The label atheist has an obvious negative connotation in society today. According to studies, atheists are one of the most stigmatized groups in the United States (Arcaro 50). Many nonbelievers decide not even associate themselves with the label though it clearly defines their beliefs or, rather, non-belief (Arcaro 53). Indeed, a copious number of skeptics fear coming out and revealing their disbelief to their family members and friends for fear of rejection and even physical and financial abuse (Arcaro 53). If one would read various atheistic blogs and forums, one could easily see evidence of their dilemma. The purpose of this report is to present what exactly is atheism and other various statistics amongst the non-religious group.
Atheism has its roots in the Enlightenment Era with such renowned atheist philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Bertrand Russell (Thrower 97). In a more general sense, atheism is the belief that God does not exist. However many atheists object to this definition as with Charles Bradluagh (1833-1891) (Cliteur). He was one of the most influential advocates of atheism in the nineteenth century and defined it as follows:
“The atheist does not say ‘There is no God,’ but he says: ‘I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or dis-tinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me.’” (Cliteur)
Amongst atheists, elucidating their non-beliefs is very important for the question “Who has to prove what?” (Cliteur). This idea is known as the weight of proof and typically, the one asserting a claim is the one who has back it up with evidence. To say there is no god is to make a claim and therefore, in discussions, an atheist must justify it. Take for instance this quote given by Paul Cliteur in “The Definition of Atheism.”
“Is not that the way we normally operate? I cannot prove that the world is not created by an elephant standing on the back of a tortoise, but why should I? It is the speaker who makes such a claim who has to prove his case.” (Cliteur)
Many atheists know that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to prove a negative such as proving there is no God. So atheism means simply the disbelief in and rejection of the proofs provided by theists for their perspective deities (Cliteur). The “a” in “atheism” is an alpha privans meaning it denies what follows which in this case is theism (Cliteur). It does not follow logically that one creates a belief system when one denies a belief system (Cliteur). This way, the atheist makes no claim and therefore the weight of proof is on the believer as Cliteur argues it should.
B. The Difference Between Agnosticism and Atheism
A person might ask then, what is the difference between agnosticism and atheism? Agnosticism is generally defined as the belief that nothing is known or can be known about God or the supernatural (Sorensen 777). Agnostics tend to claim neither faith nor disbelief in God and are often thought to be 50-50 on whether God exists (Sorensen 777). Some agnostics are even quite adamant that no one can know if God exists. In spite of that, atheism is the disbelief in God, while theism is the belief in God. Notice that agnosticism speaks of knowledge while atheism and theism speaks of belief.
The two labels do not appear to be mutually exclusive given that a person can believe or disbelieve in God without knowing for sure. So what can be argued is that one can be agnostic atheist or agnostic atheist which means that one can disbelieve in God without knowing he does not exist and one can believe God exists without knowing he does. Those few atheists and theists who say they know are often described as Gnostic atheists or Gnostic theists. In conclusion, simple agnostics claim neither faith not disbelief in God while atheists disbelieve in God.
C. Is Atheism a Religion?
Interestingly enough, atheism is recognized by the U.S. government as being a religion (Davis 707). According the New Oxford American Dictionary, religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman being(s). One would assume that atheism is the very antithesis of this and therefore is not a religion. Nevertheless in the case Kaufman versus McCaughtry, atheism is a religion and therefore should be given the same rights as one (Davis 708). The issue of rights started in 2005 with inmate James Kaufman who wanted to start an atheist group in prison at Waupan Correctional Institution in Wisconsin (Davis 707). He was not allowed to because his group was not religious in nature (Davis 707). He sued for a violation of the Free Exercise Clause and won in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Davis 707). Below is a quote from one of the Judges.
“The problem here was that the prison officials did not treat atheism as a 'religion,' perhaps in keeping with Kaufman's own insistence that it is the antithesis of religion. But whether atheism is a 'religion' for First Amendment purposes is a somewhat different question than whether its adherents believe in a supreme being, or attend regular devotional services, or have a sacred Scripture. The Supreme Court has said that a religion, for purposes of the First Amendment, is distinct from a 'way of life,' even if that way of life is inspired by philosophical beliefs or other secular concerns. A religion need not be based on belief in the existence of a supreme being, (or beings, for polytheistic faiths) nor must it be a mainstream faith.” (Davis 707-708)
In essence the court ruled that for the purposes of First Amendment rights, atheism is a religion and is therefore protected.
