In the mid-1990s, The Atlantic magazine scrapped an article it had assigned to Wendy Kaminer, reportedly fearing that it would be too controversial.1 Kaminer, a respected and established journalist, author, and lawyer, was already well known as an ardent advocate for free speech rights and a critic of the New Age indulgences of the self-help movement of the 1990s, but she was certainly not on any ideological fringe. So what topic did she tackle that was deemed too hot for the magazine that declared itself “of no party or clique”?
You have likely already guessed. In October 1996, The New Republic ran as its cover feature “The Last Taboo,”2 Kaminer’s defense of America’s atheists. She described a social climate in which one who criticizes absurd supernatural beliefs would be “excoriated as an example of the cynical, liberal elite responsible for America’s moral decline.” Kaminer lamented how public intellectuals of the time had rejected “Voltairean skepticism” in favor of “deference to belief,” how ostensibly progressive political figures regularly touted their faith credentials, and how “the supposedly liberal, mainstream press offers unprecedented coverage of religion, taking pains not to offend the faithful.”
“Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles,” she wrote, adding, “Making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall.”
While I as a younger Gen-Xer tend to remember the 1990s as a decade of awakening from many prejudices and hangups, I was also keenly aware at the time that within this expanded moral circle, room had not been made for those who, like me, did not believe in God. Even from my friends in college in southern New Jersey, who were mostly artsy types, my confessions of atheism were met with reactions that ranged from the bemused (Paul is so quirky!) to genuine fear for my mortal soul. (At least they cared!) But being an “out of the closet” atheist never put my safety or my academic standing at risk. I can’t say whether it would have affected me economically, as the managers of the local Blockbuster Video franchise never inquired as to my religious beliefs.
A taboo, generally speaking, is something that is customarily socially unacceptable but not necessarily illegal or expressly forbidden. To my mind, what qualified atheism as “taboo” in the United States during the last chunk of the twentieth century was the way it straddled the line between grudging acceptance and outright scandalousness. Being an atheist didn’t mean you were evil, but it invited questions about your moral core. It wasn’t likely to get you fired, evicted, or killed, but it elicited varying degrees of condescension, mistrust, or hostility. Unofficially, it disqualified you from being elected to public office. As a taboo, the attitude toward atheists was less “How dare you?” and more “What’s wrong with you?”
In a piece for The Atlantic in September 2023 titled, simply, “I Don’t Like Dogs,” Olga Khazan admits to her antipathy toward man’s best friend. “I’ve long kept this feeling to myself,” she writes, “because in America, saying you don’t like dogs is like saying you think the Taliban has some good ideas.” She discovers an online community of those who feel as she does, in the form of a subreddit (a message board for a specific topic on the social content site Reddit, denoted with “r/” before the subject heading) called “r/Dogfree,”3 whose tagline is “We don’t like dogs.” She says, “I had never before seen this, my most taboo opinion, written out so plainly.”
It’s an example of what’s known as a “negativity friendship,” a community in which closeness is built upon a shared dislike. “Your tribe comprises those who hate what you hate,” writes Khazan. As she digs into the posts on r/Dogfree, she is disquieted to find her aversion to dogs increasing. “I started to feel like this whole thing might be a giant yucking of a yum.”
For most of recorded human history, atheism has been deemed, to varying degrees, unacceptable. Indeed, it has often been—and in far too many places today still is—considered a crime, punishable by death. In the United States for the past century-and-a-half or so, atheism was a pretty firm taboo; you probably wouldn’t be thrown in jail for it, but it often led to ostracization well into the late twentieth century. Though constitutionally unenforceable, several American states still have laws on their books barring atheists from holding public office. And given the tiny number of avowed atheists who have ever been elected to any public office in the United States, those laws would rarely need to be enforced anyway.
Meanwhile, religious faith has almost always been functionally synonymous with virtue. To be kind, generous, or altruistic is to be “doing God’s work.” As Kaminer pointed out in “The Last Taboo”: “When politicians proclaim their belief in God, regardless of their religion, they are signaling their trustworthiness and adherence to traditional moral codes of behavior, as well as their humility. … By declaring your belief, you imply that an omnipotent, omniscient (and benign) force is the source of your values and ideas.”
Imagine you are an atheist living through the Cold War and the American crusade against godless communism; during the rise of the Religious Right, Reaganism, and the sanctification of “family values”; or in the chest-thumping, Christianity-soaked macho patriotism of the post-9/11 reaction to radical Islam. Perhaps you’re a nonbeliever who lived through all this. If you were to seek out community based on your atheism, would it have been to share your love of science and reason with like-minded thinkers? Or would you have gone looking for the era’s equivalent of an r/Godfree subreddit in the form of a group of folks bound by their rejection of a massively popular and imposing cultural force?
It’s easy to say that the answer is “both.” Long before I ever bristled at the absurdities of religion or worried over the dangers of theocracy, I was inspired by science, reason, inquiry, exploration, and the incredible potential of humanity in all its forms by things such as Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. But I can’t say that I would have been moved toward activism on behalf of these values if it were not for the opposition to them presented by religion. In the mid-2000s, I had not yet heard of Reddit, but I did discover an active community of atheist bloggers who shared my values, both in terms of what we did and did not like.
