Atheism does not define amorality
Religion, particularly the Christian religion, has been a long-standing American tradition. Christianity — along with apple pie, democracy, being white, baseball, and freedom — have for a long time been the faces of America as depicted in the minds of most politicians and demagogues. In recent decades, Judaism, and in some cases, Islam, have garnered the same respect among fellow believers in an Abrahamic God. Hatred and bigotry still do exist towards these groups, but in most cases, a belief in God seems sufficient enough to cement a person's values and moral foundation. Yes, atheists are godless, but immoral? That seems a bit much, especially in a land that was founded and settled in on the basis of religious freedom — which of course would rationally include the freedom to not believe.
I am a personal atheist. I don't believe in God, nor do I believe in Heaven, hell, angels, miracles, and other such tales of biblical scale. I don't hate Christians, Muslims, or Jews for having belief in a god. I don't spend my time on the Internet or in person attempting to debunk the beliefs of believers, talking about how the tales in the Old Testament aren't scientifically feasible or attempting to convert others to my ways of religious perversion. I live my life day by day, like anyone else — and according to demographics, anywhere from 9 to 16 percent of Americans describe themselves as "atheist," or at least "non-religious."
Although an alarming population of the U.S. describes itself as non-religious, it is almost a fact that America will never elect an atheist president. In fact, all 44 U.S. presidents have been Christian (unless you count Obama as Muslim). Our money says "In God We Trust;" our pledge of allegiance, "one nation under God;" and our President takes his oath on a Bible. What happened to the "freedom" in "freedom of religion?" Throughout this country's history, religious groups of all stripes have been categorically discriminated against in one way or another. The founding of the states was based upon escape from religious oppression in England, so even Christians have felt the hate. As have Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others. Modern society does not condone nor socially allow religious discrimination to take place — those that do it publicly are often ostracized, called out, or thought to be ignorant and prejudiced. So why are the views of the religious protected while the views of the non-religious aren't?
The short answer, as purported by many evangelicals and conservatives, is that the United States is and always has been a Christian nation. This is both true and false: while the majority of the U.S. population has been and currently is Christian, the founders of the nation were mostly deists, who believed that a god existed, but not necessarily the one of Abrahamic tradition. The phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was not introduced until 1948, and the phrase "In God We Trust" was not introduced to coinage until 1863, 86 years after the Revolution. Most of the strength behind the historical precedent argument is purported by and large by Conservatives and Evangelicals, who argue that the strong moral base of America's Constitution and foundation is the teachings of Christ. The lessons taught by these proselytizers have had a ripple effect, as those without religion are still demonized and debased as amoral.
This is my largest problem with America's view of atheism. Tradition has wrought upon atheists a view of amorality or immorality that similar religious people never experience. I regularly donate to charities, I give money to the homeless when I see them, and I sometimes volunteer at the soup kitchen over the summer. My actions aren't bent in the pleasing of a god for access to an afterlife. I do them because it seems to be the right thing to do. Ask Bill Gates, who gave over $26 billion to charity some years back, or Warren Buffett, who four years ago pledged to donate more than 99 percent of his wealth to charity in his lifetime or after his death. Morality is not founded nor cemented in belief in a God. As Thomas Jefferson said, "If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? ... Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."
Americans need to tear down this wall of ignorance and discrimination in front of non-believers. The next time you hear about an atheist, don't think of them as such. And when you find out they are, don't just say the most common response to finding out someone is an atheist, which is a disappointed-sounding "Oh." Think of them as a person, a human being, a student, a son, a daughter, a philanthropist, a worker, a dog-lover, a voter, a reader or anything else. Trust me, we'll appreciate it.
Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. His column, "The Tuning Fork," runs on alternate Tuesdays.