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I'm an atheist - so what?

ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published August 8, 2004

"What is it," asked German philosopher Friedrich Neitzche, "is man only a blunder of God, or God only a blunder of man?"

I vote for the latter.

Though I was brought up in a religious faith, it was at a very young age - preteen - that I realized I had no belief in God and no amount of indoctrination was going to change that. This sense of nonbelief has been so strong and abiding throughout my life that I find it virtually impossible to understand the psyches of people who believe in anything supernatural.

Just to be clear, it is not just God that I can't fathom. I also reject the existence of Satan or any form of afterlife beyond the redistribution of the body's matter. In my book there are no ghosts, golems, angels or spirits. I do not believe in psychic power, astrology or predestination - and forget about karma, kismet or crystals. My view is that the "soul" does not exist outside a functioning brain, nothing was "meant to be," and things that seem inexplicable are not miracles or paranormal experiences, they are simply not yet explained.

I have never understood why the fallback position to unanswerable questions about the universe is that an all-powerful, all-knowing being intervened. To me, "we don't know yet" is a fine response.

I don't expect to be applauded for these views since they are out of step with the majority of Americans, but neither should I be despised for them. Yet, I will be. I can already imagine the torrent of hate mail, with readers accusing me of all sorts of vile human derangements just because I subscribe to reason and logic to explain the world rather than faith.

As an atheist I am a member of the last minority group that is still subject to open and acceptable derision and discrimination.

The depths of this hostility was on display at a Tampa City Council meeting recently when three council members walked out rather than be present when an atheist gave the invocation. Kevin White, an African-American on the council, first tried to get the invocation canceled. When that failed he and the two Hispanic members of the council left the room.

They showed a shocking lack of tolerance for diversity and difference, considering they too are members of historically excluded groups.

White went on to suggest that it was demonstrably dangerous to hear an atheist speak. He said it could unleash a "snowball effect" on government and compared it to engaging in unprotected sex.

Huh? Does he mean that appealing to the rational mind rather than a supreme being is so inherently persuasive that it could catch on?

Well, it has. What White may not know is that a far larger percentage of his constituency are already nonbelievers than he suspects. A 2001 survey conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that more than 29-million adult Americans say they identify with no religion. Of those, more than 6-million said they didn't believe in God. Compare that to the number of adult Americans who say they are Jewish (2.8-million), Muslim (1.1-million), Unitarian (600,000) or Buddhist (1.1-million).

If national statistics equate even in broad terms to Tampa, then inviting Unitarian and Muslim speakers to give the inspirational words to begin the council meeting represents the views of many fewer residents than inviting atheists to do so. (Of course prayers don't belong at government functions regardless of who is giving them, but that's another column.)

White doesn't know about the mainstreaming of atheism because atheists don't tend to stand up for themselves. They have been relegated to a closet that is darker and deeper than that in which gays and lesbians find themselves. Certainly in the public sphere, announcing one's atheism is the kiss of political death. According to a 1999 Gallup Poll, half of Americans say they would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate solely on that basis.

During this year's oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, atheist dad and attorney Michael Newdow got into a telling exchange with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. When Newdow suggested that having a religious phrase in the pledge is divisive, pointing to the uproar the case had caused throughout the country, Rehnquist had him admit that Congress unanimously agreed to add the words "under God" in 1954. "That doesn't sound divisive," said Rehnquist. To which Newdow replied, "That's only because no atheist can get elected to public office."

The courtroom gallery broke into spontaneous applause at this clever, apt rejoinder.

Today, there are still eight states that have provisions in their state constitutions explicitly barring atheists from holding political office. The Tennessee Constitution states: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

These restrictions are no longer enforceable, but the language remains on the books. No legislator is interested in suggesting their removal.

America is a country steeped in religion and as such I expect to be bombarded by it. I take no issue with the right of religious people to proselytize, to erect houses of worship on every corner or to broadcast their fervor on television and radio. All I ask in return is a little consideration for the millions of us who don't join in the "good news."

My faith is in mankind and the marvels accomplished by human ingenuity and drive. Why that makes me a pariah to White and others like him is beyond my ken. It certainly says more about them than me.

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