Religion in the United States is more than just a belief structure; it is part of the foundation of modern American culture. What happens when a family member, or someone’s spouse, rejects religion?
A few weeks ago, a Pew study found that most American families would reject atheists in their family or if a child married an atheist. Even 65% of people who identify as liberal or mostly liberal would be unhappy with an atheist being married into their family, compared to just 36% being unhappy with a Born-Again Christian joining their brood. Across all demographic spectrums, less than 10% (and closer to 5%) of any group would be happy that they had an atheist in their family. This finding may be shocking amidst reports that the number of non-believers in the United States is on the rise.
Of course, with any relatively new demographic comes fear, misunderstanding, and hate. Despite secularism and atheism’s rise, some areligious students feel discriminated against—at times violently. Now teachers across the U.S. are creating Secular Safe Zones to “curtail anti-atheist bullying, discrimination, and social isolation.”
Being a true red blooded American and proud member of the human race, with many friends of many different nationalities, ethnicities, and belief structures, I decided to share Pew’s results with them and get their thoughts on the reasonings behind the stigma of atheism in America. Most people hold very strongly to their beliefs, and I knew the conversation that would occur would be no different.
Disclaimer: some of the names, chronology, and details of the conversation were edited for better reading flow and keeping identities safe.
James Hooks: Do you think it is merely due to cultural differences (i.e. people wanting their families to remain religiously similar) or a belief that atheists are somehow less moral than those with religious beliefs?
Jacob: Sadly, both. Although the evidence for the “less moral” argument is seriously lacking.
Brian: My parents were dyed in the wool Christians. They knew I didn’t believe in any of that stuff. My siblings know. I’m surprised how much of a non-issue it is. Like, I’m still shocked how much it has never been an issue with my family.
William: Same here though I’m Agnostic, and not Atheist. However my entire family is Christian, and I’ve had no problems with any of them over my beliefs.
Gregory: For too many, religion is a negative-feedback behavior control. Fear of punishment keeps people behaving in a moral way. The think atheists lack any moral underpinning as they don’t fear the same hell so they’re capable of anything at any time.
Josh: I think it’s a combination of both. Family (even close friends) identify socially with those that share similar beliefs. Even down to a base level of “well at least they still believe in God” to explain away different religions or denominations. Same attracts same and Atheism is such an opposite in both meaning and definition. It’s literally the opposite of belief. That’s scary for some people to deal with, especially when they care and love family and believe in an eternity. The other side of it is people think Atheists worship the devil, are amoral, use it as an excuse to do lots of bad things, etc. There is a real misunderstanding to how Atheists live and what they believe, or lack of believe. Regardless of which side you’re on, we are all people who deserve love and not judgement. We are not different but view the same life through different, beautiful lenses. We are all people and we all wind up in the same place at the end.
Courtney: I believe it’s a combo of the two. On one hand there are those who have belief and faith in their savior, whether they firmly practice their beliefs or not. Therefore, being an atheist is still unacceptable for them because they have their faith that their good deeds will be rewarded in the afterlife, and even though they may have their own sins they battle with, they feel having faith that they will be forgiven keeps them driven to live life as positive as they can. On the other hand, they do feel atheists have little to no morals and use that as their excuse to sin, or do whatever they want with no fear of consequence, other than the law. However, I don’t agree with that. I know a few atheists who live better lives than most Catholics and Christians. And no, I’m not atheist.
James Hooks: Which just goes to show how morality may not be tied to one’s belief in mortality. But the fact is, homosexuality is more accepted than atheism today.
Bob: American families don’t understand basic science. American families are yelling at and spitting on little kids on the southern border. American families are become a nation of willful idiots. The idea that I need skycake to be moral is one of the more offensive fallacies I run into with some regularity.
Sam: Without God, I would be stealing and raping and just being an evil bastard.
Bob: Which god?
Sam: Yahweh! And the others!
William: I wouldn’t. [laughs] I mean, I believe in a higher power, but I also believe that it is capable of any and everything. Being multiple “Gods” for multiple people, using science as it’s tool, good, evil, love hate, all of that. I don’t believe in limiting it to just what I want it to be. I also recognize that I could be wrong too. It’s just something I don’t think any of us will ever fully understand or begin to comprehend.
James Hooks: But would any of you reject someone in your family for having different beliefs? If so, I’d love to hear the motivation behind that.
Alex: [My fianceé] is spiritual/believes in stuff, but doesn’t really practice any religion. We don’t really disagree with much when it comes to morality, and when we do we hash it out openly and honestly. Her dad is old school Irish catholic. When we get married, it will likely be in a Christian ceremony to make her dad happy. I dont care and don’t sweat the small stuff. If religion causes some sort of hard bigotry/ignorance, I would call it out, but in terms old old fashioned rituals/lifestyles there are other battles worth fighting. If we ever have kids, I would explain what I believe and why but they would be allowed to believe whatever makes them happy.
