Why America Was Taught To Hate Atheists

Why America Was Taught To Hate Atheists January 17, 2019

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 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)


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The irony is that atheists these days are closer to the alt-right than to old school communism.

  • Raging Bee

    Which atheists are you talking about?

  • Do you want names and addresses? Is it okay if I get back to you after lunch?

  • sbh

    When I learned the pledge of allegiance the words “under god” were brand new, and adults didn’t know them. One school official, when called upon to say the pledge, inevitably said “indivisible” when we were saying “under god” and then pause to rejoin us for the final words. I personally was puzzled about what the word was doing in this set piece, because I thought of gods as fantasy creatures like goblins and unicorns. And when my family got our first tv not long after that I remember seeing frequent messages urging us to attend the church of our choice, another thing that was puzzling in that most people we knew didn’t go to church. (Many of them were members of a church, but that only came up for funerals and the like.)

    Technically I suppose we were atheists, though honestly the concept of god simply never came up much outside of myths, which I read avidly. The only self-described atheists I knew as a child were horrible people, much like the baptists I ran into, a stark contrast to the self-described zen buddhists we knew. My fifth grade teacher used to tell us that the first amendment protected the right to worship god in what manner seemed right to us and so the only people who weren’t protected under it were atheists and agnostics. (Oddly when we came to the actual text of the bill of rights she presented it accurately–but that didn’t stop her from saying that thing about atheists and agnostics repeatedly.) So, yeah, anyway when I was young (this was the fifties and early sixties) atheism was presented to me in a very negative light. Later on of course when I’d figured out the meaning of the word and read ancient history I’d point out to people who were throwing the word around loosely that they were atheists too for not believing in Zeus and Ishtar and the like.

  • Cryny

    Or, y’know, you could just clarify what you meant.

  • Okay. All kidding aside, I’ve just been looking around at the commentary here at Patheos Nonreligious concerning the Belgian ban on halal and kosher slaughter. Like I wrote on my blog post about the controversy, these kinds of bans have long been tools of right-wing parties in Europe and are becoming more common as Europe deals with Muslim immigrant communities. But on the Freethinker blog as well as over at Godzooks, the coverage described the Muslims and Jews as entitled crybabies and no mention was made of the way these marginalized minorities are being demonized by a white Christian majority that resents Europe’s increasingly multicultural identity.

    The commenters on these blogs seemed pretty unanimous that the Muslims and Jews are barbaric and intractable, and Europe is well within its rights to oppress them.

    The Freethinker and Friendly Atheist also covered the brouhaha that transpired late last year after a public speaker in Austria called Mohammed a pedophile. Again, the atheists there seemed unanimous that Muslims are snowflakes and so screw them. No mention was ever made in either article that the speaker was a member of the right-wing Counter Jihad Europa organization, or that multiculturalism assumes a modicum of respect for the cultural identities or practices of others. Once again, atheists have no qualms about siding with the right wing as long as there’s a screw-you to religious people involved.

    I just see a lot more right-wing viewpoints in these discussions than I’d expect from people who consider themselves freethinkers, humanists and skeptics.

  • Cali Ron

    I’m not, bleeding heart liberal and atheist. Don’t paint us all with the same brush. I think you have taken a couple of specific issues and a few comments to generalize millions of people.
    I do find those comments troubling.

  • Glad I’m not the only atheist who resents being lumped in with the bros.

    Look, this is hardly a few atheists in the com-box. This is the mainstream of people who claim to speak from a position of skepticism and intellectual fortitude. The three blogs I mentioned below are extremely popular here at Patheos Nonreligious. The atheists here share a knee-jerk anti-Trump sentiment with people like you and me, but there’s no real commitment to progressive goals. Women’s reproductive rights, the concerns of the LGBTQI community, and even animal rights aren’t matters that the average online atheist sees in terms of power relations or cultural hegemony, they’re just weapons to use against the religious.

