21 August 2009


In my reading about freethought, and my interaction with nonbelievers, I have run across three basic types of freethinkers in America. I am including humanists, agnostics, atheists, deists, freethinkers, rationalists, nonbelievers, nontheists, godless, unchurched, secularists, brights, and other religious skeptics, whatever they may wish to call themselves.

#1. The non-engaged.
The non-engaged are nonbelievers, but they don’t particularly care one way or the other about their lack of religion or the attempts religious folks make to inject religion into the public domain. They don’t join organized groups nor wish to be active in any movement to better the status of nonbelievers in this country. Some may be apathetic while others don’t feel the need nor have the desire to engage in freethought activities.
I would suggest the non-engaged freethinkers are somewhat like people who are Christians, but never go to church, don’t pray, and don’t make religion a part of their everyday lives.

#2. The militants.
Militants spend a lot of time arguing or debating the nonexistence of a god or gods. Some would label these militants as intelligent thinkers, others as arrogant. In a sense they are “true believers” in atheism, much as fundamentalist religious people are “true believers” in their own religions, whatever those may be. Many militant atheists know much more about the Bible or other “holy books” than those practicing a religion, especially Christians. in my experience, Jews and Muslims know their own holy books much better than most Christians know theirs.
Militants often think anyone who believes the superstitions into which they were indoctrinated in youth are immature, ignorant, or downright stupid and aren’t afraid to tell them so. Meanwhile they are annoyed that religious people tell them they are evil and going to hell.
As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, studies have shown that no matter what evidence is produced, even overwhelming or irrefutable evidence, it is almost impossible to change a long-held belief. In fact, the more evidence produced to refute a belief, the more likely someone is to dig in their heels and believe it even more. Thus, it is likely that arguing the existence of god with a religious person is nearly futile.

#3. The integrationists.
Integrationists are much like those who supported integration for racial minorities during the Civil Rights Movement. They work to have freethought or nonbelief become accepted and respected in the mainstream of society and fight discrimination against nonbelievers.
Studies have shown that atheists are the most hated group in America, yet most religious people confess they don’t know any atheists. (Since atheists make up 12-15% of the U.S. population, they certainly do know some atheists, they just don’t know that they know them.) Atheists are often thought to be drug users and thieves, despite the fact that most atheists, like most believers, are ethical, moral people.
Integrationists don’t care to convince others to become nonbelievers, but want to feel comfortable and safe in a country in which the majority are believers. This group might be more interested in informal discussion or engagement with the religious community rather than a formal debate with a religious scholar.

That being said, not everyone falls squarely into one category. Militant atheists may also be interested in feeling more welcome into society at large. The non-engaged might wish to argue the nonexistence of gods, but feel ill-equipped to do so, preferring to stay out of the fray.
To some extent or other, all of these groups might support efforts to enforce church/state separation. The non-engaged would applaud the efforts, but not participate. The other two groups might participate by donating money to a group, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that initiates law suits where infringement is perceived, or they might picket in front of a courthouse that displays the Ten Commandments.

Which am I?
I tend to lean toward being an integrationist. I want to be accepted for who I am and what I believe. I don’t expect most people to agree with me, but I do wish they would respect my right to believe or disbelieve as I wish.
Yet, there is a little of the militant in me. It is probably the result of frustration at the assumption (by many) that I believe as they do, the annoyance of the constant bombardment of religion in all walks of my life, and not feeling comfortable about discussing my lack of belief with many family members, friends and coworkers, and especially neighbors, without some fear of reprisal.
I am a member of or a supporter of several freethought groups, and the very existence of this blog indicates that I am not among the non-engaged.

Many nonbelievers are accused of being angry at god. However, if one doesn’t believe in god, how can one be angry at her/him? That would be like being mad at a mythical or fictional character, like Merlin or Huckleberry Finn. If I am angry, it is at religion, which is completely different from god. I know many believers who are angry at religion in general or at religions other than their own. Thomas Paine was a deist. He believed in god, but thought religion ruined belief in god.

How can we change the hearts and minds of religious people?
Forget turning them into nonbelievers. As stated above, that quest is futile. Just think about how you became a nonbeliever. In some cases, you were born into it, just as most Protestants had Protestant parents. In some cases, you were brought up in a religious family, but had small tinges of doubt which gradually grew to large blocks of doubt either through logical thinking and/or study.
I had my first twinges of doubt at age 12. It took until I was 19 for me to think I was an atheist and a few more years of reading and study to be certain. For some the process is faster, others slower, but it rarely happens overnight. No one has instantly turned into a nonbeliever by seeing a vision of Madalyn Murray O’Hair in one's morning toast. If they did, they might be subject to a quick trip to the local asylum. Yet, those who similarly see religious visions are rarely shipped off to the mental ward. They may, at some point, even be sainted ---St. Joan of Arc, St. Bernadette. Perhaps this is discrimination against nonbelievers?
You might ask why I write my blog, if not trying to convert people. I have no intention of converting anyone. My blog is informational. Most viewers are already nonbelievers, or if not, at least doubters or skeptics. I would guess that most religious people who happen to stumble onto my blog, jump off it within seconds rather than be “tainted” by it. Of course, there are the mildly curious, who either stick around because they agree with most of what I have to say, or leave shaking their heads at the poor fool who will surely end up in hell.
Of course, there are a few religious people who feel the need to argue their point of view by leaving comments ---some damning and preachy ---most attempting to show the error of my ways in a somewhat respectful manner.

