Everything I Like about Religion I Learned from an Atheist

March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the UK, and Australia. In commemoration we bring you part three of this year’s four-part series, Humanist Women in History. Read last week’s profile on Alice Walker here and a profile of Mathilde Krim here. Last year’s five-part series is here.


[This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 Humanist magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author.]

One of the most alarming developments in my lifetime has been the increasing identification of patriotism and other so-called traditional values, like family, with religion. Religion is such a tricky thing. We try to teach our kids to avoid cults and sects but then, sooner or later, they get old enough to ask you to explain the difference between a cult and a religion.

Is it that cults have irrational belief systems and engage is peculiar, lurid practices? No. Some religions do that too. Is it because cults are always trying to take your money?  Well, no. Religions have a tendency to do that, as well. So eventually you have to admit to your kids that it’s really just a matter of size.

A couple dozen people committing suicide in preparation for boarding the mother ship somewhere is a cult, while a hundred million people bowing down before a flesh-hating, elderly celibate is considered a world-class religion. A half-dozen Trotskyists meeting over coffee is considered a sect, while a few million gun-toting, Armageddon-ready Baptists is referred to as the Republican Party.

This fusion of patriotism and religion all started when I was a child. When they put the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance, for a long time I couldn’t accept it. There was also the whole question of why we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school in the first place. Did they actually think that second-graders would defect to the Soviet Union overnight if we didn’t renew that pledge every day?

And then there are all the travesties involving the founding fathers, who are usually portrayed by the Christian right as a bunch of born-again members of the Christian Coalition, even though they were mostly deists. They were exactly what many people today would call “godless atheists”—like John Adams, who described the Judeo-Christian tradition as “the bloodiest religion that ever existed” or Ethan Allen (the revolutionary hero, not the furniture store), who wrote the first anti-Christian text published in America.

It’s not just a matter of religion infiltrating patriotism, however. There’s also the ongoing attempt in the United States to turn patriotism into a religion.

Every year Congress takes up the issue of whether to amend the Constitution to prevent the “desecration” of the American flag. This gets members into all kinds of trouble when they realize that today you can find the American flag on almost anything: T-shirts, bathing suits, even men’s underwear. So they seriously discussed, in the august halls of Congress, whether underwear could be a flag and if it were ruled to be a flag in one state, would it then be a flag in all states—and whether it would then, I suppose, have to be saluted. The way it was going, I almost expected them to eventually get to the vexing issue of whether small lapses in personal hygiene committed by guys wearing the flag underwear would qualify as acts of desecration.

Not only have religion and patriotism been merging, but religion has been seeping into public policy in the form of “family values.” James Dobson, a leading member of the Christian right (now there’s an oxymoron for you, like conservative Marxist or airline schedule), publishes a pro-family newsletter in which I was descried a couple of years ago as someone who had “devoted her life to the destruction of the American family.” This despite the fact that I raised two perfect children and remain in close contact with dozens of relative around the country—some of whom are kind of annoying, I admit, but I have never tried to destroy any of them.

I think the reason Dobson believes I must be trying to destroy the family is that I’m a feminist—which shows a typical Christian-right understanding of feminism. For example, a couple of years ago, Christian leader Pat Robertson sent out a mailing to the Iowa members of the Christian Coalition in which he explained feminism for them. He explained that the goals of feminism are to get women to (1) leave their husbands, (2) kill their children, (3) overthrown capitalism, (4) become lesbians, and (5) practice witchcraft. This is a very exhausting agenda. My question then is, if we’re so good at witchcraft, why hasn’t Pat Robertson turned into a little green frog yet? We’ll have to work on our spells.

For the record, feminists have not tried to “destroy the family.” We just thought the family was such a good idea that men might want to get involved in it, too.

And these are not partisan issues anymore. The Democrats today have been as big on family values and religion as have the Republicans. For example, President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in 1996, which effectively ended this nation’s obligation to the poorest of the poor. At the time he signed it, Monica Lewinsky was working in the White House and Dick Morris, the presidential aide who pushed hardest for welfare reform, was embroiled in a relationship with a Washington prostitute. But the interesting thing is that the welfare reform bill, among many ingeniously sadistic measures, provided money to bring abstinence education to unmarried poor women. Why waste that abstinence education on the poor? There are so many sites in Washington where it could be very effectively applied.

The reason why the constant linkage to God, family, and flag is particularly upsetting to me has to do with the history of my own family. I am a fourth-generation atheist. My ancestors were not members of the so-called liberal elite—so hated by our current conservative elite. They were miners and railroad workers and farmers and farm workers. Once they had been religious people, many of them Catholics.

The story of how my family became irreligious begins with my great-grandmother, a Montana farmer named Mamie O’Laughlin. When her father was dying, she sent for a priest. The priest didn’t want to be bothered and sent back a message saying he would come only if he were paid a fee of $25, a huge sum in those days and way beyond the means of my great grandmother. So her father died without the consolation of the sacrament and that was the end of religion for Mamie O’Laughlin.

