“As a kid, I remember my friends all leaving on Sunday mornings, I was left out and was alone in the neighborhood every weekend, they came home as better friends, I was invited to fewer dinners with their families,” recounts Orion Parrish. Like myself, Orion is a part of the two percent. That is not always easy for either of us. What has been harder is trying to pretend that we are not part of the two percent. Most people can tell you what they are. For us and those like us more often than not we have to start with what we are not. We are not believers in God.
Religion is all pervasive in the United States. According to Jesse Smith in Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism, just two percent of Americans identify as atheist while Rob Whitley states in Atheism and Mental Health that 30% of the United Kingdom’s population identifies as atheist.
When you are growing up in a conservative area of the United States like Alabama the majority view of the existence of God is not just theological its implications are social and moral as well. Orion had to learn this the hard way as a child. “I was never invited on any vacations with my friends… other parents would openly talk about how my brother and I were likely going to grow up as drug addicts because our parents did not put God in our lives.”
This left Orion feeling embittered, isolated and distrustful of other people. He was unable to open up to strangers and even many friends because he assumed they would reject him. Even today as a twenty-five year old law student who has bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Philosophy, Orion is cautious about sharing with others his whole identity. He admits that he “lies about it often, or avoid the questions. Even when I believe I’m in like company, I will ask lots of polling questions to get it out of the other side first.”
Though Orion cannot be upfront about his views on religion, he still considers atheism to be a large part of who he is. It is something he maintains a private pride in. “As an adult, atheism is important to me. It’s a reminder that claims need to be supported. It’s also something I’ve thought about and decided on at length, so it’s something personal. As a teen, I realized that the religious claims were absolute. They were telling me I was wrong, and that eventually became offensive and odious.”
In the United States atheists often identify themselves as what they are not, according to Smith. This concept of a “non-identity” is a response to what Orion refers to as the “odious” nature of religious claims. This even applies to atheists who grew up in secular households because as children they were still heavily bombarded with the normative cultural view of religion. Smith goes on to observe that this is very similar to how homosexuals and vegans identify themselves in contrast to the dominant culture.
For those of us who grow up atheist like Orion, there is a constant tension from the earliest years. In the cases of people like Billie Guerrero, the President of the Club of Secular Understanding (CSU) at Chaffey College, there tends to be a sense of regret about their theistic years. Billie grew up as a very observant Jehovah’s Witness and often preached to others about what she felt was God’s way. In hindsight she believes this “not only hurt me but hurt others. I would… judge those from different religions or sexualities. I myself was a bisexual but I felt so much guilt from that. I never thought I was good enough for God and was very critical about natural human emotions. I was very uncompassionate but I had the illusion that I was.”
Though adamantly religious for so many years, Billie lost her faith relatively quickly at the age of seventeen. Something just clicked for her when she started researching different religions and questions about why evil exists if God is omnipotent and omniscient. The research began when one of her friend’s finally challenged her about her beliefs. None of the religious answers made any sense to her, especially since most clergy she spoke to made frequent use of the dodge, “We can’t know God’s ways” in response to her very serious questions.
Billie has overcome a lot in her life. For the first seventeen years of her life she would have attributed a lot of this resiliency to God. So how much of Billie changed once she left the church? Not much. “I still didn’t attend parties or do drugs, mind you. I was still the same person, I still had the same morality.” Billie’s stable sense of self is not an anomaly according to research. Smith states that “in terms of the content of basic moral questions, these atheists’ views do not differ much from the conventional and commonly held views of the meaning of morality.”
Not only do atheists not abandon their ethical compass along with their belief in God, they often come to atheism specifically because of this ethical compass. After studying and interviewing a group of atheists for several months Smith observed that “The centrality of Morality was of central importance to these atheists, and specific moral issues progressively drove their questioning of God and religion more intensely. Forty-nine-year old Matt, a former Lutheran, described it this way: I was reading the Old Testament, and what really got me started on a different path was that God was telling Joshua to go in and destroy the city, destroy every man, woman and child, every goat, every chicken, I mean leave nothing! And I remember thinking ‘what’s going on here; why does God want to kill cows?’ And as I continued reading and finding more troubling things I just started questioning more and more. And then it dawned on me that the God I was worshipping and reading about all this time was really just a sinner himself. Here he is being jealous and vengeful and human.”
