Socrates is usually described as having been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato suggests that the charge accuses Socrates of political heresy: By publicly rejecting the Homeric gods, Socrates placed himself outside of the community. As an atheist, or so his accusers alleged, he had failed as a citizen.
Socrates, of course, was not an atheist at all (a point which he made repeatedly, labeling atheism an unjust crime), nor were the Christians who were called atheists and persecuted by Roman emperors for rejecting the state religion. Atheism, in its most technical sense, is the rejection of a god or gods, but the word carries a historical insult: An atheist is someone who has rejected civil society.
Our pluralistic democracy has its intellectual roots in the writings of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, but even his “Letter Concerning Toleration” explicitly exempts atheists from those worthy of civic participation. “Promises, covenants, and oaths”—the good faith that binds together civil society—“can have no hold on an atheist.” That notion stayed in the social contract and crossed the Atlantic: Even today, seven state constitutions technically forbid atheists from holding public office. And though the numbers have been steadily improving, recent polls suggest that 53 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified atheist and that 39.6 percent of Americans believe that atheists do not agree at all with their “vision of American society.”
Civil society depends on upholding certain moral norms, and for that reason our religious and political identities rightfully seem so entwined. But to some, a lack of faith is more than just a lack of faith. It is a lack of good faith.
We all know that this is false: Atheists are artists, philanthropists, scientists, teachers, and public servants. The command to love your neighbor needs no divine imprimatur. Yet many of us who live without religion remain reluctant to identify as what we are. Atheism is too “extreme” or “confrontational,” as we’ve heard from students at club fairs or introductory meetings. Our generation is the least religious that this country has seen, with 26 percent of young American adults identifying with no religion. But only three percent of us will take the extra step to identify as atheists.
For some, this is for principled, philosophical reasons: Some of us are agnostic, and some even hold religious beliefs but feel estranged from the institutions identified with them. Yet there remains a gap, a group of young people whose worldview does not include a deity but whose discomfort with the notion of atheism keeps them silent.
This doesn’t make much sense. As long as atheists abdicate from defining ourselves, we will be defined by those who see absence from the religious community as absence from our political and social communities. No belief system has a monopoly on reason, dialogue, and concern for the public good. These values drove Martin Luther King, Jr. as much as they drove A. Philip Randolph, an atheist and key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, or W.E.B. Du Bois, a skeptic and freethinker whose writings helped frame the civil rights movement. Fifty years after the march, 50 years after Du Bois’ death, our generation can be even more open about our identities as we fight for broader definitions of justice and equality. Those of us who have been given the opportunity to confront those challenges must do so without fear that our lack of religious commitment will undermine our shared values.
Our generation is not only the most secular in this country’s history, but it is also the most diverse, and the variety and intersectionality of our individual identities is central to who we are as a collective. If we are to forge a community out of these various parts, we must learn to embrace and engage with our differences, to determine which disagreements matter and which ones make us stronger. The first step, though, is to recognize this, and for those whose identities are in the minority to confidently make our voices heard.
This is why the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics is holding Atheist Coming Out Week, a chance for our campus’s atheists to say who we are and why our beliefs matter. We want to prove something you already know: that atheists can coexist with the religious in a pluralistic society and that our commitment to reason, science, creativity, and compassion is essential to solving the world’s ills.
Here’s the moral of the story: If you happen not to believe in a god, say so. And while you’re at it, join us for a discussion on Why Atheism Matters with Steven Pinker ’79, Rebecca N. Goldstein, Andrew Jewett, and Greg M. Epstein today in Lamont Library. Celebrate atheist and humanist Eddie Izzard’s lifetime achievements with us in Memorial Church this Wednesday. And watch a movie with us in the SOCH Community Hall on Friday. We all thrive when we can share our identities without fear. We are atheists. We are proud. Come out with us.
Sarah E. Coughlon ’15 is a psychology concentrator in Adams House. Elliot A. Wilson ’15 is a Classics concentrator in Cabot House. They are board members of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics.