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On Being a "Lonely" Atheist

"Confessions of a Lonely Atheist" by Natalie Angier appeared in the New York Times Magazine, 14 January 2001. Triggered by the inaguration speech of George W. Bush in which he called for the nation "to rise above a house divided", Angier's article is excerpted below. Also provided is the text of a letter to Angier by Paul Grobstein. Both are presented as contributions to wider discussion of the relation of religion and science in national and world cutlure.

Excerpts from "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist" by Natalie Angier
(links added)

"The only problem was what President-elect Bush wanted from me and "every American." "I ask you to pray for this great nation," he said. "I ask your prayers for leaders from both parties," and for their families too, while we're at it. Whatever else I might have been inclined to think of Bush's call for comity, with his simple little request, his assumption that prayer is some sort of miracle Vicks VapoRub for the national charley horse, it was clear that his hands were reaching for any hands but mine. "

"In an age when flamboyantly gay characters are sitcom staples, a Jew was but a few flutters of a butterfly wing away from being in line for the presidency and women account for a record-smiting 13 percent of the Senate, nothing seems as despised, illicit and un-American as atheism."

"So who in her right mind would want to be an atheist in America today, a place where presidential candidates compete for the honor of divining "what Jesus would do," and where Senator Joseph Lieberman can declare that we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that our constitutional "freedom of religion" means "freedom from religion," or "indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion," and for his atheism-baiting receive the lightest possible slap on the wrist from his more secularized Jewish counterparts?"

"Who would want to be the low man on the voter poll? When asked in 1999 whether they would consider voting for a woman for president, 92 percent of Americans said yes, up from 76 percent in 1978; 95 percent of respondents would vote for a black, a gain of 22 points since 1978; Jews were up to 92 percent from 82 in the votability index; even homosexuals have soared in popularity, acceptable presidential fodder to 59 percent of Americans today, compared with 26 percent in 1978. But atheists, well, there's no saving them. Of all the categories in this particular Gallup poll, they scraped bottom, considered worthy candidates by only 49 percent of Americans, a gain of a mere 9 percent since 1978. "Throughout American history, there's been this belief that our country has a covenant with God and that a deity watches over America," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Atheism, in other words, is practically unpatriotic."

"It's enough to make one tell a nosy pollster, oh, yes, I believe in God. It's enough to make one not want to discuss belief in the first place, or to reach for palatable terms like "secular humanist," or "freethinker," or "agnostic," which sound so much less dogmatic than "atheist," so much less cocksure".

Letter to Angier from Paul Grobstein
(updated and links added)

12 February 2001

Natalie Angier
The New York Times

Dear Ms. Angier:

I am writing to express my admiration/appreciation for your "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist", which seemed to me to treat with an appropriately light touch a quite serious issue. I sent the following as a Letter to the Editor but wanted as well to convey the thoughts directly to you:

To the Editor:

I'm proud to have Angier "out" and standing up for us. I hope she'll feel both appreciated and less lonely if I add a couple of thoughts to her discussion of why it might, in fact, be good to have at least a few of us around ... and visible.

If there is not actually an "almighty" keeping an eye on things, then a lot of the appealing to him/her for help is not a very productive use of energy. Hence, its probably a good thing that some people instead work from the presumption that "the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings". Yes, it is interesting that the reminder came from John F. Kennedy, the country's first Catholic President.

The other problem is, of course, that there seem to be a lot of conflicting "almighties", with a substantial amount of human suffering originating in the conflicts of their various proponents/defenders (cf 11 September 2001. Perhaps we can look forward to a time when the "thirst after meaning ... and purpose" will unite humanity rather than split it into warring camps. For this to come to pass, everyone will have to give up their respective certainties that one or another almighty has provided them the "Truth", and learn to rely instead on the continual, respectful, and critical/skeptical sharing of diverse perspectives which is the only way to become, individually and collectively, "progressively less wrong". Maybe we skeptics, rather than being immoral, are instead part of humanity's exploration of a more encompassing morality?

Paul Grobstein
Professor of Biology
Bryn Mawr College

I'd be pleased if you felt indeed less lonely, but also that my thoughts add usefully to yours, while following your lead of good humored, if mildly exasperated dissent. Please do, sometime, drop by our website at Serendip. It has occurred to me with some bemusement that we don't there treat explicitly the issue of atheism. And perhaps we should. Were it something you had any interest in pursuing in an on-line context, I'd be delighted to talk more with you about it.

Again my thanks for a distinctive and valuable piece of writing.


Paul Grobstein
Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology
" So, I'll out myself. I'm an Atheist. I don't believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don't believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance. I believe that the universe abides by the laws of physics, some of which are known, others of which will surely be discovered, but even if they aren't, that will simply be a result, as my colleague George Johnson put it, of our brains having evolved for life on this one little planet and thus being inevitably limited. I'm convinced that the world as we see it was shaped by the again genuinely miraculous, let's even say transcendent, hand of evolution through natural selection."

"there is something to be said for a revival of pagan peevishness and outspokenness. It's not that I would presume to do something as foolish and insulting as try to convert a believer. Arguments over the question of whether God exists are ancient, recurring, sometimes stimulating but more often tedious. Arrogance and righteousness are nondenominational vices that entice the churched and unchurched alike."

""There remains a sense among a lot of Americans that someone who actively doesn't believe in God might not be morally reliable, or might not be fully trustworthy," says James Turner, a professor of history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame. Yet the canard that godliness and goodliness are linked in any way but typographically must be taken on faith, for no evidence supports it. In one classic study, sociologists at the University of Washington compared students who were part of the "Jesus people" movement with a comparable group of professed atheists and found that atheists were no more likely to cheat on tests than were Christians and no less likely to volunteer at a hospital for the mentally disabled. Recent data compiled on the religious views among federal prisoners show that nonbelievers account for less than 1 percent of the total, significantly lower than for America as a whole. Admittedly, some of those true-believing inmates may have converted post-incarceration, but the data that exist in no way support the notion that atheism promotes criminal behavior."

" In fact, the foundations of ethical behavior not only predate the world's major religions; they also predate the rise of Homo sapiens."

"Believers and doubters alike will always be with us -- and it's just possible that we need each other more than we know. As Kevin McCullough, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters, told me of his debate with the doubting Monson: "If he's seeking the truth, I don't think he's there yet. But he makes me think, and he brings up good points, and that's good for me. It helps strengthen my own beliefs.""

" From my godless perspective, the devout remind me that it is human nature to thirst after meaning and to desire an expansion of purpose beyond the cramped Manhattan studio of self and its immediate relations. In her brief and beautiful book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature," Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, articulates a sensibility that she calls "religious naturalism," a profound appreciation of the genuine workings of nature, conjoined with a commitment to preserving that natural world in all its staggering, interdependent splendor. Or call it transcendent atheism: I may not believe in life after death, but what a gift it is to be alive now."

Some relevant web links

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