Atheists Out of the Closet: Speaking Truth to Hypocritical Religion at the Democratic Convention

I find this life affirming. At the Democratic Convention yesterday, secular people acted up and got off script, shouting no to making inane references to “God” (whatever that ultimately means) in politics. Naturally, the Republicans pounced and demagogued the moment. But what a breath of fresh air, to hear so many people saying no.


And to reiterate: what was being said no to is the idea that “faith and belief in God is central to the American story.” These were people standing up, in other words, for reason, critical thinking, and science, and not accepting their marginalization in American life and the American story. What we heard from was, not the faith community, but the doubting community. There are lots of us, and we won’t be silenced.

And this brings me to Mitt Romney. In a speech to Republicans on December 6, 2007, he tried to drive secular people like me to America’s margins as the invisible and dehumanized others. David Brooks commented at the time:

Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. . . . In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

As for me, and as a member of the doubting community, I will not be treated as a second-class citizen in my own country. I am not here under the patronizing sufferance of religious believers, and I will not be closeted. In the civic square, and as a matter of law, I am the equal of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, pagans, and Christians living here, and I will speak my views concerning all matters of interest to me—including religious matters. And I am not going away.

By the way, Abraham Lincoln seems to have been a member of the doubting community as well. He was an agnostic. Did you know that? See here.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to Atheists Out of the Closet: Speaking Truth to Hypocritical Religion at the Democratic Convention

  1. Alan says:

    Santi, you’re letting your paranoia down too soon. The Republicans have gotten this one right. If you follow the evidence, you are here under the patronizing sufferance of religious believers. You may be equal as a matter of US law, but not equal in the eyes of Mother Nature. ‘Fully Modern Human’ is defined in part as having religion. Archaic humans (perhaps 2.5 million years of them) did not particularly demonstrate religion and nominally went extinct 30,000 years ago. Only believers, at least at a community level, have survived. Organized religion, as addressed by Romney but to include all religion endowed with priests and temples, was a prerequisite for civilization. No human city or state, in the history of the world, appears to have been able to develop or survive without organized religion. In this twenty first century, the data says that atheists do not have enough children to sustain the population – they simply are not demonstrated viable, past or present.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’ve already lost the argument by conceding that we are a nation of laws. And no IS (Mother Nature) makes an OUGHT. Mother Nature doesn’t see or speak, we do. And while it is true that religion has a long history, so does slavery and treating women as second class citizens, but that doesn’t mean that things don’t or can’t change dramatically from archaic forms of social organization.

      In the broad scheme of things, you are thinking far too narrowly. Human civilization is still in its infancy (basically less than 5 thousand years old). When human civilization is 70,000 years old, the forms of society that held in the first five thousand years will be akin to the first five years of a human life. Obviously, those first five years needn’t be the model for adulthood.

      This doesn’t mean that religion is not still important. It is. It has evolved a lot of successful strategies for building up community solidarity, and this is why it survives. It may well prove to be more robust than atheism as a cultural form. It has been winning for several thousand years (as you note). But it is also evolving rapidly. Who would have thought, for example, that Christianity could adapt as well as it generally has to capitalism and the Enlightenment? And even Islam in Turkey seems to make a match with capitalism.

      Religion’s most reactionary forms, however, are toxic (as in those attached to the politics of the Republican Party). As a cultural adaptation, Republican Christianism may depress, on balance, Republican success over the next 20 years, not help it. It may even lose Romney this election by entangling him in disputes with women voters.

      By contrast, the atheists in the Democratic Party, by pushing back against religion, may make greater space for the acceptance of science and empiricism in society (both healthy things). Scientists and the college educated represent an important group of the electorate as well, and have money to contribute to campaigns precisely because being oriented to science and secular education correlates with financial success.