And boy, we really didn’t like religion.
This is not a bad thing. In 2008, Elizabeth Dole, then the U.S. Senator from North Carolina, leveled an attack ad against her Democratic opponent Kay Hagan, disparaging Hagan for having attended a fundraiser at the home of a prominent atheist activist. Hagan was not explicitly being accused of being an atheist (though one was free to make the inference), but she was being charged with the offense of simply interacting with them. In her responses, Hagan didn’t throw atheists under the bus per se, but she certainly didn’t try to stop the bus from hitting them. Rather than defend the dignity or equal status of atheists, she merely expressed her outrage at having her “Christian faith” questioned.
The ad largely backfired on Dole, who ultimately lost her reelection bid. The consensus seemed to be that while questioning someone’s religious beliefs was a “How dare you?”–level offense, it remained that associating with atheists was a “What’s wrong with you?”–level taboo. The anger I felt over this indignity nudged me from resignedly despairing about atheists’ marginalization to being downright pissed about it, inspiring me toward activism.
Eight years later, Democratic National Committee CFO Brad Marshall sent an email to colleagues about Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, observing, “I think I read he is an atheist,” suggesting that this could be used to weaken him in his presidential primary race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “This could make several points difference with my [Southern Baptist] peeps.”
Would it have? According to political scientist Ryan Burge’s calculations in 2023, over one-third of Democratic voters were Nones in 2016. In 2014, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study showed that more than 50 percent of White, non-college educated Democratic voters said that a candidate’s religion was “not at all important.” While an anti-atheist smear campaign might have been capable of affecting the primary race to some degree at the time, it would be much less likely to do so today, when the Nones make up over 40 percent of the Democratic coalition and, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center analysis, only 16 percent of Democrats hold an unfavorable view of atheists.
I expect that we won’t get the chance to test whether the Democratic Party would reject a candidate based on their lack of religious belief (or rumors to that effect) any time soon. There are simply no politicians with national ambitions (that I can think of) that would identify as nontheist. What’s worse is that I can hardly imagine any of them even mentioning the nonreligious or attempting to energize and validate all those Nones that make up such a huge portion of their party, likely because they figure the nonreligious have nowhere else to go. Out-and-out atheists and agnostics don’t seem to need much energizing anyway, as recent surveys show that they are already the country’s most politically active “belief group.”4 As far as Democrats and their finite campaign resources are concerned, the godless are a given, so why risk looking like you’re consorting with atheists?
Even if Democrats have grown more tolerant of the nonreligious, the wider American electorate has lagged behind. According to a 2016 University of Minnesota study, 40 percent of Americans “disapprove of non-religion.” A 2020 Gallup survey had slightly better news, showing a 60 percent willingness to vote for an atheist candidate for president (with 68 and 69 percent acceptance for independents and Democrats, respectively), up from 49 percent in 1999,5 closer to the time of Kaminer’s original article. Yet 45 percent of voters today, according to Pew, say the United States should be a “Christian nation,” and 47 percent want the Bible to supersede the will of the people in U.S. laws. As of a 2014 Pew study, almost half of Americans said they’d be upset if a member of their family married an atheist.
Wendy Kaminer. Image credit: Marianne Barcellona – Getty
In 1996, Kaminer cited studies from the 1980s6 that only 26 percent of Americans believed that atheists’ right to mock religion “should be legally protected no matter who might be offended.” Is this still the case? A 2017 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey showed that 15 percent of Americans consider it “inaccurate” to say that atheists have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, with an additional 5 percent unsure. It looks like an improvement, but these two surveys do not ask the same questions, and they focus on what respondents perceive to be the rights of a certain group, not how they feel about them.
So it matters when the equal dignity of marginalized groups is validated by those in power. After winning reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush told a reporter (emphasis mine):
I will be your president regardless of your faith. And I don’t expect you to agree with me, necessarily, on religion. As a matter of fact, no president should ever try to impose religion on our society. The great tradition of America is one where people can worship the way they want to worship. And if they choose not to worship, they’re just as patriotic as your neighbor.
His successor, President Barack Obama, included a very welcome shout-out to nonbelievers in his 2008 inaugural address and in 2016 he signed into law an amendment to the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that read, “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion.” I don’t imagine that either man suffered any political fallout.
Nonetheless, evidence that atheism is still a taboo has been shown in some other, more novel ways, beyond simply asking how folks feel about nonbelievers. A study from the University of Washington in 2020 looked at how school principals responded to inquiries about accommodations from (fictional) parents inquiring about the school. The results were ominous, showing “substantial discrimination against Muslims and atheists on a par with, and sometimes larger than, the racial discrimination found in previous studies.”
