How sad. There are atheists everywhere else, but here in the United States, Robert Putnam says there are almost no atheists.
It used to be, in the 1950s, that most Americans were kind of in a moderate, not very intense religious middle. And we have moved toward the extremes of being either very religious — this is the sort of evangelical Protestant part of the religious spectrum — or very non-religious. This is the more secular, not really atheist. Almost no Americans say that they’re atheist, but they’re certainly not churched. That’s especially true for younger people.
There is this myth of the 1950s that infests America: it was the golden time, when we were prosperous and strong and the teenagers never masturbated, and we weren’t racist at all and everyone just went to church and never squabbled over religion. Somehow we forget the Cold War and air raid drills in the schools, we forget that women were all housewives and being a single woman was a mark of failure, we forget the lynchings and axe-handles in a barrel by the restaurant door, and we forget Father Coughlin ranting against the Jews and the Communists while the John Birch Society raged against the Catholics and the negroes and the Communists.
Americans were not moderate in their religiosity in the 1950s. The difference was that there was a dearth of alternatives in the 1950s — there was the same social pressure to go to church, and it was so powerful that everyone did, and took it for granted. It was also a time when “godless” and “Commie” were all one word, and “atheist” was inseparable in the public mind from anti-American, unpatriotic enemy of the state.
Those were not Happy Days unless you were a white middle-class church-going heterosexual male with aspirations to some day join the Rotarians.
So yes, it’s true that it’s hard to find people who are able to admit to being an atheist today without their voices dropping into a whisper and their eyes scanning right and left for eavesdroppers. There are many people who know that if they go public with the startling confession that they think the god-business is a scam, they will face ostracism and worse — there are many communities in this country where small business owners and teachers must be churched or they will find themselves poor and unemployed. The stigma is real and still strong.
So Putnam is completely wrong. Atheists are definitely a minority, no denying that, but it’s not the case that there are fewer than you think — there are more than you think, sitting quietly, afraid (with good reason) to speak out, and also often silencing themselves because they share that shame with being ungodly.
It’s changing, though. Atheists are growing in number faster than the religious, and while part of it is that people are literally deconverting, a good part of the rapid growth is also due to the fact that the stigma is weakening, people are taking pride in coming out as an atheist, and the closet atheists are simply beginning to come out.
Some people were baffled by the ax handle reference. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and we knew exactly what it meant: it’s a symbol of segregationalist brutality popularized by Lester Maddox, an Atlanta restaurateur who kept barrels of them handy for customers in case someone black walked into the restaurant. He also waved them around in his campaign for Georgia governor.
In case you think this endemic racism owed nothing to religion, read this ad for the Pickrick Restaurant, which gets in a few licks at the “unGodly and unAmerican Civil Rights Act”. Look at this picture of Maddox and his political principles, too — he’s indistinguishable from contemporary teabaggers, except for the fact that he had his sign professionally done and all the words are spelled correctly.