      • concerned christian says:

        Santi, I stayed away from most of your pro Democrats propaganda, but on this one you misjudged what happened. The Democratic party was more worried about losing the Jewish votes than losing the God-fearing votes. So they put back two items God and Jerusalem as a capital of Israel. I believe they were using the old riders trick, assuming that no body will dare to oppose God publicly, but it did not work because the anti-Israeli’s vote almost carried the day. The anger was mainly by those who opposed Israel, there was 130 Muslims in attendance and the guy rising up and shouting was an Arab. I don’t think there are enough atheists out of the closet even in the Democratic party. BTW there are many conservative republican who agree with you, so I guess politics make strange bed follows.,%20But%20Antonio%20Villaraigosa%20Scandalously%20Announces%20their%20Approval.htm

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Your observation about Jerusalem certainly does change the possibility as to why people were so vocal. Interesting. I thought it was mostly atheists, but you are right that it may have been a mix or even mostly Muslims.

      • Alan says:

        Um, no. you don’t understand law and are evading logic. Say you win the lottery and cash the check. You are now rich because of the lottery. If it shuts down the next day, you are still rich because of the lottery. Protection under the law goes away when the law goes away. Logically, if A depends on B and B depends on C, then A depends on C. My argument is that civil society depends (as it always has) upon religion. That the law depends upon civil society I just took for granted you would understand.

        There were many statements in your original post. I took issue with one claim of ‘IS’: ‘I am not …’ you said, and I argued: ‘you are’. You note that in your reply, but go on with irrelevant retorts regarding ought and the future. I take no issue with fair treatment of women, children, dogs or labor (ought) or that in 70,000 years that life will be different (future). Irrelevant, however, to ‘is’.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Civil society, you claim, depends on religion. But there are plenty of civil societies in which religion is thoroughly marginalized (China, Japan, England, etc.). The US and Turkey are two developed countries that have large populations that profess religion, but I wouldn’t describe them as more civil than, say, contemporary Germany (which is quite secular), would you?

        And what could be more uncivil than sacrificing children to gods? Yet this was commonly done in ancient times in the name of religion. I take this argument from Lucretius, so it’s an old one. You don’t need gods to be civil, and belief in gods can lead people to do evil and be uncivil.

        As to dependency on the forbearance of the religious, I can’t accept such second-class citizenship. Sorry. Might and majorities don’t make right. It’s why we have the separation of church and state.


      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I do agree, by the way, with one “civil society” argument for religion. It makes the believer generally less prone to utopian schemes promoted by the secular state. One who is enamored of God is unlikely to be enamored of any mortal cult (such as those that were devoted to Stalin or Hitler). By putting faith in the transcendent–“In God We Trust”–one is less likely to give oneself over to secular utopian fanaticisms (such as Marxism or fascism).


      • Santi Tafarella says:

        One more argument in your favor. If the bankers who drove our economy into a ditch were more religious, we may have been spared the last couple of years of recession. The banking crisis, I believe, was in part driven by people who gave themselves utterly over to nihilism.

      • Alan says:

        Santi – you’re close. It does not appear to be about ‘civil behavior’, but civilization – functional, competitive state level societies. As for states in which religion has been marginalized, at first blush, they appear un-sustainable – birth rates too low and (China excepted) social spending too high. They are also far less competitive than they were 100 years ago when religious observance was high. Now you might hold that subjugating natives across the globe was somewhat less than ‘civil’, but it was competitive (her sun never set, old chap!). To make sense of sacrificing children (and etc. – India, after all, only gave up human sacrifice when their imperial British overlords outlawed it) is to look at the alternative. Before organized religion, human societies would self destruct at about three hundred individuals. In ‘War Before Civilization’, Lawrence H. Keeley pegs the nominal rate of violent death in traditional societies at an average of 30% and a large scale confrontation (a ‘war’) once a year. Per M. Wolpoff, ‘Race And Human Evolution’, forensic analysis of Neanderthal remains suggest a 40% homicide rate (very small sample size). In their natural state, humans play very poorly together. Those Canaanites may have sacrificed a lot of babies to do it, but they built competitive states and a modest empire over a thousand years. Without that they would have been driven to oblivion by the first state established in their neighborhood. Nice is relative – and Western society has been really raising the bar lately.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        If your argument is that religion bolsters and encourages large families and us-them thinking that makes for a vital warrior class and strong nation, it’s hard to disagree with you that religious societies are more fit (in the Darwinian sense) than ones strongly devoted to secularism. Secularists in France may well be birthed-out by Muslims over the next century.

