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There but for the Grace of God
By John Rodat

Statistics say that American religion may be on the decline, but nonbelievers still struggle for public acceptance

It took Teresa Martin-Berrada a long time to come clean about her beliefs, even to herself. For years, she kept them secret for fear of the stigma her personal philosophy might bring upon her. That taciturnity on theological matters wasn’t a new phenomenon to her entirely: She had learned from her mother that it was easier to keep mum, to go along to get along. And she remembered the example of her outspoken grandmother—who defended her own convictions to an often-hostile society who found her minority opinions alien and threatening—which only reinforced the idea that silence was safer.“My mother never spoke of her beliefs at all to anybody for fear of being shunned,” Martin-Berrada says. “But her mom would speak out, you know. . . . She’d get in up-front confrontations with people, and that just scared my mom to death.”

So, her mother learned quickly to keep quiet, to keep her difference—her aberration—under wraps, withheld even from her family. “She never spoke of her religious beliefs, not even to us children, to tell you the truth,” Martin-Berrada recalls. “So, it’s weird that we all started to think in a way very similar to her.”

And in turn, when those unspoken beliefs had taken root in the adult children, Martin-Berrada kept quiet too, hesitant to discuss her feelings with her own family. “Because I’m like my mom,” she explains, “even to my own husband. I tried to talk a little bit in the past and it was just so uncomfortable that I just said, ‘You believe what you want to believe, and I’ll believe what I want to believe,’ which was fine until we had kids.”

Martin-Berrada and her husband now have two children; the eldest has just turned 4 and the youngest is 1, and decisions must be made regarding schooling and religious education, and explanations of the world around them must be readied. And as Martin-Berrada and her husband are of different faiths, the path of least resistance—silence—seems untenable. For the sake of the children, an agreement needed to be reached.

Fortunately, Martin-Berrada has found a support group of like-minded adults whose community has bolstered her confidence and given her the feeling that, though a minority opinion, her private philosophy on life and the universe is valid enough that it can be spoken aloud—if only in select company, and with qualification.

“I still haven’t called myself an atheist to other people, but to my husband I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can finally say I’m an atheist,’ ” Martin-Berrada now admits—though she quickly notes, “But I think the word ‘nonbeliever’ is much more liked.”

These are the agonies of the nonbelievers—the atheists, the nonreligious, the faithless, the religiously unaffiliated, the secular humanists—all those who live without God or gods in our “Judeo-Christian” nation. Discrimination, we know, still exists in our country despite our best attempts to regulate and legislate it into the past, but it targets positively identifiable qualities, traits, heritages and orientations, doesn’t it? How can those who profess no faith claim discrimination? What outward sign is there of godlessness? Don’t ask, don’t tell, and all is well—isn’t it?

“The fact that you have to keep it to yourself shows how much prejudice there is,” says Matt Cherry, executive director of the Albany-based Institute for Humanist Studies. “You don’t feel that way about other issues: If you’re Jewish, you accept that you should not have to keep it to yourself. You know there’s prejudice, but it’s wrong. If you’re gay, you shouldn’t have to keep it to yourself, you should be allowed to be open about it. So to say, ‘Atheists wouldn’t have any trouble if they’d just pretend not to be atheists’ is to reveal how much prejudice and discrimination there is.”

The institute’s literature describes it as “an educational non-profit institute designed to provide accessible information about humanism and the non-religious.” President Larry Jones founded the organization in 1999 because he felt that, despite the centrality of humanism to the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, the general population was ill-informed as to just what it was, and what it meant.

“I started it because I felt that humanism was failing to do some important things,” Jones explains. “Like explain itself to the general public and to educate people about humanism. . . . People just didn’t know what humanism was, what the humanist movement is about. The basic definition of humanism, I would say, is that humanism assumes that people can be moral, ethical, charitable and happy without appeal to supernaturalism. I think that the basic mission of humanism is that it seeks to make people maximize human happiness and dignity.”

In other words, perhaps: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But familiar and easily palatable as these concepts are to Americans, there is, for many, a hitch. These are our formal national priorities, but this is one nation under God. We trust in these concepts—they are the very fabric of our foundational documents, after all—but, even more so, we trust in God. Or so it appears.

“In some ways, it is getting harder,” says Cherry, “because American life seems to be getting more and more publicly religious. People don’t seem to be getting more religious in their private lives, in fact religion seems to be declining, but in terms of the public profession of religion, it seems to be becoming more and more common—if not compulsory—to say you believe in God, or in a particular religion. You’re never going to see a politician who’s going to come out and not appear to be religious, or not say, ‘God bless America,’ at every possible opportunity.”

