Why Are Americans Still Uncomfortable with Atheism?

Oct 22, 2018

By Casey Cep

Daniel Seeger was twenty-one when he wrote to his local draft board to say, “I have concluded that war, from the practical standpoint, is futile and self-defeating, and from the more important moral standpoint, it is unethical.” Some time later, he received the United States Selective Service System’s Form 150, asking him to detail his objections to military service. It took him a few days to reply, because he had no answer for the form’s first question: “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?”

Unsatisfied with the two available options—“Yes” and “No”—Seeger finally decided to draw and check a third box: “See attached pages.” There were eight of those pages, and in them he described reading Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, all of whom “evolved comprehensive ethical systems of intellectual and moral integrity without belief in God,” and concluded that “the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven, and the essence of His nature cannot be determined.” For good measure, Seeger also used scare quotes and strike-throughs to doctor the printed statement he was required to sign, so that it read, “I am, by reason of my ‘religious’ <strikethrough>training and</strikethrough> belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”

By the time Seeger submitted his form, in the late nineteen-fifties, thousands of conscientious objectors in the U.S. had refused to fight in the two World Wars. Those who belonged to pacifist religious traditions, such as Mennonites and Quakers, were sent to war as noncombatants or to work as farmers or firefighters on the home front through the Civilian Public Service; eventually, so were those who could prove their own independent, religiously motivated pacifism. Those who could not were sent to prison or to labor camps. But while Selective Service laws had been revised again and again to clarify the criteria for conscientious objection, they still did not account for young men who, like Seeger, refused to say that their opposition to war came from belief in a Supreme Being.

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5 comments on “Why Are Americans Still Uncomfortable with Atheism?

  • Why Are Americans Still Uncomfortable with Atheism?

    Many are brought up to uncritically accept religious teachings, and have no concept of other ways of thinking!

    It is only when science intrudes into their world with objective testing, that delusions are broken for some and denial is triggered in others!


    (Reuters) – The Museum of the Bible in Washington on Monday said five of its artifacts thought to be part of the Dead Sea Scrolls were fake and would not be displayed anymore.

    German-based researchers tested the fragments and found five “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed,” the museum said in a statement.

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  • I am pissed off with John Gray. He is a grump and glass half empty kind of guy and prone to the most egregious straw arguments.

    Unlike the linguist—and new atheist—Steven Pinker, Gray regards the idea that the world is getting better as self-evidently silly. “The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics,”

    is self evidently false. He too often decries our very real achievements of growing the franchise of the suffering. He fails to account for our need to adapt to ever greater calls on our moral attributes. More people than ever can afford to be moral.

    BUT he is right in one regard, that the blunt attack on religiosity per se misses its real target or rather its needful target. We should be tackling how morality is best done.

    America’s problem is not religion per se but its belief that morality can only be rules based. It is dementedly justice driven. It feels it would die if people weren’t appropriately obedient. This is a country with the resources to achieve pretty much anything it could set its mind to, but that very capacity is scary and given its size and the still ugly scars of a civil war, the urgent need for cohesion, I suspect, lurks in every American heart.

    Gray’s “broad church” definition of atheism as “anyone with no use for a divine mind that has fashioned the world”, better nails the attribute in question, a creator’s mind, with its implicit requirements, its rules, its obligations.

    America’s written constitution may be part of its downfall. It is a rock that folks cling to despite its everyday need of amendment, additions here deletions there. I used to be jealous of a written constitution. Now I am increasingly horrified by the idea. It is a bulwark of religious thinking.

    Justice is always got at the cost of Fairness, and the USA has got the balance wrong.

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  • Perhaps the author of the New Yorker piece misread Grays’ book; if she didn’t, I don’t know what to make of statements like the following:

    …He argues, for instance, that secular humanism is really monotheism in disguise, where humankind is God and salvation can be achieved through our own efforts rather than through divine intervention…

    I don’t know of any secular humanist who believes humankind to be a supernatural entity…

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  • Cantaz.

    Its quite likely that Gray wrote it that way. He likes to be an irritant. It suits his position to be fairly un-nuanced about new atheism and humanism and better justify the existence of his book.

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