The Last Taboo
Why America Needs Atheism
by Wendy Kaminer
This article appears to have been
incorporated into Kaminer's 1999 book,
Sleeping with Extraterrestrials:
The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety
It was King Kong who put the fear of God in me, when I was 8 or 9 years old. Blessed with irreligious parents and excused from attending Sunday school or weekly services, I had relatively little contact with imaginary, omnipotent authority figures until the Million Dollar Movie brought King Kong to our living room TV. Tyrannical and invincible (I never found his capture and enslavement believable), he awakened my superstitions. Watching Kong terrorize the locals, I imagined being prey to an irrational, supernatural brute whom I could never outrun or outsmart. I couldn't argue with him, so my only hope was to grovel and propitiate him with sacrifices. Looking nothing like Fay Wray, I doubted I could charm him; besides, his love was as arbitrary and unpredictable as his wrath.
For the next several years, like the natives in the movie, I clung to rituals aimed at keeping him at bay. (I can only analyze my rituals with hindsight; at the time, I was immersed in them unthinkingly.) Instead of human sacrifices, I offered him neatness, a perfectly ordered room. Every night before going to bed, I straightened all the stuff on my desk and bureau, arranged my stuffed animals in rectangular tableaus and made sure all doors and drawers were tightly shut. I started at one end of the room and worked my way around, counterclockwise; when I finished, I started all over again, checking and rechecking my work three, four or five times.
Going to bed became an ordeal. I hated my rituals; they were tedious and time-consuming and very embarrassing. I knew they were stupid and always kept them secret until, eventually, I grew out of them. I still harbor superstitions, of course, but with less shame and more humor; I find them considerably less compelling.
If I were to mock religious belief as childish, if I were to suggest that worshiping a supernatural deity, convinced that it cares about your welfare, is like worrying about monsters in the closet who find you tasty enough to eat, if I were to describe God as our creation, likening him to a mechanical gorilla, I'd violate the norms of civility and religious correctness. I'd be excoriated as an example of the cynical, liberal elite responsible for America's moral decline. I'd be pitied for my spiritual blindness; some people would try to enlighten and convert me. I'd receive hate mail. Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling.
Yet conventional wisdom holds that we suffer from an excess of secularism. Virtuecrats from Hillary Clinton to William Bennett to Patrick Buchanan blame America's moral decay on our lack of religious belief. "The great malady of the 20th century" is "`loss of soul,'" best-selling author Thomas Moore declares, complaining that "we don't believe in the soul." Of course, if that were true, there'd be no buyers for his books. In fact, almost all Americans (95 percent) profess belief in God or some universal spirit, according to a 1994 survey by U.S. News and World Report. Seventy-six percent imagine God as a heavenly father who actually pays attention to their prayers. Gallup reports that 44 percent believe in the biblical account of creation and that 36 percent of all Americans describe themselves as "born-again."
Adherence to mainstream religions is supplemented by experimentation with an eclectic collection of New Age beliefs and practices. Roughly half of all Catholics and Protestants surveyed by Gallup in 1991 believed in ESP; nearly as many believed in psychic healing. Fifty-three percent of Catholics and 40 percent of Protestants professed belief in UFOs, and about one-quarter put their faith in astrology. Nearly one-third of all American teenagers believe in reincarnation. Once I heard Shirley MacLaine explain the principles of reincarnation on the "Donahue" show. "Can you come back as a bird?" one woman asked. "No," MacLaine replied, secure in her convictions. "You only come back as a higher life form." No one asked her how she knew.
In this climate -- with belief in guardian angels and creationism becoming commonplace -- making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall. But, by admitting that they're fighting a winning battle, advocates of renewed religiosity would lose the benefits of appearing besieged. Like liberal rights organizations that attract more money when conservative authoritarians are in power, religious groups inspire more believers when secularism is said to hold sway. So editors at The Wall Street Journal protest an "ardent hostility toward religion" in this country, claiming that religious people are "suspect." When forced by facts to acknowledge that God enjoys unshakable, non-partisan, majoritarian support, religion's proselytizers charge that our country is nonetheless controlled by liberal intellectual elites who disdain religious belief and have denied it a respected public role.