For other atheists, it is not about reading the bible so much as direct interactions with believers. Another participant in Smith’s research of atheists was a woman named Kelly. Kelly stated that “when I was in college, I started to think about some issues from when I was growing up, that church members were not nice. They preached about the Bible and morality, but then they were not good to each other. That really frustrated me.” Smith believes that it is these struggles that not only encourage many individuals to become atheist but also specifically drives them to dissociate morality from the concept of the very same God most Americans see as intimately connected to morality.
Before ever identifying as atheist many people quietly struggle with many of these moral questions regarding their religion. Professor Angela Bartlett, the Adviser to the CSU “always doubted religion. I was raised Catholic and really forced to be Catholic. I did first communion and even confirmation because my parents made me. But I never really believed any of it, especially because of the attitudes towards women and, as I became a teenager, homosexuals.” Yet Angela never thought to call herself an atheist. She only adopted the term “atheist” once she became involved in the CSU. It was not until she found a community of people friendly towards those who question religion that she moved beyond her discomfort regarding the term because of “the negative connotations and because of the obnoxiousness of the new atheists.”
The CSU is a student group at Chaffey Community College and the only group which specifically welcomes atheists and agnostics. The college is in the northern part of Rancho Cucamonga, a conservative and affluent suburb in the eastern portion of Metropolitan Los Angeles known as the Inland Empire. The club was originally founded by Steven Morales in Fall, 2010 after Angela agreed to be the Adviser. When Steven left Chaffey College, Billie was elected to succeed him as President in Fall, 2012.
Since its founding it has helped many individuals embrace their atheism. Billie went from a shy and insecure introvert to a bold leader and public speaker. She recalls that before the CSU she “did not like to speak in large groups. [The CSU] made me more confidant because I was able to speak my mind in an open environment and I realized that I had some pretty good points that were never brought up due to my being timid. It was the first place where I really felt comfortable enough to be completely open about my own personal views on religion. I think without the CSU I wouldn’t be nearly as confident as I am today.”
Thanks to the internet, the CSU has been able to have a reach beyond Chaffey College. As of December 5, 2012, the Facebook page for the group at http://www.facebook.com/groups/Leagueoffreethought/ has 140 members, including Orion who joined about a year ago. Since he lives in Alabama this is his only avenue with which to participate in the club. Orion has a very pessimistic view of human nature because of all of the rejection he has faced in his life. He is not sure if the CSU will be able to change that at this point but he says he’d be “completely miserable if I didn’t have people to talk with and complain about religious extremists,” but he does believe that if he had had recourse to a group similar to the CSU when he was a bit younger his outlook on life and people would be much more positive.
Orion is fiercely intelligent and protective of those he cares for. I find it heart breaking that he is unable trust others and move beyond his misanthropic inclinations. Yet, I cannot say that it is surprising. While an undergrad at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Orion tried starting a club of his own focused on philosophy. “Being in the South there was no emphasis on atheism except that we were often drafted to have small ‘debates’ with some of the Christian student groups, an act I found to be not just humiliating but often dishonest.” In the debates the religious people would “always get more time and the final word… [it became] just an attempt to smear the other side. So I stopped accepting the challenges.”
During these debates Orion compromised his own identity and referred to himself as “agnostic” instead of “atheist” because he felt he would suffer less recrimination. This tactic worked to a certain extent. The audience did not care much for agnostics but “they knew it wasn’t atheist, so I wasn’t THAT terrible.”