Set ourselves as good examples. On several occasions when I have told people I am a nonbeliever, they have said it was impossible, because I am a good person and don’t act like an atheist. That was supposed to be a compliment, but it was really showing their lack of understanding of what an atheist is.
I have told people arguing religion with me via email or on this blog, that if they met me, I could almost guarantee, that as long as we did not discuss religion, they would have no idea that I am an atheist. I don’t have horns. I’m not antagonistic.
I am a productive member of society. I’ve never taken an illegal drug. I volunteer time and money to many worthwhile causes. Most of my working life was for non-profit organizations that worked for the public good. When I worked at a for-profit corporation, I always treated customers the way I would want to be treated, with kindness and respect.
I disagree with a religious point of view about the same way most religious people view other religions. A Catholic doesn’t agree with a Protestant on dogma, but probably doesn't hate him/her either. Yet Protestants and Catholics probably look at each other and wonder why the other doesn’t believe as they do, because their own religion seems so “right” or “true.”

Play nice. I don’t normally tell people with whom I disagree that they are stupid. I admit, I sometimes think it ---don’t we all sometimes think that those with opposing opinions are irrational? But what good does it do to insult someone, whether it be the Christian damning the atheist to eternal flames or the atheist telling the Christian how unreasonable or unintelligent she is? Such behavior polarizes us instead of bringing us together. I believe in agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable.

Come out of the atheist closet when you are comfortable with that. I admit I am not good at following my own advice on this one. Although many of my friends know I am an atheist, I don’t discuss it with my elderly parents. I also avoid all discussion of religion with my neighbors because I live in an area where being an open atheist could get myself shot by “good” Christians. I don’t mean to imply all the Christians in town would take up arms against me, but there are a few fanatics that might.
Coming out of the atheist closet might be akin to coming out of the gay closet. Until gays and lesbians came out, they were invisible. People thought there weren’t very many of them and that they were not an economic nor a political force.
As the latest polls show, at least 12% of the U.S. population are nonbelievers. That is a larger group than the Hispanic vote (9%), the Jewish vote (2%), the gay vote (4%) and only slightly lower than the African-American vote (13%.) (Statistics from “Rise of the Godless” by Paul Starobin, National Journal, 03/07/09)

So, let's act in a polite, ethical, respectful manner. Let’s stop name-calling. Let’s come out of the closet. Don’t expect miracles ---well, atheists don’t believe in them anyway ---but over time, things just might change for the better.

WHAT KIND OF FREETHINKER ARE YOU? Leave a comment to let me know.

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Stardust said...

Many nonbelievers are accused of being angry at god. However, if one doesn’t believe in god, how can one be angry at her/him?

This is the comment I often hear from believers for the reason I don't believe. I have had them say "I don't know what happened in your life to make you so angry against god, but I would like to help you ....yadda yadda yadda" I tell them calmly that I am not angry, like you say you cannot be angry at something that does not exist. Also, I've had no tramatic experiences with the religious, no big drama with the church I was attending for so long. It's just that the more I became educated in other subjects, the more I studied the universe, the more I read and thought about it...it just became clear to me that today's religion is tomorrow's mythology. Simple as that.

Snowbrush said...

I'm usually a ONE, but have performed the role of all three.

"On several occasions when I have told people I am a nonbeliever, they have said it was impossible because I am a good person "

When they say this, I just want to pop them in the face. THEN they would believe me.

tina FCD said...

How about when someone thinks an atheist worships the devil/satan? Alrighty then...no, we don't believe in satan either.

Jack Lee Spencer said...

Very interesting blog. I guess for most of my life, I was a non-engaged. I just didn't think about it. My parents were Jewish, but in symbolism only... as in lighting the monorah and hanging a Star of David in the window. Otherwise, I learned everything I knew about being Jewish from Yul Brynner and Charleton Heston, and I hung around friends through their Christmas celebrations. So I was pretty free to think what I wanted about anything... but religion was always the last thing I thought about. I became a science geek in school, and I loved mythology. Christianity was just another mythology to me, but the Greek and Roman mythologies were much more interesting.
In my forties, as most people tend to do, I began contemplating mortality. Older people you grew up around begin to die off, as well as heroes. I began thinking about religion and wondering where the hell I fit in. I really DID NOT KNOW what I believed! After much reading, watching, and learning... and becoming a Christopher Hitchens addict en route to discovering Dawkins, Dennett, et al... I know where I sit... and would probably have to now say I'm somewhere between integration and militant. I get really worked up over some of the REALLY deluded stuff I see pop up on video comment threads. As Hitchens said, "you NEVER know what they're going to say next."
Ironically... I play in a Christian rock band. Not in Sunday services, but evening performances during special events. It's fun, because I love to play... and a lot of the music isn't too bad. Every time I come back from a gig at the church or the mission, I have to listen to Hitch for a couple hours to get my sanity back.

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