“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” – Constitution of the United States of America, 1st Amendment.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – The Pledge of Allegiance.
The United States of America defines itself as the bastion of liberty. A place where anyone can be someone and achieve ‘The American Dream’ – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a country that boasts of its tolerance and protection of individual freedoms and does little to hide its hatred of totalitarian systems of government. During the Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the enemy of individual liberty; in the 1990’s and early 2000’s it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government. Since 9/11, it has been radical Islamic extremism, whether it is supported by Iran, Al-Qaeda or Daesh (although not the USA’s long-term ally, Saudi Arabia). The USA then is not afraid to take the moral high ground to defend liberty, human rights, and importantly, freedom of belief.
The Constitution of the United States was ratified on the 21st June 1788. It is arguably the most influential constitution written with the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, an example of the principles of individual liberty and freedom.
So, when we travel to the ‘Utopian States of America’, do we see a land flowing with milk and honey? Can Americans really be free to believe what they want, whether it is Atheism or “one Nation under God”?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Some fundamentalists believe that they are under severe persecution, that the USA is under attack from within by Secularists, and that there is a ‘civil war’ between those who support evolution and those who are creationists, and so on and so forth. I could go on but I shall refrain from this; I am only interested in the facts, and the facts are clear: 75.6% of Americans believe in God or a divine spirit; the majority of representatives and congressmen and women are Christian, while every President since Eisenhower has attended the National Prayer Breakfast. Christianity is the most dominant religious group in the USA, while America boasts the largest number of Jews outside Israel. In fact, with the exception of Muslims, most religious groups are seen pretty favourably and face few, if any, restrictions on their daily lives.
Everybody except Atheists.
Society in America is not particularly tolerant of atheism. In one study, which asked Americans which group they believed fitted in most with their values of American society, atheists were identified as the one least likely to fit in with American identity. In a Pew Research Study, 53% of Americans were less likely to vote for an atheist President, compared to one who had an extramarital affair (35%), or one who was gay or lesbian (27%). Another Pew Research Study asked participants to place how they felt about a particular religious group on a scale from 0 (Negatively) to 100 (Favourably). Atheists were placed as the second-least liked group in American society (41), after Muslims (40). As of 2015, there is one self-described atheist in Congress and with the exception of two presidents (Thomas Jefferson & Abraham Lincoln), the rest have been members of a church or have described themselves as Christian.
Atheists are not particularly liked, but surely they can go about their lives without harassment? Surely, in the land of the free, they do not have to worry about ‘coming out’ to friends and family?
Nicole Smalkowski and her family moved to Oklahoma in 2007. As an Atheist, she did not say the Lord’s Prayer before her team’s basketball match. When she revealed to her peers that she was an atheist, the relationship changed dramatically. She was called a devil worshipper and told to get out of the county. Eventually the abuse became too much and fearing for her safety, her father decided to home-school her and her sisters.
Damon Fowler was graduating in 2011. An atheist, he protested against schools having prayers at the graduation ceremony. This led to him being bullied and harassed by his peers and teachers. When he returned from his graduation ceremony, he found his belongings outside his home – he had been kicked out by his parents. He left home to live with his sister in Dallas, Texas.
Jessica Alquist complained to her school about a Christian banner hanging in the school gym. When news of this became public, she was faced with death threats and had to be escorted to school by police for her own safety.
During his inauguration in 2011, Alabama Republican Governor Robert J. Bentley claimed that “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother”.
These are not isolated incidents; they are repeated across the country. For a nation which prides itself on individual liberty, to deny the existence of a supreme being is to deny the essence of what it is to be an American. Even today, several states have unenforceable laws which prohibit atheists from running for public office. This did not stop some groups challenging (unsuccessfully) the election of Cecil Bothwell in Asheville, North Carolina, on the basis that he was unqualified to govern because of his views on the existence of God.
Atheism in America remains a touchy and controversial subject. How America will accommodate the radical fundamentalists and the desire of atheists for a secular America will continue to play out over the coming years and decades. By increasing awareness and understanding of what atheists believe, Americans will gain a better understanding of their friends, families, and neighbours, and see them not as outsiders seeking to destroy the country, but as human beings and fellow Americans.