The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document of self-government by Christian people. But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christian people and atheist people, they can use it to destroy the very foundations of society. And that's what's happening."
So says Pat Robertson. Like a lot of Americans, I find this statement deeply disturbing. My concern, however, is a little different than that of most patriots. I am one of those non-Christian people. More specifically, I am an atheist.
What concerns me most is not that Pat Robertson and company make such statements about atheists. There are bound to be some extremists of every imaginable flavor. What I find disturbing is that many Americans share the attitude that Robertson's statement expresses. For instance, while in office, former President George Bush said that he did not know that atheists should be considered patriots.
At a public lecture last year, atheist Wendy Kaminer of Radcliffe College noted that over half of Americans polled would deny an atheist the basic right to speak at a town meeting. According to the poll, atheists are despised even more than homosexuals, yet another group that suffers at the hands of intolerant religious extremists. In four states and in countless communities, it is illegal for an atheist to hold public office.
Americans do not like atheists. They often make wild and unsupportable claims, like "atheists can't have a morality" or "atheism leads to degeneracy." Ridiculously, atheism has been blamed for everything from the French Revolution to society's supposed decay of values, interestingly purported in the midst of a resurgence of religion in America.
Since the heyday of McCarthyism, religious extremists have demonized atheism to the point where declaring one's non-belief is a bit like admitting to eating babies. This is why the vast majority of atheists and agnostics, who may outnumber all other non-Christian Americans put together, are secretive about their non-belief. Those who are public about their convictions often suffer for it.
Many atheist students I know hide their beliefs from their parents and keep painful silence about them. Their concerns, I fear, are justified; a significant fraction of my atheist friends have been cast out and ostracized by their own parents and families because of their religious doubt.
These concerns led me to take a role in atheist campus activism. I co-founded and now preside over both the Harvard Secular Society and the international Campus Freethought Alliance. The CFA is an umbrella organization comprising some 100 student atheist and humanist groups, including the HSS.
When students learn of my role in the EAC (read: Evil Atheist Conspiracy), they often give me strange or even dirty looks. Many religious students misunderstand our focus and intent, and it is the purpose of this article to clear up some of these misconceptions.
Many religious students are offended by the very existence of the HSS. They view it as posing a sort of threat or attack on their beliefs, perhaps seeing its members as the belligerent, fanatical, anti-religious caricatures so delicately crafted by the Religious Right.
In reality, the average atheist is not much different from the average Christian or other monotheist. Christians reject many gods and think nothing of it. Atheists simply believe in one fewer god than they do, and want to have the same rights and show of respect that Christians expect. Like Christians, we value moral excellence and the common ethical teachings of men like Socrates, Buddha and Christ. Of course, we do have our differences: we do not worship Christ as divine and find some of his teachings, like those about hellfire and eternal punishment, very harmful. But on the whole, we have much in common.
Atheists do not want to suppress religion; as a misunderstood and often hated minority, we know the value of religious pluralism, tolerance and the separation of church and state. Our aim is to create a harmonious community in which both theist and atheist can live without fear of reproach for being open about their beliefs. Atheists are not monsters or ignorant anti-patriots. We are good citizens who value tolerance. I am also proud to say that on the average we are highly intelligent. Atheists have unusually high numbers in academia and science. This is why so many of the more outspoken atheists have joined to defend science and reason in the classroom from creationists, anti-science postmodernists and all those who would conveniently brush aside or suppress scientific findings that they find disagreeable.
As American citizens, we take a strong interest in public policy. We grow uneasy when fundamentalists try to marginalize non-Christians by rewriting history and pretending that our nation's forefathers were devout Christians, or that our government was somehow founded upon Christianity. We grow concerned when freedom of belief is threatened, or when vociferous religious extremists cry for policies based on ultra-conservative religious dogma and their own narrow conception of morality.
This is the message that the HSS and the various affiliate organizations of the CFA bring. In defending and advocating our position, we are not trying to threaten or destroy religious pluralism. Rather, we embrace it and want to protect it, while ensuring that religious stays within the bounds of its proper role in society.
Like many religious groups, we are concerned by the perversion of faith and the manipulation of religion for adverse purposes. We are interested in working with campus religious groups to answer religious intolerance of every kind, from the theocratic rants of the Peninsula to the ill-disguised homophobia of the Harvard Law School Society for "Life, Law, and Religion."
Pat Robertson is dead wrong about the role that atheists play in society. Far from destroying its very foundations, we aim to protect them and to change the society they uphold for the better.
Derek C. Araujo '99 is a physics concentrator living in Winthrop House.