    Even the folks we call our spokespeople, whose books we read and whose debates we watch, make pronouncements that creep me out. I’m not just talking about Dawkins and his “Elevatorgate,” I’m talking about Sam Harris’s vendetta against all things PC. It’s one thing to criticize hypersensitive college students, but it’s quite another to have a crackpot like Charles Murray on your podcast and characterize all opposition to his racist pseudoscience as science denial.

    Particularly when it comes to Muslims, I see the same level of scorn and lack of empathy in the atheist blogosphere as you’d expect at the Elks Lodge. I’m not painting all atheists with the same brush. It’s just that these com-box debates seem to appeal to a certain type of nonbeliever, and it’s not one who has a real nuanced understanding of religion or politics.

  • carolyntclark

    John, “Leaving God” is a wonderful work. We use it at our local FFRF chapter. Thanks

    I’m a child of the 50’s. The God theme was supported in secular entertainment industry as well.
    Frankie Lane singing “I Believe” in ’53 , and Al Hibler’s “He” in ’54 were both #1 on the Hit Parade for weeks.
    The major Hollywood studios produced popular box-office movies with big star names…Going My Way, The Bells of St. Marys,
    The Song of Bernadette, Quo Vadis, The Robe, The 10 Commandments, + lots more.
    Bishop Fulton Sheen’s Life is Worth Living was highly rated TV, required watching for us Catholic School kids.

    Christianity was the anointed norm, the default. My cousin planned to marry an atheist. His name was only whispered.

  • Agreed

  • Brian Westley

    Would you disagree with a right-winger if they said the earth was spherical?

    I’m no right-winger, but I think religion is no excuse for animal cruelty, I have called Muhammad a child-fucker (since he did, supposedly, fuck a 9-year-old that he groomed from age six), and you didn’t even get to male circumcision.

    But sometimes agreeing with a stopped clock doesn’t mean I use it to check the time.

  • Linda_LaScola

    As I like to say,”atheists are people too.” We come in all shapes and sizes and represent many different points of view. All we have in common for sure is that we do not believe in god

    Many of us, including former clergy, are also humanists, and don’t have any of the negative characteristics you mention above.

  • Etranger

    There are a few a**holes in online forums and somehow they are taken to be the “atheists” of today. It is as if Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians…weird tendency to generalize.

  • mikegillespie

    P ssy f ggot

  • Brian Westley

    Hey, it’s again the idiot with no life. Wow, are you pitiful.

  • Even if that were 100% true, what difference would it make? How would it make his argument wrong?

    You seem to think this sort of response works. It doesn’t. It only makes you appear childish.

  • Brian Westley

    Then again I am on welfare so what do I know.

  • Brian Westley

    Hey, it’s the idiot impersonator who has no life. Again.

  • ElizabetB.

    Yes… I graduated college in ’59, and for decades thought I had forgotten how the pledge went : ) Was very surprised to learn not too long ago that “under God” had been added!

  • mason lane

    John, As you so aptly point out, religions above all are political, and our mission is one of education. We’re so happy to have you as such a great friend of The Clergy Project.

    When I was being raised/indoctrinated as an Evangelical Baptist the term “Godless Atheist Communist” was the verbal coin of the day. “Atheist” was like a burger always served between a Godless and a https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7249963b40d51ce7b321b52b8bcfab49e1f5a79d44393c69828529ed1587fc11.jpg Communist bun. The triune term is still in popular Evangelical cult use today.

    Now almost a half century after I left the Evangelical cult and the non-existent God I said stupid things to for many years, I’ve long been a Proud American Atheist. I’m proud to have personally freed myself from the ancient superstitions of any deity, proud to be an American Atheist.

  • Roder51

    Must get pretty musty in that closet

  • Roder51

    That’s not irony. Irony is when Christians call atheists evil.

  • Sophotroph

    No, you don’t understand. This is Shem’s schtick.

