Despite progress on other fronts, stigma remains against atheists

Eric Sundin

I am an atheist. Admittedly, I don’t know exactly what that means. Depending on who you talk to, it could mean a lot of things. To some, it means that I am amoral at best and I live a life of ultimate insignificance. In a 2012 appearance on “The Colbert Report,” former Chair of the Texas State Board of Education Don McLeroy, on the subject of atheists, placed a rock on a table and said, “Nothing is what a sleeping rock dreams of.” So, if you ask McLeroy, maybe I, as an atheist, share the philosophy and worldview of a rock. 

Fortunately for me, I am not a rock. And, contrary to what I hope is not a popular opinion, I do not believe in “nothing.” In fact, I believe in many things: I believe in the United States Constitution; I believe if you give a person a chance, they can surprise you in some truly extraordinary ways; I believe the Dallas Cowboys will continue to disappoint me so long as Jerry Jones operates as general manager — that is, until I have evidence to the contrary. I also believe in treating your neighbor as you would have them treat you. I believe murder is wrong. I believe in being charitable and giving back to those who have not been as fortunate as I have been. I believe that what I believe is not wholly dissimilar to the beliefs of anyone else in our country or state. 

And yet that different term, “atheism,” has been synonymous with notions of deviance, anarchy and malice, connotations that may very well be applicable to some atheists (not to mention some religiously oriented people), but not to most. In this day and age, atheists, agnostics and those who don’t affiliate themselves with a religion come in all shapes and sizes — the agnostic grocer at HEB, your religiously unaffiliated dentist, the atheist veteran who served two tours in Iraq — but there is an apparent stigma against these people that they are somehow less fit to be productive members of a community than those who are “normal” and “religious.” 

According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, “religiously unaffiliated” is the largest-growing “religious belief” in the country, yet being an atheist is one of the most detrimental qualities one could possess in seeking elected office, even more detrimental than being involved in an extramarital affair. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the United States as a whole is wary of, if not hostile toward, atheists. 

“I do think that there is a stigma against nontheists, especially those of us that use the label atheist,” said Rick Korzekwa, president of Texas Secular Humanists, in an email. “It is not hard to find people who say, either implicitly or explicitly, that atheists are immoral or untrustworthy. I’ve had conversations with strangers in which they brought up religion, found out I don’t believe in God, and their tone and approach toward me changed entirely.”

There was once a period of American history when being an atheist was essentially synonymous with being a Communist. In fact, it was during the era of the Red Scare, in 1956 to be precise, that the U.S. changed its official motto from “E Pluribus Unum” — meaning, “from many, one” — to “In God We Trust.” Today, it seems that much of that sentiment against atheism is still intact, which is truly sad because I, along with many others, am living proof that one can simultaneously be proud to be an American and also proud to be an atheist. 

Yet politicians like McLeroy — not to mention the fact that some states have laws on the books disallowing people from holding public office without believing in a “supreme being” — make it hard for many atheists, especially in Texas, to stay engaged with the political process, which only perpetuates the belief that atheists don’t care about anything. Whether we like it or not, we live in a constantly changing Texas within a constantly changing America, and the sooner we accept and tolerate others for their differences, the sooner we will find how our differences only make us stronger. E Pluribus Unum.

Sundin is an English and radio-television-film senior from San Antonio. Follow him on Twitter @ericwsundin.