Not many commentators for mainstream publications care enough about the separation of religion and government to write much about it—despite its relevance to so many contemporary political issues.
One big exception: Kate Cohen, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. Over the past year, her columns have carried headlines like: “In America, you have to opt out of religion in public life. That’s backward.” and “Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for religious schools.”
On October 3rd, she published a lengthy piece with a headline that was almost startling to see in a major American newspaper: “America doesn’t need more god. It needs more atheists.” The column generated more than 12,000 comments, many if not most of them positive, reflecting people’s hunger for conversations about the outsized role of religious dogma in political life.
When we heard earlier this year that Kate was about to publish a book, my organization, HumanistsMN, decided we’d love to get to know her. We invited her to speak to us and were delighted that she was able to head to Minneapolis after attending the October Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Madison. (Kate was there to accept the FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award for columns that expose “America’s reflexive deference to religion and its effect on education, health care and human rights.”) Kate’s book, We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (and Maybe You Should Too), has now been published so we sponsored a book signing after her presentation. Editor’s Note: TheHumanist.com published a review of the book a few weeks ago.
The theme of her talk: “Are You an Atheist? Then America Needs You to Say So.” She drew from her book to discuss a wide range of topics, from the simple way to know you are an atheist (“Do you believe there is a supernatural being in charge of the universe? No? You’re done”) to her own decision to stop pretending she believed (she wanted to be honest with her children) to whether atheists can still enjoy Christmas (yes).
But Kate’s central message was that while it can be uncomfortable to declare ourselves atheists given the stigma attached, we should do it—for both personal and political reasons.
First, we might just find a new form of human connection, she said. “The more I gathered the courage to tell people outside my family that I was an atheist, the more I found that people responded with stories about their own doubts or lack of faith or religious upbringing.”
This matches my experience. I have been surprised in recent years to discover hidden nonbelievers, or at least people with serious doubts about religion, as I have become more open about my atheism beyond my inner circle.
But beyond the personal benefit, Kate said, speaking up can help counter the damaging (and growing) influence of the religious right on public policy in areas like abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, public education, and book bans.
“America needs atheists to say we are atheists,” she said, “because the more we do, the more atheists we inspire to do the same, the more we say and make it normal that god is just pretend, the more we push back against the idea that god should have anything to do with public policy and public money.”
Kate’s presentation attracted a bigger than normal crowd for us (seventy-five), including about a dozen nonmembers (or as we like to think of them, future members), and we sold all but a few of the forty books we ordered. Thanks to Kate for a great event!
The AHA will hold a discussion and book signing with Kate Cohen on December 7th. The event will be both virtual and in-person. Register here.