If religion remains a touchy subject in American public life, irreligion is even more delicate. Anti-defamation leagues and the like rise to protect the good name of religious groups. But who speaks up for organized atheists, a few of whom exist in a nation where over 90% profess faith in God?
Some do. But atheists have their work cut out for them. Quick, now: Cite an atheist organization. Name an atheist leader. Too late: You said "Madalyn Murray O'Hair," but she disappeared tragically some years ago, probably a murder victim.
Surviving is an organization called American Atheists. Its president, Ellen Johnson of Crawford, N.J., was pictured and featured in this past Saturday's New York Times. Laurie Goodstein, who interviewed Johnson, reports that American Atheists, "only one of several national organizations for nonbelievers, has 1,500 members, four staff members, and volunteers in 22 states." In other words, you could tuck them all into the transept of almost any southern city's First Baptist church.
So who's afraid of atheists? Some whiny religionists sometimes see "secular humanist conspiracies" threatening the republic. But non-religion comes less in such forms than in habits of mind shared by millions: "practical" atheism. But today we are talking about focused, organized, and sometimes militant atheists.
You are not supposed to defame others' beliefs and, with them, the ethnic and racial and cultural contexts of each. Yet, Goodstein and Johnson accurately point out, you can smear nonbelievers with relative impunity. Johnson rightly criticizes politicians who claim, with George Washington, that morality cannot be maintained without religion. And she slams back: "That's an insult. There is no connection between morality and religion"--a certifiable misstatement. Then she engages in overkill or miss-kill: "Otherwise, professional religious people like priests wouldn't be molesting children."
In the presidential campaign of 1960, candidate Richard M. Nixon wanted to be nice to candidate John F. Kennedy, saying that his foe's Catholicism should not be an issue, nor should anyone's religion be a problem. Only if a candidate were an agnostic, opined Nixon, might there be.
I've been reading Allen C. Guelzo's superb book "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" (Eerdmans, 1999). It pays respect to Lincoln's latter-day employment of religious rhetoric and themes, but if I read Guelzo right, he considers Lincoln to embody a genteel version of what his enemies called him: an infidel. Yet, the last we heard, he was rather moral and concerned about morality.
Lincoln was not alone among the doers of good in American life, not all of whom have been sure of belief in God or religious practice.