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What Fuels Atheism in America?


Aired 4/12/11

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.


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 United States. Professor Rebecca Moore will provide the academic and historical background of Atheism in America. She will also be discussing the upcoming "Reasonable World" conference in September. Debbie Allen will be discussing Atheism and unbelief in San Diego and the San Diego Coalition of Reason.


Rebecca Moore, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies department at San Diego State University.

Debbie Allen, Local Director of the San Diego Coalition of Reason.

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Avatar for user 'KRickey'

KRickey | April 12, 2011 at 9:42 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

It bothers me to hear someone say, that Atheists, not Agnostics, are considered to be the ones who've "examined the evidence." The evidence I've examined over the years proves to me, that:

Humans are fallible, and so is human reasoning.
I'm often wrong, and I know very, very little.

Every other form of reasoning as it pertains to Atheist vs Agnostic is trumped by that realization. That's the only thing I'll ever know--I know very, very little about the Universe.

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Avatar for user 'billsol'

billsol | April 12, 2011 at 9:47 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

For me, it happened with the Hubble Telescope's "Deep Space Field" work.

Once science could make the statement, "There are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sands, on ALL the beaches on this planet!"

How can a frumpish, earth-centric doctrine use it's dated dogma, to become the most malignant force of "marriage bigots?"

Make a new category of "ANTI-theist" for folks like me who can't stand so many of the things today's "churchies" represent.

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Avatar for user 'nampak'

nampak | April 12, 2011 at 10:05 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

I called in but was a bit too late. : (

I first wanted to respond to that caller that said she thought atheist believed in something. The ironic thing is that so many Christians say they believe in god but don't really live their lives as if they believe. I cannot speak for other atheists but, I can assure her, I do not live my life as if there exist a god, a devil, a heaven or a hell. Neither do I live as though there were fairies or ghosts etc. And I, for one, do not believe in a spirit or a soul. There is no evidence of their existence either. I am not drawn to find meaning, enlightenment or transcendence. I live as a human animal and I only hope to leave this world a better place than when I found it.

Another thing I wanted to mention a few of the reactions I've received to my atheism. One woman said, "To hell with you." Another said, "That is why you are having so many problems right now." A man said, "You're so nice I thought for sure you were a Christian." He should have met the other two women. The funny thing is when a Christian behaves badly, other Christians are quick to say, "Well, they must not have been a TRUE Christian." If this is the case then there are not many TRUE Christians out there.

I became an atheist after reading the bible. I read the bible because I saw Sam Harris speaking on Sunday morning TV and he got me curious. I believe, as Asimov did, that 'Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.' And I must say that I'm glad Christians aren't really practicing the religion prescribed in the bible.

Matthew 15 - "Jesus said, Anyone who does not honor their mother and father must be put to death."

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Avatar for user 'robbrown'

robbrown | April 12, 2011 at 10:32 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago


With regard to atheism vs. agnosticism:

I don't like either of the terms so much, because I think they are poorly defined. (and I don't buy into the argument that there is a big difference between "actively disbelieving" and "simply not believing". When I am thinking about it, it becomes active).

For me, belief or disbelief (in anything) is really a matter of how likely I think that thing is to be true or to exist. I think that it is most likely, say 99.999%, that that earth is spherical rather than flat. I don't know for sure -- there are various ways I could have been fooled, and like you say humans are fallible -- but based on what I've seen and heard, I'm quite confident. Likewise with the question of whether intelligent extraterrestrials have visited Earth....I would give that a probability, but that one is quite low, maybe around 2%.

With the "god question", there is another issue. How do you define God? If you define it broadly enough, I can say it is likely (in my view) he exists. For instance, "god is nature" or "god is a psychological tool people use as a coping mechanism".....sure, that exists, but so what? If you define God so vaguely as to be meaningless, sure, he exists.

So for me, I say the more your definition of God is an entity with human (or animal) qualities -- thoughts, intention, desires, emotions, etc -- the less likely I think it is that said entity exists.