Indeed, the current administration’s culturally conservative and evangelical bent has been explicit to the point of being, at times, the object of mockery. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s morning prayer meetings, during which he encouraged staffers to sing inspirational songs that he wrote himself, provided fodder for more than one late-night talk-show host’s monologues, and his prudish reaction to naked sculptures at a Justice Department building was treated even more irreverently (not to mention the fact that each time Ashcroft has been elected to an office he has had a peer anoint him with cooking oil, in the manner of King David). President George W. Bush’s comment that the greatest philosopher in history was Jesus Christ drew sneers from academics and intellectuals who thought it made the commander-in-chief seem poorly read, if not hickish. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative appointed by President Ronald Reagan, complained recently that the constitutional mandate for the separation of church and state was being interpreted too flexibly, and whined that under scrutiny by separationists the Constitution “morphs while you look at it like Plastic Man”—whatever that means.

The prevalence of this rhetoric seems to have colored all political discourse, and expressions of piety are by no means the exclusive province of the Republican party: Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a Jew who was very nearly vice president, claimed that the Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion—an inexplicably ominous-sounding and insensitive statement coming from a member of a minority faith that still suffers discrimination from intolerant members of the statistically more popular Christian faith.

Cherry is quick to point out, however, that the concern should not necessarily be focused on the public proclamations of the professional political class—“For all you know,” he says, “a lot of our recent presidents have been nonbelievers in their hearts, but they’ve played the religion card to get elected.”—but rather on the legislation advanced in the name of faith. Accordingly, the institute has active watchdog and lobbying components to their mission.

“I actually think that George W. and John Ashcroft and their fellows are genuinely devout, and they see things, everything, through the lens of their born-again evangelical beliefs,” Cherry says. “And I think that does profoundly effect a lot of issues and debates, and a lot of social policies. It’s harder to tell on foreign policy, but on social issues—whether it’s family planning, teaching abstinence in schools, abortion, and, of course, homosexuality—there’s a lot of comment that they’re passing legislation to help their religious-right allies, but I think it’s their own beliefs.”

President Bush’s recent executive order implementing faith-based initiatives, for example, has come under fire for its provision of federal funds to religious organizations that have exclusionary, discriminatory practices as essential elements of their charters, missions or characters. By the terms of the order, any program receiving federal funds is free to “retain its independence and may continue to carry out its mission, including the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs, provided it does not use direct Federal financial assistance to support any inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.” The long and short of this, according to the watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is that religious groups involved in after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation and abstinence programs, as well as other social services, have enough wiggle room to be able to “combine the government services with various forms of religious indoctrination.”

Explicit in the order is the right of such programs to discretionary hiring and the selection of board members based on religious criteria. (If there are any doubts that religiously oriented groups have trepidation about inclusion, a Traditional Values Coalition press release following the order puts them to rest: “TVC is going to obtain copies of these orders to see if they protect religious groups from being forced to hire homosexuals, transgenders, or other individuals whose behaviors and beliefs may violate the policies of these groups.”) And though President Bush has claimed that all denominations—“Methodist or Mormon or Muslim or good people with no faith at all”—will be free to apply for funding, other comments have indicated that this is not exactly so, and that the definition of the “good people” is and shall remain subjective: When asked if Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, for example, would be eligible, Bush replied, “I don’t see how we can allow public dollars to fund programs where spite and hate is the core of the message. Louis Farrakhan preaches hate.”

Yet, under the Bush-backed educational reform package known as No Child Left Behind, public schools that allow extracurricular use of their facilities may not discriminate as to the groups eligible—it’s all or none. So, the U.S. military, which discriminates against gays, is free to use public property to recruit, and the Boy Scouts of America, which discriminates against gays and atheists, are free to use these facilities at the taxpayers’ expense.

‘You know who’s screaming from wherever he is right now? James Madison.”

L. Gordon Tait, the Mercer professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, and author of The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum, laughs as he imagines the reaction of the United States’ fourth president, and framer of the Bill of Rights, to the current political situation.

“The first amendment says, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Madison said, ‘All right, let’s get serious about this.’ . . . He really believed in the separation of church and state and, you know what? He said this will mean if people want to believe and have their own churches and have their own religious groups, they’ll do it. . . . If they’re not going to get any help from the government, they’ll dig down in their pockets and they’ll roll up their sleeves, and we’ll have a vital religion in this country—if we don’t have it established. And it kind of looks like Madison was right.”

