A 2.2 million-square-foot, mixed-use project is being built over six lanes of I-395 in D.C.
In our society, it’s taboo to insult Christians, Jews, Muslims or other believers for their faith, but many feel no such compunction about atheists. And a surprising number say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Negative attitudes toward atheists may be in part the result of misconceptions about atheism and the various philosophies associated with it, like secular humanism and free thinking. We speak to atheists working to raise their profile and create a better understanding about what they do–and don’t–believe.
- Edwin Kagin National Legal Director of the American Atheist Association; Founder, Camp Quest.
- Roy Speckhardt Executive Director of the American Humanist Association
- Amanda Knief Government Relations Manager with the Secular Coalition for America.
- Krista Tippett Creator and Host, "On Being," and author, "Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It" (Penguin Books)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Atheists say they suffer from an image problem. Polls show that American's distrust atheists and nearly half say they wouldn't vote for one. At the same time, most Americans don't know a lot about atheism or the various philosophies associated with it including secular humanism and free thinking.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while it's considered taboo to insult Christianity, Judaism, Islam or other faiths, many people feel no such compunction about nonbelievers. That may be why a lot of atheists keep their views to themselves. Some liken their situation to that of gays and lesbians, and many say it's time for atheists to come out of the closet.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss atheism is Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is the host of the national radio program "On Being" and the author of "Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit." Krista Tippett, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again...
MS. KRISTA TIPPETTYou, too.
NNAMDI...via Skype anyway.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Amanda Knief, Government Relations Manager with the Secular Coalition for America. That's a national lobby representing the interests of non-theistic Americans. She's an attorney and was the cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Free Thinkers. Amanda Knief, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. AMANDA KNIEFThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Roy Speckhardt. He is the executive director of the American Humanist Association. Roy Speckhardt, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROY SPECKHARDTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd I'll invite your phone calls immediately. What do you know about atheism? What do you think of atheists? 800-433-8850. Would you vote for an atheist for president? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Roy, let's start with the basics. Exactly what is atheism?
SPECKHARDTAtheism is just the idea that you can have a philosophy of life that doesn't include a belief in God. It doesn't necessarily mean your antitheist, like many folks think. It doesn't necessarily imply anything about your orientation toward religion, other than you don't have this theistic belief.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett, atheism is something of an umbrella term. What are some of the philosophies associated with it?
TIPPETTWell, see, I think that's the interesting discussion that we are -- that we get to have this hour and that is happening in the culture, which is not what are atheists against, but what are these philosophies? What's the positive content? And, you know, and I think a lot of religious terms and labels became boxes as we entered this century. And it's probably true for terms that are nonreligious as well because atheism is something different from humanism, is something different from secularism, but we tend to lump a lot of different people together. And it can be interesting if we shake up that language and talk about what it is rather than what -- as you said, what it's opposed to.
NNAMDIRoy, because they don't believe in God and heaven or hell, atheists are sometimes seen as somehow not being moral.
SPECKHARDTIt's true. There is a prejudice in our community that assumes that one cannot be good without God. And that prejudice is something that we at the American Humanist Association are working on to try to challenge.
NNAMDIAgain, the number to call is 1-800-433-8850. If you like the conversation, if you'd like to join the conversation, you can also simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. Since conceptions of atheism vary, Roy, and as we've mentioned, not all atheists are open about the fact that they are, it can be difficult to say exactly how many people identify as non-theistic. But what are the estimates for the number of non-theists in the U.S.?
SPECKHARDTI think they hover around the 15 percent mark. You can look at different surveys that show different things, American Religious Identification survey, the Pew Forum survey. And it's hard to see it because we're talking about people who are non-theistic, as you said, and they don't necessarily call themselves atheist or skeptic or agnostic. They might even identify with a traditional religion like Catholic, but still not have that theism.
NNAMDIAmanda Knief, you're an attorney and you felt that you needed to keep your atheism under wraps at times, for instance when you worked in the state senate in Iowa, where I understand all sessions were opened with a group prayer.
KNIEFYes, sir. I actually worked for the nonpartisan division of the state legislature. I was a drafting attorney so I worked for the senators and the legislatures. And actually that's what got me to become an activist was when they started the sessions with prayer. I couldn't believe it and so I looked for an organization that was against it. And we found one that wasn't quite working for us so we started one in Des Moines. And that's what got me working and active in the national scene and got me to work for the Secular Coalition here in D.C.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett, skepticism and doubt are as old as religion itself, but atheists have been looked on with suspicion or worse from the beginning by most religious societies, have they not?