        But what kind of religion matters. Saudi Arabia, for example, has large families and lots of religion, but its religious discouragement of women’s equality, secular education, and science makes it weak even with all of its oil. Contemporary people are attracted to secular cities and this is the future. To the extent that they bring their religion into the city, it is largely private (with a live and let live attitude toward other city dwellers).

        Likewise, it is secular California and New York, not Alabama and Mississippi, that seem to have the most vital and successful cultural forms in the United States, attracting jobs and immigrants.

        And rates of violence only began to come markedly down in the world AFTER the Enlightenment, not before (if Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” book is to be believed).

        Maybe the ideal cultural form–the one that makes for a thriving civilization–is a hybrid of tolerant and private religion combined with secularism in the urban public square. Demographers say that 90 percent of all human beings will live in cities by this century’s end. People living in close proximity, to get along, need a religiously neutral economic and secular space. It’s not the Israelites that are the right model for contemporary civilization, but the mobile and ever-trading Phoenicians.


      • Alan says:

        I’m sure the problems of ‘secularism’ are solvable, just not yet solved, and there may be many regime changes before the solution. ‘Nice’ being a significant part of the problem – anti-colonialism pushes the West to support otherwise failing regimes that Nature would keep replacing until one moved in or developed that worked as well as, I don’t know – Turkey?
        Pinker has a bit of the timing right, but is confusing cause with effect. Violence in Europe had been dropping from the Middle Ages, as people moved from the farms to the cities with a big drop due to the industrial revolution – which happened to coincide with the enlightenment. To me it looks like structure and hierarchy – we instinctively want structure and hierarchy. The industrial revolution gave us jobs with bosses and opportunity to advance without violence, (representative government likewise promotes advancement sans most violence) – normally fighting or bullying lead to advancement – this new structure allowed us to satisfy ambition without violence. As a consequence, we also (largely instinctively as well) felt less need to be told by some priest to turn the other cheek. The industrial revolution and elections gave us instinctive satisfaction, as a consequence, we could behave better independent of ‘virtual’ oversight and weekly reminders from the clergy. The big move from religion followed the next big drop in violence, which followed WWII: W. Europe and Japan dropped their armies for US protection, colonial ambitions were quashed and representative governments installed (where not previously adopted) at US insistence, wages went up in the new Marshal Plan factories. Nothing was left to fight for, just friendly business competition. Incredibly pacifying. Who needs to be reminded to behave when life is this good? The subtler effects of religion were not noticed by many, but the competitive posture and birthrate effects are adding up. We should not dismiss the positive socializing effects of public schools either.

        P.S: The Phoenicians (Greek for Canaanites, last stronghold Carthage) were among those sacrificing their children!

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        In the event you don’t know of it, I’ll recommend a book: “The Righteous Mind.” It’s the best book that I know of concerning some of the issues we’re discussing. I read it just this past month and it’s astonishingly good (better and broader, on balance, than Pinker’s also excellent book).

        As to the pagan Phoenicians, I’d be curious to hear your view of the following short essay at Esquire on America’s pagan ethos:

        As to hierarchy and structure, I don’t disagree with you that humans have modules in their brains attracted to these, but they also have brains designed or evolved with modules that resist these things as well. It depends on what part of the brain is being activated in what context. What’s “natural” therefore is not the best question since organisms have a variety of success strategies that they try in ever changing environments. Sharks make no use of cooperation; chimps do, but some chimps in the future may abandon cooperation. If it’s successful, they will leave offspring, and a new evolutionary pathway will be forged in history. You never know. This is why it’s dubious to say that religion is natural and successful and ought to continue (as in, “Give me that old time religion”). As global cultural forms quickly change, particular religious forms may prove in different environments to be ill-suited to them (Saudi Arabia being an obvious contemporary example).