I have not faced the level of ostracization Orion has when it comes to our atheism. Instead his words make me think about my coming out process as a homosexual. I am not the first to make this connection, Smith states that “on some level declaring an atheist identity is similar to the coming out process gays experience.” Before coming out to the public, homosexuals many times do not even come out to themselves. They live for years aware that they are different, but like Billie, refuse to admit or consider that they are not heterosexual. Similarly, for atheists like Angela, though atheism is not a choice, it may take individuals a period of time to embrace the term. Once they do, it often becomes very important to their notion of self. Whitley makes the great point that “Atheists believe in atheism, just as Christians believe in Christianity, and Muslims believe in Islam. If not a ‘religion,’ atheism can be an orienting worldview…”
Smith has identified four primary elements in the development of an atheist identity: “(1) the starting point: the ubiquity of theism, (2) questioning theism, (3) rejecting theism, and (4) ‘coming out’ atheist.” Orion was obviously denied the ability to go through these steps in a positive and supportive manner. Though most Americans cannot relate with having to come out as an atheist, it should not be hard to imagine the sort of pain he has to deal with for having not been able to go freely through steps two through four — and especially four — on Smith’s list. Smith states that “the significance and influence that any particular identity has for one’s self-concept cannot be fully articulated until that identity has been both explicitly claimed and validated in meaningful social interaction. That is, although an individual may think of him/herself as atheist, acknowledging the consistency of their views with that label, it is only when this label is voluntarily applied in concrete social interaction that it takes on its full social significance… feeling disconnected from the rest of American culture becomes a real possibility at this point.”
The CSU is obviously an important resource for atheists. What use might it have for the other 98% though? Orion’s position is that it can be a forum for anyone to “just have an open discussion with some accountability will help everyone see the other side of things. It’s not just a matter of beliefs, there’s a culture to both sides as well.” Angela compliments this sentiment, in her words, she states “I think that they could gain a better understanding of their own beliefs as well as the beliefs of others. And if their beliefs are really worthwhile, then they would benefit from analyzing and evaluating them rather than just blindly believing. I also think that they could benefit from talking about issues without necessarily having to do so from a religious perspective. That could be refreshing.”
There is another shared benefit to groups like the CSU: fewer angry atheists. Angela’s primary fear about the club when she was first asked to be the Adviser was that all of the students would be “baby [N]ew [A]theists. And be really condescending and arrogant.” Obnoxious and overly angry atheists certainly do exist. Recently I was talking to a small group of people which included both an atheist and a theist. Before the atheist even takes the time to find out if the other person is atheist or not, he begins talking about how “stupid” religious people are. He cannot understand for the life of him why anyone would believe such idiocy. The theist in the conversation is certainly a bit unnerved by this. The atheist, apparently blind to all body language, continues.
The CSU is an open and friendly club. Thankfully, Angela’s reasonable concerns prove to be unfounded. This is not because the sort of angry atheist I described above have not come to the club. They certainly have. For these individuals, the CSU is often the first place they can talk about their atheism and their views of religion without having to deal with condescension and derision. Having a sympathetic audience does not amplify their animosity towards religion, rather it helps to take the brick off of their shoulder. In fact, after the individual began attending the CSU I never heard him make a disparaging comment towards religion again. Giving a person a voice also gives her an opportunity to understand. Atheists and groups of atheists do not breed animosity towards religion. Rather it is the rejection that atheists face when “coming out” that creates this hostility. Smith notes that the atheists most acrimonious towards religion overwhelmingly tend to be the atheists who grew in very religious households like Billie and Angela or in very religious environments like Orion.
Atheists like Angela who feel free to self-identify as such are much more likely to embrace individuals who happen to be religious. In fact, she is very praising of religious people who she sees as making a positive contribution to the community. “I always look to the church in Redlands that I respect a great deal. They are super liberal and embracing of people of all backgrounds. They work to help various groups of people without trying to recruit anyone. They had a lesbian Christmas pageant (Josephine and Mary). They have youth programs that actually teach kids to be good people and I know lots of self-proclaimed ‘agnostic’ people who go there just for the sense of community. That’s a church that I don’t feel does any harm and does a great deal of good, but that’s very rare to find.”