TIPPETTWell, it's interesting because skepticism and doubt, in fact, if you just look at Christianity are built in to the faith, and certainly into Judaism as well, right. That's part -- you know, Israel means the one who wrestles with God. So -- but that is the difference. These traditions took doubt and took questioning and wove that into a positive faith experience. And it's true that, you know, the pagan Christian split, that there was a hostility there.
TIPPETTI can -- I'm as troubled, I think, as anyone by these ideas that people wouldn't vote for an atheist for president. But again, I do think that there's a cultural shift underway and I think that younger people are going to lead this, where it's not going to be religion as a litmus test as it has been in the past. But what they want is authenticity and transparency. They want to know what kind of human being this is.
TIPPETTAnd my sense is that in a couple of generations, it would be possible to say I'm an atheist and also to say -- or whatever label you want to use -- but to have habits of life associated with that. 'Cause, I mean, I say very clearly all the time atheists have ethical lives. I think many atheists, depends on how you say it, would say they have spiritual lives. Einstein talked about wonder and mystery as fundamental experiences that join art and religion and science at their best, but he didn't have any kind of traditional faith in God.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Cecil in Washington, D.C. Cecil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CECILThank you, Kojo. I'm an atheist, but my major concern are the children, especially after the article in the Post about the children's summer camp for atheists.
NNAMDIWe'll be talking about that later in the broadcast with the Founder of Camp Quest Edwin Kagin, but go ahead, please.
CECILOkay. My concern, especially after what happened in Norway, what protection is there for the children? Because there are too many religious nuts there that will take advantage of an unsafe situation with the children.
NNAMDIIs that a concern you have, Roy Speckhardt?
SPECKHARDTWe haven't had the kind of threats to physical safety that some might be concerned that we would considering the feelings that are out there. I mean, gosh, if you even look at newspapers sometimes you see people reporting on atheists and saying admitted atheist, which, you know, you could imagine...
NNAMDIIt's like confessing to a crime.
SPECKHARDTRight. Abe Foxman admitted Jew, you know. You know, that wouldn't happen. But that hasn't translated into violence so far and we're pleased about that.
NNAMDIHave you run into a lot of hostility, Amanda Knief?
KNIEFYes. I've been told I'm going to hell several times.
NNAMDIOr more specifically you're going to burn in hell.
KNIEFYes. You know, and I've been yelled at and screamed at. I try to keep my personal address and other information private to prevent any kind of, you know, violence or my personal life bleeding into what I do professionally. But I honestly haven't felt that my -- any safety concerns or anything. I think one of the great things about this country is that when we do have freedom of expression and freedom for religion, I can be out as an atheist and express my views and tell the president I'm an atheist. And people may not like it, but they respect it.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett, other groups that have fought discrimination and negative perceptions have come a long way, minorities, gays. You seem to feel that this is in the future for atheists. But atheism still in this country often gets a bad rap. On the other hand, it seems to be much more accepted in Europe. Why do you think it's more accepted there and not as accepted here?
TIPPETTYeah, well, there's some irony to that. You know, those are countries that actually still have state churches. Religion was kept vile and flourishing in this country because of the separation of church and state intriguingly. But I also look at those European societies and see that their governments, in fact, incorporated a lot of Christian virtues, care for the poor. You know, they have -- they actually have a lot of virtues that are at the heart of religion that are part of the way they run their society and you don't see that. So it's kind of an opposite dynamic over on this side of the Atlantic.
KNIEFYou know, I agree that those are Christian values or things -- but I would say that those are societal values that you would see in non-Christian countries, and you see among people who are not Christian. Those are things that we as a social species have developed in order to evolve and get along and care for each other. If we didn't have those kind of values, we wouldn't have succeeded. And so I disagree that they are solely Christian values. And I think that's one of the reasons why you see the atheism or non-theism succeeding in European countries because they are societal values rather than church-based values.
NNAMDIRoy Speckhardt, what are some of the misconceptions that people have about atheism today, especially having to do with issues like morality?
