Atheists open up: What they want you to know

Is America Greater Without God?
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Story highlights

  • Atheists point to Internet as one reason some Americans are losing their faith
  • For many atheists, the scariest thing about coming out is the loss of community, Greg Epstein says
  • Biggest misconception about atheists is that they are a threat, says pastor

(CNN)Many Americans are leaving their faith behind. While fewer than 3% consider themselves atheists, about 20% of Americans don't identify with any religion, according to a Pew Study.

CNN's documentary, "Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers," tells the story of a number of people who put themselves in that group -- and the stigma they've faced.
"Stan Bennett" is a minister in a small town, but he no longer believes in God. He's actively searching for other employment so he can leave behind the job he's known for more than 30 years. He knows he's going to come out as an atheist one day, but he's not ready yet. (He is a closeted atheist, so CNN concealed his identity).
    Jerry DeWitt knows how Stan feels. DeWitt spent 25 years as a Pentecostal preacher in the evangelical South, but a few years ago he lost his faith. He still preaches, but he now speaks before a congregation of atheists.
    David Silverman is the firebrand head of American Atheists, a group formed in the early 1960s that now has more than 5,000 members. He wears his atheist badge with pride, and his "in your face" tactics have made him a legend in the atheist world.
    Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of the best-selling book, "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe." He's also the executive director of The Humanist Hub, which connects nonreligious community programs in the Boston area and beyond.
    After the documentary aired, CNN asked this group some of the tough follow-up questions about atheism. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. The opinions expressed below are solely those of each speaker.

    Why are Americans losing their faith?

    Bennett: Little by little, we are growing up. It's more difficult for people to stay in their religious cocoons away from the rest of the world. Higher education, travel and the Internet all contribute to our awareness of a bigger world with bigger concepts than the cultural superstitions in which we were raised.
    A preacher turned atheist shares his message non-belief
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    DeWitt: One word: Google. The questions have always been at hand, but now the answers are within our grasp.
    Silverman: Religion is factually wrong. As a result, religion lives on ignorance of facts. The reason people are giving up on mythology is the Internet, and the access to information it represents. When religion can exist in a bubble, the lies it pushes cannot be challenged. But when there is a wealth of information at the fingertips of every believer, those lies can be refuted easily, from multiple sources and multiple perspectives. This is why religion is waning, this is why it will continue to wane and this is why it is waning primarily in millennials who are most likely to spend lots of time on the Internet.
    Epstein: Some of it is because people have too often been "Bad with God." But also, people are learning more about science, and having their minds opened by meeting people all of faiths and none in our more diverse society.
    Finally, the growth of the nonreligious population is also accelerating because we atheists are building something people want to get involved in. The Foundation Beyond Belief, the Secular Student Alliance, the American Humanist Association, the Sunday Assembly, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Black Atheists of America, and so many more. I can't even list them all -- check them out! Welcome to your community.

    What do you think is the biggest misconception about atheism?

    Bennett: That we are somehow a threat. Atheists are associated with other labels such as satanists, communists, fascists, and in my part of the world -- Democrats. We're the bogeyman that will trample their rights, steal their children and TP their front yards.
    Epstein: The biggest misconception about atheism is that atheists are a just a bunch of angry white men who want to destroy religion and who don't have high opinions of most religious people. A relative handful of atheists fit that description, and they make a lot of noise, but that's not representative of atheists.

    Why are there so many names for atheists? Is it all the same thing?

    Bennett: I've seen many lists out there of the different kinds of nonbeliever, and you know what? It will never be long enough. We value our individuality too much to let someone else categorize and label us. Perhaps you should also ask why there are so many names for Christians. Why are there Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.?
    DeWitt: Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. That's it. That's all there is to it. Absence of belief.
    But of course nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? I could ask, "Why are there so many versions of Italian dressing?" or, "Why are there so many different makes of trucks?" The answers might be the same for all three questions: purpose, branding, logistics, awareness, but probably more than anything, taste.
    Same position, similar purposes, sundry personalities.
    Silverman: Yes, they are essentially the same thing. As I mention in my upcoming book "Fighting God," atheism is the broadest term, and it is the best understood term, so it is the term I think people should use. Some choose to use multiple terms, i.e., "I'm a humanist and an atheist," but others literally hide behind those other words, i.e., "I'm not an atheist, I'm a humanist," which is simply misleading. If you lack an active belief in the existence of any gods, you're an atheist. If you want to choose a different primary label, that is up to you, but we encourage the use of "atheist" because it's the most straightforward and the more we use it, the more we de-stigmatize it.
    Epstein: I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I honestly don't care what term people call me by. And I strongly disagree with David Silverman's statement, "These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They're lying." I find that statement offensive, because some people who don't happen to believe in a God just happen to prefer to call themselves humanists, or by some other term, and it's none of anyone's business why. I don't think there are very many people these days using "humanist" to avoid saying the "a-word". Maybe some of us just want to put greater emphasis on who we are, rather than on what we're not. Sure, we don't believe there's a supernatural god. But it's more important to many of us to just try to live our lives as good people than it is to think, all the time, about God.
    Understanding all the different forms of non-belief
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    What is the scariest thing about coming out of the closet?

