What I Like about the Expansion of the Humanist Movement

Natalie Angier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a bestselling author of four books. She graduated from Barnard College with honors in both English and science (physics and astronomy). Angier first worked as a reporter and writer for Discover magazine. She continued to write about science for Time and served as a professor of journalism in science writing at New York University. In 1990 she started writing for the New York Times and continues to this day. An outspoken atheist, Angier has written about religious beliefs, particularly in the scientific community. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science award for excellence in science journalism and the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Emperor Has No Clothes” award. The following is adapted from her speech in accepting the Humanist Media Award from the American Humanist Association at its annual conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 7, 2014.

I’D LIKE TO BEGIN with a great joke my brother Joe told me: St. Peter is up in heaven and he passes by God’s office.  God is sitting in a corner weeping his heart out, and St. Peter says, “Lord, what’s wrong?” God says, “I’m in love with an atheist but she doesn’t know I exist.” It’s just so perfect.

My husband and I were recently looking through some statistics on Americans and religiosity because I think it always helps to review where we stand. My husband came upon a recent Pew study called “Nones on the Rise,” referring to those who answer “none” when asked their religious affiliation. Now, in the last five years, according to the study, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated have gone from 15 to 20 percent and there are now 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics in the United States. The statistics are even more encouraging when you look at the under-thirty group where 33 percent describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Compare that to the over-sixty-five group where 90 percent are religiously affiliated and you see what the trend is, that we are seeing a real change. There’s also been a decline in the number of Americans who say they’ve never once doubted the existence of God (88 percent contended it in 2002; 80 percent do today). That’s really impressive, you say, but we’re still a very churchy nation.

Another recent Pew study that got a lot of attention found that when people go to vote for president, the worst thing a candidate can be is an atheist. And yet, even though 53 percent of those surveyed said this, five years ago it was 63 percent. And the number of people who say they would never vote for an atheist has also gone down—from 41 to 32 percent. So, we actually see all the trends are in the right direction.

Why is this happening? In fact, one of the reasons is the rise of the religious right and the association between extreme religiosity and intolerant politics. I also credit efforts of the New Atheist movement. Now, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of the new atheists are being attacked, even by scientists, and I actually get a little bit annoyed with this. You may say, “Oh, they’re going overboard. They’re just as bad as the religious fundamentalists,” but in fact, we really need to speak out, and these are people who have stood up and done it. It’s not enough for scientists to say, “Oh, tell everybody that evolution is real,” and then back away from any other taboo subject.

And one of the things I like about the expansion of the humanist movement is that it’s affecting young people in particular. If we can get to the young people and the young people get to their own young people, this is really going to spell a kind of exponential growth.

I am convinced, although I don’t have evidence for it, that if you don’t get a strong religious indoctrination when you’re young, it’s never going to sink in. You know, maybe later you’ll toy around, but that strong indoctrination I think has to come early on. It’s kind of like learning a language: if you’re older than five or six, you’ll always speak with an accent. So, I think that if we can prevent religiosity from taking root in toddlerhood we’ll make a big difference. That’s why I once tweeted on a Sunday, “Celebrate ‘Don’t take your children to church’ day! Because religion is the opiate of the people, and you should never give drugs to kids.” Which brings me to the point that I made when I addressed the Freedom From Religion Foundation [in accepting their Emperor Has No Clothes Award]. This was in 2003. My daughter Katherine was six years old and I talked about raising a healthy, God-free child in a God-besotted country, touching on some of the challenges. I mean, there were joys in it but there were also a lot of problems.

Katherine used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming. She had these panic attacks thinking about death, thinking about oblivion. She’d say, “Oh, I’m thinking about death again. I don’t want to just be wiped out.” And my husband and I, we just really didn’t know quite what to do so we’d say things like, “Don’t worry. By the time you’re old, medicine is going to have people living for hundreds of years. There’s going to be an iBrain you can download your whole mind into.”

But the one thing that we wouldn’t talk about, that I refused to offer, was religious comfort. We’d say we don’t know what happens after you die, but I never actually pressed the God option. Death is hard for anyone to deal with. It’s hard for an atheist to deal with the fact that you’re going to die, so you have to cope and you have to come up with your own way of coping.

Katherine certainly has. She’s graduating from high school—she’s been in this wonderful public school science and math program that could be a model for the entire country. And she’s doing really well. She’s going to study biology at Princeton. And so I recently thought, okay, it’s time to interview her about how the experiment went, you know, the experiment raising an atheist child. So, I talked to her about it. And she’s not the kind of person who would lie to me. You know, she complains all the time about the bad things I’ve done to her, so I knew that if she thought that was a lousy thing to foist on her that she would tell me. So, I said, “Well, how do you feel about having been raised an atheist? Are you sorry?” She said, “No, I love being an atheist. It’s true that when I was young and I had those panic attacks, that was hard to deal with, but it made me stronger as a result.” And she said, “I don’t like the idea of losing my five senses and not being able to explore the world anymore, but somehow thinking about the fact that the world goes on and that there is this big universe out there—that, oddly enough, gives me a lot of comfort.” She said she doesn’t consider herself a particularly strong person but growing up as an atheist is a source of so much strength in everything else you do; if you cannot rely on some sort of mental crutch you instead arrive at some reasoned idea about what life is.