SPECKHARDTWell, there is this tendency to think that one cannot be moral if one is an atheist or a humanist or anyone who doesn't have a belief system based in God. Of course, what we know about psychology tells us otherwise. Sean Piashay's (sp?) experiments with children who play marbles discovered that they created rules on their own for playing marbles that mirror our religious rules as well as our legal rules. And it's really just part of human nature to create these rules and to follow them religiously, you might say.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again, here is Zoe in Fairfax, Va. Zoe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZOEHi. I wanted to make a couple of quick points actually. One is that I think it's really, really great that you're having this discussion because I'm myself not an atheist. I'm a pagan myself, but I grew up with a very staunch atheist father. And, you know, he was a major part of my development of my moral compass and programming. And I have to say that the idea -- I really appreciate hearing the idea that these are not necessarily Christian values is really reassuring because I -- you know, the same values apply in a lot of ways.
ZOEYou know, I find that interaction between human beings, regardless of cultural programming and religious programming, there seems to be a lot of common ground in terms of how people want to interact with each other. And the assertion that some thinks that religious values are the only metric of morality and moral character is really not something that is really productive in a country that claims to be a place of freedom of thought and freedom of religion.
ZOEAnd the other thing was the analogy between atheists being able to come out of the closet. I think that's good. As I said, I'm a pagan myself. I'm a lesbian. I've faced a lot of discrimination myself and I've seen a lot of atheist friends take a lot of negativity from people as well. And in a society that claims these social freedoms, freedoms of thought, I think it's urgent that we allow people to have the same level of success in society, like you said, about not -- people not voting for atheists and things like that. It's really a question of individual character rather than religious character, when there are plenty of people of religious upbringings that act in an unconscionably immoral way at times. So that was it really.
NNAMDIOkay, Zoe, thank you...
ZOEI'll take my response off the air.
NNAMDI...thank you very much for your call. I don't know if anybody wants to comment on Zoe's statements. Otherwise, I can move ahead to this comment posted on our website. Krista Tippett, I'd like you to respond to this. This comes from somebody, who as I said, posted it on our website. "I would vote for an Atheist in a heartbeat as long as they understood the mentality of a theist. Judaism provided an excellent source of strong values that continue until today."
NNAMDI"They can't be dismissed. Love your neighbor as yourself. Can it get any more basic?" Is it possible for an Atheist to grow up in a society such as this, Krista Tippett, and not understand the mentality of the theist?
TIPPETTOh, boy. I think right and left, we don't understand each other. That's not -- let's look at Congress, right? Or that's not restricted to Atheist...
NNAMDIOh, yeah, let's not.
TIPPETT...and religious people. So this is where I say, I think what people really want, and it's going to be clear that this is what they want, is they want to know what kind of character someone has. And you can certainly have character as an Atheist and talk about that. I wanted to say, just following on the caller a minute ago.
TIPPETTWhen I say I think that this is changing, you know, one of the most interesting developments I see is a lot -- are a lot of social action projects that are bringing together people, not just across religious lines, but Atheists and pagans and very religious people who all care about, for example, the environment or are working on literacy projects, right? So -- and so they share these moral values, these social values and rather than having to figure out what they agree on, in terms of ideas or beliefs, they're doing the work together. And I do think that this is going to be one of these crucibles of change.
NNAMDIRoy, many Atheists choose to leave organized religion and there is no single ideology, political or otherwise to which all Atheists adhere. There is secular humanism. There is skepticism. There are people who consider themselves...
NNAMDI...free thinkers. We got a comment on our website saying "Please mention ethical culture, a religion in which Atheists can feel comfortable because theism is not the issue. Ethical culture is a humanistic, religious and educational movement inspired but the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society." What kinds of challenges, Roy, does that present in terms of creating an organization and a mission for Atheists?
SPECKHARDTIt's true. I'm working on an organizational level with folks who are out there, like trying to herd butterflies or something like that, is a challenge. Part of the thing that drives us is the idea of bringing folks together. The caller talked about loving your neighbor as your own. And I think humanists do make that effort toward breaking down the barriers between us and them in a very strong way. In fact, as opposed to what we saw in the tragedy in Norway where we had someone who was really fixated on seeing them as being radically different from the us. And with humanists, we are one world and one people. And so that's where we start.
KNIEFOne of the great successes in our movement has been the organization I work for, which is the Secular Coalition for America. It's brought together 10 very different organizations including the Ethical Culture Society, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association which Roy is part of, a military organization, organizations for students, to come together to Washington to raise the profile of secular Americans. It's an organization anybody -- if you want to be a secular ally, someone who is theistic, but wants to learn more about separation of church and state, wants to be supportive of those of us.
