Unbelief: An Ignored Perspective by Patricia Smith King, Ph.D. (August 1994)

“Unbelief, . . . is primarily the rejection of belief in miracles and divine revelation, in life after death, and in any supernatural beings–gods, devils, [etc.].”[1] It should be noted before proceeding further, that most unbelievers disbelieve on moral grounds–they reject gods and doctrines that fall short of their human perceptions. While there is no way to prove that religious beliefs are false (nor, for that matter, true), there is plenty of evidence that the morality of believers, if they are compliant, can be very cruel and inhumane. Religion has blessed war and slavery, encouraged the subjugation of women, favored ignorance and intellectual stasis, and it continues these traits right down into the present (see, e.g., Serbia; pro-life killings of abortion workers; Oklahoma-bombing-like militia groups; etc.).

Unbelief was a capital crime throughout the Western world until relatively recently. This was in accord with the teachings of Christian theologians and some philosophers of old. St. Thomas Aquinas, the leading philosopher of the Catholic church, recommended that unbelievers be killed, writing, “If forgers and malefactors are put to death by the secular power, there is much more reason for excommunicating and even putting to death one convicted of heresy.”[2] “If, he reasoned, counterfeiters are properly punished by death, then unbelievers who commit the far more serious crime of ‘corrupting the faith’ and thus endangering the soul’s eternal well-being, deserve to be [killed].”[3] Throughout history real or alleged unbelievers were burnt at the stake. Such actions also occurred in the American colonies during the period of the Salem Witch Trials until the Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts, William Phips, put an end to them in 1692. Governor Phips did so by “issu[ing] an edict declaring that spectral evidence would no longer be admissible in the courts of the colony. The effect of this edict was to require that evidence admitted in court be observable by the ordinary senses, measurable and hence replicable.”[4] This terminated the Salem Witch Trial since all of the convictions were based on such evidence as “voices from god or spectres that included angels and devils.”[5]

John Locke, despite being an early pioneer of religious toleration, “insisted that toleration should not be extended to unbelievers on the ground that, since they do not fear divine retribution for their transgressions, they cannot be expected to abide by ‘promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society.'”[6] Locke clearly implied that unbelievers should not be granted civil rights equal to those of believers.

Such reasoning underlaid the original rules of evidence concluding unbelievers incapable of bearing witness or acting as jurors. Under the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, no witness could testify who “did not believe that there is a God who rewards truth and avenges falsehood.”[7] The rule was changed in 1906 when Congress declared that the competency of a witness to testify should be determined by the laws of the state.[8] Most states now allow the alternative godless “affirmation,” and only the states of Arkansas[9], Maryland[10], New Hampshire[11], South Carolina[12], Idaho,[13] and Texas[14] currently continue the common law exclusion of unbelievers as competent to testify (Maine repealed its bar in 1977).[15] Some of these states, Arkansas[16], South Carolina[17], Tennessee[18] and Texas[19], additionally go so far as to bar unbelievers from holding public office.

In 1988, an atheist in South Carolina, Herb Silverman, tried to challenge the state’s prohibition and ran for governor.[20] Unfortunately, he never was able to challenge its constitutionality because the Election Commission decided not to challenge his eligibility unless he actually won, saying they would not disqualify him immediately because he might become a believer during the campaign,[21]–a clearly contrived notion, of course. By doing so, and with the knowledge that Silverman had no chance of winning, the Commission successfully deflected the legal challenge.

Today, unbelievers generally need not fear either death or imprisonment because of their unbelief (although I recently heard of a man who spent time in jail for contempt in Idaho because he would not swear on a bible when called for jury duty). In America, however, where Christian extremists wield more influence than in other Western countries, presidential candidates find it necessary to vie with one another in avowals of their piety, but here too unbelievers are no longer persecuted–at least not by law.[22] Former President Reagan, who repeatedly denounced the evil influence of “secular humanism,” defended himself against the charge of intolerance by remarking that he had “respected every other religion–they are free to practice in our country.”[23] As Paul Edwards remarked, “[i]t will no doubt come as a surprise to American citizens who are not Christians that the United States is not also their country, and they will undoubtedly be grateful that the Christians who own America are so generous as to allow them to live and openly express their views.”[24]