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Avatar for user 'Cytelica'

Cytelica | April 12, 2011 at 10:42 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Mrs. Cavanaugh presented another of her great programs and this one was particularly insightful and appreciated.

While each of us must come to our own conclusions about “god” or the “meaning of life”, the modern “evangelical” Christianity has become invasive and dogmatic. As with other structured belief systems it demands fealty and obeisance that cloud the mind, oppress rationality, and inhibit our collective ability to correct problems confronting our nation. Consequently our society suffers from an improvident paralysis propagated by organized religion. Unfortunately religious leaders can and do use these regressive tactics to assess their effectiveness and maximize their authority over followers.

Sadly, many religions haves devolved into “Growth Industries” for intolerance and social turmoil that merely promote malignant conflict and oppressive authoritarian control.

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Avatar for user 'natejohn'

natejohn | April 12, 2011 at 10:45 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

The site for Reasonable World conference in September that was mentioned during this radio segment:

-Nate (the producer of this segment)

P.S. I'm glad that I could provide this radio discussion for all who took part!

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Avatar for user 'Vicki'

Vicki | April 12, 2011 at 10:56 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Let me preface my remarks with the statement that I personally maintain an “organic”, natural, and deeply seated belief in God which encompasses modern science, based upon personal experiences, not doctrine. I am well read having read from the classics to modern thought (e.g. Marcus Aurelius, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Carl Rogers). I do my best to employ rational thought in my life day to day.

But be that as it may, I have lived in intimate association with certain modern atheists, who possess many virtues in their own estimation: thinking they are profound, learned, and humane, while in fact, I have found them to be hypocrites: displaying an unwarranted sense of self importance, arrogant, intolerant, scoffing, mocking, shallow, attention-seeking, obscene, using filthy language, and disrespectful of everyone and everything that contains any real virtue.

As a result,I have made the considered judgment that I would much rather spend my time in the company of religious fundamentalists and participants of almost any faith, if for nothing more than the clean language and polite manners alone.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | April 12, 2011 at 10:58 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

I missed this program, but I'm glad the subject was presented here on KPBS. I grew up in a very religious home, and was inculcated into the faith like so many believers typically are. I had questions as a child that the church never could answer to my satisfaction, and as I matured and really examined the teachings I became convinced that my faith and all of the world's religions were manmade creations.

As an Atheist I see the world's religions as mostly a very unhealthy thing for mankind and our world. I won't argue that some apparently derive some good from their delusion, but I see far more harm coming from a mindset that denies facts and clings to writings that are supposed to be holy, when in fact they are many times really bizarre, inconsistent, intolerant, and really not representative of how most modern societies operate today.

The most extreme examples of what I'm referring to of course can be found in the countries in which Islam dominates. I can't tell you how shocking and perplexing it is to me that a man in Florida can burn the Quran and people thousands of miles away would then go on a rampage and brutally murder others that had nothing to do with it?

But lesser examples are no less perplexing. Why for example does a person care if another person is homosexual and then goes to great effort to ensure they can't be married? Why? Religion of course, it infects logical reasoning and action.

Yes we humans aren't perfect, and we can make errors in judgment as one person above pointed out, but when you add religion to that judgment, you may as well be planning your life while high on opium. For those who want all the clarity they can get - well, that's what is fueling Atheism in America.

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Avatar for user 'SDCyclist'

SDCyclist | April 12, 2011 at 1:30 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

@Vicki: LOL! Pretty funny... For a minute I almost believed you were serious! Now I see the humor having read what you wrote a few more times. I love the irony! Thanks for a great laugh!

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Avatar for user 'jahmonkey'

jahmonkey | April 12, 2011 at 2:45 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

"Freethinkers" as long as you don't bring up theism, many atheist groups create/run homeless shelters, hospitals, foreign missions? Enlighten me.

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Avatar for user 'Vicki'

Vicki | April 12, 2011 at 3:04 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

@SDCyclist: glad you enjoyed my comment. However, I am serious--no irony.