    He’s somehow a crusader for science and atheism who only ever really bothers attacking science and atheism.

    He’s here to tell us all how we’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.

  • Sophotroph

    There’s nothing right-wing about opposing animal cruelty. It’s not oppressing people to tell them that if their magic meat spells require cruelty, they’re not going to be allowed to cast them anymore.

    We don’t let Aztec religionists build unzoned ziggurats and perform human sacrifices on them either.

    Sometimes, once in a very great while, the assholes get something right. Yeah, ending halal slaughter is not a priority for most of us, but because we have bigger things to worry about at the moment.

    The stopped nazi clock was right this time. To equate acknowledgement of that with agreement with their other positions is the kind of disingenuity you claim to stand against.

  • abb3w

    There’s a variety, much as there always has been. (Ever heard of Charles Lee Smith? If not, there may be a reason for that.)

    The GSS polling data (looking at RACE, GOD, MARBLK, and POLVIEWS) seems to suggest that in the overall population, the alt-right adjacent are considerably outnumbered by other sorts. Of course, those you find in the commentariat of various corners of the Internet may not be a representative sample of the overall population.

  • “Attend the church of your choice next Sunday.”

    I remember preachers disparaging this ad. “Attend the church of God’s choice,” they said. Of course, what they meant by that was that if you weren’t in a Church of Christ you weren’t a true Christian.

  • Ironic that the words “under god” divided “one nation indivisible.” Sadly, not so indivisible after all, it seems.

  • Jim Jones

    > To facilitate that, Eisenhower took aggressive executive
 action. First, he got Congress to add “One nation
‘under GOD’” to The Pledge of Allegiance.

    Eisenhower was a weak man when it came to religion, however IIRC the impetus for this came from the Knights of Columbus.

  • Jim Jones

    More ironic that Bellamy wanted ‘equality’, not “under god”.

  • Jim Jones

    Bullshit. I’m an actual conservative. Most all self styled conservatives are just fear filled, greedy reactionaries.

  • Jim Jones

    > Women’s reproductive rights, the concerns of the LGBTQI community, and even animal rights aren’t matters that the average online atheist sees in terms of power relations or cultural hegemony, they’re just weapons to use against the religious.

    Bullshit. Bigotry is inefficient and animal meat consumption is environmentally destructive.

  • Cryny

    If there a way to downvote an entire blog, his would get it.

  • Erik1986

    Om My Dog. I went to Catholic schools (1950-1963), and they were sooooo paranoid about “bad” movies, that we were shown “Song of Bernadette” endlessly whenever we were “treated” to a movie. I would gladly torch that movie. Never saw it again after grammar school. I liked Vincent Price, but not enough to suffer through that film yet again. The only exception to “Bernadette” was a class trip to see Ben Hur!

  • Raging Bee

    That’s probably because “old school communism” pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. Do we even have a definition for “old school communism” anymore? What is that — Leninism? Stalinism? Gus Hall’s CPUSA? Maoism? Or that elusive, ineffable “True Communism” that’s NOT AT ALL LIKE any of those Communist regimes, nosireebob?

  • Raging Bee

    But on the Freethinker blog as well as over at Godzooks, the coverage described the Muslims and Jews as entitled crybabies and no mention was made of the way these marginalized minorities are being demonized by a white Christian majority…

    Actually, I noticed a good bit of pushback there against such descriptions of Muslims and Jews. It’s not at all fair to say that atheists in general are trending alt-right — especially when there are so many more progressive atheists (none of them “old school communists,” BTW) right here on Patheos and FTB.

  • OMG, “Song of Bernadette” gave me nightmares for months!

  • Raging Bee

    He was also pretty weak when it came to anti-Communist hysteria…which was (and still is) kinda similar to religion…

  • Jim Jones

    It is still a useful tool for those who use it to exploit the poor and the weak.

    The bugaboo of socialism keeps the Poor’s in their place.