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What Fuels Atheism in America?

April 12, 2011 9:57 a.m.

Atheism, although having a more subtle impact throughout American history, has never been in the forefront of societal discussion. This recently growing popularity of Atheism, or "unbelief," has helped push this quiet minority into greater popularity. We will be providing a spotlight for this movement and show its true nature in the U.S.

Related Story: What Fuels Atheism in America?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. For years, we've heard that fundamentalist Christian religions have been increasing in membership. Conservative Christian groups are organized politically and are playing a big factor in many U.S. elections. What we voluntary been hearing so much about is that the number of Americans who say they are not religious has also been increasing. In fact, the second highest religious preference behind Christianity in the U.S. is unaffiliated, which includes agnostics and atheists. But it is still not always easy for those who don't believe in religion or God to talk freely about their ideas. Several groups here in San Diego are gearing up for a conference of humanistic thought occurring late this summer, and I'd like to introduce my guests. Doctor Rebecca Moore is professor and chair of religious standards at San Diego state university and expert on new religious movements and interreligious dialogue. Doctor Moore, welcome.

MOORE: Thank you, Maureen, it's a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Debbie Allen is local director of the San Diego coalition of reason. Debbie, good morning.

ALLEN: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join this conversation. Are you one of the many religiously unaffiliated? Do you feel comfortable talking about your religious skepticism? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, our number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Doctor Moore, just so we start off with a kind of an understanding of the various terms, what -- can you tell us the difference between let's says agnosticism and atheism!

MOORE: There is a broad category we could call free thinking which would include atheism, agnosticism.

RIH2: Humanism, skepticism, and so on. Most atheists would say they don't believe in a God. A militant atheist might say there is no God. An agnostic on the other hand would say, they don't know, maybe there is, maybe there isn't. A humanist, on the other hand, really promote a philosophy that focuses on human values and human worth. So we could actually say there might even be a Christian humanist who would believe in God, but on the other hand really emphasizes human welfare. So under the broad umbrella of free thought, there are a variety of differences of opinion.

CAVANAUGH: So what links people under this umbrella of free thought?

MOORE: I think the primary link is the reliance upon reason and rationality to make decisions rather than turning to religious author, dogma, accepted tradition, popular culture. These free thinkers really rely on rational thought to make their decisions, whether they're political, social, moral, cultural.

CAVANAUGH: And Debbie, I'd like to -- for you to weigh in on this as well.

ALLEN: Well, I think her explanation was thorough and accurate. I would like to under line the fact that an atheist has really considered the evidence and has come to the conclusion that that's no evidence or support for supernatural forces acting on the physical world.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so this far that would lead to the conclusion that there is no God?

ALLEN: Yes, and but there's also strong atheism, weak atheism, strong agnosticism, weak agnosticism, and you'll find within our community, the people like to argue out whether or not they're a strong or a weak atheist, etc. So many we are discussing this within our own communities as well.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Doctor Moore, being unreligious, being a free thinker is sometimes a liability in this country. But what's often forgotten is the history of humanistic nonreligious thought from the very beginning, from the very foundation of America. Tell us a little bit about that.

MOORE: Well, I think that we do forget that the founders of our country, the writers of the constitution come out of a legacy of rational religion, although evangelical Christians like to say that they were Christian, they would not recognize themselves, I think, among today's 21st century evangelicals. So for example, the founders didn't say one nation other than God in the constitution. They begin by saying we the people. So already there's a sense of a commitment to secular government and secularism. Throughout the nineteenth century, we see a number of free thinkers ranging from unitarians to atheists and so on involved in social and political reform. Ranging from the abolition movement to free slavery, women's right to vote, prison reform, mental health reform, and so on. We see the unitarian minister, Lucretia Mott preach against slavery, W. E. D. DuBois in the early 20s advocating rights of African Americans, Robert Ingersoll in the nineteenth century advocating really for the best that humanity has to offer. And then on into the 20th century, the reforms of the new deal, all of our labor protections, Social Security, employment insurance and so on, these were all hard fought battles inform free thinkers, agnostics, humanists and so on, joined religious believers to advocate for the common good and the welfare of all.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Debbie, you hear this really sort of rich and varied history of free thinking in America. Do you think a lot of that has become buried in recent years? I mean, do a lot of people understand and know about this?

