Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

The Fear of Atheism

One Nation Under God?

Why are Americans afraid of atheists? The belief that god does not exist is not hard to come by these days, and appears to be growing throughout the world. But as a Pew Research Center report put it, when it comes to religiosity, “the US is closer to considerably less developed nations, such as India, Brazil and Lebanon than to other western nations.”

And those inclined to atheism in the US appear to be intimidated, according to an article in Financial Times. “A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society’”.

Nearly 48 percent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent).” (See “In God We Must,” reprinted in Slate.)

What is it about our culture that is threatened by the idea?

One obvious possibility is the deep-rooted conviction that believing in god is essential to moral behavior. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, claims: “We challenge the whole concept that you can’t be good without God.” Or as Dostoyevsky put it in Crime and Punishment, “If god does not exist, all is permitted,” a belief that encouraged his protagonist, Raskolnikov, to murder an old woman for her money.

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But there is little real reason to believe either that moral behavior is rooted in the fear of punishment or that people are motivated by a belief in the hereafter. A much more plausible explanation is the power of social coercion.

The FT reporter commented: “As I found out when I travelled across the US last year, atheists live in isolation and secrecy all over the country.” He attributes it to “the role of churches in small-town America.” And that fits with the fact that atheism seems considerably more prevalent and accepted in large cities.

He cites the experience of Renee Johnson, a single lesbian mother living in a small town in Texas. “Life pretty much revolves around the churches,” says Johnson of her experiences in Texas. In her local Rains county (pop. 9,139), there are 31, of which 17 are Baptist. “If you don’t belong to one, you aren’t part of the community, and there are few secular alternatives.”

To speak out, then, is to risk ostracism. In that context, the internet offers some relief. Johnson commented, “I found the East Texas atheist website, and through that the Fellowship of Freethought, the Dallas atheists, the Plano atheists and all these different other groups and I’m like, ‘oh, I’m not alone’ … Just knowing that there are 400-plus people at least, maybe thousands, an hour and a half from here that have similar beliefs is enough that I don’t feel isolated.”

That relieves the crushing force of the shunning atheists face, but still leaves us wondering why in America people are so dependent on their local and parochial churches for emotional support, and why those churches are so intolerant. That makes us look like a nation of fragmented and suspicious sects.

Is the idea of god all we have in common?

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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