Some of us have enjoyed the luxury of an atheist upbringing. Unlike our brethren who “converted” to a nontheistic worldview as adolescents or adults, we never have to suffer the post-traumatic stress that comes from a religious childhood. There are no ghosts of dictatorial priests or despotic pastors that still make us squeamish about our naughty parts. True, we have to wheeze every so often on the secondhand smoke of religious inanity, but we do so without getting a full, asphyxiating taste of its fetid vapors. On the other hand, those atheists who have never really known religion cannot fully appreciate, or predict, its many reprehensible encroachments on intellectual freedom, not to mention sanity.
Ironically, it was an invitation to proselytize on godlessness that set in motion my newfound appreciation for the exquisite stupidity that religion demands. The invitation came thanks to Atheist Alliance International President Margaret Downey (who also officiated at my wedding). At her suggestion, a local high school in central Pennsylvania invited my husband, Dr. Mark Shriver, and me to give a presentation on atheism and evolution to a classroom of intellectually curious students. The school’s Diversity Day included speakers on Buddhism, civil liberties, gay rights, and other “controversial” topics. Students needed a separate parent permission form for each particular lecture in the series, so Mark and I could be confident from the outset that each student attending our atheism/evolution colloquium must have come from at least a reasonably progressive home (and I use the word progressive with loyal adherence to its original definition, not as a surrogate for anything political).
Our appearance consisted of two twenty-minute lectures, the first on atheism that I presented and the second on evolution that Mark presented, followed by a Q&A period. In my lecture, I focused on the philosophical and logical reasons for embracing atheism (or rather, for rejecting theism) that we all know so well, such as Russell’s Teapot and the ad infinitum quandary: “Who created the god that created God?”
Had it not been for a Bill O’Reilly monologue that I heard on the radio (I strongly believe in not falling prey to exclusive choir-preaching), I might have left out another even more crucial element in my presentation on atheism, one with which some atheists may be more familiar than others—again, depending on their backgrounds. In my case, I just happened in at the right moment during a talk-radio host’s diatribe about our country’s moral milieu.
Mark and I represent two possible pathways to atheism (or, again, if you prefer, away from supernaturalism). He is a defected Catholic with a Ph.D. in genetics for whom science has fully eradicated all traces of theological tendency. I am one of those fortunate lifelong atheists raised by atheist parents—with an atheist grandmother, no less. As such, Mark may be in a better position to be quite familiar with Mr. O’Reilly’s argument (one that, little did I know, is not at all uncommon and in fact rather tired). And what is that argument? O’Reilly contends that ethical behavior is completely impossible, wholly unnecessary, and perfectly incomprehensible within the framework of an atheist worldview. According to O’Reilly, atheists—and somehow, by extension, people who accept evolution—“go around doing whatever they want, because, why not?” Why indeed would one make principled choices without the belief that a god is monitoring all the filthy and mischievous meanderings inside one’s brain and furthermore promising to punish such meanderings with torture and dismemberment in an ocean of fire? To quote Sam Harris’s bitingly sober prose: were it not for religion, many do believe that “most of us would spend our days raping and killing our neighbors and stealing their pornography.”
Well, thank you, Bill O’Reilly, Sam Harris, and Mark, for assuring me that, yes, really, no joke, many reasonably intelligent, well-educated, nonfundamentalist, just-religious-enough people do, in fact, believe that atheists are gluttonous scofflaws with closets full of drugs, unhealthy snacks, their victims’ bodies, and of course, porn. And here I always thought such absurd ideas were just the crazed ramblings of snake handlers and people who send their kids to Jesus camp. Live and learn. So, with that new gem of knowledge that the daughter of atheists evidently must discover late in life, I made sure to focus on perhaps the most important message atheists can impress upon the public, especially the young public: atheism can be a better guide to benevolent behavior and a noble life than religion. I asked the students to consider what I had only recently realized: “Is it better to be kind and compassionate to people and other animals because you feel genuine concern for their suffering or because you want to get points in heaven?”
After my long-overdue rude awakening that Mr. O’Reilly was generous enough to set in motion, I admit I was a bit apprehensive about just how warm a reception we might get from the high-school students at our Diversity Day presentation. In the end, we were pleasantly surprised with how amicably we were received. As I mentioned, those students who were there had chosen to be there and had supplied written evidence of their parents’ blessing. None of the questions or comments Mark and I heard during the Q&A seemed remotely hostile or antagonistic and were, in fact, intelligent, thoughtful inquiries.
To me: “Do atheists want to convert other people?”
To both: “Were you raised atheist?”
To Mark: “How old were you when you decided you were an atheist?”
To Mark: “How did your parents react when you told them you didn’t believe in God?”
To me: “Can people not be a part of organized religion but still believe in God?”
To Mark: “Do some scientists believe in both evolution and God?”
Clearly, however, in light of the still-widespread belief that atheism leads to depravity, this small central-Pennsylvanian victory should not lead us to conclude that our work is done. What’s more, I found myself appalled by another piece of news when the following weekend my sixteen-year-old stepson came to visit. After we told him about our atheist/evolution presentation, Daniel shook his head in irritation, explaining that at his high school (Riverhead High School on Long Island) the science teachers were not allowed to mention the word evolution (only “natural selection,” and then only in nonhumans) because it was “against some people’s religion.” Again, my naiveté about my religious neighbors became all too apparent. What?! I mean, I knew that happened quite famously in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005 and in some town in Georgia (my home state) a few years ago, but how dare my bright, wise-for-his-years, curious stepson be denied a thorough tuition on Darwinian principles—without which a career in science, not to mention a proper understanding of and fascination with our evolved and evolving world, would be impossible?
Mark seemed less bewildered by the discovery of Daniel’s school’s no-evolution policy, although no less disgusted. As such, we started to reevaluate that provocative first question from a Diversity Day student: “Do atheists try to convert other people?” Of course, when first asked we had answered in the negative, adding wryly that we only do so when invited and that we certainly never have the audacity to knock on strangers’ doors carrying pamphlets and wearing unflattering suits. But perhaps, given so bleak a picture where public understanding of atheist ethics is concerned—not to mention the pitiful state of affairs at my stepson’s Long Island school—we ought to reconsider spreading the Good News with a bit more fervor and diligence. At the very least, we ought to take seriously the call of Richard Dawkins and Tom Flynn to come merrily and proudly out of the closet in an effort to destigmatize the “A” word. Charity, as the saying goes, begins at home. So does the search for proselytes.
So for the next few hours, Mark and I did some at-home atheist evangelizing and talked to Daniel about evolution and its four forces (mutation, natural and sexual selection, admixture, and drift). Alas, at least as long as Ben Stein assures us that evolutionary theory results in racism, genocide, and eugenics—as long as talk-show hosts contend that godlessness guarantees vice—then Daniel’s classmates may never hear of how chimpanzees are genetically closer to humans than to gorillas, how natural selection helps explain our vivid skin color differences, or why sexual selection leads to the sexual dimorphism evident in teenage boys and girls.