Historically, America hasn’t had the easiest time adjusting to changes in the religious landscape. Getting through the apprehension and confusion surrounding new or imported beliefs and arriving at some level of tolerance and respect took months, or years. Now, atheism and agnosticism are on the rise – the Pew Forum reports that over 16% of American adults say they are unaffiliated and not religious (atheists, agnostics, secular individuals and those who describe their religion “as nothing in particular”) – and the process of dealing with new interreligious [mis]understandings has begun yet again.
So how do we, as a nation, deal with this emerging issue? Well, maybe the Turkish are on to something with their latest idea, “Penitents Compete,” a game show where a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Buddhist monk compete to convert a group of 10 atheists. The goal of the show is bring God to nonbelievers and educate the nation’s Muslim majority about other faiths. What can the converted atheists win? “Serenity,” along with “the biggest prize ever… belief in God.” As an added perk, they throw in a free trip to the homeland of your chosen religion.
First and foremost, I cannot believe that we, as the titans of reality television, didn’t come up with this before they did. But on a more serious note, this is one of many signs that resistance to atheism in society has gone too far. The manifestation of this in Turkey may seem entertaining, but only on the surface; it belies a dangerous attitude toward the “other.” Several polls have provided statistical evidence of this attitude, including a Pew study indicating 52% of Americans have a “very unfavorable” or worse attitude toward atheists, and a Gallup poll revealing 48% would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate who was otherwise qualified.
At Tanenbaum, we see these issues pop up often in the health care and workplace programs. Atheist employees feel put out, or even discriminated against, in offices where meetings begin with prayer. Doctors are at a loss as to how to comfort a terminal patient who does not believe in God. Atheists and agnostics in both settings face varying degrees of proselytizing, a situation that can range from merely uncomfortable to flat out offensive.
The time has come to recognize atheism as a legitimate belief system. Perhaps not a religion, but a set of secular tenets that shapes the person’s worldview. Like religion, it is a set of beliefs which, after some contemplation, a person has chosen to accept and should be respected as such.
So now let’s move forward in the name of acceptance regardless of belief. Even if that means missing out on what I’m sure could be a lovely trip to Tibet/Jerusalem/Mecca/insert alternate holy land of your choice.