It was in my sophomore year in college, in the late 1960s, when I quit believing in God. So, the next semester, when I was filling out the usual form for something or other, I came across the question asking for my religious preference, and I put in the word “Atheist.” I happened to mention this to a friend of mine, and he cautioned me against it. “John,” he said, “the whole point of a college education is to turn you into an atheist. If you let them know you already are one, they will immediately give you a degree, and you will have to go out and get a job.”
I didn’t take that seriously, of course. But a few days later, my father happened to see the form, which I had left on my desk for the time being. He was appalled. First he cautioned me against the imprudence of such action, for it might incur the hostility of some dean or professor at the university who saw the form. Then, a few days later, he brought the subject up again, and tried to make me feel bad, pointing out that I would only be hurting those whose simple faith helped them endure a cruel world. Finally, he went for the jugular. “Girls have to believe that sex is God’s way of bringing love into the world,” he said gravely. “If they find out you are an atheist, you’ll never get any.”
That last one did give me pause. In the years to come, I would learn that it was no good pretending to be religious for sexual purposes. (I once even went so far as accepting an invitation from a girl to go to church with her one Sunday. I thought maybe I could fake it just long enough to get laid. God punished me.) At the time, however, I figured no coed would see the form, and I could always decide about what to tell the girls later. So I handed it in unchanged.
You see, I have to confess that I had taken no small amount of pleasure in writing down the word “Atheist” in that blank. This was back in the day when atheism was not the commonplace it is now. Today, if you go into a bookstore, you are likely to find an entire shelf or two full of books about atheism. Such did not exist 45 years ago. First you had to find out that certain philosophers were atheists, such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Marx, and then you had to search out their writings, for the titles typically gave nothing away. And if atheists were rare on the bookshelf, they were practically non-existent on campus. In fact, I was the only one I knew personally who did not believe in God. To have labored under an oppressive system of beliefs for almost twenty years, and then to have thrown off that burden and freed myself from it was exhilarating. But in addition to that, I had done something that most people had not, nor ever would, and much as it pains me to admit it, I felt a little smug about the whole thing.
My sense of pride in this matter was only enhanced by the reaction of others. “There’s no such thing!” one girl said to me, when I mentioned that I was an atheist. In other words, what I had accomplished in getting rid of God was not merely rare—it was impossible. She was disgusted with my iconoclastic audacity, so I gave up on the idea of asking her out; but she had so stroked my vanity in refusing to believe that I did not believe, that I felt more than compensated by whatever I might have lost in the way of carnal desire.
It was not long, as you might imagine, before I heard the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes. Of course, if there really were an all-powerful, loving God, there wouldn’t be any foxholes. But that aside, the truly ironic aspect of this remark is that it conforms to the atheist’s explanation for the existence of religion, which is that fear of death is a major reason people believe in God. But the point of the no-atheists-in-foxholes assertion is not to prove that there is a God, but to deny that the there is anything exceptional about the atheist. It is not that the atheist is strong enough to get through life without God, the reasoning goes, but rather that his contempt for religion is a temporary condition, predicated on having a comfortable life, at a time when death is remote. As reflected in such movies as San Francisco (1936) or The Spiral Road (1962), the foxhole theory presumes that when the atheist finally comes up against suffering or death, he will be brought to his knees just like everyone else. To be regarded with such horror that one’s professed disbelief in God is rejected out of hand as just so much bluff and bluster cannot help but make one feel like some kind of Nietzschean superman.
There can be no doubt that some atheists are arrogant to the point of being obnoxious. They give full vent to their contumely, never missing an opportunity to sneer at the silly superstitions of mankind. But there is an inescapable arrogance in being an atheist that cannot be avoided no matter how polite or considerate one tries to be. In asserting one’s atheism, one explicitly denies the existence of God, but implicitly asserts one’s superiority, in effect saying, “You need religion as a crutch, while I have the strength to face life standing on my own two feet.” The atheist gives offense whether he wants to or not, and it is small wonder that it is a common religious fantasy that he will crawl in the end.