ALLEN: I think that some of the more religious fundamentalists have forgotten about the origins of the United States. Yes, people came to this country seeking religious freedom. They also came seeking economic opportunity of that's important about the founding of this nation is they specifically did not want to create a theocracy or a state religion. God, Christianity, is not mentioned at all in the constitution of the United States. And in fact, there's only restrictions on religion within our governing documents.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Debbie Ellen, she is local director of the San Diego coalition of reason. And here as well, doctor Rebecca Moore, professor and chair of religious studies at San Diego state university. And we're talking about free thinking in the United States , and the growth of people who call themselves unaffiliated as their religious preference, which includes agnostics and atheists. And we are asking for you to join this conversation. If you feel comfortable talking about your nonbelief, or if for any reason, if you'd like to give us a call with your questions and comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Debbie, just a little while ago, you're talking about the sort of conversations that go on within the community of free thinkers, humanists, about whether or not people feel comfortable calling themselves atheists. The survey that I talked about a little earlier finds 16 percent of Americans who say they are unaffiliated with any religion. Do you know how many people actually do call themselves atheists?

ALLEN: Well, I don't know the exact numbers. But I think fewer people are -- or more people are uncomfortable calling atheists than actually have an atheist perspective with regard to supernatural beings. I know that the largest organization in the United States , freedom from religion, the largest organization of atheists and agnostics, they've grown threefold in the last 5 or 6 years. And many of their members do not like to call themselves atheists or agnostics because there's social stigmatism attached to that name.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We have Justin on the line calling from Carlsbad. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Justin, good morning.

NEW SPEAKER: Ha, good morning. Well, I had a comment, and doctor -- following up with the end of a little spiel there, I like the direction that you were going, which I think is actually the evolution of religion in this country. And my comment is is nowadays, when you talk to somebody about their religious preferences, they typically tell you that they were raised Catholic or raised Baptist, and then they don't really tell you what they are now. I find that happening day in, day out whenever I touch on this touchy subject with somebody. And I really think that that attributes to the Internet, how open we are about free thinking, as the doctor was saying, and knowing that Americans knowing that there's over 200 different religions in the world. So for us to say one person is right over the other, just be a free thinker, think what you will, but I think people nowadays, like I was saying, have a hard time telling or letting people know how they feel religiously.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha, Justin. Let me get a comment on this. Justin makes the comment that a lot of people are saying, you know, I was raised Catholic, I was raised in this particular religion, but now I don't feel comfortable labeling myself with that religious -- with that particular religion. I'm wondering, doctor Moore, what are some of the reasons that people give about why they are walking away from traditional religions?

MOORE: I think that Debbie Allen put her finger on it when she said that people start thinking about their religious beliefs and the traditions in which they were raised, and for some, they come to an affirmation of those traditions, but others reject them as lacking in rationality or there being some alternative explanation for that. I think also the clear attack on science, contemporary science, is prompting some people to reject traditional religion, ranging from the attack being, you know, denial of climate change, denial of theories of evolution, theories of sexual orientation, and so on. The promotion of creationism in public schools. Those are all seen, I think, by a number of people, not just atheists or free thinkers, but by a number of people in our country of perhaps religion over stepping the boundaries within which it should remain.

CAVANAUGH: So the very -- the very topics and the very things that are pointed to as evidence of the growing power of conservative religious beliefs in the United States are, you're saying, driving lots of people away from those conservative religious beliefs.

MOORE: I would say yes. That actually raw numbers at university of Wisconsin has done some research on the rise of the promotion of creationism promoting also the rise of atheism and a backlash against creationist thought.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Debbie, there have been a number of high profile books recently outlining the case for atheism, I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, how have these books within received?

ALLEN: Well, surprisingly well. They have sold millions of copies, which may not sound like a lot. But it is a lot for a antireligion or a nonreligious publication.

CAVANAUGH: Are atheists and agnostics still better off if they sort of soft pedal their arguments? I'm thinking of bill mar's documentary where he is really rather aggressive with some religious leaders and confronting them about their beliefs which he does not share. Does that still turn people off, do you think?

ALLEN: I think it does. And I think whether you find him funny or not depends on your own unique sense of humor. He's an entertainer, he's trying to really stick it to people. And for some, that's fun, and for some that's rather disturbing. I would not look to him as a model of atheism.


ALLEN: Personally, I would look more toward Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins for a very intelligent discussion about religion.

CAVANAUGH: And just for people who don't know what I'm talking with, bill mar did a documentary called Religulous, in which he confronts a number of people who are conservative religious believers. We want to you join it is conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Alex is on the line from Ramona. Good morning, Alex and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: I'd like to say I go to Point Loma Nazarene university here in San Diego, and I'm an atheist. And I'd like to see how refreshing it is to hear about these groups like the San Diego coalition of reason. Because it is very difficult on Point Loma's campus to kind of express yourself as an atheist. So I tell people, you know, I've been raised Roman Catholic, so yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Alex. I appreciate it. Debbie, I'd like you to tell us a little bit more about the San Diego coalition of reason.