Citing the great pluralism of religions found thriving within our borders, the historian says, “I don’t like hearing this business about ‘America was founded by, or the founding was based on, the Judeo-Christian tradition’ without it being taken apart and examined very carefully. Do you mean the Puritans that came in 1620? Sure, they were Christian. The Catholics who came to Florida at about the same time? Yeah, they were Christian. But are we really talking about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? The Constitution doesn’t mention God or Jesus.

“School vouchers that might go to religious schools, and faith-based social programs? They’re getting very close to crossing the line,” Tait continues. “And people who are even more sensitive to this than I am have protested that money that would go to various religious groups for social services in the end would end up crossing the line because those organizations aren’t always going to be able to do those social services without incorporating their own beliefs and practices.”

In Tait’s opinion, the founding fathers accepted that a “generalized Christianity” would likely prevail in the land, and supported it as a means of educating the public in morality, virtue and ethical behavior, but he contends that the sentiment was based in part on a “suspicion of the common people,” and is a far cry from establishing that the founders’ intent was for America to be an aggressively Christian or evangelical nation.

“Well, most of them at the time would not have approved of what we’re doing today,” he says. “Jefferson wanted to write his own bible, for instance. He hated some of the stuff in the Bible, like Mark, chapter 13, and all those miracles, those awful miracles. He wanted to rewrite the Bible, just keep the good teachings of Jesus. . . . He said it was OK to have the Christian religion—if you couldn’t do any better.”

Tait believes that it was the comparatively simple religious makeup of the colonies that made for this acceptance of the Christian faith on the part of founding fathers such as Jefferson, Washington, Madison and other deists, whose beliefs were based on a post-Enlightenment emphasis on human reason and the laws of the natural world, rather than on “God’s unique revelation in the Bible.” In today’s heterogeneous climate, however, this federal casualness would be irresponsible.

Tait cites an opinion piece he wrote some years ago, which seems increasingly relevant: “In all good conscience, we cannot justifiably insist that our nation had better have a religion and it better be Christian. So what should we do? Might we try to construct a public or civic religion composed of a few core beliefs or should we attempt to set forth several ethical principles that would undergird our common life and point us in the direction of virtue?”

Holly Nolan, the executive director of the Capital District Humanist Society, is proffering the group’s pamphlet. “You may be a humanist and not even know it,” it reads. “Do you believe people can be ethical without God or religion? Do you support the separation of church and state? Would you like to meet people who share such beliefs? Are you looking for a group that supports your values? If you answered yes, then the Capital District Humanist Society is for you.”

She talks of her own experience, her own process of recognizing herself as a nonbeliever, with gentle and confident acceptance. The granddaughter of ministers, a former theology student and a onetime “rock ’em, sock ’em” teacher of the Old Testament, Nolan says that her extensive readings in the literature of religion and the writings of Joseph Campbell—and a break with a church group over her unwillingness to participate in ritual for ritual’s sake—all made for a fairly painless process of self-identification as godless.

She recognizes, however, that it isn’t as easy for everybody. The expressions on the faces of new members attending the group’s lectures or social events, when they realize they have found a community in which their irreligiosity will be accepted, indulged and fostered, suggest that there are often more difficult paths to discovery.

“We had a great new-member barbecue—we had about 60 people,” Nolan relates, “and we went around the yard, and they talked about how they came to it, and that’s when you’re reminded that people come from every kind of background. If there was one thing that they all shared, it was a sense of relief to find this group. Relief.”

The relief of one new member particularly comes to Nolan’s mind: “One really attractive young woman, a mother of two young children, said as soon as she and her husband—a Muslim man—moved in, the neighbors asked her what church she went to. And that rang a bell for several people, so they talked about that: That going to church, identifying with the church is a very significant thing, it’s very much smiled upon in our culture. So, I think this group is pleased to be identified with an organization.”

The attractive young woman in question, Teresa Martin-Berrada, readily concurs: “I think what the humanist group did for me is give me the strength to voice my true opinions to my husband without the fear of rejection,” she says. “We’ve been married for six, seven years, but I always made my belief system kind of fluffy so as to be better accepted and not rejected. I didn’t know anybody else who thought the way I did, but now I have this group I can say it’s perfectly fine to think this way. It’s the way I’ve always thought, but now I can tell you that we can raise our children without any religious titles and without saying, ‘If you don’t do this or that some bogeyman is going to get you when you die.

“Even though there’s a small group of us, there is a group of us,” she says. “And it’s not crazy to think this way.”

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