In this sense, a Christian church in Redlands and the CSU at Chaffey College are combating angry atheists — or at least the rationale for them to be angry — together. Unfortunately, many religious people do continue to shun those who lack faith in God as though it was a voluntary or willful choice to abandon faith in God and with it — morality. Atheism is not a choice so much as it is a conclusion. One that is almost always better thought out than the theological positions of the religious. This is because even atheists raised by atheists are constantly challenged in their beliefs. Billie brings up the fact that as an atheist she “constantly has to explain to people about what atheism is and [that I] am still a good person.”
Individuals who dedicate their lives and professions to understanding the human behavior and the human mind are much more likely to be atheist. Whitley reveals that sixty to seventy percent of psychiatrists are atheist. Philosophers are also much more likely to be atheist than the general population. Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University, William L. Rowe discusses how his own careful examination of religion led him unexpectedly to atheism in his article Friendly Atheism Revisited. He writes that he “began seriously to consider the problem of evil. Indeed, it was my confidence that there are necessary moral truths, along with a growing concern about the problem of evil, that slowly led me to abandon my belief in God and become what I call a ‘Friendly atheist.’”
Rowe grew up with a typical religious view of morality. For him God was both the arbiter and source of morality. He states that “Although I was coming to have some doubts about the claims of religion, I worried that if I were to give up my belief in God, I might have no basis for my commitment to living a moral life. For I had grown up believing that morality was somehow grounded in God’s commands.”
It is this view of morality as being ultimately tied up with God that I makes many religious people assume that atheists must be immoral. They often assert that if there is no God, heaven or hell then there is nothing to keep people from committing heinous acts such as murder. As an atheist it is very easy for me to wonder if these people are revealing a moral depravity on their part if they honestly think the only thing keeping them from being so harmful and destructive to others is the promise of reward or the fear of punishment. If this is so, then atheists who do not commit such acts should have an easy time arguing not just their moral equality with theists but their moral superiority.
In reality I do not think that atheists are morally superior to theists. The issue ultimately is not about who has the most moral position but who has the most considered position. Wes Morriston in The Moral Obligations of Reasonable non-Believers: A Special Problem for Divine Command Metaethics attacks divine command theory as being inconsistent if we recognize that there are reasonable atheists who still have moral obligations. To get around this, we would either have to agree that there are no reasonable atheists or that such atheists have no moral obligations. After hearing from people like Orion, Billie and Angela it is hard to understand how anyone could agree with the former and of course consenting to the latter does not seem prudent at all.
The reason why atheists would have no moral obligations if divine command theory accurately explains moral obligations is because divine command theory asserts that moral obligations are communicated to people by a personal God through speech or signs. Obviously atheists do not hear God. If they were aware of hearing God, they would not be atheist. They also obviously do not see signs from God for the same reason. The theist might counter that you can hear God or see signs from God without realizing that they come from God. Yet, there is no rational way to say that anyone — atheist or theist — would be morally obligated to follow commands from God if she did not know they were from God. As Morriston puts it “Even if he is aware of a ‘sign’ that he somehow manages to interpret as a ‘command’ not to steal, how can he be subject to that command if he doesn’t know who issued it, or that it was issued by a competent authority?” Under this theory, the only competent authority would be God.
Most people would say that we should know stealing is not wrong without needing any special signs from God. Orion would agree with this. The theist might reply that divine command theory might not be the right theory of morality, but that morality still ultimately comes from God. In so doing they will be adopting a theory more similar to divine will theory. This does not necessitate God to make any specific communications to people either directly or through holy books regarding moral obligations. In this theory, moral obligations can be discerned using logic and reflection. Yet in such a theory, it is quite easy to see how an atheist can be just as moral as anyone else — even without the promise of heaven.
It is thoughts and arguments like these that so many atheists have to wrestle with. They know the rejection they face is not based on anything logical. Instead it is founded on an instinctive reaction of the dominant culture against what they do not understand. It is understandable that this could produce a furious atheist, let alone an angry one. Thankfully, the CSU and its members — atheist and theist — have shown us a better path. There is no reason anyone should have to wrestle with thoughts so important to their self-identity and their well-being. Instead, those thoughts should be spoken. I have witnessed a real change in many people at Chaffey. That change has been in them becoming who they are, more honestly and openly. It seems that maybe finding our community begins with letting our voice be heard.