Various studies have been undertaken to profile the non-religious in America and in other various countries. In this report we will focus on one particular extensive study of the non-religious community (Arcaro 51). The sample size was 8,200 and the study yielded interesting results (Arcaro 52). One of the important things the study found was that the respondents were overwhelming male with 74% and that 62% of atheists had an education level of college graduate or higher (Arcaro 52). Those surveyed also tended to be white and very liberal with 42% (Arcaro 52).
There are other labels that the non-religious tend to associate with themselves and they include but are not limited to Humanist, Bright, Freethinker, Skeptic, and Nonbeliever (Arcaro 52). When asked "Which word below [out of the aforementioned] do you most often use to identify yourself?" the respondents chose overwhelmingly for atheist with 71% (Arcaro 52). Those are the more eclectic labels but there are also some more discrete labels, such as “rationalist,” “critical atheist,” “anti-atheist,” “teleologist,” “non-theistic Re-constructionist Jew,” “agnostic atheist,” and “Gnostic atheist." (Arcaro 52)
However, one of the more striking findings in the survey was that in the United States 58% of the respondents did not feel comfortable with the label Atheist as opposed to 73% in Western Europe (Arcaro 52). This report will detail later what may be the cause of this.
B. Growth of Atheism
According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), religious belief is declining in America (Cheyne 56). The non-religious in America gained more subscribers than that the Catholics or Protestants in absolute terms (Cheyne 56). According to the survey, there are 19,838,000 more non-religious in the U.S. in 2008 than in 1990 (Cheyne 56). For comparison, the Catholics gained 11,195,000 members and the Protestants gained 10,980,000 members (Cheyne 56).
The Non-religious grew nearly as much as the Catholics and the Protestants did combined. The Catholics and Protestants numbers did not keep pace with population growth which indicates a decrease proportionally to the numbers (Cheyne 56). The members practically doubled for the non-religious amongst all races (Cheyne 56). No other religious sect can claim such an accomplishment during this period (Cheyne 56).
However, non-religious groups include much more than just atheists. They also include agnostics, spirituals, deists, etc (Cheyne 56). As of 2008, the non-religious consist of 15% of the population and atheist consists of only 1% of that 15% (Cheyne 56). That is not to say that atheism did not see a considerable rise in its numbers for it did (Cheyne 56). There seems to be two ways that the population is leaving religion (Cheyne 56). The hard way is explicit atheism and the soft way is the absence of religion as a main factor in life (Cheyne 56). In this case, people can still believe in God or a “higher power” but not adhere to any of the prominent religions.
Perhaps another factor that could explain the rise in non-religion is the uptick to anti-religious books from best-selling writers, such as Richard Dawkins, who is a well-known atheist and anti-theist, popularizer of science, and author of The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. Another well-known popularizer of science is astrophysicist Carl Sagan with his book The Demon-Haunted: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Also the argument has been made that 9/11 aided in turning many away from religion altogether. Sociologist P. Zuckermann who studies such issues internationally said this:
“we can deduce that there are approximately 58 times as many Atheists as there are Mormons, 41 times as many atheists as there are Jews, 35 times as many atheists as there are Sikhs, and twice as many atheists as there are Buddhists.” (Cheyne 33)
However the number of atheists may be deceiving as to the genuine number because many simply do not like the label atheist so they describe themselves in other ways (Cheyne 52). Studies show that about twice as many people say they don’t believe in God as say they are atheists (Cheyne 53). Clearly, the “Nones” are quickly becoming one of the largest minorities in America and many have argued the most ignored politically.
Only 16% of atheists feel no stigmatism related to their disbelief in the U.S but the number was higher in Canada, UK, Western Europe, and Australia with (38%, 68%, 68%, and 56% respectively) (Arcaro 53).
