Thursday, March 1, 2012

Atheists in America

In the comments of an earlier post, a little point came up about nonbelievers who are not so direct and "out there" about their atheism.  Indeed, there is some value in choosing the right time and place to "come out", and there are those who wear their anti-religion stance on their sleeves like myself.  In addition to those who are merely being cautious, there are those who simply want to avoid telling anyone or just say the word "agnostic" in lieu of "atheist" order to save face and/or avoid confrontation entirely.

It kind of begs the question as to why there is such a conflict in the first place?  Here in the United States, especially, you have people who view atheists as being among the most loathsome of all creatures.  In the episode of Family Guy where the dog (Brian) reveals his lack of belief, a news report brands him as "Worse than Hitler?"  The sad part of this is that such a reaction is hardly an exaggeration.  Why should it be that way?  This is supposed to be the country that has more Nobel Laureates than any other.  This is the country where people come to to get the best healthcare on the planet (assuming you have the enormous wealth required to get it).  This is the country which has put men on the moon and created the friggin' Internet.

And yet, this is also the country where state legislatures propose that women who have been raped should be raped one more time by an ultrasound machine so that she can be guilt-tripped out of an abortion.  This is also the country where people paid to provide us with an education believe that the universe has only existed for 6,000 years and man and dinosaurs lived at the same time.  This is also the country where the state which is generally considered to be the most socially liberal in the entire nation still passed a law to outlaw gay marriage.  This is the country where the Constitution demands that no religious test be required for any office in government, and yet there is not a single elected official in government who can avoid a religious test at the hands of its populace.

So what the friggin' hell is America's problem?

Well, to begin with, America, regardless of the attitudes of those figures who founded the government does have a religious tinge to its history.  Whatever Washington, Madison, Jefferson et al. felt about religion, the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers who first settled this country were fundamentalist even by modern fundamentalist standards.  The people who came here in the 1600s were the ones who created and left that lasting cultural impression of manifest destiny, and this idea that America is this religious harbor that was left here by God especially for good Christians.  And not being religious in the face of this is seen as a sort of divine treason.

The strength of religion's influence in politics was comparatively weaker centuries back.  Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was believed by much of the populace of his day to be an atheist (and in fact, was accused of it by his opponents), and although he never specifically said as such, he never denied it either.  Most historians consider him at most, a deist.  Whether he goes as far as "atheist" is not something that can be determined conclusively.  Nonetheless, he goes down as a particularly great president.  It is all too interesting that there are no practicing Christians who happen to be enshrined on Mount Rushmore.  Part of it may well be the media-connectivity shift.  In Lincoln's day, the only way you knew what a candidate was all about was to wait for him to come to your town and hold a caucus or debate and then listen to his rhetoric.  Today, you follow some guy's Twitter feed to hear what some random politician said in some random location.  Today, if Lincoln had uttered a phrase like "The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession.  I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma," the whole world would know in a matter of minutes.  While we probably care about politicians' characters about the same today as ever, we're more aware of that character today than ever. With a religious majority, anything that someone has to say about God is that much more a measure of his/her character.

After World War II, we ended up becoming aware of the sheer scale and scope of the Nazi holocaust (which was largely unknown to people before that).  Following decades also saw conflicts against other communist dictators in Korea, Vietnam, and entrenchment in the Cold War.  This made yet another cultural message based on the adversarial position made communism, socialism, totalitarian dictators, etc. wholly associated with everything that could possibly be bad.  They were not just evil, but evil on every level.  Godlessness was just one more facet of "bad."  The end result is that the association now goes both ways.  So not only are communists godless, but godless people are communists.  It doesn't matter, for instance, that the laws in Nazi Germany decreed that atheism was essentially illegal -- all that mattered was that Hitler was evil, and by extension, a nonbeliever.  It was after this time, in the late 1950s that "In God we Trust" became the national motto; "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.  All of this was in an effort to differentiate red-blooded, god-fearing Americans from the godless heathen communists on the other side of the planet.