KNIEFThe caller, Zoe, who is pagan and a lesbian, but is supportive of an Atheist can be a secular ally, can go to secular.org and learn more about what we're trying to do. And I think one of the misconceptions is that Atheists and non-theists are trying to take away people's religion or their rights. And what we're really trying to do is protect everyone's religious rights by keeping one particular view out of government, out of public policy, we protect everyone's right to practice and believe what they want. And I think that's one of the misconceptions and one of the things that we're trying to show and share while we're lobbying here in Washington.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet that says "Public radio app keeps crashing. Can't hear "Kojo Show" talk about atheists, must be God." Here is Rick in Leesburg, Va. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKHi, Kojo. The reason we have -- there's a negative perception about us, is that the churches for most of the last 2,000 years has given us some seriously bad press. It's been highly lethal to identify yourself as an atheist for most of the last 2,000 years. And that persists, even today. A lot of churches still portray us as immoral and degenerate. And it's simply not true and it's not -- certainly not reflected in the statistics, crime statistics. In fact, an atheist is probably less likely to end up in prison than a Christian, according to the statistics. So, (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDI...Krista Tippett, what do you say to people who say that without God, heaven or hell, what motivation would somebody have to be good?
TIPPETTI just -- I don't see that. I think people have said to me, who are not religious, that in fact if you are motivated because of no sense of external punishment or reward, but simply out of the core of yourself, that, you know, that to them feels more authentic. And I certainly think that's one way to come at it.
NNAMDIHow do you feel, Amanda, about the reward or punishment argument as the primary motivator for human goodness?
KNIEFI personally just never accepted that. The idea that someone was keeping the scorecard in the sky about what I did every day, just didn't gel. When -- I was a humanist long before I knew what a humanist was. The idea that I was accountable to myself, that I had to reconcile everything that I did, my choices, how they effected other people, my family, my friends, how people looked at me, that was a really big wakeup call to me as a human being. And it made me such a better person and it made me want to do better things with my life.
KNIEFAnd -- so that's what not being religious has done for me. And I just welcomed it. And I can't say it's the right choice for everyone, but for me, being a humanist, is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
NNAMDIHere is Dusty in Burtonsville, Md. Dusty, your turn.
DUSTYHow you doing? I just wanted to thank your panel for all the good work they're doing. Also I'd like to see if they can comment on the problem of deeply closeted atheists with an understanding of the Christian and the Christian faith, like, pastors, deacons and alike, who can't out themselves for fear of not just being ostracized by friends and family, but also losing their jobs and having no careers to fall on. I'll talk my comments off the air, thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Roy?
SPECKHARDTIt's true that there are a -- we're finding that there's a growing number of priests and ministers and the like out there who share our views on the nature of God, but don't -- and other types of supernatural ideas, but they don't feel comfortable coming out because of its danger to their career and what they might do in the future. I wish that folks in those situations would strive toward better themselves toward other possible career options because it's an inherently hypocritical position to hold for long term.
KNIEFI think -- and it goes well beyond just what your job is. I mean, it's their families, their spouses, their children, their entire community and life often revolves around this belief and who they are as a person. I mean, we have people whose lives to do not revolve around their belief. But when they come out to their families, are disowned, are rejected, are told to change their last name because they don't want to be associated with them anymore. So it's really a stigmatism that we need to work on.
KNIEFWe need more people to step up and say it's okay to be an atheist, it's okay not to believe in God. You're a good person. We still love you. And as more people do that, just like with the LGBT community and their allies, it will get more acceptance.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on atheism. If you called and the lines are busy, then go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Would you vote for an atheist for President? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about atheism with Krista Tippett, host of the national radio program "On Being" and the author of "Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit." She joins us from studios in St. Paul, MN. Joining us in our Washington studio is Amanda Knief, government relations manager with the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobby representing the interests of non-theist Americans. She's an attorney and was the co-founder of Iowa Atheists and Free Thinkers.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. Amanda, your organization focuses on secular and government issues. One of the campaigns you're working on now is to bring atheist chaplains to the military. Why would an atheist want a chaplain?
KNIEFWell, we're working on bringing chaplains with -- for humanist values to the military. And the reason that we're working on this is because right now there are no resources for non-theists in the military. For example, if...
NNAMDIBut I thought you working on it because they say there are no atheists in a foxhole, but go ahead.
