This article was published in the Washington Post's On Belief blog, both print and online, on Saturday, July 23, 2011. The Post edited it for length. This is the unedited version.
You know that guy down the street?
Nice guy, about 50, IT consultant, first guy on the block to clear his
walks and mailbox after every snow, fought in Desert Storm, keeps his
yard immaculate, put two daughters through college, donates to the VFD
and for breast cancer research, remodeled his own basement, and puts
up a flag every 4th? That guy?
Well, that guy is an atheist. Not a communist, never been in jail, and doesn’t eat babies. Just an atheist, without all that other stuff. An atheist in America in the 21st century has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union. Nor, despite what you might hear in church about the degenerate character of an atheist, is he anymore likely to end up in prison than anyone else in the general population.
The new atheist is a different kind of animal that bears no resemblance to the villainous monsters the churches have warned us about for the last fifteen hundred years. The new atheist is no longer a social pariah, though a lot of political resistance and faith-based bigotry still exist.
Despite that, non-believers enjoy the full protection of the Constitution, and possess exactly the same rights as the most religious of Americans. Still, it took the advent of the internet for non-believers to find each other and to find their voice.
Largely as a result of the electronic emergence of the vocally irreligious, America’s religious makeup is changing rapidly. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted in 1990, 2001,and 2008, shows that America is trending rapidly away from Christianity, falling from 86% to 76% of the population in only 18 years.
One in four Americans is not a Christian. That’s 75 million Americans. Over 50 million of those claim no religious affiliation. ARIS refers to them as the “Nones”. This begs the question - how, exactly, is ‘atheist’ defined? Technically an atheist is simply someone who does not believe the ancient deities are real. That definition describes 12-15% of Americans, though only 1-2% refer to themselves as atheists. But, that is likely the result of fifteen hundred years of bad press.
The Nones (including non-believers and the unaffiliated), by the way, are the 3rd largest “religious” group in the survey, outnumbering Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Southern Baptists combined. An additional irony is that even though 76% of Americans are nominally Christian, only 70% of Americans believe in a personal god. Go figure.
The average atheist in America is invisible. Many choose silence rather than upsetting their family, or for fear of losing their job, and most are not inclined to activism. That’s because ,for most of the last two thousand years, it was highly lethal to raise your hand when the question was asked.
But, atheists are everywhere. They are your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, cops, doctors, businessmen, celebrities, and the guy who fixes your computer. They are educated, they raise families, they hold jobs, they are active in their communities, they play by the rules, and are generally happy to fly under the radar of the professional evangelizers. So, when you say you don’t know any atheists, what you are really saying is that you don’t know who the atheists are.
And that guy the cops frog marched out of his house last week at 3:00AM? He’s your five term representative who ran on family values and has a wide stance. His humiliating arrest, for purchasing meth from a gay prostitute, came as he was awaiting sentencing for tax evasion on income from a sweat shop in Saipan.
Well, that guy’s not an atheist. I’m just sayin’.