Those of you with a Facebook account may be noticing another viral trend on the site this week. Some of your friends are going to disappear and be replaced by a scarlet letter. No, not that scarlet letter. They are going to be switching their profile pictures with a red A on a black field which has been chosen as the symbol for atheist awareness week.
Although the number of people who report that they have no religion has been steadily growing over the years, the number of people who are willing to clearly identify as atheist or agnostic is still very small. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the American Religious Identification Survey reported that approximately 15% of those surveyed said they had no religion. That’s almost 35 million Americans. Yet only about .7% identified as atheist and .9% as agnostic, which together make up just 3.5 million people. So why are so many people without religion hesitant to identify as atheist or agnostic?
There is certainly a bias evident in society. Where it is considered unacceptable to question another person’s faith, lack of faith seems to be fair game. From the vandalism that plagues secular billboards (more examples here, here and here) to the disparaging comments made by public figures, such as Bush Sr. reportedly questioning whether atheists were still citizens, many people seem to think that a lack of faith constitutes a lack of morals. Atheists are seen as at best seriously misguided and at worst as criminal advocates of anarchy and hedonism.
The reason that prejudices like that can remain is that many people don’t know how many of their friends and loved ones are actually non-theists. The idea behind ‘A’ week on Facebook is to raise the profile of the unassuming atheists and to show people how many “normal,” moral people out there are, as the billboards put it, good without god.
Of course, whether or not it is important to choose the label of atheist when there are less loaded ones available, is up for debate. Many organizations that use the terms secular and humanist have also be showing increased membership in recent years and seem to have less stigma attached to them. Whatever the term you prefer, however, the important thing is to increase awareness that a moral life can be lead without the guidance of religion. So if you are comfortable calling yourself an atheist, why not join us this week? And if not, perhaps you could think about joining or making a donation to an organization like the Secular Coalition for America or the American Humanist Association.