KNIEFWell, we know that's not true. And that's a really big myth. There -- but there are no chaplains in foxholes, which is absolutely true. One of the things that we found is that chaplains have gone far beyond the Father Mulcahy model that we all know from M*A*S*H. They provide services. They provide counseling for monetary issues, family services. They provide the places for people to have services, to have meeting groups for religious gatherings, for organizations. There's also lay leader programs for religious groups.
KNIEFAnd this is extended beyond Christians, to Catholics, to Jewish groups, Hindu groups, Muslim groups. But atheists and non-theists account for many more than just the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim members of the military. So, for example, if you want mental health counseling in the military, that goes on your permanent record. But if you want to talk to somebody in the chaplaincy, that's completely confidential. So if you're a non-theists and you go to a chaplain and -- for example, evangelical chaplains far outnumber the percentage of evangelical service members.
KNIEFAnd you go to them and say I'd like to talk to you and they want to know your religious preference and you say well, I don't really have one, they might deny talking to you or say I can't help you. They've had no training. They have no resources. They have nothing to provide the chaplains with any kind of materials to help service members who have a completely different life philosophy then someone who's religious. So what we're looking for is an educational bridge so that all chaplains have a way to connect with those service members who are non-religious.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett, I talked to you earlier about why atheists seem to be more accepted in Europe then they are here. And here is an email we got from George in Gaithersburg, Md. "As a non-religious person, the worst insult you can call me is communist. Communism is one of a small group of Godless religions and behaves in all ways like one from its use of terror, grand hypocrisy, schisms and holy books." It would not necessarily be the worst insult you can call somebody in Europe, would it, Krista Tippett?
TIPPETTTo become communist? Well, socialist is certainly not a bad word, which borders on here in certain circles. So, no, it wouldn’t. You know, I wanted to kind of circle back a little bit. I think that what Amanda was just getting at is, is the fact that these mysteries of life and death, these questions of purpose and meaning, are actually things that we have in common as human beings, whether we're religious or non-religious. We address them in very different ways. And I also want to point that there's a lot of gray area.
TIPPETTWe -- I do want to defend religion a bit against a lot of generalizing that doesn't do justice to it. I mean, to be Jewish is not necessarily to believe anything. It is much more a matter of how you live your life and you can be Jewish and atheist. You know, Buddhists are not theists. There's traditions like Unitarian Universalism which will span the spectrum of Christian/Jewish/Muslim, Buddhist and atheist and humanist. So it's a bit -- it's a more complex picture out there, I think, than we're necessarily portraying.
NNAMDIEven more -- making it more complex, Roy, is this comment we got posted on our website "Never had a problem with atheists until recently when I have encountered online proselytizing atheists. That's what I call people who tell religious believers that they're simply not intelligent enough. It's very counterproductive in discussions about evolution. There are a lot of religious people who believe in evolution, but these proselytizers tell people that evolution is proof of the nonexistence of a deity." The online proselytizing wars, Roy.
SPECKHARDTWell, I agree that self aggrandizement is no way to try to win an argument. And those folks out there who are trying to use that technique, obviously, are falling short. But I do think that any kind of issue is open for discussion including theological ones. There shouldn't be a taboo against discussing theological issues. And I think that's something that our American culture has to become more comfortable with in the coming years.
NNAMDIAnd that, of course, Krista Tippett, is what you does -- what you do, but in the cases of some people, beliefs are so deeply held and so close to the heart and so close to the always edgy nerves, that it can be pretty touchy. However, you have made a broadcast career out of doing this.
TIPPETTDoing the impossible.
NNAMDIYes, it is.
TIPPETTOh, you know, I'll be a little bit provocative here and say that I think that what was difficult about the -- what we call the new atheist revival, a couple of years ago, was you had atheist-sounding fundamentalists, right? I mean, this is a bit to the email. I'm not that interested -- I'm not interested in talking to religious people who are all about telling you what's wrong with the people who are different from them. And that's a bit the same tone that Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens took toward religious people.
TIPPETTThey portrayed a very simplistic caricature of who religious people are and shot them down. I want to know what they are about, not what they're against. And I do think, though, what's interesting about that dynamic is that -- I think Amanda and Roy represent this larger picture which is, in fact, about positive content and about who you are as humanists and atheists. And that that is an important contribution to our culture moving forward.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Joining us now by telephone is Edwin Kagin. He is the national legal director of the American Atheist Association. He's also the founder of Camp Quest, the countries first atheist summer camp for kids. Thank you so much for joining us, Edwin Kagin.
