Atheists are Your Friends and Neighbors — And Have Much to Offer the World: Bill van Druten

Originally appeared in the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, Feb. 3, 2007.

by Bill van Druten

Recent letters in the News Tribune have perpetuated misunderstandings about religion and atheism in public life.

The following should help:

Atheists are your friends and neighbors. One in ten Americans is atheistic. Religionists disbelieve all gods but one. Atheists find no evidence for any. As with people of faith, some atheists are good, some are bad. Atheists experience joy, morality, celebration, art, music, friendship and family, as do religious people. Secularists uphold our secular nation as planned by Jefferson, Madison and other Founding Fathers. They established for us a proud new nation free of religious domination and equally tolerant of religion and nonreligion.

The Constitution has no mention of gods and specifically insists that there be no religious test for public office. Congress under George Washington, asserted in an official treaty, that the United States “is in no wise founded on Christianity.” Being sworn into office on a holy book is not prescribed. Using a religious document can seem rude, suggesting a religious partiality inappropriate to public office.

And secularists are proud of the Minnesota Constitution. Article I, Section 16 states that no preference be given to any religious establishment, “nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship . . . nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies.” (The Duluth City Council’s support of the Kroc religious center would seem to me to be in violation.)

Freethinkers assert the right of everyone to think and decide for themselves based on reason and evidence. We deny the automatic validity of so-called holy books. We reject coercion of belief by imam, rabbi, priest or anyone.

Humanists are committed to separation of church and state, the right of privacy, reproductive freedom, and the fullest realization of the best that humanity is capable.

Many atheists are also freethinkers and secularists and humanists.

With freethought, people can recognize and retain what is valuable and reject the dangerous aspects of religion. Aspects like the demand of most religions that since only theirs is true, others must be eliminated; the insistence that religion must be spread to everyone; the degradation of nonbelievers; and the indoctrination of vulnerable children with religious fears and myths. Those ideas have been effective for the spread of religion, but some people recognize them as a formula for civil strife.

With freedom of thought you can evaluate each person or situation by reason and evidence. You can consider morality based on what causes pain or pleasure to sentient beings (including primates and other animals). In place of prayer pleading with a god, you can regard introspection and meditation as valuable and self-reflective thought, and you can use your mental energy to determine useful solutions.

Statements such as, “People like Stalin do horrid things because they are atheists,” won’t deceive you. We know atheists can do good and horrid things just as religionists can. However, atheists cannot do bad things because of atheist doctrine or sacred book instructions, as there aren’t any. Religions do have toxic doctrines that provoke jihad, Salem witch trials, inquisitions and biblical commands to kill homosexuals and infidels, and to stone to death nonvirgin brides.

My friends and neighbors ask why I am so outspoken. They say religion is the private business of others. But the religion of others intrudes on me and on you. Religion’s stubborn resistance to knowledge and science harms us all. We must all wait longer for a cure for diabetes because of interference with stem cell research. We must contribute tax money for religious warfare and the spread of religion under the guise of faith-based initiatives. We must endure Catholicism’s restriction of modern health care. African children must die because of the religious blockade of contraception.

Yet religious people want to do good things. Imagine what they might do if they didn’t have to dodge around the supposed infallibility of a pope or holy book. Imagine the relief of guilt and shame for young people who needn’t be taught that they are sinful by nature. Imagine the social support and wholesome gatherings of people of goodwill unfettered by devotion to Bronze-Age mythology. Imagine not having to pretend belief until you don’t remember that you were pretending.

Imagine not having to tell stories you cannot prove to trusting children about virgin births, resurrections, heavens and hells. Imagine children learning to test reality so as not to become victims of Islamic genital mutilation or pedophile priests. Imagine global cooperation in place of faith-based fears and warfare.

I believe Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Christians can save from their books and traditions what is genuine and let go of the rest.

That is my quest. That is why I am outspoken. Why shouldn’t wholesome religion start in Duluth and Superior?

Minnesota Foundation member Bill van Druten is a retired psychiatrist and founder of the Lake Superior Freethinkers.

Freedom From Religion Foundation