Educated professionals tend to be embarrassed by belief, Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter opined in The Culture of Disbelief, a best-selling complaint about the fabled denigration of religion in public life. Carter acknowledges that belief is widespread but argues that it has been trivialized by the rationalist biases of elites and their insistence on keeping religion out of the public sphere. Carter's thesis is echoed regularly by conservative commentators. Another recent Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that religious indoctrination is one of the most effective forms of drug treatment and wondered at the "prejudice against religion by much of our judicial and media elites." Newt Gingrich has attacked the "secular, anti-religious view of the left."
No evidence is adduced to substantiate these charges of liberal irreligiosity run rampant. No faithless liberals are named, no influential periodicals or articles cited -- perhaps because they're chimeras. Review the list of prominent left-of-center opinion makers and public intellectuals. Who among them mocks religion? Several have gained or increased their prominence partly through their embrace of belief. Harvard Professor Cornel West is a part-time preacher; Michael Lerner came into public view as Hillary Clinton's guru; Gloria Steinem greatly expanded her mainstream appeal by writing about spirituality. Bill Moyers, who introduced New Age holy men Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly to the American public, regularly pays homage to faith in traditional and alternative forms in television specials. Popular spirituality authors, like Thomas Moore, are regarded as public intellectuals in spite or because of their pontifications about faith. Even secular political theorists, preoccupied with civic virtue, are overly solicitous of religion and religious communities.
The supposedly liberal, mainstream press offers unprecedented coverage of religion, taking pains not to offend the faithful. An op-ed piece on popular spirituality that I wrote for The New York Times this past summer was carefully cleansed by my editors of any irreverence toward established religion (although I was invited to mock New Age). I was not allowed to observe that, while Hillary Clinton was criticized for conversing with Eleanor Roosevelt, millions of Americans regularly talk to Jesus, long deceased, and that many people believe that God talks to them, unbidden. Nor was I permitted to point out that, to an atheist, the sacraments are as silly as a seance. These remarks and others were excised because they were deemed "offensive."
Indeed, what's striking about American intellectuals today, liberal and conservative alike, is not their Voltairean skepticism but their deference to belief and their utter failure to criticize, much less satirize, America's romance with God. They've abandoned the tradition of caustic secularism that once provided refuge for the faithless: people "are all insane," Mark Twain remarked in Letters from the Earth. "Man is a marvelous curiosity ... he thinks he is the Creator's pet ... he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to him and thinks He listens. Isn't it a quaint idea." No prominent liberal thinker writes like that anymore.
Religion is "so absurd that it comes close to imbecility," H.L. Mencken declared in Treatise on the Gods. "The priest, realistically considered, is the most immoral of men, for he is always willing to sacrifice every other sort of good to the one good of his arcanum -- the vague body of mysteries that he calls the truth."
Mencken was equally scornful of the organized church: "Since the early days, [it] has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was an apologist for the divine right of kings." Mencken was not entirely unsympathetic to the wishful thinking behind virtually all religion -- the belief that we needn't die, that the universe isn't arbitrary and indifferent to our plight, that we are governed by a supernatural being whom we might induce to favor us. Still, while a staunch defender of the right to say or think virtually anything, he singled out as "the most curious social convention of the great age in which we live" the notion that religious opinions themselves (not just the right to harbor them) "should be respected." Name one widely published intellectual today who would dare to write that.
Mencken would have been deeply dismayed by contemporary public policy discussions: left and right, they are suffused with piety. The rise of virtue talk -- which generally takes the form of communitarianism on the left and nostalgia for Victorianism on the right -- has resulted in a striking re-moralization of public policy debates. Today, it's rare to hear a non-normative analysis of social problems, one that doesn't focus on failings of individual character or collective virtue: discussions of structural unemployment have given way to jeremiads about the work ethic; approaches to juvenile crime focus on the amorality of America's youth, not the harsh deprivations that shape them. Among academic and media elites, as well as politicians, there is considerable agreement that social pathologies such as crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and chronic welfare dependency are, at least in part, symptomatic of spiritual malaise -- loss of faith in God or a more generalized anomie. (Some blame TV.) Try to imagine an avowed atheist running successfully for public office; it's hard enough for politicians to oppose prayer in school.
