possibly statistically significant – percentage of the males felt the same way (76 per cent). Fifteen per cent of the females reported feeling no discomfort while 24 per cent of the males reported feeling no discomfort.

The stories of stigma

Nearly 4,200 respondents offered written responses to the prompt: "Please provide an example of a social situation where you experienced stigmatisation because you are an atheist". These narratives provide perhaps the richest information yielded from the data and clear patterns emerge, clarifying and deepening the sketch provided by the quantitative numbers from the forced-choice questions. Perhaps the most visceral responses addressed the assumption perpetuated by Ray Comfort and others, namely that atheists have no morals. Indeed the stories tell of atheists not just being seen as amoral but decidedly immoral.

One woman from the Bible belt wrote: "Many times I’ve been told: ‘What stops you from going out and killing people?’!!" A middle-aged female noted: "My six-year-old son was cornered in first grade by three other six-year-olds who screamed at him: ‘You will believe in Jesus!! You will believe in Jesus!!’ Not so good."

A young male confessed: "My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip and confessed that after I de-converted, she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me." Another described: "I’ve had people literally, physically back away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home."


Many more examples could be cited from the data but the tone and pattern are clear. The stigma associated with being an atheist, especially in the American Bible belt, is real, pervasive and oppressive. It is affecting the lives and livelihoods of many. But just how many? A recent survey by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 15 per cent of Americans claim they adhere to no religion, making them the fastest growing group of believers – or rather, non-believers – in the US. The Trinity College American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) also found that the number of people who self-identify as "non-religious" is growing in every state. Data from the Pew Forum US Religious Landscape Survey appears to support the ARIS data.

According to several estimates, there are many more non-believers in the US other than historically marginalised groups. Yet this highly stigmatised group has no protection from discrimination and there are still laws on the books in six states prohibiting non-believers from holding public office, including my own home state, North Carolina.

Is a future where atheists in the US are not stigmatised possible? Work done to minimise or eliminate stigma by other historically marginalised groups such as homosexuals, HIV-positive individuals and others with physical challenges such as epilepsy has had mixed success. The social movement referred to by some as the "New Atheism" is focused among other things on the de-stigmatisation of atheism. It is hoped that research data such as presented here will contribute to useful dialogue on this problem.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 - Cover Story
 This article was published in Skepticmagazine in January 2010.


1 Goffman, Erving, 1959, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, p. 5.

2 Ibid, p. 42.

3 Edgell, Penny and Gerteis, Joseph, 2006, ‘Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’, American Sociological Review, 71, p. 230.

4 Downey, Margaret, 2004, ‘Discrimination Against Atheists: The Facts’, Free Inquiry, June 1, pp. 41-43.

5 Comfort, Ray, 2009, ‘Special Introduction’ to the 150th Anniversary Edition of The Origin of Species, Alachua, Fl, Bridge-Logos, p. 39.

6 Galen, Luke, 2009, ‘Profiles of the Godless: Results from a survey of the non-religious’, Free Inquiry, Aug/Sept 2009, pp. 41-45.

7 Koch, Nadine and Emrey, Jolly, 2001, ‘The Internet and Opinion Measurement: Surveying Marginalised Populations’, Social Science Quarterly, 82, pp. 131-138.

8 Gosling, Samuel, et al, 2004, ‘Should We Trust Web-Based Studies?’, American Psychologist, 59, pp. 93-104.

9 Presser, Stanley and Stinson, Linda, 1998, ‘Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance’, American Sociological Review, 63, pp. 137-145.

10 Shermer, Michael, 2000, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, New York, Henry Holt; Hunsberger, Bruce and Altemeyer, Bob, 2006, Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.

No room for disbelief

Every single study that has ever looked at the issue has revealed massive amounts of bigotry and prejudice against atheists in America. Recent data shows that atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority and that an atheist is the least likely person that Americans would vote for in a presidential election. It’s not just that atheists are hated though, but also that atheists seem to represent everything about modernity which Americans dislike or fear.

The 2006 study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that atheists ranked lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society". Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry. The results from two of the most important questions were:

This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society...

Atheist: 39.6 per cent; Muslim: 26.3 per cent; Homosexual: 22.6 per cent; Conservative Christian: 13.5 per cent; Recent Immigrant: 12.5 per cent; Hispanic: 7.6 per cent; Jew: 7.4 per cent; Asian American: 7.0 per cent; African American: 4.6 per cent; White American: 2.2 per cent

I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group...

