Editor’s Note: There is some very interesting history here, especially for people who did not live through 50’s. I recall that the only use of the word “atheist” was in conjunction with “godless.” It seems like a useless repetition now, but back then, the term “godless atheist” served to define “atheist” – a word otherwise not in the vocabulary of most people. It was assumed that everyone believed in god, except for those evil Commies and the nasty head of the American Atheists Association, who was trying to end school prayer. /Linda LaScola, Editor
The True Story behind America’s Demonization of Atheism
By John Follis
If you asked Americans to list the most negative labels to give someone, “atheist” would probably be on that list. Growing up, the message I got was that being an atheist is akin to being amoral and un-American. Sunday School made it clear that atheists were bad, Godless people.
If you grew up in the 50’s or 60’s you didn’t need Sunday school to be taught to hate atheists. Because in the early 50’s, the American government initiated a massive, multi-pronged campaign to demonize atheism — and it worked well.
The Godification of America
The 50’s were the height of The Cold War when the omnipresent threat to America was Communism. As the fear of Communism and the Soviet Union grew stronger, President Eisenhower felt the need to do something big to help unify and calm the country. At the encouragement of various ministers, religious politicians, business leaders and his influential Evangelist pal Billy Graham, Eisenhower agreed on a bold strategy: Demonize Communism by demonizing a main tenet of Communism: Atheism. The idea was to make the ‘US vs Soviet Union’ a Holy War and draft God as America’s #1 Commie Fighter.
To facilitate that, Eisenhower took aggressive executive action. First, he got Congress to add “One nation ‘under GOD’” to The Pledge of Allegiance — a pledge recited daily in every classroom in America.
Then, he got Congress to replace “E Pluribus Unum” (the US motto since 1782 meaning “Out of many, one”) with “IN GOD WE TRUST”. After that he got Congress to approve posting IN GOD WE TRUST in courtrooms, government buildings, public schools, on postage stamps, and on all US currency. Even some comic books of the day talked about “Godless Communism”. And New York State created a school prayer specifically designed to “counter the spread of Communism.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, the Administration teamed up with The Advertising Council, major religious institutions and corporate America to create something called the Religion in American Life campaign. With an annual budget of 200K (over $2M in today’s dollars) the campaign goal was to encourage Americans to attend church. It was a well-coordinated, unified effort that in 1956 alone included 5,412 highway billboards, 9,857 bus, train, and railroad station posters, and 59,590 ad cards inside buses, trains, subways, and streetcars.
In addition, movie theaters ran public service announcements imploring the public to “Attend the church of your choice next Sunday.”
It’s fair to say that during the 50’s, nothing in America was marketed better than God, and nothing was demonized more than Communism and atheism.
Evidently, the end of the Cold War and the passing of 60 years has not softened America’s attitude toward atheists. According to a 2016 University of Minnesota study, Americans have actually sharpened their negative views. It showed that atheists are still perceived as cultural outsiders who
“have rejected cultural values and practices understood as essential to private morality, civic virtue, and national identity.”
They were chosen “the most disliked religious minority” in the U.S. Clearly, Eisenhower and company embedded an anti-Atheist cultural bias that still remains strong today:
During the 50ʼs, nothing was demonized more than Communism and atheism.
Yet, in one religion-related sense, Americans are becoming more tolerant. When the same survey asked if it’s a bad thing that increasing numbers of Americans claim no religious identity, 60% of the respondents said it’s “a good thing” or “neither good nor bad.” And, while most Americans still have a problem with atheists, more Americans are actually becoming atheists. A 2014 Pew Research Study reports that the number of Americans who identify as atheist doubled in the 7-year period from 2007 to 2014. And now, for the first time ever, “Nones” (no chosen religion) have become the largest “religious group” in America. Even clergy members are increasingly coming out as atheists as reported by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola who published their initial findings in 2010. The award-winning documentary “Leaving God” (2017) which explores these shifting attitudes can be viewed online for free.
Unfortunately, most biases, be they racial, gender-based, sexuality-related, or religious, tend to die-hard. This why it’s so important to continue having open forums like this one to help educate and enlighten the public.
Bio: John Follis spent a 30-year career on Madison Avenue creating award-winning ads. Now he’s creating award-winning films. His latest documentary “LEAVING GOD: Why I left God and why so many others are too” won a “Best First-Time Filmmaker” award from the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Film Festival.
>>>> Photo credits: In God We Trust: https://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2018/05/in_god_we_trust_school_law.html (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons) ; Comic: https://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/1946-1960/4-cwhomefront/7-comics/tcgodless/ This_Godless_Communism_1961.html (Fair Use) ; Religion in American Life: https://starrtrekking.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/religion-in-american-life (Fair Use)