        And, in case you haven’t noticed, fundamentalist religion (and even religion generally) is not especially adaptive to university campus cultures or large corporate cultures. If you’re a professor or corporate middle manager looking for a mate or promotion in these environments, you might not want to blurt out at a mixer that you oppose gay marriage or women’s rights. These are pretty important contemporary environments that are leading the world in the direction it is going and religion isn’t especially needed to function in them (and is, indeed, a hindrance). Richard Dawkins may not be loved in Oxford, Mississippi, but he is in Oxford, England. And that means he can find a lover there, and leave offspring.


      • Alan says:

        Santi – Haidt is on my list, thanks for the endorsement. I like many of his ideas, but he is resistant (but courteously so) to expanding his horizon. When you focus on privileged societies over a brief period, you get a distorted view of how things ‘normally’ work. Loved the essay, but it’s too much for just a comment.

        I’m well aware of the problems humans have with hierarchy. That is why it took us 2.5 million years to start acting ‘human’ (Courtesy of J. Diamond, ‘The Third Chimpanzee’). That, I believe, is why we have long been so violent, why we could not form stable communities of over about three hundred individuals without first inventing supernatural watchdogs complete with a social class of professional handlers who very often resorted to human sacrifice to hold our attention. Solving (better, at least than it had ever been solved before) that internal conflict with hierarchy, I argued, minimizes our problems with violence.

        Religion is not ‘natural’, but neither is behaving human. Religion was invented as a trick to get one of nature’s most vicious beasts to act ‘human’. Diamonds’ comment is that we only call them (Homo Habilis through Cro-Magnon) human in retrospect – knowing they would become us.

        There is no magic here, just people making decisions. Good, bad, wise and foolish. Nature allows that, then squashes you like a bug if you get it too wrong or you are simply unlucky. How is it dubious to call religion successful when all human communities lacking religion are long extinct? Those lacking organized religion face extinction in a few generations! This has nothing to do with my opinion, it’s natures vote alone.
        You are looking at anecdotes when the big picture is all around you.
        Saudi Arabia survives in its current state less by the graces of Mother Nature than by the largesse of US foreign policy. I don’t think Dawkins’ many lovers are leaving him offspring and he abandoned his wife and daughter while publicly humiliating them. To that behavior do you aspire? Do you believe that represents a sustainable future? Dawkins’, the Saudis’ or any other ‘local’ success often does not translate well to global practices. These are anecdotes and do not really represent viable choices at a larger scale.

        I never said that religion ought to continue, I simply said that there is no demonstrated human survival strategy which lacks religion. Draw from that what you like.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        If this were chess, you’ve probably cornered me with your admonition to pan out to the very large picture. I suppose I have to agree that no human society as a whole has gone without religion and lasted for long (the Soviet Union, for example, lasted only 70 years). And even the Soviets had a cult of Stalin and Lenin (as do the Chinese in Mao, etc.). When the French vanguard set about purging Catholicism from France and made temples to Reason, they failed utterly in moving the population as a whole.

        Obviously, the tropes of religion are highly effective at organizing groups. But it’s also interesting that elites in most societies are more unbelieving than the society at large. My view is that religion, despite its history of success, is in a slow but perceptible decline, and that the broken wheel squeaks loudest. As humans head into a future in which they’ll be manipulating their genomes, their intelligence, and their longevity, religion will look less and less sensible. Do you at least agree that a hundred years from now the world will be less religious than it is today? Or do you think there is an average set point, short of genetic tinkering, upon which humans simply must gravitate with regards to religion?