A couple of years after her father died, she herself lay dying in childbirth at the age of thirty-one. This time a priest showed up, without being called, to administer last rites to her. But Mamie had never forgiven the church. So when the priest placed the cross on her chest, she sat up and, with her last burst of strength, threw it across the room. Then she lay back and died.

This is what I was told as a child to explain why my family had been atheists going way back, and had become atheists without the benefit of any higher education. But as I learned later, my family members were hardly the only blue-collar atheists in the United States, and certainly not the only ones in Butte, Montana, where my grandparents lived and I was born.

What I learned through my own reading later was that there is a vast and largely forgotten tradition of working-class American atheism, usually called freethought in the nineteenth century. At one time there were dozens of freethought newspapers published throughout the United States. In the Northeast, the freethought newspaper movement was linked to the working men’s movement of the early 1800s, which was a progenitor of the trade union movement. In the West it flourished among miners and other low-paid working people who were drawn to the Wobblies and other unions at the early part of this century.

These were poor people whose distrust of priests and ministers was part and parcel of their hatred of bosses and bankers. Their ethos was, put briefly: think for yourself, because those who offer to do your thinking for you are usually planning to get hold of your wallet. This is the family tradition I came out of and which I’m proud to claim as my own.

When I mention this I sometimes get funny looks—like I must be some kind of morally depraved degenerate. This is because the common religionist view is that religion is the only possible source of morality, that there is no point in doing good unless you’re going to be rewarded for it in the afterlife.

But that’s not how it worked in my family. One bizarre but still meaningful-to-me example is my great-grandfather John Howes. His earliest rebellion against religion—I’m not totally proud to admit—was that he urinated in the holy water before Easter service when he was a boy in Canada and was thus involuntarily ejected from the church. Later he moved to Butte, and the story is told that, after working in the copper mines for many years and saving his money, he finally had enough to achieve his dream of getting out of the mines and buying a small farm. So he hitched up his wagon and started driving out of town. And there he came across—hitchhiking, I guess—an Indian woman, who had no money at all, and her child. So John Howes gave her all his money and turned around and went back to Butte to the mines.

I can’t attribute any fancy existential philosophy to my great-granddad, but I think the idea was, if there is no God or no evidence of God and certainly no evidence of a very morally engaged god, then whatever has to be done has to be done by us. This is how I was raised and how my children were raised. I felt very deeply affirmed a few years ago when somebody sent me a story about a certain wise old rabbi who advised that if you ever really need help, go to an atheist—because an atheist isn’t going to wait around for God to get the job done.

And that is the philosophical basis of my own social activism. God, if there is one, has never shown a great interest in stopping wars, ending patriarchy, feeding the hungry, curing the sick, or so many other urgent tasks, which is why we have to do those things ourselves. If there isn’t a god to care for us then we have to care for each other.

As a social activist I have come to know and respect many religious traditions and many religious people. I like the fierce old prophets of the Old Testament, railing against the rich and the mighty. I admire the transcendent philosophy of Buddhism, which, I should point out, is completely nontheistic. And I’m a great fan of that inveterate troublemaker, permanent vagrant, and socialist revolutionary, Jesus Christ.

In fact, sometimes I think it would be great if the United States were a “Christian nation,” assuming anyone could remember what Christianity originally meant. Originally, it was not a program for persecuting gays, poor people, abortionists, and teachers of evolution. It was a program for the abolition of militarism and for the radical redistribution of wealth.

It seems to me I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years speaking to bona fide Christians about what their religion was originally about. I talked to them about Jesus’s encounter with the wealthy young fellow who said, “I’ve obeyed all the laws; am I going to get into heaven?” and Jesus said, “No, you have to give away everything you have to the poor; then you might have a chance. And so on and so forth.

It’s a sad day, I think, for Christianity—or maybe a great day for secular humanism—when a fourth-generation atheist has to remind Christians what their religion really says. As one of my favorite t-shirts pleads, “Jesus Christ, protect me from your followers.”

In many ways I’ve often thought atheists would probably fit in better in this very religious society if we adopted some sort of organized religion—even if it were just that innocuous way of getting through Sunday mornings, like Unitarianism. After all, you can’t really hope to get elected to public office if you’re openly atheist. Even the Boy Scouts don’t want us; that’s been made clear. George Bush said he didn’t believe an atheist could be a real American. So I know plenty of closet atheists and agnostics who go to church and go along with it and mouth the words just so they can be “part of the community, too,” as they put it.

Well I’m happy to be part of the atheist community. Despite all my respect for the liberation theologists and the Buddhist monks and the Christian peace activists and so forth, there’s no way I could sign on to one of those religions. And not just because of my own irrepressible skepticism. In my case there’s another reason why I have to remain a practicing atheist, and that’s family values.


This article was adapted from Barbara Ehrenreich’s acceptance speech for the 1998 Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the American Humanist Association.

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