Probably the worst aspect here is that the U.S. has a very anti-intellectual culture.  In most of Europe and Asia (and some time ago, this was also true of the Islamic caliphate as well), people look up to knowledge and book learning and education.  Here in the U.S., there's a culture that looks down on people who are extremely knowledgeable because they are viewed as elitist snobs who talk above "normal folks".  If everybody with a genius IQ did nothing more than join Mensa, that sort of assessment might be valid.  Nonetheless, Americans see more value in the mechanic who gets his hands dirty fixing cars than the mechanical engineer who did the mentally taxing work of designing all the components the mechanic works on.  They seem to be forgetting that a mechanic also has to be a pretty knowledgeable guy to even do his job in the first place;  but that doesn't really matter...  the mechanic DOES stuff, and anybody can plainly see that he DOES something.  Conversely, people who are extremely intellectual are viewed as being in an alternate reality, living in their heads, and altogether out of touch with ordinary people.  It's why we have reality TV about blue-collar rednecks and lowbrow hipsters with more dollars than brain cells and not reality TV about rocket scientists.  It's why the only way to make science remotely interesting to the common man is to wrap it up in explosions and quirky guys (and at least 1 gal for good measure) who have way too much fun building elaborate mechanisms.  Even then, the most likely viewer of Mythbusters is still someone who is at least college-educated.

The so-called "new" atheists are coming forth with logic, reason, science, and extremely elaborate, rational, and detailed understandings of reality.  Moreover, a lot of these people are atheists partly because they understand religion exceptionally well.  We've taken the time to study, do our research, approach everything with a comprehensive survey of the facts...  and come out on the other side.  This gives atheism as a whole the image of being built of the very same literati that Americans feel are so "un-American."  In much the same way that religion is built on this sort of hierarchy of higher-ups, they mark atheists as posting their "high priests" on a pedestal when there is no such thing.  And yet, the religious will project their view of reality, their view of how things ought to be, and tie it all together with their "America-is-beautiful-ism."  The very extreme fervor of this attachment to "good ol'-fashioned Americana" means that in and out are viewed through a very black-and-white lens, and everyone who is "out" is intrinsically evil.  Everyone who is out in one aspect is out in all of them.

This is also related to the nature of religion here in the U.S.  This country was settled because of people who wanted to escape the format and hierarchy of the Catholic church.  Here is a country that is not merely predominantly Christian, but predominantly Protestant Christians.  Protestantism has a history of viewing religion in a much harsher light than the much looser Catholic church which sold indulgences and absolves sins by way of confession.  One can not believe at all in Jesus, but still go through the motions of Catholicism and call themselves "cultural Catholics."  Secular Jews, by in large, do not accept the existence of a personal god, but engage in the ritual aspects of Judaism in order to maintain a cultural identity as a Jew.  Protestant Christianity is not so flexible.  One cannot be a "cultural pentecostal" because the very definition of that branch of Christianity requires a perceived personal connection with Jesus.  The kind of rigidity and outright unforgiving commitment that goes with it makes it all the more difficult to approach religion loosely.  And the "politically correct" thing to do for those who are more moderate is to treat these people as merely "earnest" rather than "crazy."

The American flavor of Christianity has in turn become tied not only to the extreme rigidity of Puritanical principles, but connected to an absurd elevation of America itself.  Modern American Christianity has been tinted with the film of nationalism, imperialism, brutish machismo, authoritarianism, and a sense of purity that ties it all together and decrees by fiat that all these aspects are inseparable.  If you're an atheist, you don't merely disbelieve in the notion of god, but you disbelieve in the notion of America, and you want the terrorists to win.  The right-wing, over the years, has crafted this new form of Christianity in the undying effort to slam the brakes on progressive movements and put tradition above reason.  They painted a new picture of Jesus where he not only tried to save you, but he saves you because you bought American-made products, and you aren't some long-haired bleeding-heart liberal hippie...  Now, anything that the right wing doesn't like can be packaged together through the focal point of god.  Why is gay marriage bad?  American Jesus died on the cross for you!  He's already suffered for you!  Why is there so much unemployment?  It's because God is angry with America for allowing abortions!  What's up with teen pregnancy rates?  Jesus hates fags!  Anything can be blamed on anything else and the Bible is the bridge.

With all this cognitive dissonance being the rule rather than the exception, being someone who thinks straight...  in an environment where it is considered evil to think straight...  is it any wonder Americans scream foul at the mere mention of atheism?