The piety requirement in American politics encourages a great deal of discrimination and the suppression of ideas in our society. This is particularly true of textbooks used in schools. For example, the average American learns in courses on American history that Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, which rallied support for the cause of revolution, but he or she is not taught a word about The Age of Reason, Paine’s powerful attack on the Bible, or the persecutions to which he was subjected as a result of his criticisms of Christianity.[25] Paine wrote, “The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.”[26] Americans know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and that he served as president for two terms, but they do not know that Jefferson was a deist who made no bones about his rejection of Christianity and that he very nearly lost the election of 1800 because of the opposition of Christian bigots who denounced him as a champion of “atheism and immorality.”[27] Jefferson wrote, for example, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”[28]

A similar bias pervades almost all the most widely used general reference works as well. Biographical articles dealing with philosophers, scientists, novelists, and social reformers who were outspoken opponents of religion almost invariably omit any mention of this fact.[29] Here are some examples of such suppressed thoughts of famous unbelievers:

Thomas Jefferson:

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded fear . . . Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its’ consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its’ exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”[30]

Albert Einstein:

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”[31]

H. L. Mencken:

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration–courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”[32]

Thomas Alva Edison:

“So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake . . . Religion is all bunk.”[33]

Clarence Darrow:

“The origin of the absurd idea of immortal life is easy to discover; it is kept alive by hope and fear, by childish faith, and by cowardice.”[35]

Mark Twain:

“There is no other life; life itself is only a vision and a dream for nothing exists but space and you. If there was an all-powerful God, he would have made all good, and no bad.”[36]

It is interesting to note that Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens, suppressed the publication of certain of his works for more than twenty years after his death because she feared that they gave a distorted view of Twain’s image.[37] Letters from the Earthis an uncensored collection of short satirical pieces in which Twain, among other things, demonstrates the preposterousness of some of man’s revered religious beliefs. How popular would Twain be today, I wonder, if most people knew how openly critical of religion he was?

Textbooks commonly emphasize the perspectives of the religious while ignoring the perspectives of unbelievers. For example, accounts of the discovery of america and the reasons for the American Revolution are ripe with accounts of “divine inspirations,” while refusing to credit great accomplishments to the individual’s power as a human being. The press is also remarkably one-sided when reporting accounts of the survival of disasters, for example, relating accounts of people who attribute their survival to god, while neglecting to attribute their god also, in all fairness, with the destruction in the first place. And the press report accounts of divine inspiration with unrelenting regularity and subjectivity. For example, a recent issue of Runner’s World reported the following quote of a runner who wanted to increase his speed:

“The question for me was: Does God want me to keep trying to run? And his answer was He did. He guided me to keep the faith through all those years because the answer–in my case, Prozac–would be coming.”[38]

Evidently this god is smarter than I thought, for though he did not himself know the answer, he knew where to get it–from the atheistic scientists. The reporter, of course, neglected to point out this obvious conclusion.

The destructive impact of religious belief on theories in astronomy, biology, and psychology is generally ignored or minimized. It has most certainly thwarted progress in the field of evolutionary biology in the past and continues to today. For example, in a first amendment seminar I took recently, we were directed during a discussion of the teaching of creationism in public school science classes, to consider “philosophies” of science–in other words, the appropriateness of teaching science in a science class. The question before the class should have been one of the appropriateness of teaching religion in a science class. It is most certainly always appropriate to teach science in a science class–especially the theory of evolution which has received such overwhelming consensus among scientists of all disciplines. “Darwin” should not be on trial in such discussions, “creationism” should.

Such omissions and distortions of unbelief in educational materials might be understandable in light of the blasphemy laws adopted by many states–despite the fact that one cannot be convicted of a victimless crime!