A similar study published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality in 2022 looked at employers’ responses to requests for religious accommodations in the workplace, finding that atheists were consistently less likely to be allowed to display a symbol of their beliefs while on the job than members of religious groups. “Participants perceived the atheist employees, more so than the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish employees, as wanting to impose their beliefs onto the workplace—in other words, as a ‘symbolic threat’ to workplace values,” study author Kimberly Rios told PsyPost.7 “To a lesser extent, participants also saw the atheist employees as a ‘realistic threat’ to the workplace (i.e., as jeopardizing the company’s economic status and/or the employees’ general well-being).”
In other words, atheism remains a taboo in some very consequential ways.
The Last Mission
What intrigues me is whether today’s organized atheism is more strongly bound together by a shared vision for the future or “negativity friendship”—its members’ rejection of religion. Is there a drive to rally around a set of affirmative values, or is there unity only in alienation and a desire to yuck someone’s yum?
I hope for the former, but I suspect the latter still serves as a pretty strong bonding agent. That’s not all bad. Things such as theocracy, religious oppression, the subjugation of women, the dehumanizing and criminalization of LGBTQ individuals, the persecution of dissidents and apostates, and the denial of science and reality must be opposed vigorously, and atheists as a group are highly motivated to do so. It’s really frustrating that atheism is still a taboo. The fact that it is less so than when Wendy Kaminer wrote her article in 1996 shows that it’s worth the effort to refute the misconceptions so many of our neighbors still have about the nonreligious and to assert the equal worth and dignity of every individual, atheist and otherwise.
And yet. Atheism could very well maintain its taboo classification, even as the Nones outpace every other belief group with each new generation, for while the Nones may be uninterested in religion, they might also be put off by those who explicitly identify as opposed to religion. As religion loses its influence over public life and gets relegated to benign forms of self-fulfillment, to be an avowed atheist might seem like the equivalent of picking a fight with people who are into stamp collecting, cold-water swimming, or werewolf romance novels. You might not understand why they’re into it, but it’s not worth getting mad about. So some people like Jesus! Who cares? What’s wrong with you?
Maybe that would be worth it. If religion were to recede into relative harmlessness, and God-belief sputtered into an innocuous personal fancy … isn’t that the mission? As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith (2004): “In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ … Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
Success, then, means we no longer even need to mobilize a movement to make those noises.
But I think there’s an even better mission, one in which atheists do more than merely oppose religion but work together to make life better for everyone, regardless of their theological dispositions. It’s the ongoing endeavor to advance higher universalist values such as reason, compassion, and freedom of expression and inquiry—values at the core of secular humanism. Maybe dictionary-defined atheism is doomed to be known for what it rejects, keeping it stuck in taboo territory. But the larger mission—maybe the Last Mission—is one that never ends, because there will always be more to discover, explore, and achieve for ourselves, our species, and the universe. And there’s nothing taboo about that.
Editor’s note: Wendy Kaminer is also the widow of Woody Kaplan, a longtime secular activist who died in August 2023 at the age of eighty. This issue includes a remembrance of Kaplan by Sarah Levin, and all of us at Free Inquiry offer Ms. Kaminer our deepest condolences.
1. Wendy Kaminer, “No Atheists Need Apply.” The Atlantic, January 13, 2010. Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/01/no-atheists-need-apply/33460/.
2. Wendy Kaminer, “The Last Taboo.” The New Republic, October 14, 1996. Available online at https://www.skeptic.ca/Kaminer_Taboo.htm.
3. I didn’t find any subreddits for people who explicitly hate babies, though there is r/Childfree, which is for those who simply don’t want to be parents, but there are a couple individual posts that declare a hatred for infants. Nor did I find subreddits for those who hate freedom, but perhaps it could be inferred by pro-authoritarian subreddits or those for fans of Marvel’s version of Loki, who informs us in the first Avengers film that “freedom is life’s great lie” (in which case I have some soul-searching to do). r/Atheism, meanwhile, has long been a popular subreddit with more than 2 million subscribers and currently ranked 193rd (above r/Dogs at 225).
4. Ryan P. Burge, “Atheists Are the Most Politically Active Group in the United States.” Religion in Public, April 13, 2020. Available online at https://religioninpublic.blog/2020/04/13/atheists-are-the-most-politically-active-group-in-the-united-states/.
5. Justin McCarthy, “Less Than Half in U.S. Would Vote for a Socialist for President.” Gallup, May 9, 2019. Available online at https://news.gallup.com/poll/254120/less-half-vote-socialist-president.aspx.
6. For what it’s worth, the sources for these surveys in the original article are not named, and I have not been able to confirm them on my own.
7. Beth Ellwood, “People Are Less Tolerant of Atheists Expressing Their Beliefs at Work Compared to Christians, Muslims, or Jews.” PsyPost, August 2, 2021. Available online at https://www.psypost.org/2021/08/people-are-less-tolerant-of-atheists-expressing-their-beliefs-at-work-compared-to-christians-muslims-or-jews-61626.
In the mid-1990s, The Atlantic magazine scrapped an article it had assigned to Wendy Kaminer, reportedly fearing that it would be too controversial.1 Kaminer, a respected and established journalist, author, and lawyer, was already well known as an ardent advocate for free speech rights and a critic of the New Age indulgences of the self-help movement …