When President Obama noted that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers” in his 2009 inauguration speech, the team at Fox News was locked and loaded by the time the broadcast cut back to the studio.
Of all the many points they would address in Obama’s speech, Fox went almost immediately for red meat in asking — straight faces all around — if Americans should be “offended” that the president had acknowledged the simple fact that atheists even existed.
Guest commentator Mike Huckabee, a Christian minister who had handily won the Iowa Caucuses before the GOP nomination later went to Sen. John McCain in that 2008 election cycle, led the charge.
“I think it’s an honest assessment,” he opined, “that there are certainly many people in this country that aren’t necessarily believers in anything but themselves.”
Huh? As if the only choice is between theism and utter and complete narcissism?
Statistics about religion — or lack thereof — and how it is perceived bring both good and bad news for Americans who believe in inclusivity and the most uniquely American tenet of our democracy — that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.
A 2015 Public Policy Polling poll, for example, revealed that 54 percent of the Republican primary electorate thought President Obama is a Muslim, compared with just 14 percent who believed he is Christian.
Another 2015 poll, this one from Gallup, found that a full 40% of Americans would not vote for an atheist, topped only by the 50% who would not vote for a Socialist.
So it is no wonder that the stigma of atheism lingers even at a time when their numbers are growing dramatically in an increasingly pluralistic, secular society.
Cut to Fox News’ Dana Parino in 2013 during a discussion of church/state issues. The woman who had been Press Secretary in President George W. Bush’s White House — yes, the same talking head who had once admitted on air that she didn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was — whined that she was “tired” of atheists.
“If these people really don’t like it,” she said “they don’t have to live here.”
The framers of the Constitution spun in their graves that day.
But for the silent minority that makes up the atheist community, polls and public commentary are not always such a noggin-scratchin’ downer. A 2014 Pew Research Center Poll showed that a full 23% of Americans list their religion as “none,” up dramatically from 16% in 2007.
Now, these numbers do not at all mean that the “nones” are non-believers. The majority of Americans without a religious affiliation say they believe in God, the poll explained. As a group, however, the “nones” are far less religiously observant than Americans who identify with a specific faith. And, as the “nones” have grown in size, they also have become even less observant than they were when the original Religious Landscape Study was first conducted a mere seven years earlier.
If nothing else, the Pew poll showed that membership in traditional, brick-and-mortar religion is in decline in America.
While the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, over half of Canadians consider themselves irreligious or atheist. The same goes for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Spain … even Ireland, once a bastion of devout Catholicism.
Being conversant in faith is another thing. Most Americans scored 50 percent or less on a quiz measuring knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says about religion in public life.
What group scored highest in the 32-question quiz? Catholics? Nope. Barely half of all Catholics knew that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. Barely half of Catholics knew their own faith well enough to understand one of the religion’s core, bedrock beliefs; the Eucharist and its underlying foundation in Transubstantiation.
And as for other religious groups? Who came out on top the quiz? Jews? They did very well, but try again. Oh, I know, evangelical Bible-belt Southerners, right? No, they came at the very bottom.
On average, Americans got 16 of the 32 questions correct. Atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). Protestants got 16 correct answers on average, while Catholics got 14.7 questions right.
While the quiz results may come as a surprise to many, they certainly didn’t tell Amy Ellefson anything she didn’t already know.
She’s an atheist who volunteers in the box office at The Rose and will be the props master for Opera Omaha’s upcoming production of La Boheme. Her husband, Elmer, considers himself a seeker, a doubter, but their five kids, Jack (19), Quincy (16), Keanu (13), Eva (12) and Ramsey (6) are all non-believers.
“Atheism is a non-belief in a God or gods,” Amy said. “That’s all there is to it. There is nothing more to it than that. We believe the same things as our neighbors, just not when it comes to religion. We believe you only have this time on Earth, that there is no “better place” you go to when you die. This is your better place … the here and now.”
Amy has a non-belief in God in the same way that her neighbors have a non-belief in, say, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, or unicorns. There is, she explains, simply no evidence to support a belief in anything beyond the natural.
“We can only have the best existence,” she continued, “if we value life on its own terms and treat people — all people — like life and our time here is valuable. Being a good person is just … being a good person. That’s how it works. We live by the Golden Rule, we just believe that the Golden Rule — like the Bible and all religion — is manmade.”
“There’s always a beginning,” Keanu interjected, “and there’s always an end.”
“From stardust to stardust,” Jack added. “I’m not happy at the idea I’m going to die someday. That’s how life works. But I don’t fear death like my religious friends do.”
Outwardly, the family is non-descript if perhaps over-achieving.
Jack, Quincy, Keanu and Eva have all taken the stage in the Omaha Community Playhouse production of A Christmas Carol. Jack, Quincy and Keanu were selected to be depicted in the towering Fertile Ground mural just west of TD Ameritrade Park. Quincy began his studies at Metro Community College at 14 and is on target to attain his degree as a 17-year-old. They are scary-smart, well-spoken and at ease in talking about a subject that is too often taboo in America.
The family harbors no ill will towards people of faith. It’s just not for them.
The good news for the young members of the family is that they are growing up in an America where the stigma of atheism is fading. And they have an increasing array of choices for organizations that offer fellowship in such groups as the Omaha Atheists, the Omaha Metro Area Humanist Association, and Camp Quest, a secular summer camp where Jack has been a counselor and serves on the board.
The rise of the “nones,” that 23 percent of us who have no religion, is sure to grow during their lifetimes. Attitudes will change. Biases will soften. But will atheism follow same-sex marriage, legalization of weed and other societal issues as the next great wall to crumble? Theirs will surely be a more accepting world, right?
At least one family member thinks so.
“I’ve gotten a lot more flack for being queer,” said Jack, who was born biologically female but identifies as pansexual / gender queer, “than I have for being an atheist.”