Blasphemy has been defined as “maliciously reviling God or religion,”[39]although the word “religion,” as you will see by reading the footnotes which follow, is used to connote only the Christian religion (see particularly, the Oklahoma definition which is not only Christian, but more specifically trinitarian). A good example of the Christian bias in the application of blasphemy laws is the indictment in Kentucky of C.M. Moore, a jew, for printing in a newspaper the following:

“When I say that Jesus Christ was a man exactly like I am, and had a human father and mother like I had, some of the pious call it blasphemy. When they say that Jesus Christ was born as the result of a sort of Breckinridge-Pollard hyphenation between God and a Jewish woman, I call it blasphemy, so you see there is a stand-off.”[40]

Fortunately, the indictment was dismissed and the Judge eloquently described how such blasphemy laws violate the establishment clause:

“Blasphemy is a crime growing from the same parent stem as apostasy and heresy. It is one of a class of offenses designed for the same general purpose, the fostering and protecting of a religion accepted by the state as the true religion, whose precepts and tenets it was thought all good subjects should observe. In the code of laws of a country enjoying absolute religious freedom there is no place for the common law crime of blasphemy.” [emphasis added][41]

Yet, despite the fact that blasphemy laws are rarely prosecuted these days, they have left a legacy of great harm over the years by suppressing the freedom of conscience and expression in America.

Fortunately, several states repealed their blasphemy laws in the seventies[42] though many others, including Colorado[43], Louisiana[44], Maryland[45], Massachusetts[46], Michigan[47], Oklahoma[48], and Rhode Island[49], retain such statutes complete with penalties.

The “market place of ideas” argument for allowing free and unrestricted speech has been historically outweighed in the area of blasphemy by the invalid argument that such speech threatens the peace. Any speech which threatens the peace and incites people to harm others is not constitutionally protected, so why carve out a special case for blasphemy? It would seem to not only violate the right of free speech but also the right of free exercise of religion. The reviling of religious tenets of a faith “has always been employed by the adherents of competing faiths. . . . [T]he authors of the King James version of the Holy Bible found it necessary to refer to the Pope in the preface to their work as ‘that man of Sin’–a remark that ever since has made the King James Bible abhorrent to members of the Roman Catholic Church. Satire and ridicule are often found in religious argument. A vital part of one’s freedom to practice one’s religion is the freedom to combat any religious error, and, indeed, to reveal opposing religious views as ridiculous and absurd.”[50]

Why then have blasphemy laws at all? Such laws would have thwarted completely the contributions of Jefferson, Edison, Lincoln, Einstein, Paine and so many other great thinkers of our country, just because they were critical of religion. As it is, those laws have at least stifled such freethought in our nation. The climate of fear lest open criticism of religion result in ostracism or worse, remains and actually seems to be building in America.

Historically, unbelief (including any religion that is different–especially Judaism) has been satanized by the culture. Once you argue that an “other” is an instrument of a devil, you can justify all sorts of crimes against your fellow human beings. This, of course, occurred in Nazi Germany when Hitler justified the killing of the jews as the “Lord’s work.” In Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, he said, “Therefore, I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s Work.” Hitler said it again at a Nazi Christmas celebration in 1926, “Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews . . . The work that Christ started but could not finish, I–Adolf Hitler–will conclude.”

So, perhaps you can understand my fear when, after filing a lawsuit against the Village of Waunakee, WI,[51] I began receiving obscene and threatening phone calls like this one by an old man who asked very slowly and with great emphasis, “Is this Patricia Satan King?” and then laughed threateningly. And when people wrote letters to the editor in the local paper saying things like, “Let’s win this one for Jesus.” This kind of treatment of unbelievers at the hands of religionists is not unusual.[52]

Though my husband and I were essentially run out of town over this matter, we fared much better than most plaintiffs who dare to boldly question a town’s establishment of religion by bringing a first amendment challenge. A couple in Little Axe, OK, a bedroom community of Oklahoma City, brought a federal lawsuit challenging the public school’s practice of reading an opening prayer over the PA system every morning. Many of the teachers would also make the children say grace at lunch–one teacher even taking a yardstick and hitting students who refused to bow their heads. When the couple discovered that there were also teacher-led prayer meetings which the students had a choice to attend or wait outside 30-40 minutes in the cold, and could not even use the restroom, they complained to the teachers who told them that, “god walks the halls of Little Axe” and “god told her to save the children at Little Axe.” After getting no where with the school officials they filed a lawsuit in federal court to

  1. have the prayer club declared unconstitutional;
  2. to have the school cease distribution of Gideon bibles; and
  3. to declare unconstitutional Oklahoma’s prayer school law which states a teacher “shall” be permitted to engage in voluntary prayer with students.[53]