    Bennett: That everyone will leave me, with the exception of some of my family and friends. The larger network of people that I would normally count on for emotional support, who would be contacts for job opportunities, who would want to help me in times of trouble, will no longer even speak to me.
    DeWitt: The unknown. For some of us it's not knowing how people will react when we're honest about our nonbelief. For others of us it's knowing that we will be rejected but not knowing how we will live with the loss that our honesty will bring. That loss may be diminished or even severed relationships with parents, siblings, spouses or even our very own children. Not to mention not knowing if we will also lose our careers, income, retirements, possessions, our place in the community or our sense of personal safety.
    Silverman: The scariest thing about coming out atheist is the reaction many people get, due to the lies taught by religion (atheists are immoral, damned, worthless). Parents are taught that they are bad parents if they raise atheists. Children are taught that atheists must be converted or avoided. Atheists know this, and so they fear the repercussions.
    David Silverman is the president of American Atheists.
    This special showed those repercussions in their horrible light, including parents placing their religion above their own children. I find this pathetic, as all good parents should.
    One thing I'd like to add is that it's not ubiquitous, and that many times, when kids come out to parents, the parents come out to the kids! I've heard many cases of closeted atheists coming out to other closeted atheists within their families and circles of friends, so I hope people will not be scared away from coming out, and more so, I hope parents will understand just how awful a religion must be to place itself above family.
    Epstein: It's different for everyone, but for many, the scariest thing is the loss of community. One of the biggest reasons religion has remained so influential is, for a lot of people, it's the best institution they know at providing meaningful community. And human beings need meaningful community! So many studies show having a wide circle of supportive friends -- more than just family or even a few besties but something more like a congregation -- is really, really good for your health and well being. Congregations have been shown to help people live longer, be happier, less depressed and anxious, more likely to donate blood or give up a seat on a bus. They also happen, too often, to teach terrible, outdated ideas about morality based on gods we atheists find to be completely fictional at best.
    Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the author of the New York Times best-seller "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe."
    That's why we're working so hard to build communities like the Humanist Hub. I want any atheist who wishes they had a little more community in their life -- whether because they're single and living in a new city, or because being a new parent can be totally isolating, or for whatever other reason -- to have a great group like ours, to join.

    What will it take for the stigma of being an atheist to go away?

    DeWitt: The stigma will end when everyone loves one (atheist). To know me is to love me. To love me is to simply love...me, not my beliefs or lack thereof. There's few things more disheartening than hearing a person you care about say to you, "I love you anyway." Keep it! I'll wait on someone who loves me any way.
    Silverman: To make the stigma of being an atheist go away, religions must stop teaching false information about nonbelievers. "Atheism is OK" is exactly the opposite of that which religions teach, so truly the stigma will disappear only when religion yields to our equality -- or fades out of relevance.

    How can atheists diversify?

    Bennett: They are already diversified, hence the different names we go by. But more than differences in names, atheists are already diversified in the causes in which they are involved. The things they care about lead them in varied directions, and this is a good thing.
    DeWitt: We are diverse. We are as diverse as the population of the Earth itself.
    Jerry DeWitt spent 25 years as a Pentecostal preacher.
    Atheism is not a choice, it's a realization. Going public with that realization is a choice. A very difficult choice, especially when you think that you're the only one. Yet, seeing someone with whom you identify expressing their nonbelief publicly sometimes gives one the additional courage needed to make that very difficult choice.
    The more often we shine the spotlight on the diversity within our movement, the more often others like us, but adrift on the sea of aloneness will find their way to the shores of home.
    Silverman: I employ a three-pronged approach to increasing diversity in my organization.
    Prong 1 is outreach. Atheists of color, women, and other atheist minorities need to know they are wanted, and that's why we specifically target these audiences with articles, promote and sponsor events like the 2013 Blackout Rally, and feature diversity prominently in our on our billboards and speaker rosters at our conventions.
    Prong 2 is promotion of women and minorities as leaders. They are not, and should not be, satisfied with just being wanted, they need to be leaders. To that end, I strive to place minorities on stage and in leadership positions when I can, and vocally encourage other leaders to do the same.
    60 seconds in an atheist 'church'
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    Finally, as a straight cis white man, I need to understand and accept that there are needs and desires that are specific to minority subgroups that I simply cannot address as an outsider. Therefore, Prong 3 is the promotion of other atheist organizations that address these unique concerns. This is why I am a strong supporter of Black Nonbelievers and Hispanic American Freethinkers, both of which were sponsored by American Atheists at the first Reason Rally. These and other such groups exist because the need exists, and the need exists because American Atheists simply does not have the ability to satisfy some of the unique needs of specific minorities.
    I believe that the entire community is diversity-conscious, and that we all would have liked to have seen more diversity represented in the documentary. I believe I am speaking for all the community's leaders when I say that I hope such diversity is a major piece of future investigative efforts in atheism by CNN.
    Epstein: Some say it's just a matter of making it known to others that atheists exist. I wrote in "Good without God" how it's more complicated than that. If it's hard to be an atheist in the U.S., then it's even harder for people who aren't white males, who therefore already have less privilege in this society.
    We've also got to be relevant to the lives of women and people of color. There are tens of millions of people in this country who are truly suffering, who need us to fight for them. I'm concerned we make ourselves less relevant to their lives when we spend too much of our energy focusing on how downtrodden we atheists are.
    Harvard Humanist Society welcomes all beliefs
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    When we get involved in community building, tons of women show up. And at the Humanist Hub, we're focusing on anti-racism training and social justice work to help us diversify.
    I'll let Vanessa Zoltan, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, have the last word here -- she says: "All spaces are only as special as the people who are in them. We want to make a space that is ready to protect the vulnerable, fight the right fights, celebrate the glorious, talk about what matters and witness people's lives. We've loved the people who have shown up thus far, and hope to make our space more able to serve these needs for more and more different people."