What percentage of US liberals are atheists?

Why America's atheists are hated like no other minority.

It was at an Atheist Alliance International convention in Washington, D.C., when I realized how different the United States is. Richard Dawkins railed against the Old Testament God, swung the Bible and asked the audience to take the alleged "Book of Books" out of the bedside drawer every time they go to a hotel and to throw it in the nearest garbage can.

The person sitting next to me, an inconspicuous woman in her mid-fifties, sighed. She comes from the Midwest, she said, and had feared for half an eternity that she would not find anyone who, like her, could not believe in God. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, opened her eyes with his book “Der Gotteswahn” and dispelled the last doubts that something was wrong with her. She's not the only one feeling this way. Professing atheism in America is an act of liberation that requires the same courage that homosexuals displayed in the early 1970s when they began to cease to hide their predispositions.

While around half of the population in Europe describes themselves as “non-religious”, it is only a third in the USA. Only six percent of them are atheists or agnostics, according to an opinion poll by the Pew Research Center in 2012. What distinguishes them from their European counterparts is that they - like gays and lesbians once had their sexual orientation - better to keep their spiritual orientation to themselves, should they strive for political office, for example.

God is omnipresent in the New World, the “City upon a hill”, as John Winthrop called the new home in 1630 in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”. He was referring to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a mountain cannot remain hidden. " The eyes of all people, said Winthrop to his community of Puritan colonists in Massachusetts, are directed at them, who now, after the break with Europe, have a new, special agreement with God, just as God has with the people of Israel.

All you have to do is drive around the country or put your wallet in your wallet to see it. "God Bless America!" in many places on highways is written on huge boards above the stars and stripes, and the insurance "In God We Trust" emblazoned on every dollar bill. Sometimes you can find the words crossed out with a ballpoint pen, an indication that the banknote passed through the hands of an atheist who thus announces the good news of his disbelief.

Finding reliable numbers on the spread of belief and disbelief is difficult. Surveys show that what respondents identify with does not necessarily match what they believe in. The same people who say there is no God forbid being called atheists. And some who think you can't know if there is one or not don't see themselves as agnostics, even though that is exactly the definition of an agnostic.

It is one of the paradoxes of American history that it was precisely the separation of church and state that helped religion flourish and thereby secure power and influence. In the first amendment to the constitution of 1789, the founding fathers anchored Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" in the constitution because the religious communities of immigrants who had been persecuted by the state church in their homeland did not want to be straitjacketed again. This cleared the way for a religious market that ensures customer-oriented, innovative competition. Well over a thousand denominations fight for market share, and their flocks change affiliations often and without worry.

With his book "The End of Faith", the American neuroscientist Sam Harris opened the series of bestsellers on the "new atheism" that caused a sensation in the USA in 2004. Harris wrote under the trauma of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack; the public was receptive to radical criticism of religion. There was an undertone of Islamophobia; if not with Richard Dawkins or the philosopher Daniel Dennett, then with the now deceased publicist Christopher Hitchens, who spoke of a preventive war against Iran. This quartet of prominent religious critics is also jokingly called the “four non-apocalyptic horsemen”.

But declaring God dead and wanting to end tolerance for religion is not the same thing. Although the "scientific atheists" tie in with the American tradition of belief in science, they cut the equally American tradition of tolerance towards other cultures and religions. While the atheist philosopher Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton, seeks alliances with evangelicals in order to achieve a common goal such as the eradication of poverty in the world, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens place what divides above what connects them. It was just his temperament, Richard Dawkins told me in Washington when I asked why he couldn't make common cause with Catholics who opposed the Vatican's ban on contraception.

Non-religious Americans, with the exception of those who explicitly identify themselves as atheists, are generally well respected among the population. They are considered to be more liberal and tolerant than the religious, have a higher level of education and earn more. Politically, they lean towards the Democrats and advocate the right to abortion and same-sex marriage. Most of them live on the coasts, especially in the states of the west, which was also known as the “Unchurched Belt”.

In the south, on the other hand, boards with the inscription “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” remind travelers that they are traveling in the “Bible Belt”. Small churches, often no more than a shed with a cross, stand in lost places and bravely vie with the stately brick buildings of the Baptists, crowned by white wooden towers.

Barack Obama was the first US President to address unbelievers in his inaugural address. But even he had himself sworn in on the Bible, of course Abraham Lincoln's personal copy. The question of who will make it to the Oval Office first, whether a woman, a homosexual or an atheist, is often debated, and it cannot be assumed that an avowed unbeliever will have a chance anytime soon. Pete Stark from California, elected in 2007, was the first declared atheist in Congress; Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, a member since 2013, was the first non-religious woman to succeed him.

No other minority is so despised, no one so distrusted as the atheists. This was also recently shown by a study published by the University of Minnesota. Americans hold atheists lower than Muslims, new immigrants, and homosexuals. A third would not want a Muslim as a son-in-law, almost half would not want an atheist.

Why have the atheists not benefited from the increasing tolerance towards ethnic, cultural and religious minorities? The authors of the study believe that it was precisely the recognition of religious diversity that deepened the gap between them. To the extent that religion was strengthened as the common ground of social solidarity, the unbelievers were turned into outsiders.

That would also explain why the difference to Europe has remained so marked. American society has been in constant flux since its inception, a mixture of immigrants who first had to and still have to find their place. Even in small towns and villages, one encounters residents who come from states thousands of kilometers away and hardly stay forever. The churches are the place where you can immediately make friends and make friends; It is less faith than conviviality in a reliable community that brings people together. Like conspicuous patriotism, religion in America is a means of holding the disparate, multicultural society together.

Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found in a study that religious Americans are three to four times more involved in community projects and volunteer organizations and take part in protest demonstrations, political gatherings, public meetings and local elections. They also spend more time and money on common concerns of a non-religious nature. Putnam believes that it is not belief that is the driving force behind such civic engagement, but rather the community of faith; if the non-believers were equally well organized, they would probably not be less committed.

The irony is that American atheists, having mostly grown up religiously, are more biblical than some believers. The fact that their reputation is no better has to do with the fact that very few Americans know an atheist personally. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the committed founder of the American Atheists and the “Most Hated Woman in America”, was allowed to appear on Johnny Carson's TV shows from time to time, but only for the last few minutes. Billy Graham, the "machine gun of God" and the pastor of several presidents, had the show to himself.

The atheists, one statement said, play the role of the scapegoat on which all the evils of modern society can be saddled, whether drug addiction or prostitution, rampant materialism or elitist behavior. It would be parallel to Hannah Arendt's thesis that anti-Americanism is less about the USA itself than about protesting the modernity that it embodies.

It is in the nature of the media that one hears more of America's religious fanatics and absurd nutties than of the ordinary, half as wild, everyday life. In the small town in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, where I lived with my family for ten years, our friends also included a couple of pastors. Lisa, the pastor of the Methodist Church, asked me one day if I could play the saxophone at mass. My objection that I am not a believer she dismissed with a laugh. So it came about that I and a group of college students occasionally accompanied the Sunday service instrumentally. Matt, the ward music director, was a jazz musician; a deeply religious young man who composed pieces on biblical themes that we rehearsed. Once we were standing in front of the altar, ready for a rehearsal, when the trumpeter intoned a few notes and the others began to sing - James Brown's "Stay on the scene, get on up, like a sex machine ..."

Matt looked up at us. "Hey guys, that might be ... well, not quite appropriate? In a church? OK?"

Then we played "Amazing Grace".

PETER HAFFNER is a freelance journalist, he lives in Zurich.

This article comes from the NZZ Folio magazine from December 2014 on the subject of "Atheism". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.