Hey atheists: You’ve got a friend

While there is such a thing as atheists who prefer to antagonize the religious of every stripe-and that’s certainly their … Continued

While there is such a thing as atheists who prefer to antagonize the religious of every stripe-and that’s certainly their right-it’s not the position of the bulk of people who don’t believe in a god. This shouldn’t be surprising because people who by their very definition avoid wishful thinking are pragmatic enough to realize that minorities like themselves need friendly allies in order to get things accomplished. And of course, people who highly value freedom of and from religion are also likely to respect people of differing opinions and don’t want to constantly offend those who otherwise share many values.

Most atheists and agnostics want to be clear about convictions regarding the existence of gods and other supernatural concepts. And being in the minority in the U.S., it also makes sense for those who don’t share the majority belief to advocate for strict separation of religion and government. And at times it’s appropriate to criticize religion since some religious ideas hold our society back, such as not yet embracing full LGBT rights and unnecessarily dividing humanity into the chosen and the damned. But in pursuit of respect, in seeking freedom from religion, and in challenging religious injustice, do atheists ever cross the line into activity that may be counterproductive and alienate religious allies?

There was a time when Americans-even in the freethought community-thought that simply identifying as an atheist was automatically offensive to any person of faith. Thanks to the increasing acceptance of disbelief in America, those times have changed, and now you only hear such concerns from people who are behind the times. Because of the emergence of popular atheist authors and celebrities, as well as the prevalence of humanist and atheist advertising, we’ve moved away from the time when atheism was perceived as synonymous with being anti-religion. While prejudice certainly persists against those who don’t happen to believe in a god, today most people understand that being an atheist only means that one’s belief system doesn’t include gods; it doesn’t mean being unfriendly to people of faith.

Still, there are situations where the line may be crossed by atheists and agnostic activists that offend their religious allies. In humanist circles, it’s a matter for serious debate where to draw the line in godless self-promotion and challenges of government involvement in religion. So what do progressive religious leaders think? I asked a few for their thoughts.

Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, the executive director of the Disciples Center for Public Witness, feels that, “On a practical level, secular humanists affirm many of the same ethical principles as progressive people of faith. Even as they continue to disagree with one another about the nature of ultimate reality, secular humanists and people of religious faith can and must, for the good of humanity, work together to promote these shared values.”

Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, points out that while religious people imposing their views on the rest of society is just as wrong as atheists doing the same. She remains optimistic about the two communities working seamlessly together, saying, “The importance of freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion is well understood by the American public. In general, liberty and tolerance are widely practiced, and those who overstep the mark usually discover that their shrill voice more often than not falls on deaf ears.”

J. Brent Walker, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, describes a number of issues that some nontheists have worried would burn bridges with religious allies, but in fact were areas of agreement between the two communities. Walker agrees with atheists that there should not be government vouchers for parochial schools to pay for the teaching of religion and he specifically points out that “a cross is the quintessential symbol of Christianity.” While he understandably accepts its use for individual expression in national cemeteries, he strongly states that the “government should not display a cross on public property, even if it considers it to be a ‘memorial’ to those who have died in combat.” Still, Walker indicates that he, and his religious colleagues, have some limits when working with the nonreligious community. Walker feels that “It does not serve our cause well to make a constitutional mountain out of a civil religion molehill. In a country with religious roots as deeply planted as ours, it should surprise no one that references to the deity will be reflected in our public rituals and civic ceremonies, our patriotic songs, slogans and mottos.”

Atheists and religious minorities will certainly disagree with the latter statement, since even ceremonial government acknowledgments of God can create an oppressive environment where atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, and others who don’t ascribe to belief in “God” are made to feel as second class citizens. But the real conclusion to draw from this conversation is that religious progressives are far more understanding of atheist and agnostic activism than may have been assumed. Not only are they willing to agree to disagree from time to time, but they frequently are steadfast supporters in important areas of social concern.

So as the civil rights movement for secular Americans progresses, nonreligious leaders can rest assured that they aren’t in this alone, and that we need not temper our enthusiasm for fear of offending friends.

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association

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  • nkri401

    We are all born atheist – it’s the culture that that we are born into turns us into a particular religion almost of all the time. Some do change or transcends the culture for whatever the reason.

    The most correct answer to where did you come from is from your parents.