Today, proposals for silent school prayer promise to bring spirituality into the classroom, avoiding religious sectarianism. "Spirituality," a term frequently used to describe the vaguest intimations of supernatural realities, is popularly considered a mark of virtue and is as hostile to atheism as religious belief. Spirituality, after all, is simply religion deinstitutionalized and shorn of any exclusionary doctrines. In a pluralistic marketplace, it has considerable appeal. Spirituality embraces traditional religious and New Age practices, as well as forays into pop psychology and a devotion to capitalism. Exercises in self-esteem and recovery from various addictions are presented as spiritual endeavors by codependency experts ranging from John Bradshaw to Gloria Steinem. The generation of wealth is spiritualized by best-selling personal development gurus such as Deepak Chopra, author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, which offers "the ability to create unlimited wealth with effortless ease." (Some sixty years ago, Napoleon Hill's best-selling Think and Grow Rich made readers a similar promise.)
Spirituality discourages you from passing judgment on any of these endeavors: it's egalitarian, ranking no one religion over another, and doesn't require people to choose between faiths. You can claim to be a spiritual person without professing loyalty to a particular dogma or even understanding it. Spirituality makes no intellectual demands on you; all it requires is a general belief in immaterialism (which can be used to increase your material possessions).
In our supposedly secular culture, atheists, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, are demonized more than renegade believers, like Jimmy Swaggart. Indeed, popular Christian theology suggests that repentant sinners on their way to Heaven will look down upon ethical atheists bound for Hell. Popular spirituality authors, who tend to deny the existence of Hell, and evil, suggest that atheists and other skeptics are doomed to spiritual stasis (the worst fate they can imagine). You might pity such faithless souls, but you wouldn't trust them.
You might not even extend equal rights to them. America's pluralistic ideal does not protect atheism; public support for different belief systems is matched by intolerance of disbelief. According to surveys published in the early 1980s, before today's pre-millennial religious revivalism, nearly 70 percent of all Americans agreed that the freedom to worship "applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are"; but only 26 percent agreed that the freedom of atheists to make fun of God and religion "should be legally protected no matter who might be offended." Seventy-one percent held that atheists "who preach against God and religion" should not be permitted to use civic auditoriums. Intolerance for atheism was stronger even than intolerance of homosexuality.
Like heterosexuality, faith in immaterial realities is popularly considered essential to individual morality. When politicians proclaim their belief in God, regardless of their religion, they are signaling their trustworthiness and adherence to traditional moral codes of behavior, as well as their humility. Belief in God levels human hierarchies while offering infallible systems of right and wrong. By declaring your belief, you imply that an omnipotent, omniscient (and benign) force is the source of your values and ideas. You appropriate the rightness of divinity.
It's not surprising that belief makes so many people sanctimonious. Whether or not it makes them good is impossible to know. Considering its history, you can safely call organized religion a mixed blessing. Apart from its obvious atrocities -- the Crusades or the Salem witch trials -- religion is a fount of quotidian oppressions, as anyone who's ever lost a job because of sexual orientation might attest. Of course, religion has been a force of liberation, as well. The civil rights movement demonstrated Christianity's power to inspire and maintain a struggle against injustice. Today, churches provide moral leadership in the fight to maintain social welfare programs, and in recent history, whether opposing Star Wars or providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees, church leaders have lent their moral authority to war resistance. Over time, the clergy may have opposed as many wars as they started.
It is as difficult to try to quantify the effect of organized religion on human welfare as it is to generalize about the character, behavior and beliefs of all religious people. Religion is probably less a source for good or evil in people than a vehicle for them. "Religion is only good for good people," Mary McCarthy wrote, in the days when liberal intellectuals may have deserved a reputation for skepticism.
It's equally difficult to generalize about the character of non-believers. Indeed, the disdain for selfrighteousness that atheism and agnosticism tend to encourage make them particularly difficult to defend. How do you make the case for not believing in God without falling into the pit of moral certainty squirming with believers? You can't accurately claim that atheists are particularly virtuous or intelligent or even courageous: some are just resigned to their existential terrors.