Josh: My wife is not religious. She believes there was a creator and when we die we go to the afterlife (but each person has their own distinct afterlife, which is a bit odd but she can’t verbalized what she believes really) but she loves me and has seen me go from potential Jew to ardent atheist. In fact one of the reasons I never converted was because she said she wouldn’t convert. She’s all about raising our children Atheist though. And while we will give them options and expose them to the dark side, we will answer honestly when asked about our own beliefs.
Matt: I’ve made it a point to never speak for atheists and what the do/don’t believe. I find it just as difficult to stomach agnostics and atheists speaking for theists and their motives. I’m a Christian (non fear-based) with many good friends who are atheists. They are no more or less moral than my Christian friends. If I had to project what it might feel like if one if my daughters does not end up sharing my core beliefs about deity and theology, it would probably have to do with the fact that we would believe very different things about ultimate reality.
James Hooks: I remember being five and crying to my mom that I don’t want to die and I want to live forever. My Christian upbringing brought me that comfort. My knowledge of science and evolution then challenged that comfort. It has led to much conflict in my life as my beliefs and understanding of the world evolved with age.
Bob: A lot of great art has also come out of the religious tradition. I don’t know if I would have the same appreciation for the humanities that I do now if I hadn’t gone to church while growing up. [But] my wife isn’t religious. I can’t understand the idea of rejecting my child over religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) at all.
Matt: Bob, I am a Christian who understands and accepts science and don’t consider my theological grounding to be ‘skycake.’ I also live next to a southern border and have compassion on those fleeing to America. Is it possible that in your attempt to point out what you consider to be ignorant and intolerant, you’ve ended up being that yourself? And I don’t think I said anything about rejecting my children. I’m really not sure where the straw man argument is headed.
Bob: I wasn’t referencing you about rejecting your children, Matt. I can see how the placement may have made it seem that way, and I’m sorry. I was speaking to Hooks’ comment that people would reject an atheist in their family.
Matt: Clarified. Hope I didn’t sound like a dick. I personally find the line between belief/unbelief to be very thin, thereby making it doubly important to exercise all sorts of humility when communicating with the ‘other.’
Bob: Matt, didn’t sound like a dick at all. I completely understood where you were coming from.
Alex: I blame ~50 years of “Godless Commies” (1945-1990ish) as the threat from abroad and ~40+ years (1975-now) of the Republican party’s alliance with fundamentalist Christianity (which had the lovely side effect of turning a nation of Quakers, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Catholics who all thought everyone else was kind of a kook into a nation of Christians™, turning Atheists from “just another set of beliefs” into “the other” in the process).
Bob: [A]s to religious beliefs in general, I can acknowledge them, but I’m not in any way going to go out of my way to respect them. The idea of picking one of the many creation myths that cropped up in ancient times and then basing my life on the collected writings passed down through that tradition and believing that its many contradictory passages are the inspired word of god and everybody else’s book is wrong – I will point out the oddness of that. And I’m willing to accept that it might make me a dick. I wouldn’t refuse to be friends with someone over it, or treat them different as a person, but I won’t hold superstitions in reverence.
Matt: You not adhering to religious belief doesn’t make you a dick, either. I’ve wrestled (wrestle) long and hard with everything you’ve mentioned and, through a heavy dose of skepticism, have held to belief in a) God and b) Jesus uniquely embodying the fullness of God. And I find both of these things to be reasonable and rational. Unfortunately, the conversation you, others, and I are having (respectful, educated, articulate, etc.) doesn’t often happen and people simply talk past one another. Lastly, Faith is experiential. It would be foolish of me to ask/expect you to assent to things you haven’t/don’t experience firsthand. That’d be a little like me describing my wife to you and expecting you to then proclaim her as the world’s greatest woman (she is, by the way).
Alan: I was raised non-denominational and non-attending Christian. That’s what Mom is, as tithings always left a bad taste in her mouth but she never put much thought into anything else. Dad… I don’t know what exactly Dad believed. He was more scientifically-minded, but he could also be traditional and he adored his parents. We never talked much about it, and I’m not sure I’d learn much if we had. If anything I guess he was agnostic, if I had to try and label him (I dislike labeling other people. I dislike labeling MYSELF.) I’ve always been scientifically minded, and I told Mom in adolescence that I didn’t believe in God or Creationism or god or gods or any of the sort. As Bob said above, for me the choosing of Christianity over the numerous other spiritualities of the world seemed arbitrary at best. Science had some evidence and logic behind it, so I went with that. Mom didn’t understand, but I was still her son. Since then, Mom’s married a man whom I believe is less spiritual than she is and might actually be atheist. It hasn’t come up. My sister and I talk about spirituality here and there, and she seems more rigidly atheist than agnostic, while I’d say I go the opposite way, but I believe she understands why I go more agnostic. I think she may have said she’s switching terms herself. Either way, it’s a very small part of my identity but I think it’s a bigger part of hers. Mom’s side of the family doesn’t talk about it and never really has. I have cousins with whom it comes up, but they’re cousins by blood and more like brothers by relation, so we just are inclined to talk about those things. The rest of that side of the family is just too pragmatic to bother talking about spiritual matters. Dad’s side of the family is more Southern Country Folk, and thus far I’ve not “come out” so to say to any of them. When they bless the table, I bow my head and close my eyes so as not to stand out or appear disrespectful. My sister MAY have mentioned it, but I don’t know. She’s mentioned her identifying as androgynous (…and maybe I ought to go reword every useage as “sibling”, but I need to really clarify with her on that), which… is probably not QUITE as sensitive topic, but still. Sibling’s forthcoming with it, with the SoCo family. Sibling might have mentioned some religious beliefs, at least with our Aunt there, because they’re close. I don’t know.