Consider the case of Rebecca Vitsmun, a survivor of the deadly tornado that went through Moore, Oklahoma a couple of years ago. She tried to avoid affirming her atheism, looking down shyly, and saying, “Uh huh,” when Wolf Blitzer asked her if she thanked the Lord. Only after being pressed, and in spite of herself, did she finally admit to being an atheist. The reason for her reluctance is simple. She did not want to make him or anyone else feel bad. It is to be noted that his belief in God did not offend her, but only embarrassed her. And this is a fundamental asymmetry between belief and disbelief: no one ever denied believing in God for fear of hurting the feelings of an atheist, but many an atheist has concealed his views on the matter, lest he make others feel uncomfortable by expressing them. And this only adds to the atheist’s conceit: when you have to lie about who you are to keep from hurting people, it is hard not to regard them as inferior.
Lately, however, there has been a disturbing trend. Atheists have started to organize. This reminds me of something else from my college days. Those who did not join a fraternity or any other campus organization were called independents. But then there was an organization for independents, which seemed a little paradoxical. In a similar manner, there is something so individualistic about being an atheist that the idea of forming a group seems to go against the grain.
That aside, if it were just a matter of atheists seeking out like-minded people for social purposes, there would be no cause for alarm, even if I would not be inclined to join such a group myself. What does concern me, however, is the way atheists as a group are in danger of becoming thought of as a minority, as a group that suffers discrimination. At the present, this trend seems to be only in its infancy. We have hardly reached the point where anyone is talking about affirmative action for atheists. But the trend is there nevertheless, and I want to nip it in the bud.
Let us consider, for example, some recent remarks made by Joe Klein regarding his observation that there were no organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in the wake of that disaster in Oklahoma. One diary on Daily Kos points out that Klein was mistaken, and that his oversight was the result of his prejudice that religious people are more caring than atheists. That much is fine, but there is in addition an expression of indignation, along with the suggestion that Klein should apologize.
Think of the implications. Joe Klein has hurt our feelings. We have been offended, and need an apology. No, I won’t have it. Remarks like those made by Klein are unworthy of my notice. I enjoy being disdainful of the opinions that people of have of atheism, and I will not ruin it by putting on a pout and sulking because someone has not given us atheists the respect we deserve.
Then there is the matter of chaplains for atheists in the military. Part of the fun of listening to someone say that there are no atheists in foxholes is the smirk I have on my face when he says it. But if he also brings up the fact that atheists want chaplains of their own in the military, it will completely put me out of my countenance. As someone who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, and therefore has never seen combat, I suppose it is not my place to begrudge those in the military a little spiritual counseling, if that is what they need. But I cannot help but deplore the way this wounds my pride, nevertheless.
Finally, there is a recent article advocating changing the name of the National Atheist Party to the Secular Party of America. The reason for making this change is that the word “atheist” has too many negative connotations, and that a term that is “richer and more positive” is what is needed, in order to be more inclusive. Groan. When I was a child, I learned that there were derogatory words that were used to refer to certain groups of people, and that I should avoid such slurs, and use polite words instead. But as I got older, the polite words somehow became quasi-slurs themselves, and we were admonished not to use them as well, while new terms were then deemed appropriate. It all seemed a little silly to me, but since I am nothing if not magnanimous, I went along with it in good humor. “If that’s what makes them happy,” I said to myself, “then I suppose it won’t kill me to change the way I speak.” But I confess that I was just a little bit contemptuous of all this need for political correctness. And thus it is that I now cringe at the idea of atheists trying to avoid the very word that I was once so proud to write down on that form when I was in college. The next thing you know, we will be asking religious people to tiptoe around us, never saying the A-word, because we regard it as demeaning. If that day ever arrives, I will be embarrassed to admit that I am an atheist (or whatever politically correct term is then being used in its place).
One of the pleasures of atheism is the arrogance that naturally comes with it. Let’s not spoil it with a lot of whining about how we just aren’t being treated right.