ALLEN: Well, the coalition is a partnership of 14 local secular organizations. We were established to unite the secular community in order to increase the visibility of each individual group and to more effectively reach out to free thinkers like Alex.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And so how would you define your organization's membership?

ALLEN: Well, we have several humanist groups, we have an atheist group, we have two groups for families, we have even a humanistic Judaism group, which is a Jewish traditional group that does not believe in supernatural powers or God. And our website, for example, is, San Diego Coalition of And each of our groups is listed on that page. And each group is slightly different, and although they do come down -- they do share the nonbelief in God.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you first, Debbie, and then I'll go to doctor Moore on this. There is an awful lot tied up in the idea of being a religious person, there's community, there's tradition, etc., etc. Now, once someone comes to the conclusion that perhaps the fundamental aspect of the religion, the belief in God, is no longer there, do they -- it must be difficult, though, to walk away from all those other trappings of the religion. Do you find that to be the case?

ALLEN: That is definitely the case. And many people are very sad about the conclusions they come to, and frankly, they hide it from people that they're closest to. Many people sitting in a church or a synagogue on any day or agnostic or atheist themselves, but like you said, the trappings, the really wonderful things about religion they are still enjoying. And we have one group in town called recovering from religion, which is a group for people that are concerned or worried or suffering and experienced maybe some shunning from their families and their religious communities.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a little bit more about that, doctor Moore. How easy or difficult is it to actually come out of the closet as it were as someone who ask not believe in the particular religion that you've been saying that you are for years and years and years?

MOORE: I think it would be a lot easier to come out of the closet in California than in Alabama.


MOORE: The west coast in general is much less churched or religious than say the Bible belt of the south and traditional religious areas of the northeastern United States. But I think that you're right. Where do you get the sense of community, working together, pot luck supper, all of those things that we think of the communal aspects of religiosity? And I think there are a number of groups in San Diego that are trying to provide that sense of cohesion and community. For example, taking groups to the opera, to art event, to sporting events, to doing things together in a way that traditional religion, forms of religion already have ready made organizational structures to provide that. But I think, you know, certainly it would depend on your family background, your social situation in life, and so on, as to whether you can state I don't believe anymore freely or if you felt you know, I really can't say that, the stakes are too high, so I'm gonna continue to go to church and live life the way I have been.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Also if you'd like to comment, you can go on-line at Days. Mary is calling us from UTC. Good morning, Mary and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You're welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I wanted to call in kind of in a different perspective, I was raised as an atheist by a professor, a brilliant woman, but I always felt that it left me kind of dry without, you know, without a way to explain to myself or sort of experience kind of the deeper side of life, but things that you can't just explain with research or formulas. And so, you, I went to school down here in San Diego, and I was -- I just wanted to let people know, anybody who is in, you know, what my situation was, looking for a way that you can kind of find a voice for that deeper side of you without letting go of your sensibilities, I was able to find an inner certainty, like really knowing from myself what is at the Naturage and meditation and yoga center. And the teacher there, doctor Erhardt Vogel, I find is just such a wise person, but who -- where you don't even have to have any belief. I guess that's what really made me call. Is that people talk so much about belief, and I think that even people who are actively religious often -- they don't have, necessarily, the inner certainty of what they're doing. They just want a way to be happy or to be free of stress, to kind of, like you were saying fit in with a community. But when you do find that inner certainty then that answers really everything.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Moore would like to comment on what you've said, Mary, and thanks very much for the call.

MOORE: I think that Mary is making a very significant point, which is the human search for the transcendent. In other words, what is it that exists above and beyond ourselves and it might just be humanity itself, it might be nature, and so on, and so I think that we see certainly interest in yoga and yogic practices, interest in Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, meditation, even, you know, Sierra club, nature, hiking and so on, I think that those are all essentially kind of nonreligious ways or we would think of them as nonreligious ways for humans to encounter the tr ascendant. Something greater than themselves Burk not necessarily in a supernatural way.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering too, Debbie, with Mary's characterization of atheism and atheist beliefs as rather dry.

ALLEN: Well, she made me think of a few things of one thing is, I would like to point out that human beings differ cognitively in their ability to tolerate uncertainty: So individual to individual, you'll have people that like to feel more comfortable, it makes them very anxious and insecure to question, whether other people really value that part of themselves where they can question, and they can find meaning. Our difficult is that for the religious fundamentalists, not only do they believe in their God and their dogma, but they over reach and they claim that because of their God, their lives have meaning, and they are in some way morally superior. That's what we disagree with. But certainly atheist, agnostic, their lives have meaning. But they believe in living life now and here and in this moment, and not waiting until a life in the here after.