      • Alan says:

        Just speculating now, but I think 100 years too little for much dramatic change. Prosperity is the biggest factor. Socrates had free reign of the streets while Athens prospered, was exiled when Athens was broken. Mockery of the gods was common through the Pax Romana, religious purges once the barbarians hit. Poverty reigns arm in arm with religion across most of the world, I believe that is getting worse in the short term and our anti-colonial mentality will prevent us from making significant social interventions. As long as the West leads in technology, our population does not have to be as competitive to keep the Chinese, Turks or Indians from actually invading. The lazier we get though, the more ‘guest’ labor will flood our cities. The first thing I see religion to have provided (beyond reduced violence) was motivated labor. Traditional societies had no labor, no subservience to land or land owner, no tax. If we (the 1st. world) want to persist, we will need to rekindle motivation. Either a new reformation that makes religion more desirable to the over paid, over fed, or something like the Apollo Program that gets people excited once again. Germany will likely be a Turkish country with a German aristocracy in 100 years. Atheists to this point don’t have enough interest in the future to do the hard work necessary to raise a replacement rate family (or an army – maniacal exceptions, of course, but those are fortunately few). This will make them more and more dependant. Bad for long term survival, several to many will just give up, and try to merge with their neighbors.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        We’re converging on some key agreements. I think you are right about Europe’s demographic demise from Christianity to Islam thanks in part to atheist and secular pressures placed on Christianity since Darwin. Contemporary atheists like Dawkins are not oblivious to the irony.

        And I think you are right that very few atheists have birth rates akin to Muslims, Catholics, or Mormons, nor do they feed their children to the Moloch of war as readily as religious people seem to. And, unless there is a Mark Ridley-style spread of global prosperity (as in his book, The Rational Optimist), the mass of people will always fall back on religion, not wealth, as their solace.

        I guess my hope, given this context, is religion defanged of the worst aspects of fundamentalism and turned into an ecumenical tolerance of others. I’m thinking of Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God. Urbanism stands a good chance of producing at least this much. Most American fundamentalist Christians, after all, are pretty tolerant of others. And the Muslims that I know in the Los Angeles area are tolerant of those around them. One key to not letting this or that religious group obtain a monopoly over religion in a particular city or community (as, say, Muslims have done in Alexandria, Egypt to the distress of Christians there) is to have free trade and some sort of constitution guaranteeing civil rights and the separation of church and state.

        Thus any time secularists can insist on their dignity, it is an assertion of dignity of all minority groups, including minority religious groups.


      • Alan says:

        Any time we can prevent states from failing. Desperate people turn to desperate measures, atheiest or otherwise (as did Stalin & etc., as is Pakistan, etc.)

      • Alan says:

        I suppose my point should be that this is not at all an issue of religion but of desperation. Religion is no more than a red herring.

  2. Staffan says:

    “As for me, and as a member of the doubting community, I will not be treated as a second-class citizen in my own country. I am not here under the patronizing sufferance of religious believers, and I will not be closeted. In the civic square, and as a matter of law, I am the equal of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, pagans, and Christians living here, and I will speak my views concerning all matters of interest to me—including religious matters. And I am not going away.”

    I think you’re deluding yourself here. The majority set the tone, they write the law, and they interpret the constitution. You are just as marginalized as a Christian is here in Sweden. It all comes back to your idea that it’s possible to nullify tribalism with laws and principles.

    It’s also the matter of religious belief being a genetic trait. All those who were obsessed about practising religion their own way left for America. So it’s in your blood; you can’t escape it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree with you that conservatism and liberalism are temperamental predispositions that have a genetic component. But I also think that (thankfully) our tribal associations are multiple. If our sole roles in society were to be religiously affiliated or not, then I’m in the minority. But people affiliate in multiple ways and religion is only one form of affiliation. For example, if my free speech rights were being taken away, a Christian who is also a professor at a college or university might find his solidarity with me as a fellow teacher against the segment of his Christian affiliation that might want to take my free speech rights away.

      Majorities are fluid depending on the context and issue. That’s why, as an agnostic, I’m not in any way a second-class citizen, and needn’t think of myself as one.


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