Op-ed piece published in Greensboro News and Record on Sunday, June 28


I had an op-ed piece published in the Greensboro News and Record on Sunday, June 28. Here's the link if you'd like to read (or see below).

There have been few responses thus far, and nothing unexpected.

Take care.

Taken from the N&O web site:

Is there a place for atheists in America?
SUNDAY, JUNE 28, 2009
What do you think?
10 comment(s) Read other visitors' comments and post your own.

Ten years ago, few Americans would have thought an African American could be elected president of the United States. Which will be the next minority group to gain this highest level of acceptance?

Will we have an openly gay president?

A Muslim president?

How about an atheist president?

In 2006, a University of Minnesota study found that atheists are the least trusted among several categories. In that study, some 40 percent of Americans said of atheists, "This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society."

Compare this number to other groups that often experience discrimination, such as Muslims who were next at 26 percent, and gays just after that at 23 percent.

Yet, a recent survey by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 15 percent of Americans claim they adhere to no religion, making them the fastest growing group of believers -- or, rather, nonbelievers -- in the United States.

The American Religious Identification Survey also found that the number of people who self-identify as "nonreligious" is growing in every state.

With the nonreligious far outnumbering Jews and Muslims, and pulling roughly even with Episcopalians, one would assume acceptance in American society.

Atheism is trendy in entertainment.

On television, we have Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie in the Fox drama "House," and HBO pundit and "Religulous" filmmaker Bill Maher.

We hear about major authors that the public associates with atheism -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens.

But where are the voices of the "everyday" atheist?

Research I conducted last fall uncovered some unsettling trends. More than 8,200 atheists from around the globe completed a survey to share examples of the stigma they encounter after they tell family and friends of their views.

A general consensus can be found in the words of one man: "People have believed that I don't have a sense of morality because I don't believe in God."

Respondents feel mistrusted and, in many cases, feel compelled to hide their unbelief. They are your plumber, the nurse who checks your blood pressure, the mechanic who fixes your car, the soldier fighting in Iraq and the pilot who lands your plane.

The stigma rears its head everywhere in America. In one woman's words: "I was asked by a religious acquaintance about my church-going habits. When I told her about my atheism she was shocked and angry. She started to berate me about the importance of church and the fact that I was condemning my children to Hell."

Preliminary data also show that professing one's nonbeliefs in the public realm is potentially harmful. Some states have laws that ban atheists from public office, as survey takers pointed out, while others expressed fear that sharing their views would damage their livelihood.

Atheists represent the last social or religious group where stigmatization is accepted. Unlike stereotypical attacks on women, minorities and homosexuals, it seems that very few public figures stand up for the rights of the nonreligious.

In his Inauguration address, President Barack Obama made specific mention that this is also a nation of "nonbelievers," a sign that everyone should have a seat at the table of public discourse where ideas can be freely exchanged without fear of hostility or hatred.

As one of those "nonbelievers," this inclusion afforded me some hope for a United States where someday atheists will be free from stigma.

My survey is imperfect, and more research must be done. The goal of the "Coming Out as an Atheist" study is to add to the ongoing national conversation about religion and its role in our society.

Just as three decades ago people may have said, "I don't know any gay people," because most were in the closet, many Americans now believe that they don't know any atheists when indeed the person sitting next to them on the bus -- or, maybe, in the pew -- does not believe in God.

The writer teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Elon University. He also directs Project Pericles at Elon, an initiative that aims to "instill in students an abiding and active sense of social responsibility and civic concern."

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Comment by Martin Allen on July 6, 2009 at 10:34pm
A very good op-ed piece, I thought, which inspired some interesting debate. i think the comment of wreck86 was most revealing, in saying that (and I paraphrase) he felt he needed to "save" you. Surely this just serves to demonstrate the point about how atheists are stigmatised. Would he have felt moved to respond similarly to a plea from, for example, a Muslim? I suspect not.

That's the first point I want to make, the second goes into more treacherous waters: atheists do not present a threat, and therefore are not a problem that the theistic establishment feel they have to address seriously or urgently. Consider Islam. After 9/11 and subsequent terror threats, Christian-dominated western governments felt the need to "reach out and connect" with moderate Muslims. It took the terror threat to wake the establishment up to the fact that Muslim communities felt disenfranchised. Thankfully, we atheists tend to be a peaceable bunch, though ironically that's maybe part of the problem in gaining acceptance in countries where religious extremism is the norm, and there is no perceived need to "reach out and connect" with atheists. Barack Obama's inauguration speech was a welcome indication of a shift in attitude at the top, though, with no militant threat, atheists are unlikely ever to be the establishment's top social inclusion priority. What we do need to achieve greater acceptance is an intellectual revolution, and op-eds like yours are in the frontline.
Comment by TOM RHODES on July 6, 2009 at 6:14pm
Comment by TOM RHODES on July 6, 2009 at 6:11pm
Comment by TOM RHODES on July 6, 2009 at 6:09pm

Comment by Jim Mo. on July 4, 2009 at 9:46pm
Nice writing and great activism.
Personally, I would like to explore the reasons why some many would consider atheists unworthy of trust. As you have mentioned in other posts, atheist are a very diverse bunch. Personally, there are some to whom I would certainly not entrust with the care of myself or my children. I see comments from several atheists that prejudice me such that I would not want them to have a relationship with my daughters. Call me prejudicial, narrow-minded, whatever... Trust is a very basic instinctual thing and I listen to my trust instinct closely.

Are all atheists ethical and moral and should they be entrusted with the welfare of others more than delusional theists? What are the perceptions that fuel the general distrust of atheists?

Personally, with the amount of rancor and disagreement I see in the atheist communities, what advantage would it be to have only atheists running anything ;-)
Comment by tom arcaro on June 29, 2009 at 5:25pm
Cliff, Thanks for your kind words. I think your instinct that our collective blog posts should be disseminated more broadly is a good one. How about we write an op-ed that simply reviews the various issues that come up on the A/N site?

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