Fig.1 “How Stigmatized do you feel atheists are in you culture?” Tom Arcaro, Skeptic Magazine Vol. 15 #4 2010 Pg 51
The stigmatism levels varied by regions (Arcaro 53). Those living in the Bible Belt region of the U.S. clearly felt more stigmatized than the rest of the country with 25% of the respondents strongly agreeing (Arcaro 53) And this is to be expected given the high number of religious people in that region. The following statistics demonstrate even more how atheists feel in society. 57% of atheists thought there would be minor repercussions if they revealed their atheism in the workplace, 61% within their own families, and 68% in their community (Arcaro 53). The numbers were lower in Western Europe, UK, Canada, and Australia (Arcaro 53).
Atheists report that many in the religious community believe them to be immoral, dangerous, and caught in “Satan's grip” by their surrounding environment (Arcaro 55). Which is ironic given that atheists don’t believe in Satan either. Marriages between theists have been troubled after one of the spouses de-converted to atheism (Arcaro 55). Children of atheist parents are being cornered and harassed in schools (Arcaro 55). In six states, nonbelievers are still barred from holding office at all including Arkansas and North Carolina (Waters 1).
Stories collected from the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) contained more stories of firings, death threats, abusive family situations, and even threats of abuse in the military (Arcaro 55). An example of discrimination in military is from a New York Times article in April of 2008 concerning specialist Jeremy Hall being forced to leave Afghanistan war because he was an open atheist and he was receiving threats from his fellow soldiers because of his disbelief (Banerjee 1-2). Perhaps this clear up the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes." There obviously are atheists in the military but perhaps they are too afraid “come out” because of stories like Jeremy Hall’s. Stories such as these continue today and across the world (Arcaro 54).
From what has been presented, we have a small window to world of atheism. Atheists do not belief in God and they are no doubt one of the least trusted minorities in this country (Arcaro 50). According to a recent poll only 45% of the country said they would even vote for an atheist if he was otherwise qualified (Jones 1). In some states they are denied the right to be elected at all (Waters 1). Atheist tend to be white, very liberal, and well-educated males (Arcaro 50). Will there be a day when an atheist will not be feel he or she is being treated like a second-class citizen? Only time will tell. Given the rise in the non-religious and the decline of the religious, it is very likely that they will get the vindication they hope for.
VI. Work Cited
Arcaro, Tom. "The Stigma of Being an Atheist." Skeptic Magazine 2010: 5. Web. 9 Oct 2010.
Banerjee, Neela. "Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats." New York Times (2008): 1-2. Web. 22 Nov 2010. /span>http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/26/us/26Atheist.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Jeremy%20Atheist&st=cse
Cheyne, James. "The Rise of the Nones." Skeptic Magazine. 2010: 56-60. Print.
Cliteur, Paul. "The definition of Atheism." Journal of Religion & Society 11.(2009): ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.
Davis, Derek. "Is Atheism a Religion? Recent Judicial Perspectives on the Constitutional Meaning of "Religion"." Journal Of Church & State. 47.4 (2005): 707-723. Print.
Jones, Jeffrey. "Some Americans Reluctant to Vote for Mormon, 72-Year-Old Presidential Candidates." Gallup News Service (2007): 1-2. Web. 22 Nov 2010. /span>http://www.gallup.com/poll/26611/some-americans-reluctant-vote-mormon-72yearold-presidential-candidates.aspx>.
SORENSEN, ROY. "Meta-Agnosticism: Higher Order Epistemic Possibility." Mind 118.471 (2009): 777-784. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Thrower, James. A Short History of Western Atheism. London: Pemberton Books, 1971.
Waters, David. "Atheist Revival in Arkansas ." Washington Post (2009): 1. Web. 23 Nov 2010. /span>http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2009/02/an_advocate_for_Atheists_in_ar.html>.
I know this is an old discussion, but just saw it, and havent read any further yet :)
I just want to say that I am not surprised by the findings. Women tend to be more emotional while men are more rational. It makes sense that men have a higher percentage. I do not know many atheists in real life, but of the friends on my fb page who are proud to say they are atheist, they are also overwhelmingly male. The women seem to not want to say anything, fearing family reprisals or community rejections.