It’s a small and entirely symbolic gesture, but each week for the past few years I’ve participated in A-Week, a cause which consists of changing one’s Facebook profile photo to support the movement and show that one is an atheist.
Why bother? Atheists are more discriminated against in the U.S. than any other group. First, a personal anecdote. In 2009, I served in a Mississippi high school as an intern working to help integrate technology in the curriculum. On my first day at the school, I was walking around introducing myself to the faculty. One of the teachers asked me what I had majored in at college. I simply answered, “philosophy” – this was our only interaction and the only thing he knew about me. He then looks me in the eyes and tells me, “Oh, you’re one of them atheists. We hang people like that around here.” Mind you, I had said absolutely nothing about my religious preferences.
And there’s more. Polls show Americans would be less likely to support an atheist as president (45% support) than “black (94 percent), Jewish (92 percent), women (88 percent), Hispanic (87 percent), Mormon (72 percent) or homosexual (55 percent).” Nearly 40% report that atheists agree with their vision of American society “not at all”, and almost half of those surveyed would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. (Stats from NPR story.)
The only other grouping of individuals that ranks as low as atheists when it comes to trust? Rapists.
“According to researchers Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan, the driving factor behind anti-atheist prejudice is distrust. Many people see religion as the foundation for morality, with supernatural surveillance and the promise (or threat) of an afterlife as crucial mechanisms for keeping people in line. Without belief in God, the reasoning goes, what’s to keep someone from lying, stealing, cheating and general chicanery?” (NPR, again.)
As an atheist, this is still shocking to me, and disheartening.
I do my best to live a good life for myself and for others. I care about making my life the best it can be, and when possible and reasonable, reaching out to others and making a difference in their lives. I believe we only have this life, and it’s therefore extremely important to me to make this world at this time as good as it can possibly be. I volunteer my time and money as often as I can. I have worked for a non-profit and even started my own with the hope of making things better. Why do any of that without the promise or threat of an afterlife?
Because I care about other people.
I feel inherently connected to others and the world, and I appreciate that they have rich inner lives just like me. I understand injustice, struggle, and pain and do what I can to minimize it. Because I value my own life, I value other life, and treat it with as much dignity and respect as possible. Sometimes in my life, I have fallen short, as all humans do. But I strive to be the best I can.
I would go so far as to say that if the only reason a person is not lying, stealing, and cheating is because they fear punishment, they are not actually morally praiseworthy at all – and that would be supported by many major ethical theories such as deontology and virtue ethics.
So each year, I take a week to proclaim loudly that I am an atheist. And I strive to be good without Gods.
For more information on A Week, check out the website here: http://www.aweek.biz/