Though it is not exactly hot news, this might surprise our readers as much as it surprised us. In "the land of the free" – the United States of America, atheism continues to be a dirty word and atheists the most stigmatised community. That this is so has been borne out by a number of research studies in recent years. And given the growing Islamophobia post-9/11, the findings of a recent study on the subject by the University of Minnesota are especially intriguing. When asked which group "does not at all agree with my vision of American society", nearly 40 per cent of the respondents identified "atheists". Muslims came second, 26.3 per cent, followed by homosexuals, 22.6 per cent. To the proposition: "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group", the responses were similar. Nearly one out of every two respondents (47.6 per cent) said they would not like their son or daughter to marry an atheist. The corresponding figures for other groups were: Muslims 33.5 per cent, African Americans 27.2 per cent, Asian Americans 18.5 per cent, Hispanics 18.5 per cent. ‘Atheophobia’, it seems, is a far more serious problem in the USA than Islamophobia or homophobia.
So strong and widespread is the stigma attached to being an atheist that for many who do not believe, it takes a lot of courage to say so and its implications are potentially devastating. Here are two examples. An unbelieving woman revealed: "I’ve had people literally, physically back away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home." A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost him his marriage: "My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip and confessed that after I de-converted, she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me."
In the eyes of the believing American public, atheism is synonymous with immorality. But many atheists respond to this baseless assumption with the counterclaim: "compassion is my religion". A professed atheist, Valerie Tarico, recounts her experience at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle where a priest was underlining the imperative of faith: "If the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot." Tarico’s response: "I found myself thinking, if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?" Good question.
We often take the "West" to mean Europe, North America (USA, Canada), Australia and New Zealand with the underlying assumption that "western values" are something they have in common. But on the question of atheism, Europe and the USA are clearly poles apart. Being an atheist in most of Europe is no big deal.
If, on the one hand, atheists are held responsible by many believers for all the ills of American society, on the other hand, recent years have seen the birth of a "New Atheism" which has chosen to launch an aggressive "crusade against belief". For writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, religion lies at the root of all the problems that plague the world. But many atheists themselves fear that this no-holds-barred battle against god can only be counterproductive.
In the nearly two decades of this journal’s existence, a few readers have occasionally suggested that there is no point fighting communalism alone; you must attack religion itself which is the source of this malaise. We beg to differ. Our understanding of and experience in dealing with the menace of communal prejudice, hatred and violence over the years has taught us that equating either communalism with religion or secularism with atheism will get us nowhere.
The deeply religious Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad, we must remember, were proponents of secular politics while the hardly religious Jinnah and Savarkar (Hindu Mahasabha) promoted communal politics. At the height of the Gujarat massacre in 2002 though the gates of the Sabarmati Ashram sadly remained shut, church property was opened up to shelter fleeing Muslims. The report of the Srikrishna Commission which severely indicted the Shiv Sena and the police for Mumbai’s anti-Muslim pogrom in 1992-1993 was the work of (retired) Justice BN Srikrishna, a devout Hindu. RB Sreekumar, Gujarat’s former director general of police, a most courageous IPS officer who has, since 2002, consistently exposed the misdeeds of the Modi government and police, is also a very devout Hindu. Correspondingly, the fact that West Bengal remained "riot-free" throughout the rule of the Left Front tells us something about the morality/ideology of atheists/communists.
As always, this journal defends the right of every individual to believe or not to believe. And it strongly opposes the stigmatisation of individuals for their faith or lack thereof.
Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18 No.166 - Controversy