Atheist: 47.6 per cent; Muslim: 33.5 per cent; African American: 27.2 per cent; Asian American: 18.5 per cent; Hispanic: 18.5 per cent; Jew: 11.8 per cent; Conservative Christian: 6.9 per cent; White: 2.3 per cent

Lead researcher Penny Edgell said that she was surprised by this: "We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group." Nevertheless, the numbers are so extreme that she was led to conclude that they are "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years". It’s not that bigotry and discrimination against Muslims is appropriate but at least it’s not hard to understand where such attitudes would come from.

Every group except atheists is being shown much greater tolerance and acceptance than 30 years ago. "Our analysis shows that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical pattern as that for previously marginalised religious groups. It is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as the basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and non-believers in our collective imagination."

Some respondents associated atheism with illegal behaviour like drug use and prostitution: "that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy". Others saw atheists as "rampant materialists and cultural elitists" who "threaten common values from above – the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else".

Given the relatively low number of atheists in America, and the even lower number who are public about their atheism, Americans can’t have come to their beliefs about atheists through personal experience and hard evidence about what atheists are really like. Furthermore, dislike of atheists doesn’t correlate very highly with dislike of gays, immigrants or Muslims. This means that dislike of atheists isn’t simply part of a larger dislike of people who are "different".

Why are atheists being singled out for special hatred and distrust? "What matters for public acceptance of atheists – and figures strongly into private acceptance as well – are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion’s role in underpinning society’s moral order, as measured by… whether society’s standards of right and wrong should be based on god’s laws." It is curious that atheists should be singled out for special hatred on the basis of church/state separation which religious theists, including Christians, are usually in the forefront of fighting to preserve. It is rare to find a case filed by or supported by atheists which is not also supported by theists and Christians. In fact, I can’t think of any offhand.

Although people may say that they consider atheists inferior because atheists don’t believe that civil law should be defined according to some group’s conception of what their god wants, I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are too many religious theists who also want civil law to be secular rather than religious. Instead, I think that a much better case can be made for the idea that atheists are being scapegoated the same way that Catholics and Jews once were: they are treated as social outsiders who create "moral and social disorder".

Atheists can’t both be lower-class drug users or prostitutes and upper-class elitists and materialists. Instead, atheists are being saddled with the "sins" of American society generally. They are "a symbolic figure" that represents religious theists’ "fears about... trends in American life". Some of those fears involve "lower-class" crimes like drug use; other fears involve "upper-class" crimes like greed and elitism. Atheists are thus a "symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether".

That’s obviously not going to change, because as long as atheists remain atheists, they won’t be theists and they won’t be Christians. This means that they won’t agree that any gods, much less the Christian god, can serve as the basis for moral solidarity or cultural membership in American society. Of course, neither can adherents of many other religions who either don’t believe in gods or who don’t believe in the Christian god. As America becomes more religiously pluralist, America is going to have to change and find something else to serve as the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership. Atheists should work to ensure that this is as secular as possible.

 This article was posted on the website;

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012.Year 18, No.166 - Cover Story
We that do not giveth

On research that has found that atheists are more compassionate and generous than highly religious people

I came across a couple of interesting articles today, both of which other folks sent to me. The first story came from my friend, Andrew, who considers himself marginally religious, if at all, but he is a regular follower of my stuff. The article he sent cites research that found that atheists are more compassionate and generous than highly religious folks.

Actually, this doesn’t surprise me. Back when I waited tables, the Sunday after-church crowd was the absolute worst of the week to wait on. They took forever, were super-picky, were terrible tippers and tended to be the most critical customers I had. It really killed me when, instead of leaving a tip, they’d leave a tract on the table. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re little booklets that some Christians pass out to try and save people. They justify substituting this for money because saving my soul is a far greater gift than a couple of dollars. Well, I’ve got news for you. The last time I tried to pay rent with a tract, my landlord wasn’t impressed. Second, that assumes an awful lot about me, my beliefs and my needs, doesn’t it?

I’m digressing but the point is, I identified with this article just by the title alone. It actually reminded me of a church sign that warrants a second look (see picture).

Another friend of mine, Paul, posted the following reflection about why this somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon might be. He said: "When religious people do ‘good things’, they are often doing so in conditioned response to an ethereal reward/punishment set of beliefs. When non-believers do ‘good things’, it is because they want to do them." Tragic if true but I think Paul might be on to something. I should note that Paul is involved in ministry, like me, so he’s not throwing stones from a distance.