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Avatar for user 'jahmonkey'

jahmonkey | April 12, 2011 at 3:10 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

The cross is not an anti-religious issue for atheists...hogwash...atheists love to poke at the errors and mistakes of Christianity. Ask Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens.

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Avatar for user 'MorningDew'

MorningDew | April 12, 2011 at 3:15 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

I wish I had heard this live and gotten the chance to call in. I am an atheist; raised Roman Catholic.

I want to make clear that atheism has no inherent philosophy or political point of view. Sam Harris and others are promoting the idea that, if your mind is untroubled by religious belief, that naturally leads you to certain foreign policy goals. His opinions on foreign policy are similar to neocons, that the US should actively spread democracy and free markets throughout the world. The fallacy of this argument is the subject of Chris Hedges' book "I Don't Believe in Atheists." Even though Hedges doesn't profess atheism, his thinking on this subject is much more clear-headed than Harris and friends.

Atheism itself is neutral on all questions except the existence of God. Atheism doesn't even have a vested interest in spreading atheism, in contrast to evangelical religions. Furthermore, no one speaks for atheism the way the Pope speaks for Catholics. It should be obvious, but it bears repeating. Knowing that a person is an atheist tells you nothing about his or her opinion on anything, save the existence or non-existence of God.

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Avatar for user 'downtowndave'

downtowndave | April 12, 2011 at 5:27 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Self deception fuels atheism in America, and around the world.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 12, 2011 at 6:54 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Basically the debate is a waste of time and energy An Atheist believes he/she has that "certainty," an Agnostic does not. That's why it's a "pot kettle black" situation when the Atheist criticizes the Believer.

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Avatar for user 'Vicki'

Vicki | April 12, 2011 at 8 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

I think Jahmonkey asked a very good question in one comment. If I may paraphrase: how many Athiest groups operate homeless shelters, hospitals, foreign assistance organizations, and other actually helpful charitable establishments?

I would appreciate knowing of any, since I have not yet experienced any positive productive project created by any Atheist group, rather I have only experienced their criticism of whatever project (or idea) that was created by others.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | April 12, 2011 at 8:41 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Some interesting comments here - it's true no one person represents Atheism, but there are some well known individuals who often speak publicly about Atheism and debate on it's behalf from time to time, they've written some wonderful books and I really wish those who call themselves "believers" would get off the idea that someone who doesn't believe in a god can't be moral or just, or have any direction in life.

Not believing in a god has led me to be a much better person than I ever was as a believer. Before I was just trying to ensure that I didn't go to hell, now the actions I take really have a deeper personal reason, and a bit of a selfish one too - it feels good to be good.

But there's another thing here I would like to say - I think Atheism should be promoted, here's why. Religion contributes to a great deal of strife, conflict, and suffering in our world. There is just no denying it. It's in the paper almost daily. Yes, I know there are some good people who believe, but ask yourself this, when was the last time you heard of an Atheist blowing others up for not believing? How about showing up to someone's funeral with a sign saying something like "the Flying Spaghetti Monster hates Homos!" Right, that's because we don't.

Give a man religion and a nuke and he can justify using it against others simply because it would please his god - even if he too would be killed in the process. This is one of many logical reasons why Atheism should be promoted. Our world may not have as much time as you think if religion is not looked upon more critically for what it has caused in the past, and for what it certainly is capable of doing in the future.

You may disagree, but just look through your paper while you're having that morning cup of coffee and you tell me that you don't see people in this world, who if given the chance would take your life away simply for not "believing" what they believe. You at least don't need to worry about that from Atheism.

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Avatar for user 'jwn2'

jwn2 | April 13, 2011 at 1:10 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

@Vicki: You asked for atheist organizations that sponsor social service organizations. For examples visit http://harvardhumanist. If you haven't already, you should read Good Without God by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Besides being an excellent summary of what atheists do believe, it also contains pointers to numerous secular humanist and atheist organizations. Some of the organizations he refers to also sponsor social services and programs. Admittedly, there aren't the number or scale of programs and service organizations affiliated with religious groups, but they do exist.