Of course, whether or not atheists are in general better or worse citizens than believers, neither the formation of individual character nor religious belief is the business of government. Government is neither competent nor empowered to ease our existential anxieties; its jurisdiction is the material world of hardship and injustice. It can and should make life a little more fair, and, in order to do so, it necessarily enforces some majoritarian notions of moral behavior -- outlawing discrimination, for example, or a range of violent assaults. But, in a state that respects individual privacy, law can only address bad behavior, not bad thoughts, and cannot require adherence to what are considered good thoughts -- like love of God. Government can help make people comfortable, ensuring access to health care, housing, education and the workplace. But government cannot make people good.
Champions of more religion in public life are hard put to reconcile the prevailing mistrust of government's ability to manage mundane human affairs -- like material poverty -- with the demand that it address metaphysical problems, like poverty of spirit. It is becoming increasingly popular to argue, for example, that welfare recipients should be deprived of government largess for their own good, to defeat the "culture of dependency," while middle-class believers receive government subsidies (vouchers) to finance the private, religious education of their kids.
Even those "judicial elites" scorned by Wall Street Journal editorial writers for their hostility to religion are increasingly apt to favor state support for private religious activities. In a remarkable recent decision, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that private religious groups are entitled to direct public funding. Rosenberger involved a Christian student newspaper at the University of Virginia that was denied funding provided to other student groups because of its religiosity. A state-run institution, the university is subject to the First Amendment strictures imposed on any governmental entity. Reflecting obvious concern about state entanglement in the exercise of religion, the school's funding guidelines prohibited the distribution of student activities funds to religious groups. The guidelines did not discriminate against any particular religion or viewpoint; funds were withheld from any group that "primarily promotes or manifests a particular belief in or about a deity or an ultimate reality." The student paper at issue in the case was actively engaged in proselytizing.
Arguing that the University of Virginia had an obligation to pay for the publication of this paper, as it paid for other student activities, editors of the newspaper, Wide Awake, sued the school and ultimately prevailed in the Supreme Court, which, like other "elitist" institutions, has become more protective of religion than concerned about its establishment by the state. In a five to four decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court held that the denial of funding to Wide Awake constituted "viewpoint discrimination." Religion was not "excluded as a subject matter" from fundable student discussions, the Court observed; instead funding guidelines excluded discussions of secular issues shaped by "student journalistic efforts with religious editorial viewpoints."
It is one of the ironies of the church/state debate that the equation of Christianity (and other sects) with worldly ideologies, such as Marxism, supply-side economics, theories of white supremacy, agnosticism or feminism, has been championed by the religious right. Those inclined to worship, who believe that their sect offers access to Heaven, are the last people you'd expect to argue that religion is just another product vying for shelf space in the marketplace, entitled to the same treatment as its competitors. You wouldn't expect critics of secularism to suggest that devout Christians are merely additional claimants of individual rights: religion is more often extolled by virtuecrats as an antidote to untrammeled individualism. But new Christian advocacy groups, modeled after advocacy groups on the left, are increasingly portraying practicing Christians as citizens oppressed by secularism and are seeking judicial protection. The American Center for Law and Justice (aclj), founded by Pat Robertson, is one of the leaders in this movement, borrowing not just most of the acronym but the tactics of the American Civil Liberties Union in a fight for religious "rights."
It's worth noting that, in this battle over rights, science -- religion's frequent nemesis -- is often reduced to a mere viewpoint as well. Evolution is just a "theory," or point of view, fundamentalist champions of creationism assert; they demand equal time for the teaching of "creation science," which is described as an alternative theory, or viewpoint, about the origin of the universe. "If evolution is true, then it has nothing to fear from some other theory being taught," one Tennessee state senator declared, using liberal faith in the open marketplace of ideas to rationalize the teaching of creationism.
So far, the Supreme Court has rejected this view of creationism as an alternative scientific theory, and intellectual elites who are hostile to secularism but who champion religion's role in public life generally oppose the teaching of "creation science"; they are likely to ground their opposition in creationism's dubious scientific credibility, not its religiosity. Stephen Carter argues that the religious motivations of creationists are irrelevant; the religious underpinnings of laws prohibiting murder do not invalidate them, he observes.