MR. EDWIN KAGINMy pleasure, thank you.
NNAMDII'll start with an email or a comment posted on our website that we got from one of our listeners who says "In reading the book 'Parenting Beyond Belief," a collection of essays about the many dimensions of raising children without religion, one problem my family has is that there really isn't a community for atheists the way there is for the religions."
NNAMDI"We have no weekly gatherings to reaffirm our community. Several essays in the book highly recommend joining a universal Unitarian church because they accept people of all beliefs and hold secular services. My wife and I were planning on attending a UU church this Sunday. Does anyone have any thoughts or experiences with this organization, either positive or negative?" Before you respond to that though, Edwin, what general advice would you offer to this listener?
KAGINJoin American Atheist.
NNAMDII knew you would.
KAGIN(word?) community. And also I want your listeners to know that it's possible to join more than organization, okay? It -- you don't have to pick the American Humanists over American Atheists. You can be a member of all of them. I'm a member of all of the major organizations. That would be the main I'd suggest, but I can certainly understand why this woman is writing this Camp Quest for children of nonbelievers.
KAGINSome of the children have cried when they've been there and said this was the only place they'd ever been able to express their non-belief without fear of being bullied, picked or even actually hurt. It's really heartrending.
NNAMDIYou founded Camp Quest back in -- you founded the first atheist camp back in 1996. Tell us a little bit about the philosophy of the camp and what exactly do kids at Camp Quest do?
KAGINOkay. Well, they do the same thing kids do at any other camp. They go swimming, horseback riding, all sorts of things, water balloon fights, that kind of thing. It is simply a camp that gives protection -- I call it that Camp Quest is like a nightlight in the dark and scary room to the children of free thought. One lovely little 11-year-old girl one year, in response to the questionnaire I give at the end of camp, "What did you learn at Camp Quest?" she wrote she had learned that it was okay not to believe in God. It is okay not to believe in God. I felt that highly significant.
KAGINShe didn't know that before. You note she did not say I learned not to believe in God because we don't teach that at Camp Quest. We do, however, have certain challenges for the children to grapple with. For example, there are two invisible unicorns at Camp Quest, have been ever since it was started. You can't see them, hear them, taste them, touch them, feel them, walk right through them. They can't fly. They can't leave the campgrounds, no grass clippings and no unicorn droppings and they can't hurt you, but they're there.
KAGINAnd there's a prize of a godless $100 bill, that's $100 bill made before 1956 when God We Trust was unconstitutionally put on American paper money, for any camper who can prove the two invisible unicorns aren't there. To date, this prize has been unclaimed. Campers initially will come up with rather predictable arguments, such as Edwin should prove that the unicorns are there. But no, no, kid, I have faith, I believe. My daddy and his daddy before him believed there's a great book that speaks of -- it's far too holy for the likes of you to see or handle, but we've got it. And so it goes. And so far, no attempt to prove the invisible unicorns are not there has succeeded.
KAGINAlmost inevitability toward the end of the camps, our children, we find, are quite bright. Some camper will ask, isn't that kind of how people try to prove there's no God by saying, can you prove that there isn't? And to which I say, no, no, to the camper, I'm just talking about the invisible unicorn. And apparently, these children keep coming back year after year. Some of the campers are now staff and none of the staff are paid. They come from all over the country, some of them from all over the world. And there have now -- from that simple beginning of 20 campers, there are now some 10 Camp Quests at the last count in the United States.
KAGINAt least two in England, one in Ireland, one in Norway and talk about one in Australia. There was a question earlier, why Europeans are more religious? Well, they didn't have the phenomena we did. Australia got the convicts and we got the puritans and they have sort of infused their creed throughout our culture.
KAGINAnd when you make it a crime, possibly punishable by death or being ostracized to deny the existence of God, it doesn't take very long for everybody in the society to either not believe in a god or refuse to say that they do not believe in a god.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on atheism. We've got a lot calls. The lines are filled. If you'd like to communicate with us, go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation on atheism with Krista Tippett, host of the national radio program, "On Being," and the author of "Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and The Human Spirit."
NNAMDIRoy Speckhardt is the executive director of The American Humanists Association and Amanda Knief is the government-relations manager with the Secular Coalition for America. She's an attorney and was the co-founder of Iowa Atheists and Free Thinkers.