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Avatar for user 'philosopher3000'

philosopher3000 | April 13, 2011 at 6:08 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Would we be killing millions of Muslims if not for the crusade of Evangelical Christians? The cult of Christianity, especially the newest forms have become malignant. They preach hate and racism, bigotry against any who do not share their fundamental beliefs. They infect our military communities and strategically infiltrate the government agencies that control weapons of mass destruction. They con the weak and vulnerable, have no respect for reason and science, and lack the courage to act on their beliefs. Any time Christians find they don't like their own teachings, they re-interrupt their books, and split off a new denomination, spawning a new colony of con-artists. It is like a virus, always changing, ever the parasite. They feed on the young, the children, they brainwash each new generation, never letting anyone make up their own mind or come to a rational conclusion. They threaten the very foundation of our Secular Government, and misinterpret history to rewrite the facts in their favor, as if the harms of religion had not come to pass. Now they have developed the concept of dooms-day, Armageddon, the End-Times, The Second Coming, and they call for the end of the world.

Anti-Theists, Brights, Humanists, Free Thinkers, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Jewish Secularists, and Scientific Atheists must unite against the darkness of Fundamentalist Religions, else all is lost.

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Avatar for user 'MorningDew'

MorningDew | April 13, 2011 at 9:36 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

My problem with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that they conflate atheism with scientism, which is the view that all of our values can be derived from science. In service of this view, they rely heavily on evolutionary psychology, which I consider a pseudoscience (see In general, they seem to think that science is so far along that we already know essentially everything we need to know about the human condition. My opinion is that we know perhaps 1% of what we would like to know about the human condition. They base their lack of belief on the idea that science has already illuminated all the dark corners of the universe and so there is no place left for a God. I have come to the same conclusion about the existence of God, but for a different reason. My lack of belief in God is based on the fact that I find it more credible that God was made up by human beings than that the stories are true. So my atheism is not predicated on the existence of nearly-complete scientific knowledge. My atheism is rooted in simple skepticism. Therefore, I see no contradiction in believing that the human mind is far more complicated than current theories account for, and indeed it may be beyond human understanding, while also discounting the idea that it must be divinely created.

So, I don't appreciate people like Harris and Dawkins associating atheism with their opinions on ethics or politics. They are really two separate things.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | April 13, 2011 at 10:39 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

@MorningDew - "My atheism is rooted in simple skepticism," good for you - that's the best reason.

I believe however that both Harris and Dawkins have opinions that are logical ones, and they make sound arguments based upon the modern scientific approach to questions. This doesn't mean they are infallible, they would be the first to admit it, and it's their acknowledgement of this that makes them far more respectable to me than any Pastor, Imam, or Rabi.

As far as politics go, well, I consider myself progressive, and yet in the right crowd I might be called conservative, in another a flaming liberal. The topic here is really about what is fueling Atheism in America, and just as other groups may not be lock step on every issue, Atheists can having opinions that differ on subjects, but one thing that we all share is a really healthy dose of skepticism especially when it comes to imaginary beings. And we don't blow each other up for believing differently.

Imagine if there were more of "us" than the millions that cling fervently to their religious beliefs.

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one." John Lennon

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 13, 2011 at 11:32 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, Slinsky, but if we're to "live as one" which is an idealistic utopia if there ever was one and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise (at least at this stage of the game), we are NOT going to achieve it by thinking we are somehow "better," "more intelligent," "less deluded" than the next guy. I do NOT recall Lennon making headlines for attacking Christians or Muslims as we see today from AM Hate Radio, Faux, Peter King, or on the other side from the Bill Mahers, Katha Pollits and Chris Hitchens (who can't stand each other, by the way) of the world. (As a revealing post script, a student of mine was once humming the Beatles song from a Target commercial a couple of months ago. I asked her if she knew who played this song. She did not know. So much for Lennon's comments about having more staying power than Jesus. But I understand he was just being flippant.)