Carter is right to suggest that legislation is often based in religion (which makes you wonder why he complains about secularism). You'd be hard-pressed to find a period in American history when majoritarian religious beliefs did not influence law and custom. From the nineteenth century through the twentieth, anti-vice campaigns -- against alcohol, pornography and extramarital or premarital sex -- have been overtly religious, fueled by sectarian notions of sin. Domestic relations laws long reflected particular religious ideas about gender roles (which some believe are divinely ordained). But religion's impact on law is usually recognized and deemed problematic only in cases involving minority religious views: Christian ideas about marriage are incorporated into law while the Mormon practice of polygamy is prohibited.
I 'm not suggesting that religious people should confine their beliefs to the home or that religion, like sex, does not belong in the street. The First Amendment does not give you a right to fornicate in public, but it does protect your right to preach. Secularists are often wrongly accused of trying to purge religious ideals from public discourse. We simply want to deny them public sponsorship. Religious beliefs are essentially private prerogatives, which means that individuals are free to invoke them in conducting their public lives -- and that public officials are not empowered to endorse or adopt them. How could our opinions about political issues not be influenced by our personal ideals?
Obviously, people carry their faith in God, Satan, crystals or UFOs into town meetings, community organizations and voting booths. Obviously, a core belief in the supernatural is not severable from beliefs about the natural world and the social order. It is the inevitable effect of religion on public policy that makes it a matter of public concern. Advocates of religiosity extol the virtues or moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages.
Religions, of course, have their own demanding intellectual traditions, as Jesuits and Talmudic scholars might attest. Smart people do believe in Gods and devote themselves to uncovering Their truths. But, in its less rigorous, popular forms, religion is about as intellectually challenging as the average self-help book. (Like personal development literature, mass market books about spirituality and religion celebrate emotionalism and denigrate reason. They elevate the "truths" of myths and parables over empiricism.) In its more authoritarian forms, religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility. Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it.
The magical thinking encouraged by any belief in the supernatural, combined with the vilification of rationality and skepticism, is more conducive to conspiracy theories than it is to productive political debate. Conspiratorial thinking abounds during this period of spiritual and religious revivalism. And, if only small minorities of Americans ascribe to the most outrageous theories in circulation these days -- that a cabal of Jewish bankers run the world, that aids was invented in a laboratory by a mad white scientist intent on racial genocide -- consider the number who take at face value claims that Satanists are conspiring to abuse America's children. According to a 1994 survey by Redbook, 70 percent of Americans believed in the existence of Satanic cults engaged in ritual abuse; nearly one-third believed that the FBI and local police were purposefully ignoring their crimes. (They would probably not be convinced by a recent FBI report finding no evidence to substantiate widespread rumors of Satanic abuse.) As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker report in Satan's Silence, these beliefs infect public life in the form of baseless prosecutions and convictions. If religion engenders civic virtue, by imparting "good" values, it also encourages public hysteria by sanctifying bad thinking.
Skepticism about claims of abuse involving Satanism or recovered memories would serve the public interest, not to mention the interests of those wrongly accused, much more than eagerness to believe and avenge all self-proclaimed victims. Skepticism is essential to criminal justice: guilt is supposed to be proven, not assumed. Skepticism, even cynicism, should play an equally important role in political campaigns, particularly today, when it is in such disrepute. Politicians have learned to accuse anyone who questions or opposes them of "cynicism," a popular term of opprobrium associated with spiritual stasis or soullessness. If "cynic" is a synonym for "critic," it's a label any thoughtful person might embrace, even at the risk of damnation.
This is not an apology for generalized mistrust of government. Blind mistrust merely mirrors blind faith and makes people equally gullible. Would a resurgence of skepticism and rationality make us smarter? Not exactly, but it would balance supernaturalism and the habit of belief with respect for empirical realities, which should influence the formulation of public policy more than faith. Rationalism would be an antidote to prejudice, which is, after all, a form of faith. Think, to cite one example, of people whose unreasoned faith in the moral degeneracy of homosexuals leads them to accept unquestioningly the claim that gay teachers are likely to molest their students. Faith denies facts, and that is not always a virtue.
Wendy Kaminer is a Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College and author most recently of True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism (Addison Wesley).
(Copyright 1996, The New Republic)