  • Icebear

    Nice sentiment Roy, but a bit optimistic, IMO. There are still laws on the books that prohibit non-believers from serving on juries, holding public office, etc. I’m not aware of any theistic religion that does not believe that they’re right and anyone that does not accept their particular superstition is flat out wrong. The opinions expressed by the religious functionaries you quote fall into the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” category. They all think I’m hell-bound as an atheist, but will accept my help if it will advance their particular agenda. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t make them my “friend.”

  • Vanka

    “There was a time when Americans-even in the freethought community-thought that simply identifying as an atheist was automatically offensive to any person of faith.”

    Not true at all!

    There are not only institutional discrimination against nonbelievers, but more damaging and offensive, there is rampant social stigma, prejudice, exclusion, and hatred against nonbelievers.

    I am only anti-religion to the extent that the religious continue to be anti-humane! Once they excise all the bigotry and hatred out of their scriptures, rhetoric, and actions, then I will join in the right hand of friendship with believers without regard for their silly superstitions.

    Specifically, RIP Psalm 14:1 OUT of the Bible, along with all other similar bigotry, and then we can be friends.

  • WmarkW

    Mr. Speckhardt has written a good and thought-provoking article here, but it doesn’t add much new perspective to the line of liberal thought On Faith continually publishes. Except for Jordan Sekulow and an occasional Catholic discussing sexual morality, On Faith is an echo box of eccumenical Christians, Jews, Atheists and Unitarians advocating gay marriage, Obamacare, higher taxes, amnesty for illegals and a vague “inclusiveness.”

    Wished they’d get a secular conservative like Razib Khan, Heather MacDonald, Andrew Struttaford or John Derbsyhire of SecularRight.

  • Rusty Yates

    Even more, there is a strong fifth column in the liberal churches. Many of the ministers and priests become agnostic and atheist reading the bible and research having to do with it. My father an atheist and deacon in the Episcopal Church confided to the priest that he didn’t believe in a god and the priest agreed that he did not as well. An atheist Jewish friend of mine tells me her atheist father established the local synagogue.

    The higher the IQ the more likely a person is to be atheist. Also the higher the IQ the more likely the person is to rise to a position of responsibility and be successful. It would make sense that the clergy would be more likely atheist than their flock.

  • Joel Hardman

    I’m not so sure about your perceptions of the beliefs of liberal religious people. I bet that a lot of liberal Christians don’t believe that all non-Christians go to hell, for instance.

  • Rongoklunk

    Surely 9/11 showed us that faith is nothing to brag about. Not a thing to trust. We all know the terrorists were hoodwinked into killing themselves by the offer of immortality and 72 gorgeous virgins. We all know they’re just dead and not on a neverending celestial vacation. But what do other Muslims think, I wonder?
    For many of us 9/11 was the last straw. If I had been religious I think that day would have cured me. It would have made me see the great sham that religion is. How they dangle immortality before us, and make us believe in the stupidest things. It worked for the ancients who knew nothing about the world they found themselves in, and it still works for Muslims and Christians and Hindus today. But many have grown up now and see religion for the primitive idea it really is; and realize that all gods are mythical.
    And why I speak out against religion whenever I can is because I believe that some religious guy or group – will one day blow us ALL up for some god or other. Nonbelief is such a sensible position. It says lets enjoy this life, and help people when we can. As far as we know – it’s the only chance we get. Because when we’re dead we’re dead.

  • itsthedax


    You are entitled to your religion. Enjoy it with the best wishes of all of us. And please recognize that your freedom to practice your religion is also enjoyed by everyone else. This means you may not impose your religion on others.

    You are not a persecuted minority. No christian in this country has ever been denied the right to his/her religion. You have never been prevented from practicing your religion in this country. In the name of persecuted people everywhere – Myanmar, Darfur and Tibet come to mind – please stop pretending that your are being victimized. In fact, the tax exempt status of your religious institutions puts you in a favored position in this society.

    Your religion is not mandatory. If you have religious freedom, then so does everybody else. This means that you are not entitled to have your religious beliefs taught in public school classrooms – even disguised as “science”. And, you are not entitled to have the government legitimize your religion over all others, by declaring it scientifically sound. By the way, if you want the Book of Genesis taught in public schools, please have the integrity to say so without trying to hide it under “Intelligent Design”.

    Your religion is not the legal basis of this country, and is not to be used as a basis for establishing our laws. Freedom of religion means that everyone else is free not to labor under your religious practices, although you are unquestionably entitled to do so, yourselves.