I also wonder if it has something to do with the comfort that comes with being part of the cultural majority. Yes, there are Christians who will claim we’re part of a persecuted minority but that’s simply ignorant. Christians have had the lion’s share of power in this country for a long, long time and it shows in our attitudes. We assume that what "we believe" is normal and that anything else is an aberration. The result of this is that anyone who doesn’t claim to be a Christian is made much more aware of it because of their difference.

It’s like what I’ve written before about the inherent privilege of being straight. Generally, straight people don’t think about being straight as much as gay people think about being gay namely because the "default" sexual orientation – aka, the majority identity – is that of straight people. The fact is, we don’t think about who we are and how we act nearly as much when we’re the ones in control.

Atheists, on the other hand, are fairly regularly persecuted (socially at least) for their lack of belief. They are made quite aware of their atheism either because of how they’re treated for it or because they have to keep silent about it for fear of being ridiculed. So perhaps with this tendency to be more self-conscious comes an equally more self-aware set of behaviours and attitudes. Put another way, if you’re part of a group that is stereotyped in a negative way, you might go out of your way to act differently, even at an unconscious level, to try and defy that stereotype.

I could be reaching here but I think there’s something here that is basic to contemporary human nature. So although I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or worse about an atheist brain or heart than a Christian one, I do expect that atheists may work a little harder to convince the rest of the culture around them that they’re decent, loving, caring people regardless of whether they believe in god.

Is this a case for atheism? An indictment of Christianity? Not really either, I think. If I’m right, it tells us more about the power of cultural norms, the potential negative (but relatively invisible) effects of majority consciousness and the responsibility of those with the privilege of being in the majority to go out of their way to act against the negative effects of such privilege.

All I know is that when someone tells me I defy many of the common expectations they have of Christians, I take that as a compliment. I wish it wasn’t the case but it is clear from the empty seats in many of our churches that we have done an awful lot of this to ourselves.

This article was posted on the author's website, on May 9, 2012.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012.Year 18, No.166 - Cover Story
The Atheist delusion

Evangelical atheism: why the ‘secular fundamentalists’ have got it all wrong

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been an explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism.

The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition and western opinion has accepted their self-image. And there are some who view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a danger comparable with the worst that were faced by liberal societies in the 20th century.

For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that over the long run the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.

It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian. However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible or that it is potentially universal. The United States is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity. The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.

Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

A curious feature of this kind of atheism is that some of its most fervent missionaries are philosophers. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity. This parochial focus is reflected in Dennett’s view of religion which for him means the belief that some kind of supernatural agency (whose approval believers seek) is needed to explain the way things are in the world. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better – they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense. "The proposition that god exists," he writes severely, "is not even a theory". But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories.

The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of eastern Christianity while in orthodox Judaism, practice tends to have priority over doctrine. Buddhism has always recognised that in spiritual matters, truth is ineffable, as do Sufi traditions in Islam. Hinduism has never defined itself by anything as simplistic as a creed. It is only some western Christian traditions, under the influence of Greek philosophy, which have tried to turn religion into an explanatory theory.

The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer’s survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge.

Dennett’s atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer’s positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication – in their day, canals and the telegraph – irrational thinking would wither way along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In a piece entitled ‘The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion’, he predicts that: "In about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters, religion will no longer command the awe that it does today." He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of "the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the Internet but cellphones and portable radios and television)". The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaeda on the web.

The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths – hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudoscience. Dennett’s notion that new communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings think is just such a myth.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to explain the appeal of religion in terms of the theory of memes, vaguely defined conceptual units that compete with one another in a parody of natural selection. He recognises that because humans have a universal tendency to religious belief, it must have had some evolutionary advantage but today, he argues, it is perpetuated mainly through bad education. From a Darwinian standpoint, the crucial role Dawkins gives to education is puzzling. Human biology has not changed greatly over recorded history and if religion is hardwired in the species, it is difficult to see how a different kind of education could alter this. Yet Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion would die out. This is a view that has more in common with a certain type of fundamentalist theology than with Darwinian theory and I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would grow up without illicit sexual impulses.

Dawkins’s "memetic theory of religion" is a classic example of the nonsense that is spawned when Darwinian thinking is applied outside its proper sphere. Along with Dennett, who also holds to a version of the theory, Dawkins maintains that religious ideas survive because they would be able to survive in any "meme pool" or else because they are part of a "memeplex" that includes similar memes, such as the idea that if you die as a martyr, you will enjoy 72 virgins. Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that intelligent design is science. Strictly speaking, it is not even a theory. Talk of memes is just the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors.