Josh: Buddhists are Atheists and I firmly believe Agnostics by definition are Atheist because they don’t believe and remain skeptical.
Matthew: I’m an atheist and I’m raising my kids with religion because it gains them privilege.
Alan: That’s really pragmatic of you. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that.
James Hooks: Thanks for sharing all of that, Alan. I somewhat remember you talking about some of it a long long time ago. You are certainly more open than I am comfortable being when discussing religion and my family’s history with it…Perhaps part of what Pew found, and circumstantially what each of us have experienced, is the cultural anthropology and sociology of religion. With open admission to positive/proactive atheism not occurring until very recently, there isn’t much of a culture or history to have a real foundation or understanding for those who are without belief. To be without god is to be without a history, so to many, that includes a rejection of one’s family and one’s heritage. How can one have a family or a culture when their life is about the absence of tradition? Is cultural atheism really just the celebration of science and reason, or can there be more to it? I know I’ve brought this up several times before, but being a black person in America comes with certain expectations. And certain experiences. Our ancestors came to the States as essentially blank slates. No family name, no religion, no culture; everything that made up our varying faiths and beliefs was wiped clean and we were assimilated into the Christian faith, while being told that we were put on Earth to be slaves, as stated in the Bible. When we were “allowed” to be free (true freedom wasn’t made official until 50 years ago), instead of rejecting the religion and the country and the people that were used to hold us back, even after being told we were less than human, we welcomed all of it with open arms and embraced the American culture fully and faithfully. I’ve always been completely fascinated by that.
Josh: I just find it fascinating that Atheism is a default position for children born because Religion is a learned behavior, (the rituals, the dogma, etc)
Kevin: My family never gave me any grief whatsoever about being atheist. Aside from my brother who is active in his Presbyterian church’s community, religion was a really unimportant topic in our lives. My Mom was raised Catholic, but she doesn’t practice. My Dad was raised without religion. I have no idea if my Sister and her family believes or not. It just doesn’t come up. Although I do have to say that after losing my Grandpa, I’ve been drifting more and more into doing things “the Old Way” in that I burn incense at his gravestone and occasionally burning the fake money. During Chinese New Year, I also sometimes leave an offering of food before his picture. I’d do more but I haven’t done any research into what are the proper rituals and stuff since that would have been things I would have asked him. Fun fact: I totally attribute getting my current job to my supplications to him and my Grandma.
Alan: It’s funny how, no matter one’s personal leanings, one still may do certain things in honor of a passed loved one. Wouldn’t bet against that being a clue to some of the anthropological beginnings of religion overall.
Robert: Why is it that religion is a staple of the human condition and why do we consider ourselves immune to it? Life is going to take some shitty turns for all of us and some of us will turn to religion for comfort.
Matt: I love this conversation. And I love what Alan said regarding the anthropological implications of honoring loved ones who’ve passed away. All things considered, historical evidence of religiosity across all cultures and civilizations, while bathed in sociological influences, also speaks to the innate sense of “other” (deity). Studies on this are fascinating. In more modern evaluation, current study by Oxford University of brain activity during prayer (specifically when praying to a God one believes to be primarily loving and good) is uncovering some pretty fascinating stuff.
James Hooks: I wish more conversations about religion vs. atheism were this civil.
I’ve been witness, and party to, a lot of heated debates about morality and religion. Perhaps it is because of the friendship (some being decades-long) I share with these folks, but the fact that many of us with different backgrounds and beliefs were able to have a civil chat about the fundamentals of our sentience means there is more to being religious or atheist without hating the other side. Perhaps it shows that, even through fundamental differences of the origins of the universe, people can come together to discuss their experiences through mutual respect and dignity. Perhaps, despite the cynicism that is so often found online, there is a guiding principle of understanding that we should all look to when approaching conversations with anyone who has opposing viewpoints.
The conversation changed from one of rejection to one of acceptance.
Perhaps there is hope for all of us yet.