Opinion: The embodiment of evil

POSTED: 06/27/14 2:16 AM

I sympathize with all those Americans who, just like me, happen to be non-religious. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 49 percent of Americans are unhappy when a direct family member marries someone who does not believe in God. It reminds me a bit of my Belgian mother- in- law, who was equally unhappy when her daughter came home with a Dutchman.

When I read the Pew research, memories flooded my brain from an experience on the Greek island of Crete, a place I once called home for seven years. I was driving into the mountains and I had just given a ride to a Cretan woman, whom I would later drop off in her village.

Our conversation was brief, to the point, and in Greek.

Her first question was whether I was Orthodox (like 98 percent of the Greeks). When I said I wasn’t, she asked if then maybe I was a Catholic. When she got the same reply, she looked at me somewhat suspiciously and asked with the slightest of tremors in her voice: “You are not a Jew, are you now?”

When I put her mind at ease – if that were called for at all – she seemed to be at a total loss. “Then what are you?” she finally breathed.

“I am I,” I responded.

“So you are not religious then?”

“No.”

“What a shame, you are such a nice guy,” was her conclusion.

Whether I am a nice guy or not is something I gladly leave to others to judge. The more important point here is that our conversation had something endearing. Apparently, this is not how stuff works in the Land of the Free.

Pew research center found that non-religious Americans (atheists and agnostics) are held in lower esteem than fellow-countrymen of a different race (only 11 percent has a problem with them), citizens who did not go to college (14 percent), and citizens who were born and raised abroad (7 percent). Reborn Christians are the least controversial, Pew found.

To put this into perspective: in spite of the strong political polarizing Americans have hardly any trouble with family members who marry someone from the other political camp. This makes only 15 percent of Democrats unhappy and 17 percent of Republicans.

Non-religious Americans do not only have a bad reputation among those who call themselves predominantly or consistently conservative. More progressive people have a similar attitude. Of the predominantly liberal Americans 41 percent says it makes them unhappy when a non-religious person joins the family; among consistent liberals that percentage is 24. Keep in mind that Americans understand liberal as being progressive, or leftwing.

This massive aversion is odd, because chances that daughters come home with a non-churchgoing finance who does not pray is significant. Self-declared atheists are rare – around 1 percent of the population – but earlier surveys by Pew Research showed that one-third of adult Americans considers itself non-religious.

Phone-surveys could distort the outcome of a survey, but Pew has a reputation as one of the most meticulous organizations in the country. Furthermore, the University of Minnesota came to a similar conclusion in an earlier survey.

The question is of course how Americans express their aversion of atheists. Would really half of American families get stressed if a non-religious person joins the family? Would fathers be unhappy and urge daughters, subtly or not, to find a more religious partner? Would mothers ask their daughters to enter into relations with those good boys with whom they went to the teen-club at their church a couple of years earlier?

It seems unlikely. Conservative American Christians are many, but the time that they called the shots politically and morally is over. If aversion of non-religious family members really occurred as frequently as the Pew-results suggest, then millions of Americans are struggling with this issue. And yet we never hear anything about this.

Most people in Western-European countries have a hard time to depict such massive fear of atheists. What is the source of that fear?

Some people point to fiery atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to moderate atheists like Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Society Dawkins is not doing any favors to atheism and other forms of non-belief. That is due to his anti-religious polemics (“religion is an institutionalized pretense to be stupid unpunished”). Maybe that is too much for many Americans. Would this explain the whole situation?

According to the University of Minnesota, the aversion towards religion runs much deeper. Believing in God equals virtue in the United States since the early beginnings, the researchers concluded in 2006.

In the journal American Sociological Review they described the results of their research. Many Americans consider a religious identity as an important part of being American. Hence, the popularity of political prayers and credos like God Bless America. In such a climate, an atheist is quickly seen as a traitor. For many the atheist is not just a dissident, he is the opposite of a good citizen.

The fear for the atheist is not very realistic, the researchers assume. They believe that respondents did not speak about real people when they answered the questions, but about the atheist as a cultural category. The fictitious atheist is in a way the embodiment of evil – someone who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and the cultural membership of the American society.

The researchers further say that the atheist is not the first social bogyman. In the course of our history, other groups have been the target of similar moral concerns. Catholics, Jews, communists – they have all been used to mark the moral contours of American culture and American citizenship. The researchers suspect that currently the atheist is playing that role.

The conclusion is that Americans are looking unconsciously for characters they can label as immoral; this way they establish their own moral limits. Whether that character is indeed immoral or if he exists at all – that is of lesser importance.

Reading all this, I cannot help thinking how quickly people tend to shove their fellow human beings into a box. You are religious or non-religious. You are handsome or ugly, fat or slim, smart or stupid and yes, black or white. In the end, it takes all kinds to make a world.

If only people acknowledged that this is true, and that it matters more who you are than what you are. Then we would be on our way to make our world a better place.

Hilbert Haar

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