Katherine is a very compassionate person. She doesn’t kill anything. Really—she had to do an insect collection (she wants to be an entomologist) but because she won’t kill an insect she did a photograph collection. Even so, she believes very much in science and told me that religious ideas like reincarnation or eternity in heaven or hell are all unappealing and ridiculous. “If you know anything about math, none of that even makes any sense,” she said, and so I was glad that she was using all parts of her mind. The interesting thing is that she’s actually ended up spending a lot of time in churches, and it’s a funny reason why.

When Katherine was nine years old she went to a concert with her aunt and fell in love with the pipe organ. She decided she wanted to play one. Well, guess where you have to go to play the pipe organ? So, she’s been going to church several times a week to have her lesson and to practice, and so she’s been kind of steeped in that in an interesting way. She says all of her friends laugh about it because here she is, this outspoken atheist, and she’s going to church all the time. But she does it for the beauty of the organ. And her parents are very happy about this, because not only do we love the organ and the way she plays it, but it turns out that there’s a real shortage of organists, which means that she can work her way through college playing hymns at the Sunday services, which she promises to do. So, you see, you can always profit from religion even if you’re not going to partake of it.



Q: What is the great public high school you mentioned that should be a model for the country? And secondly, as you raised your daughter, did you ever feel the need to belong to a humanist organization or a congregation?

Natalie Angier: I actually really like the idea of people getting together but I guess I didn’t want something that was going to be too formalized. I think it’s important to have a community, to feel like you’re part of a community. Katherine feels like hers is with all the self-proclaimed nerds she hangs out with. I’ve asked her, “Well, what about your friends, what are their religious feelings?” She says, “Well, 10 percent are strong atheists like me, 20 percent are somewhat religious and go to church, and then the remaining 70 percent are agnostic—they don’t know and they don’t care.” What they really care about are computers and science and math and playing a lot of video games, so she feels like she’s part of that nerd community.

The high school is called Montgomery Blair. It’s a public high school in Montgomery County, Maryland. They have a magnet program, which I wrote about for the Times because I thought it was so good. Unfortunately, the ratio of girls to boys is not optimal. As I found out, girls get accepted and then many of them don’t go, so I was also trying to encourage them. But it’s a great program. It’s very hard, but I think that a lot of kids would really benefit from it. And the kids work together, they support each other, and they get into these study groups and help each other. So, I think it could be done on a much wider scale.

Q: Science journalism has gone through enormous changes in the last couple decades. Your newspaper, the New York Times, is one of relatively few that still have a science section, but on the other hand, there are many other outlets for science communication. What’s your outlook on the communication of science to the public?

Natalie Angier: Doing science writing is great, but there are fewer and fewer outlets that can support you full time. People ask, “How do I become a science journalist?” Well, there are a lot of people who are trying to do it now, and communications is the number-one major now in the United States. So, if people have a lot of initiative and can piece together a living from little bits here and there, that’s an option. Writing for universities is an expanding outlet, and not a bad option because in a lot of those jobs, you’re actually writing about some pretty meaty stuff.

But in terms of outlets in the traditional sense, yes, the New York Times still has a science section, but you know, the Times lives from month to month and is constantly trying to generate new sources of revenue. It’s really amazing how many different routes they’re trying to take because the old model has collapsed. I was a little upset to see their latest attempt, which is to offer specialized subscriptions for people who only want to read the opinion pages. I don’t think it’s a good idea to feast too much on opinions, but if people are going to pay for that, it makes sense from a business standpoint.

And there are very few outlets in magazines. Television, forget about it. Documentary producers are likewise having a tough time making a living. But again, if you’re willing to be very enterprising and kind of piece the work together and not expect it to all just fall into place, you can probably do it because there are a lot of websites and there are all sorts of technical opportunities. But it does require somebody who doesn’t mind always promoting themselves, always being on the move, and piecing everything together.

Q: I watched the wonderful Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson and was really pleased to see an entire show devoted to two women who made enormous contributions to science. One was Henrietta Leavitt, who I first found out about over half a century ago reading an Isaac Asimov article about her, and another woman, whose name escapes me, made a major contribution in stellar astronomy. Do you agree that shows like this will encourage people, and women especially, to go into science?

Natalie Angier: Yes. And Neil deGrasse Tyson has been a wonderful supporter of women in science. In a clip that went viral, he was talking on a panel and someone asked “the ‘Larry Summers question’: What is it about chicks and science?” Tyson responded that as a black man in science he could relate to the challenges women face because he’d been dealing with similar roadblocks and prejudices since he’d decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be an astrophysicist. “So don’t talk to me about biology and genetics and all that until we come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity,” he declared. And that’s exactly right. Everybody wants to say, “Oh, women just don’t have the mathematical chops to do it.” In fact, all of the data suggest that women are catching up with men in math performance. So, why start from this assumption of genetic differences when there’s so much stuff that still has to be done. And it didn’t sound like sour grapes on his part and hats off to him. Thank you again.