Out of the Profane Closet

Atheist Coming Out Week is a valuable occasion to talk about nonreligious morals

"No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state,” Mississippi’s constitution still proclaims, in words similar to those of six other state charters. Although not enforced in practice, provisions such as Mississippi’s betray the reputation of ignominy and amorality that has been attached to atheism at many points in time. Atheist Coming Out Week, sponsored by the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics, is a welcome occasion to generate dialogue on humanistic and nonreligious value systems, counter to the myth that living without God means living without morals.

Though nominally a secular, pluralistic society, the prevalent rhetoric of American public life retains an unduly religious character. Presidents, judges, and civil servants take their oaths of office upon copies of sacred scriptures. The Pledge of Allegiance refers to the United States as “one Nation under God.” Banknotes bear the familiar phrase: “In God we trust.” Each of these conventions is a testament to the enduring notion that religion holds a monopoly on ethics, contributing to the perception that atheism is necessarily an anti-civic and amoral belief system.

HCHAA board members Sarah E. Coughlon ’15 and Elliot A. Wilson ’15 noted in their recent op-ed that the stigma surrounding atheism is in fact very visible, powerful, and unfounded. The writers cited a significant disparity between the 26 percent of young American adults identifying themselves with no established religion and the mere three percent willing to call themselves atheist. Part of this disparity is conceivably accounted for by a sense of unease and stigma that all too often accompanies atheism. Anecdotally, Professor of Psychology Steven A. Pinker '79 recounted at a panel held in Lamont Library on Monday evening that his “coming out” as an atheist “felt like...confessing to murder.”

Harvard, like many other secular institutions of higher learning around the country, offers an environment that is perhaps extraordinarily accepting of religious beliefs of all kinds, or lack thereof. Harvard Divinity School graduate Alan Jones was the subject of media attention in December when he was appointed an atheist chaplain at Stanford, interestingly demonstrating that even theological schools can be fertile breeding ground for secular moral thinkers.

Nonetheless, some of the students who attended Monday evening’s panel on Why Atheism Matters did mention the difficulties of proclaiming oneself an atheist—even at Harvard. So deeply entrenched is anti-atheist sentiment in the U.S. that it would be unreasonable to suppose that atheism carries absolutely no stigma at Harvard.

Atheists and believers alike should never feel the need to be apologetic about their stances on religion. Atheist Coming Out Week is a very valuable initiative that we hope will raise awareness of the value of nonreligious ethics, as well as promote further dialogue and coexistence between those who seek their codes of conduct in the realm of the divine and those who don’t.

CORRECTION February 22:

The Crimson editorial ,“Out of the Profane Closet,” misidentified Stanford’s new Humanist Chaplain as Alan Jones. In fact, Stanford’s Humanist Chaplain is John Figdor.