NNAMDIWe're also talking with Edwin Kagin, national legal director of the American Atheist Association and founder of Camp Quest, the country's first atheist summer camp for kids. Edwin Kagin, your organization filed a lawsuit against having a cross as a part of the memorial at Ground Zero. Tell us about the cross. Where did it come from and what is the plan for it?
KAGINWell, a couple of days after the 9/11 attack, exhausted and grief-stricken construction workers found a 2 ton,20 foot high T-beam among the rubble of the World Trade Center. They got overwhelmed by sleep deprivation that added to their mental and emotional turmoil. They mistook this common architectural support structure for a symbol used to represent the faith belief system of Christianity and it became dubbed the 9/11 Cross.
KAGINIt is, of course, merely structural pieces with the great enormous damage done to the World Trade Center. You could probably find something in the shape of almost anything. At any rate, this object was taken to St. Peter's Church in New York where it was blessed and consecrated, clearly made a religious symbol and this past Saturday it was moved to the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum where it is to be on permanent display indicative that God has abandoned us.
NNAMDIWhy do you oppose having it at Ground Zero as part of the memorial?
KAGINBecause of the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of New Jersey that says that the government will not take any efforts towards establishing a religion.
KAGINIf such an artifact is there blessed, known to be a religious icon, it almost becomes a representation that the people who did the faith based initiative of flying the planes into the World Trade Centers were incorrect and their god was incorrect and our God was right. That's the kind of thing it's setting up. The then President of the United States, right after the attacks, said it was Crusades restarting again. And I really fear that a lot of people do think of that and this a very, very dangerous situation.
KAGINAmerican Atheist is asking either that the memorial deemed to be a cross and the views of those who have dedicated and blessed it be moved back to St. Peter's Church or to some other religious facility where anybody can see it who wants to. Or, and the alternative that an American Atheist and other symbols of non-belief be permitted in the memorial.
NNAMDITwo Jewish plaintiffs also joined in the lawsuit saying that, quoting here, "They find the cross as a symbol of Christianity offensive and repugnant to their beliefs, cultures and traditions and that it marginalizes them as American citizens." Correct?
KAGINI think it does. I believe that's absolutely correct. As you said earlier, an atheist can't be elected. People speak of an atheist as a self-proclaimed atheist. What if someone said to a Baptist, are you a self-proclaimed Baptist? That has a linguistic built in snob or condemnation to it.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have for the time being. Edwin Kagen, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIEdwin Kagin is the national legal director of the American Atheist Association. He's the -- also the founder of Camp Quest, the country's first atheist summer camp for kids and our guest, Amanda Knief, was once a counselor at Camp Quest, is that correct?
KNIEFYes, at Camp Quest Minnesota.
NNAMDIAmanda, politics is one area where the absence of atheists is particularly noticeable. How many atheists serve in the Congress of the United States?
KNIEFNone. We have one representative, Congressman Pete Stark, who is a Universalist and is a non-theist and he has been extremely supportive of the non-theistic community. But we don't have anyone who is out as an atheist.
NNAMDIRoy Speckhardt, you made the point in a recent article that atheists can be as patriotic or not as any other American. Why do you see that as an issue?
SPECKHARDTWell, God and country has been mixed, as we know, more and more in politics today and in their daily activities. I know that my daughters will go to school and they'll have to -- they'll be asked to stand up and participate in a statement that is false to their beliefs and to their family's beliefs every day. And that kind of mix of God and country is seen throughout our lives in the U.S.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett, the religious beliefs of our politicians have always been an issue for the American public. Some of us remember the debate about whether John F. Kennedy could be elected being Catholic. People talk about that as ancient history, but even today people are asking whether a Mormon could be elected president. Have we not yet passed beyond that point and when do you think we can get to the point where atheists can be elected president? You did talk a little bit about this earlier.
TIPPETTI hate to say it, Kojo, but I think that looking at that sphere of electoral politics may be the worst and narrowest lens that we could apply to analyzing ourselves as people. I -- you know, that -- there are things that happen in the political sphere that don't necessarily represent public life as a whole and certainly don't describe everything that's possible. I mean, you know, that's what I would say about that.
NNAMDIThe political arena may not be the best arena to look at to see how American life is progressing or not. Roy, something that studies have shown that people are more likely to support, for example, gay marriage if they know someone personally who is gay. Well, a lot of people don't know any atheists or at least think they don't.