    You are not entitled to the free use of publicly-funded property or personnel to promote your religion. Nor are you entitled to the use of public school events to publicize your religion or attempt to proselytize to non-believers. And you are not entitled to have your religion included in public school curricula by public servants. This means that courts are not required to follow the laws of your particular religion. It also means that you are not entitled to the use of public prope

  • cs9243

    America is 90% christians. Atheists and other religious minorities are less than 10%. This country has deep religious roots. Most americans are religious. But atheists have their own grievances. Every single study that has ever looked at the issue has revealed massive amounts of bigotry and prejudice against atheists in America. The most recent data shows that atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority and that an atheist is the least likely person that Americans would vote for in a presidential election. Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry. Still the atheists will remain atheists. You cannot expect them to agree that any gods, exist,much less the Christian god, can serve as the basis for moral solidarity or cultural membership in American society. Of course, neither can adherents of many other religions who either don’t believe in gods(buddhism,jainism) As America becomes more religiously pluralist, America is going to have to change and find something else to serve as the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership. Atheists should work to ensure that this is as secular as possible.

  • Rongoklunk

    America is religious because they indoctrinate their children from the cradle – just like Muslims do with their children, and Hindus with theirs.
    If the children are not indoctrinated they’ll grow up to be atheists. That’s what’s happening in Britain and the rest of Europe, where many people are no longer religious.
    It’s such a silly idea that has no evidence going for it – just faith. And like Mark Twain often said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.”


    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

    Do you believe in God? “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

    The general revelation of a God through the micro and macro symphony/complexity of nature (there is a painter behind this painting) the fullfilled prophecy in the Bible (100s and scary accurate), the life of Christ & his followers (they cleared forests to cruxcify Christians in the 1-2 century & nobody dies like this for a hoax) the near death experiences of millions (see the light), the sense of right/wrong built into all of us (sense of justice), the eye witness testimony to Christ (takes one eyewitness to condemn a man to death today) the miracle of the Bible (see the dead sea scrolls- Bible hasn’t changed, that’s a miracle) just to name some evidence! It’s the intellectually honest world view folks and there’s room for one more!
    Loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view huh?


    Secularization of chruch and state has done us no favors-turn on the news and/or see the dramatic spike of all social ills since 1963, you’ll faint! Note: 1963 is the year we took prayer out of schools and replaced it with the evolution faith movement/religion!


    Sounds judgemental!


    Except we put our hands on a Bible every day in court rooms across America and swear to God to tell the truth, we trade coins with in God we trust on all of them, we say the pledge One Nation under God and we pray to God at every funeral, in everey fox hole and at every tradegy! Yes, you are free to choose and we repect your right, but we are indeed a deeply rooted Christian Nation in every way shape and form-even the name of your town in Hebrew I’m guessing-most are!


    Churches across America have been helping the least of us better than our government could ever hope to for generations! Thank you for your service! Yes, Christians can be broken, disfunctional hypocrites-I’ll give ya that! There room for one more!


    You’d win that bet I’m sure! Jesus spoke more about hell than any other subject-53 times I believe! We are sinners/have a dark nature and are in need of God! Try it, you’ll like it-all welcome regardless of your sin!


    We are all born sinners-ask any baby if they’re selfish! It’s why we need to be born again through the free gift of Christ! Just have to be humble and available!

  • DivineMsK

    Something for you to look up: causation vs. correlation.

  • larryclyons

    You also need to look up the phrase cherry picking.

  • larryclyons

    Einstein stated: “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”[

    According to Prince Hubertus, Einstein said, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

    In a 1950 letter to M. Berkowitz, Einstein stated that “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

    In 1945 Guy Raner, Jr. wrote a letter to Einstein, asking him if it was true that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism. Einstein replied, “I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. … It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.”

    So you want to try another lie, that dog don’t hunt no more.

    Basic technique for some religionists, lying for Jeabus.

  • larryclyons

    cs –

    First look up the phrase tyranny of the majority.

    Second, this nation is not a theocracy. Deal with it. Get over it and get a life.

    Finally if you show one group preference that invalidates the first amendment. So what you are saying is that non Christians of any sort are second class citizens. Why do you hate America so?

  • larryclyons

    The bible is optional. You can also do an affirmation.

    In God We Trust was put in by Congress, not the Constitution.

    And research shows that the no atheists in the foxholes is another lie. Sort of like Lying for Jeabus.

  • itsthedax

    DRJJJ, believe whatever you like, and teach your children whatever you like. No one has ever restricted your right to do that.

    However, you seek to limit everyone else’s freedom of religion by imposing yours on society in general, and schoolrooms in particular. You seek to make your beliefs mandatory, which is not only evil and unamerican, its somewhat psychotic.