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Avatar for user 'Janice'

Janice | April 13, 2011 at 1:28 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

@Vicki: You ask, "If I may paraphrase: how many Athiest groups operate homeless shelters, hospitals, foreign assistance organizations, and other actually helpful charitable establishments?"

You are missing the point. Atheist 'groups' don't set up institutions to help others that advertise as 'atheist' institutions, because to do so would be counter-productive and exclusionary, some of the very things we atheists dislike about the religious counterparts. Instead, atheists join existing non-religious organizations or start their own *non-religious* organizations, because the point is to focus on the people that need help, not promoting a particular religion or viewpoint.

Direct Relief International, for example, an organization I have personally donated to in the past, has a 98.8% efficiency rating on, and no specific stated religious affiliation, motivation or bias. I chose this charity both due to its good reputation, and because it is not religiously motivated.

Doctors Without Borders, another organization with an excellent reputation, has no specific religious affiliation as far as I know. Neither do the Peace Corps. There are many, many others. I have no idea how many people in these organizations are atheists, but it wouldn't surprise me if quite a few of them were.

Perhaps your question shouldn't be, 'how many atheist groups operate charitable organizations', but 'why do so many charitable organizations feel the need to affiliate themselves with a specific religion?' In my opinion, people can be helped just as efficiently, and perhaps more efficiently, by people who have no underlying motivation to spread their own particular religious viewpoint or dogma.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | April 13, 2011 at 4:10 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

I wouldn't expect a utopia to occur simply from man giving up on religion, but I do believe it would significantly improve our ability to get along if people would free themselves from such ideas. Religion just closes the door on so many things that we could otherwise speak about without this kind of dogmatism that so often surrounds the most controversial issues of our day.

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Avatar for user 'fra59e'

fra59e | April 13, 2011 at 6:04 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Somebody asked what good works are performed by atheists. Well, for three hundred years Christian missionaries were in India and went along with the cruel caste system. Then Gandhi tried to stop it, coming from his devout Hindu religious perspective. He failed, but at least he tried, which seems to have been beyond the generation after generation of Christian missionaries.

Last year, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, based in London, organized a new movement to commit to a serious effort to end caste discrimination. Most of its victims are in India but many are also in African nations and Japan.

It will be interesting to see if they can succeed, where even Gandhi failed and the organized Christian bodies apparently didn't even try.

The Christian missionaries did, however, do a great job of distributing bibles. I don't expect the new project will invest much effort in handing out copies of books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris or trying to persuade the suffering people to change their religious affiliation, or teaching them they are born guilty because of Adam's sin, or that a fiery Hell awaits them if they don't convert.

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Avatar for user 'fra59e'

fra59e | April 13, 2011 at 7:13 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

In January 1990 Dr. Vijayam of Atheist Centre, India, visited San Diego. The religion editor at the UNION interviewed him [Saturday January 13, 1990, p. B-5].

Anybody who doesn't yet know that atheists do good charitable work should take a look at Atheist Centre. They maintain two hospitals, fifteen schools and three farms. They rescue girls from the jogin caste (temple prostitutes). They teach literacy. And the provincial police authorities endorse Atheist Centre's work in exposing the fraudulent "miracle workers," claims of witchcraft, and allegedly supernatural gurus.

"Morality is a social necessity," says Dr. Vijayam. "Religion talks about it, but Atheists and Humanists practice it." A physician, he provides medical services and promotes preventive health measures.

The Atheist Centre operates a shelter for abandoned women and widows. It sponsors events of dance, meditation and yoga. Princess Anne of England, daughter of Queen Elizabeth, as well as the vice president of India, are among those who have visited the Centre.

The founder of Atheist Centre, Dr. Vijayam's father, was honored on a postage stamp in September 2002. You can see this stamp, and read about the work of Atheist Centre, at

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