CAVANAUGH: We have another caller on the line. Hallah is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, and welcome to These Days. New hi, well, Jacky of Pacific Beach, good morning, Jacky.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. My comment is that it's interesting to me, because I -- I believe that when an atheist or agnostic claims not to believe in a God or a higher being, that to me seems like in itself a recognition or belief in God but a choice not to believe in God. So it's almost just as vocal as the claim. So we see these heated battles over mount Soledad, and a very powerful stance being taken by atheists. But if there's not a belief or fear in God by such individuals, I think that matters like that, you know, wouldn't bother a quote unquote atheist. They'd just kind of sort of let the religious organizations fight over that. You know, if they don't truly believe in a God they shouldn't --

CAVANAUGH: Jacky, that's an interesting point. Let me ask about that. Doctor Moore, so if indeed there is a religious symbol that defines a certain area of town or so forth, and an atheist takes a stand against that, what's the motivation of that stance?

MOORE: Well, I certainly think that not only atheists, but certainly Christians and nonreligious people and nonchristians also oppose the cross on mount Soledad. That is not just an atheist position. But it's a constitutional issue regarding, you know, our principle of separation of church and state. So that I would separate from other issues where atheists or agnostics might object to something because they don't believe in it in the same way that Christians or Jews might object to something because they don't believe in it. But our heritage of religious freedom in the United States states quite clearly that we should not and shall not give preference to one religion over another. And that's where -- that's where the conflict arises.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Debbie, when someone says, you know, why don't you just let things alone? Let the cross alone, let the Christmas decorations alone. Don't bother the standard traditions that we all know. Can you give me the counter argument for that?

ALLEN: Well, I think that the reason we have to address these issues is because they are constantly in our face. Some people are antireligious because religion is unnecessary to explain the world and our place in it. Religion can and does cause harm in the real world. It's inappropriately intrusive in the public square. And it's devastating to the future of science and technology in our country. And those are the things that we object to. I happen to be at the rally at mount Soledad after the ninth circuit court of appeals decision. And the issue is, as doctor Moore says, it's a constitutional issue. For a lot of Christians, it's a purely emotional issue. It's their religious symbol, they don't like anybody suggesting that it be moved. However, it is a religious symbol, it is a cross, it represents Christianity. And now they're saying that it represents all veterans. But it doesn't represent all veterans. A lot of veterans are nonreligious, and they're nonchristian, and it's also on public property. Bush transferred it to federal land, but we're still having a religious symbol supported by the government, which is a violation of the constitution of the United States. And that's the atheist's on objection to the cross on mount som dad. It has nothing to do with objecting to people practicing their Christianity.

CAVANAUGH: In the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd like to talk about two events that are coming up in the near future. First of all, there's a first atheism class at SDSU this fall, doctor Moore, tell us about that.

MOORE: Well, as I'd mentioned, are the history of free thought in the United States is important but really little known. And so we proposed and will be teaching a class called atheism, secularism, and humanism this fall for the first time ever, really to bring to light this unknown history. So it should be pretty interesting. Professor Roy Whitaker will be teaching it, and he's very much looking forward to it.

CAVANAUGH: Any push back as actually introducing that into the curriculum.

MOORE: No one has said anything yet. I don't know. I guess I was expecting someone to say, well, why would a department of religious studies offer a course in atheism? But you know, atheism as a norm of nonbelief, and in conversation with believers seems to be a pretty important part of our religious history in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And Debbie, coming in September is the heritage of western humanism, skepticism and free thought, an international conference. Tell us a little bit about that.

ALLEN: Well, I'm not involved with planning the conference. But I will be there, and I think I have to go back to school this fall too to take that class at the university. I'm very happy. One thing that we have on our calendar is this Sunday at earth fair, we will have five booths at the earth fair, several of our organizations are going to earth fair, and we're going to have three booths together right outside the prado restaurant. So if you would like to come and find out more about the San Diego coalition of reason, and find out more about what our groups are about, and what we think and feel and do, come to earth fair.

CAVANAUGH: We have to leave, I want to let everyone be that that international conference takes place on the September 16th through the 18th, and registration begins on May 1st. I want to thank my guests. Doctor Moore, doctor Rebecca Moore, and Debbie Allen, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ALLEN: Thank you for having us.

MOORE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You're listening to These Days on KPBS.