Considering that 20% of Americans have left religion behind, it may be surprising that only 2.4% of Americans identify as atheists. This low reported number might be attributable in part to the powerful cultural forces that impact on our lives and the perceived correctness of our opinions. Ours is a country where God is regularly invoked even in largely secular contexts. Atheism, characterized as such or not, seems somehow disloyal. So I have taken responses to pollsters' "God question" with a grain of salt, seen them as suspect.
How entrenched the assumption that God exists and plays a role in events, especially those branded Acts of God, can be seen in an exchange between CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Rebecca Vitsmun, a victim of the devastating Oklahoma tornado. Jessica Ravitz reprises it in her recent CNN Belief Blog:
“I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?” he (Blitzer) asked.
“Yeah,” she mumbled, smiling and looking down.
“Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” he continued.
“I, I, I,” the 30-year-old stay-at-home mom stammered before adding, “I’m actually an atheist.”
Notice that Ms. Vitsmun's first and reflexive response is "Yeah" and that the second, declaring she is an atheist, was so unusual as to go immediately viral.
While unsuccessively trying to reach Vitsmun, Ravitz writes that her friend Waylon Flinn "...shed some light on who she is. She and her husband, who Flinn said is also an atheist, aren’t the sorts who advertise their beliefs or throw them in people’s faces. When she agreed to go on camera, it wasn’t for that platform; she didn’t even see the Lord question coming."
The Vitsmun's don't talk much about or flaunt, their atheism. I'd guess they aren't active in any organized atheist group. In fact, what stands out here is that Rebecca volunteered anything about her beliefs. In a moment of refreshing candor, she effectively challenged conventional wisdom — God's involvement in the tornado and intervening on her (or anyone else's) behalf. Few people are willing to acknowledge that, especially in such a public way. That's too bad because very many of us, even among those religiously identified, don't believe God has anything to do with disasters or much else that comes our way, nor do we necessarily believe there is a God. Some atheists, declared or not, may wish there was such a being and even reflexively pay it lip service (including in responding to pollsters), but God plays absolutely no part in their lives or daily thinking.
Of course, billions of the world's people identify with a religion largely premised on God and participate in some or many of its rites. Relative to that, organized atheism, to the degree that it exists, is a total bust even among professed atheists. Why is that so? Let's start with the fact that many of our most visible public atheists are, or are seen, as provocateurs, often-angry provocateurs at that. They write books, pen articles, occasionally are heard on PBS and give talks or engage in public debate. Their books, in part because they are (often purposefully) provocative, sell — sometimes are best sellers. We may respect their intellect, agree with their bottom line conclusions but they aren't necessarily our natural role models. We don't share their anger or necessarily their often-dismissive animus toward religion. So, to some degree, the lack of a robust atheist movement — followers generally in the hundreds, even thousands, but not millions — may not reflect an ideological problem but a messenger problem.
This may be a factor but a much more profound and fundamental is that most of us, whether in managing our lives or say casting our votes, find it very hard to rally around a negative. Belief in a god — for God — is a positive and thus compelling, disbelief — against God — not so much. A god-belief fosters and promotes some degree of action. Gods demand attention, often lots of it, we think. Because God is seen as somehow connected with putting our world, not to mention us, in place, we are moved to express our appreciation, to give thanks. Moreover, gods are seen to have transcendent powers so we ask for their intervention or at the least seek their guidance and strength. God is there to protect, to invoke and to rally around, a flag to salute. Customs to observe and milestones to celebrate formalize and regularize the relationship. They serve to build community. In theory at least, God provides us with answers, even to the seemingly unanswerable questions. Above all, God testifies to the idea that there is something beyond ourselves and by implication perhaps there is more to us, an enduring/eternal more. You may place little value on any of these; see them as wishful thinking. Perhaps, but atheism offers none of them.
As suggested in my book Transcenders and in these posts, trying to prove the unprovable — namely that God exists or doesn't — is a hopeless exercise. For the vast majority of the religious a belief in God is all that is required and, most especially, wanted. God is a given. Some theologians may spend time trying to prove God's existence, but that kind of thing doesn't play or compute at the ground level. When Rebecca Vitsmun's fellow disaster victims and people like them thank God for saving them or their families or say that what hit them was "God's will and way", they are expressing a heartfelt belief that invites no further documentation. Their church, synagogue or mosque will reinforce their faith; their clergy will dutifully confirm that God is with them in their hour of need, that those who have perished are now protected under the divine wing.
Most of those who believe there is no such thing as God don't spend much if any of their time testing or trying to prove their belief. So Rebecca likely looks at the tornado that hit her home and community scientifically — the result of a collision of incompatible moist and dry with hot and cool weather systems. She is no less devastated by the tornado, no less grateful that her family escaped with their lives. She was saved by her own instincts and the smarts that drove her to take her baby and run for their lives; not being in its path saved her husband. Their home was destroyed not because it was God's will but that it couldn't take the action she did and, unlike her husband, it was in the tornado's path.
Like the Vitsmun's, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in the existence of a god but admit that my belief, however real and relevant it may be to my life, is no less or more an unsubstantiated belief than those who believe in God. Of course, as with theists, there are many consequence that follow from my belief. There was no Creator involved bringing about either our universe or us. There is no one to thank, to blame or from whom to seek intervention. The only reason that we're here is that our parents had sex at the right moment for conception, the only reason we do whatever we do is because we made a decision to act or had to respond to circumstance. This life is all we have, and when it ends it's over — no soul or eternity. Needless to say, there is much more that follows and impacts on our lives from being atheists. Atheism is not one of them.
That brings be to another reason that atheism (as a movement) is a bust relative to religion. Many of those who have left religion behind, have also abandoned the idea that beliefs have to be embodied in an organization. They have rejected the institution of "church" and the notion that they need some sort of group guidance on how to live their lives. For sure mysteries abound in our world, but we look to science for answers/solutions whether it be on matters of the weather that caught the Vitsmun's in a tornado or cures for cancer and AIDS. As to matters of behavior and morality or insights into what makes us tick, philosophers, psychologists and novelists, among others, serve us well. What does atheism bring to the table that we don't already have, and have in abundance? Nothing really.
In fact, if atheism makes any claim on being able to guide us, let's say on matters of morality, then it claims a credential that is no more valid or viable than that of religion. This is not to put down religion or to discount its meaning/relevance to the vast majority of our fellow humans, but to say that atheism adds no value to the atheist, nothing she doesn't have or can't acquire on her own. Secular humanists have organized themselves around faux churches, offering tepid copies of religious programming but without God. Perhaps some people need that or have succumbed to a societal message of "organize" because "that's the way we do things around here". Perhaps they want/need a sense of likeminded community, what my friend Doug Smith calls "thick-we's". For me, being an atheist is enough especially when such great life-teaching resources are at hand and always accessible. Atheism isn't needed and doesn't cut it.