They were put through great hardship by the people of Little Axe, in brief, they were called by the school to come pick up their children because of a bomb threat at the school–when they arrived they found a large group of teachers and school workers gathered outside, their car was surrounded and the mother was forcibly pulled from the car through the passenger side window banging her head repeatedly against the door frame (they only stopped when the principal declared that she “had had enough.” By that time the mother had a dislocated shoulder, concussion, and hair loss from the back of her head); and their house was burned down after threats that that was their way to “deal with atheists” (the Little Axe volunteer fire department came but for some reason “forgot to put water in their pumper trucks”–they lost everything).[54]Joanne Bell was of course also called the “devil incarnate” and received threatening letters and phone calls from the good christians of the town.

Worse still, because of the imprimatur of state approval, is the fact that Rev. Richard C. Halverson, Chaplain to the US Senate wrote in his 1981 book, The Gospel for the Whole of Life, “If our nation dies, it will be due to the respectable people in our country who on the basis of their self-righteousness will not come to Jesus Christ and be saved.”[55] It provides a good excuse for the “theistic-patriots” to come to their nation’s aid and get rid of the rest of us, doesn’t it? The real tragedy, is that the public actually pays Halverson to say these things–“one nation indivisible” has become “one nation under God divisible.” This sort of thing certainly supports James Madison’s arguments against spending tax-dollars for the hiring of US Chaplains. He said, “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?

In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the US forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. . . .

“Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgiving & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.”[56]

In reading the writings of the great unbelievers and observing the kinds of religiously motivated behavior described above, it is hard not to conclude that all the metaphysical claims of traditional religions are untenable–and I will say so despite the threat to my freedom of speech by blasphemy laws. Although here and there religious institutions may have done some good, for the most part they have caused and continue to cause a great deal of harm. In the short run, the dislocations and the sense of loss that accompany the decline of religious belief is likely to be disorienting and cause distress. In the long run, however, the decline of religion will be of great benefit to society. Better to recognize our common humanity than to continue emphasizing religion. As the Wisconsin Supreme Court said in Weiss: [57]:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter into our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. . . . Those who made our constitution saw this, and used the most apt and comprehensive language in it to prevent such a catastrophe.”

Unbelief is a perspective generally ignored by legal scholars as they examine the treatment of unbelievers under the religion clauses of the first amendment to the Constitution. Yet unbelief is not only a valid “philosophy” if you will, it is also valid expression of a free conscience. And freedom of conscience is at the core of our first amendment civil liberties. Why then are unbelievers discriminated against in our society, including its courts? In a country founded on the principle of individual freedom theoretically, why does it imprison our minds in practice? As Robert Greene Ingersoll said:

“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural–that all ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world–not even in infinite space. I was free . . . .

“And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain. . . . And I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.”

No more inspiring words have I ever read, nor words which capture my own feeling of freedom when I, like Ingersoll, finally rejected religion. Yet, despite the valuable contributions of freethinkers to our society, despite the prominence of unbelief among even our founding fathers, and despite the kind lives led by most, unbelievers are treated by the society at large and the courts like second class citizens at best, and like subversives to be squashed at worst.

Despite the bad treatment of unbelievers at the hands of religionists, I support entirely the freedom of individuals to believe in myth and superstition as real, if they so choose. I only wish that there was equal fervor on their part to respect my right of unbelief–which I hope this essay has shown to be, at the least, an equivalently worthy “philosophy” and endeavor. I have personally seen all too clearly, that government must not be allowed to condone discriminatory treatment of unbelievers as they continue to do today in spite of, and sometimes in the name of, the religion clauses of the First Amendment. It serves only to encourage hostile acts by religionists against unbelievers. This cannot be tolerated in a pluralistic society.

Dr. Patricia King, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, comes from upstate New York where she graduated from Sienna College with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. She taught high-school classes for three years and served in the Peace Corps in Zaire before earning her Master of Science and Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Georgia. She recently completed a law degree at the University of Wisconsin and currently works as an environmental policy specialist on Great Lakes contaminated sediments issues. She and her husband, Joseph King, were plaintiffs in a lawsuit supported by the Freedom From Religion Foundation seeking removal of a creche from a public park in Waunakee, Wisconsin.

This article originally was written for a law seminar.

Freedom From Religion Foundation