SPECKHARDTThat's right. It's important for atheists and humanists and free thinkers to come out of the closet and self-identify and help others to come out of the closet as well. I mean, we have that one member of Congress, representative Pete Stark, boldly saying that he's non-theist and getting re-elected with the same numbers he did before. But there's at least two dozen others who feel the same as he does, but aren't willing to come out and it's not our job to out them, but it's our job to create the kind of environment in which they come out and it not be political suicide, not be something that they should be fear.
KNIEFYou know, we took a really great step when President Obama mentioned non-theists in his inaugural speech. And one of the things that we're working on at the Secular Coalition is to get more elected officials on the national level and the local level and at state level, to just talk about us as a valid constituency, to help prevent the demonization of us, to prevent the marginalization by just talking about us, making themselves a secular ally. They don't have to be non-theistic. They can just be supportive of us by mentioning us when they talk about groups of people.
KNIEFIf they're going to mention Jews, Catholics, Christians, non-theists, it just slips right in there very smoothly. And if they would just mention us and talk about us and stand up and be leaders, it would help others says, okay I can mention them and it's not so scary. And it would let kids, high schools students, college students know that it's okay to stand up and do the same thing. We don't have a lot of leaders in this country who are showing our students and our kids that it's okay to be non-theistic.
NNAMDIRoy, there are also a number of famous atheists whom many people might not have known were or are atheists. Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Natalie Portman, George Clooney, Bruce Lee, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Katherine Hepburn, Brangelina, Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter. Can knowing, for example, that George Clooney and Natalie Portman are atheists change the image people have of what an atheist is?
SPECKHARDTI think it helps because it puts a friendly face on something that has otherwise been demonized and has no human face. So the more human faces the better especially ones that people look up to and respect for various reasons. So I think it's great that celebrities are being more open about it and we encourage more to do the same.
NNAMDIHere is Odua (sp?) in Washington D.C. Odua, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ODUAYes, hi, good afternoon, Kojo. I am an atheist. I don't know any other atheists. I've been this way for 30 years. I don't talk about my -- some believe there's a God and I am (unintelligible) with programs like this. And I'd like to hear you do this again, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou had no idea that you were part of a community?
ODUANo, I know no other atheists. That's just the way I am. I just don't believe there's a God. I was brought up as a Christian. I rejected it and I'm from Jamaica, probably one of the most religious of all countries in the world, also one of the most violent countries in the world. But I don't know what the relationship between violence and religion, but, you know, I'm an atheist. I'm a (unintelligible) .
KNIEFWelcome to the community.
NNAMDIWhat I was about to say, Roy Speckhardt, how many times do you hear people like Odua say, I've been an atheist for 30 years, never met another.
SPECKHARDTYes, it happens all the time, in fact, you know, in circles you wouldn't expect. I recently met with a fellow out in San Francisco who is a physicist for many years and said, I'm so glad to meet, face-to-face, the first atheist. Of course, he must've met many before.
KNIEFAnd I would like to...
NNAMDIYour turn, Amanda.
KNIEF...I would like to tell your caller, you know, for anyone out there who is not part of a community, please go to secular.org. Not only will you find information about our activities, but you'll find we have 10 member organizations that have chapters and groups all across the country and you'll find one that fits you and will help you fit in and find a group. And you can join and meet other people who believe and don't believe just like you.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Amanda Knief, thank you for joining us.
KNIEFThank you so much for having this program.
NNAMDIAmanda Knief is the government relations manager with the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobby representing the interests of non-theistic Americans. She's an attorney and was the cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Free Thinkers.
NNAMDIRoy Speckhardt, thank you for joining us.
SPECKHARDTThank you and be happy to do it again, like the caller suggested.
NNAMDIRoy Speckhardt is the executive director of The American Humanists Association. Krista Tippett, thank you so much for joining us.
TIPPETTGreat to be with you Kojo.
NNAMDIKrista Tippett is the host of national radio program, "On Being," and the author of "Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and The Human Spirit." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, Menghan Hu and Caitlin Langfitt. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineer today, Andrew "Time Cue" Chadwick. A.C. Valdez has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
We talk with the director of The National Museum of African Art about its work with its new neighbor, an award it's bringing online this fall, and the future of museums more broadly.
Five years ago, an earthquake shook our region--and caused $34 million in damage to the Washington National Cathedral. We get an update on the repairs.
Kojo sits down with Montgomery County's new school superintendent to talk about the challenges ahead in one of the nation's largest school systems.