  • Kdo

    In all sincerity, I do want to know whether the author defines “injustice” and “oppression” and “rights” as supernatural concepts. He calls religion a supernatural concept, suggesting I assume that it is something anathema to “people who by their very definition avoid wishful thinking.” However, I am always more convinced by the full-blooded atheists like Dawkins, who do not believe such things as “justice” exist then by a Hitchens who, on one hand articulately bemoans the artifice of religiosity, and on the other lamely decries what he sees as the very real (i.e. somehow not supernatural) injustice it breeds. How, asks the little Plato in my head, can one intangible, supernatural absolute like justice exist, while another like God cannot? One cannot have it both ways. You may dislike the behavior of some religious people, which turns you off to religion–and progressively, a belief in God. That’s fine to dislike behavior and history–but concepts are a different matter entirely. If we are not just loquacious animals but actually ingrained with such things as Mr. Speckhardt’s rights and liberties, then we recognize supernatural concepts.

    But if you say you don’t believe in God because he’s bad news for justice and rights, to me that’s the same as saying you don’t believe in foxes because they’re a real problem for chickens.


    With “friends” like christians you don’t need enemies.

  • owlafaye

    Justice, rights and chickens are real.

  • owlafaye

    Generally, religion is knowledge of the world according to the Bible not according to traditional education.

    The Bible and any and all religion have no place whatsoever in the classroom.

  • owlafaye

    Fulfilled prophecy in the Bible??? Hardly…but I grant you, Christians have a wonderful capacity for twisting reality and events to suit their cause.

    100’s of frauds in the Bible???…unequivocably YES

  • owlafaye

    25% are indeed atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free thinkers, secular or spiritual humanists and non-believers and that is just those that have “come out of the closet”…it is estimated that this group, with these hiding non-proclaimers, outnumbers Catholicism as well as Protestantism not to mention Baptists.

    We have become a recognized political force and we fully intend to use this force to sever all strings that religion has attached to every aspect of our lives…attached without our consent.

  • owlafaye

    The Bible swearing in court is a fiction….

    I do not say the pledge “one nation under god” I say “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” as it should be….

    The “foxhole” quip is another false bit thrown out there by a chaplain….

    We are not a “Christian Nation and our government has proclaimed so in treaties with other nations….

    Christianity cannot exist without the LIE.

  • owlafaye

    9/11 was a false flag operation conducted by your own government.

  • owlafaye

    DRJJJ may be a sinner, but I am not. Since he apparently has been a lifelong Christian, why hasn’t his Christianity purged him of his sinfulness?


    Chickens are real.

    Justice and rights are ideals. They are not “supernatural”, any more than truth and beauty are. They are decided on a case-by-case basis and that is part of a process. Sometimes they are incomplete or flawed in some way and the next case will need to address those flaws. That is the process. The tools used in the process are reason and understanding and compassion.

    Religion is a failure because by its nature it is absolutist. There are no tools, there is no process because every single part of religion is set down in stone in documents hundreds and thousands of years old. Reason and understanding and compassion are rejected in favor of these ancient texts. The facts of the very real world are rejected in favor of these ancient texts. Humans are measured by these alleged supernatural standards and always fail to meet them. And of course, religions themselves declare themselves immune to any process involving reason, understanding and compassion.


    Prior to 1865, America was 99.999% christian.

    Prior to 1865, in many states it was legal to own slaves.

    Therefore, christianity is slavery.

  • owlafaye

    A healthy atheist hatred for the ignorance that is religion is not a sin.

  • Counterww

    Now there is true bigotry.

  • Counterww

    When you define what is rational then that is the conclusion YOU can come to. Also, when outside of Godly principle people decide what is compassionate or even moral, then bad things can happen to those people as they can change in their own minds what is rational and what is moral.

  • Counterww

    Humbleness is not a quality atheists have, at least the vast majority I have met face to face and on these forums. Most are elitists that don’t do much to lift a finger to help anyone.


    It would be bigotry if I said it about blacks or women or Maoris or Eskimos.

    But christianity is an ideology, like republicanism. So it’s a value judgement.

    It’s not about the color of your skin,or your sex or your race. It’s about your beliefs and your words and your deeds

    “With friends like communists you don’t need enemies.”

    “With friends like Republicans you don’t need enemies.”

    See, it’s a value judgement about a religion that is also a political party.

    Besides, you christians have no business squawking about bigotry, given the way you people have behaved and continue to behave.