Pharyngula

Fear the atheist

The results of yet another poll are out, showing that the godless are rising and promise to rise for years to come. In 1990, we made up 8% of the population; now in 2009, we’re 15%. They’re extrapolating forward and estimating that we will make up 25% of the country in 20 years.

It’s not enough, is all I can say. I suppose it’s good news, but I am disappointed in my fellow Americans. I will not be content until the number is 100%. (OK, 95%. It’s not fair to demand rationality from people who are brain damaged or locked up in asylums.)

The really bizarre news here is the way people are squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers. They’ve got a label for that 15% that isn’t “godless atheist unbelievers”: they are “Nones”. Don’t panic, they say, only 10% of them call themselves “atheists”! They’re mostly agnostics and skeptics of organized religion! You don’t have to stockpile food and ammo, bar the doors and windows, and prepare for the anarchy and evil that would follow if all those people were atheists.

It’s rather annoying. Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren’t really those goddamned atheists — they’re nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren’t planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. They’re special. And most of all, they aren’t French.

“American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it’s a very American kind of skepticism,” says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. “It’s a kind of religious indifference that’s not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people.”

Oh, please. All the low frequency of self-reported atheists in the survey tells you is that the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful — and it’s an attitude that we still see expressed in reports like this. The most important news they try to transmit is not the increase in unbelievers, it’s “Thank God they aren’t atheists! They’re just rational skeptics, instead!”

Atheism is not a state to be avoided. It does not distort your features so that the founding fathers would throw you out of the country as an undesirable alien. It does not give you a French accent. It doesn’t even make you want to bomb churches. We are “rational skeptics,” too, we’re just the ones who aren’t afraid to confront the social conventions that insist that you must be churched or in some way pious in order to be a good person — we are just the ones who will get in beatifically complacent faces and tell them they’re wallowing in bullshit.

So don’t be reassured. Those “Nones” don’t believe in a Bearded Ape of Cosmic Proportions, they aren’t propping up the local priestly den of ignorance with donations, and Pat Robertson is still confident that every one of them will burn in hell. Most are not as vocal or as confident as the spokespeople for atheism are, but then, most of the people who have been filling church pews for centuries haven’t been as noisy or assertive about their faith as have the priests and bishops and deacons, but no demographers have therefore felt compelled to split definitions and point out the weakness of Christianity by declaring only some tiny percentage to be church leaders.

Don’t fall for their subtle attempts to divide the unbelievers. Religious institutions would love to see atheists continually demonized, even by, especially by, agnostics. It furthers their ends, not ours. There is no meaningful division — we are all abandoning the old superstitions together.

And if you are a believer, and are consoled by the fact that this growing demographic is called “Nones”, don’t be. They all reject your most cherished dogmas, your belief in Jesus and the Trinity and Mohammed and Transubstantiation and the Sacredness of the Holy Spirit or freaking whatever, and they all think your goofy myths are completely looney-tunes. More and more of us are rejecting your nonsense and moving away from your peculiar superstitions. That only 10% of us call ourselves atheists should not salve your fears. It’s not that only 10% of the Nones call themselves atheists…it’s that a whole 10% of the fastest growing beliefs in our our society are enthusiastic about openly tearing down and expressing contempt for those quaint religious institutions that have been shackling human minds in ignorance for so long.