Dawkins compares religion to a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially those of children. Biological metaphors may have their uses – the minds of evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious memes, for example. At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught with peril. Dawkins makes much of the oppression perpetrated by religion, which is real enough. He gives less attention to the fact that some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes. Nazi "scientific racism" and Soviet "dialectical materialism" reduced the unfathomable complexity of human lives to the deadly simplicity of a scientific formula. In each case, the science was bogus but it was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question. Science is as liable to be used for inhumane purposes as any other human institution. Indeed, given the enormous authority science enjoys, the risk of it being used in this way is greater.

Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the American writer Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of "scientific atheism" – what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies.

But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan "Religion is poison", would have agreed that his atheist world view had no bearing on his policies. It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure – as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.

Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. "What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does." This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian anti-Semitic demonology in his persecution of Jews and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world view was that of many semi-literate people in inter-war Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.

Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want – so they will tell you – is not an atheist regime but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America’s secular Constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the United States than in any other country while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment. It is clear that they want to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts such critics deploy – including the idea of religion itself – have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.

AC Grayling provides an example of the persistence of religious categories in secular thinking in his Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles For Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. As the title indicates, Grayling’s book is a type of sermon. Its aim is to reaffirm what he calls "a Whig view of the history of the modern West", the core of which is that "the West displays progress".

The Whigs were pious Christians who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in English institutions and Grayling too believes history is "moving in the right direction". No doubt there have been setbacks – he mentions Nazism and communism in passing, devoting a few sentences to them. But these disasters were peripheral. They do not reflect on the central tradition of the modern West, which has always been devoted to liberty and which – Grayling asserts – is inherently antagonistic to religion: "The history of liberty is another chapter – and perhaps the most important of all – in the great quarrel between religion and secularism." The possibility that radical versions of secular thinking may have contributed to the development of Nazism and communism is not mentioned. More even than the 18th century Whigs, who were shaken by the French Terror, Grayling has no doubt as to the direction of history.

But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century but it returned on a vast scale in Nazism and communism and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason no doubt is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms – rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.

Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism.

The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for the traditions from which these thinkers emerged – particularly Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one god. But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people." Here Onfray passes over an important distinction. It may be true that Jews first developed monotheism but Judaism has never been a missionary faith. In seeking universal conversion, evangelical atheism belongs with Christianity and Islam.

In today’s anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent this is also true of the current wave of terrorism. Islamism is a patchwork of movements, not all violently jihadist and some strongly opposed to al-Qaeda, most of them partly fundamentalist and aiming to recover the lost purity of Islamic traditions while at the same time taking some of their guiding ideas from radical secular ideology. There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamofascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including anti-Semitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists. Islamist techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements. The executions of hostages in Iraq are copied in exact theatrical detail from European "revolutionary tribunals" in the 1970s, such as that staged by the Red Brigades when they murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that long before Hizbollah and al-Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder". He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island’s Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any post-mortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 1980s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese Communist Party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. It is a view of things more remote from human realities and more reliably lethal in its consequences than most religious myths.

It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. No one can doubt that they are superior to the tyranny imposed by the Taliban on Afghanistan, for example. The issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and Nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century. A greater menace is posed by North Korea which far surpasses any Islamist regime in its record of repression and clearly does possess some kind of nuclear capability. Evangelical atheists rarely mention it. Hitchens is an exception but when he describes his visit to the country, it is only to conclude that the regime embodies "a debased yet refined form of Confucianism and ancestor worship". As in Russia and China, the noble humanist philosophy of Marxist-Leninism is innocent of any responsibility.

Writing of the Trotskyite-Luxemburgist sect to which he once belonged, Hitchens confesses sadly: "There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb." He need not worry. His record on Iraq shows he has not lost the will to believe. The effect of the American-led invasion has been to deliver most of the country outside the Kurdish zone into the hands of an Islamist elective theocracy in which women, gays and religious minorities are more oppressed than at any time in Iraq’s history. The idea that Iraq could become a secular democracy – which Hitchens ardently promoted – was possible only as an act of faith.

Some neocons – such as Tony Blair, who went on to teach religion and politics at Yale – combine their belligerent progressivism with religious belief though of a kind Augustine and Pascal might find hard to recognise. Most are secular utopians who justify pre-emptive war and excuse torture as leading to a radiant future in which democracy will be adopted universally. Even on the high ground of the West, messianic politics has not lost its dangerous appeal.

Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise. In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism. Today the result is a climate of hysteria. Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways and no religion has the right to break the peace.

The attempt to eradicate religion however only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

This article, an edited extract from Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, Penguin, 2009, was published on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website on January 9, 2012.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012.Year 18, No.166 - Cover Story