Sometimes, even when people try to characterize atheists as normal, they mess up.
Like 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, an unpretentious Gen-X techie who, I confess, I actually kind of like.
When asked about atheist rights in a recent video interview, Yang made one mistake—twice. He started out by saying:
“I just want to say to my atheist friends, some of my best friends are atheists. And some of them are also some of the best people I know. And it is ridiculous that people would think you are somehow less moral or less worthy of the full protection and enjoyment of all of our virtues as a society because of your religious beliefs.”
Nice try, except for the fact that atheism is not a “religious” belief but an acknowledgement that a glaring absence of material evidence confirming that a “God” or any supernatural being actually exists is compelling evidence of absense.
Also, his “some of my best friends are atheists” bit is a tired cliché from overuse by white candidates in past elections trying to ingratiate themselves with black voters and to signal a lack of racism.
Still, it’s helpful to the secular/atheist cause to have prominent Americans insisting that, as Yang fairly points out, religious nonbelievers are not “less moral or less worthy” that anyone. This matters, considering that research indicates slightly more than half of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist presidential candidate, being more likely to support a candidate who smoked marijuana; is gay, lesbian or Muslim; had extramarital affairs; or experienced financial troubles. (See the relevant Pew Research Center report, here.)
So putting atheists in proper context is important, not only for fairness and context throughout American society, but also to prepare the electorate for future elections when atheists—who now comprise about a fifth of the population—are certain to appear on ballots.
Yang, who describes himself as “spiritual,” stumbled later in the interview when he again conflated religious belief with atheism. He explained, erroneously, that atheists’ “religious beliefs … are that God does not exist.”In fact, to repeat, atheism is not a religious belief. Religious beliefs, according to common understanding and the Merriam-Webster dictionary include “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”
Atheism, on the other hand, disbelieves in anything supernatural or “superhuman” when there is no material evidence to confirm it, and we emphatically disbelieve in any “God.” We nontheists approach everything just as scientists do, focused on evidence.
“And that to me is just as sound a personal philosophy as someone who is brought up in an organized religion,” Yang said of atheism’s ethos in the interview.
Unfortunately, it would be hard to find an atheist who either thinks any supernatural religious belief is “sound,” or that atheism is “religious,” so, again, Yang unjustifiably conflates religion with atheism, fantasy with reason.
He ended the interview on a high note, though, saying,
“Let’s make the case that atheism gets the respect it deserves.”
Appreciated, but we would prefer he just stopped saying atheism’s a religious belief, which it’s anything but.