Atheists Emerging:

Believers in something other than religion say you don’t have to have a god to have morals

By Danielle Deavens

Sean Wilson grew up in a Presbyterian family that he describes as “semi-religious.” They might not have prayed before every family meal, but they certainly went to church every Sunday. Wilson even sang in the choir and served as an acolyte. He wore a cross around his neck. He started reading the Bible more often when he got to high school, partly in preparation for his Confirmation in the church.

But then his community was devastated by tragedy: his sister’s friend, just 3 years old, passed away suddenly. On Facebook posts in her memory, some members of the community justified the loss by writing, “Everything happens for a reason.” During that moment, Wilson began to question the religious faith his family and community had developed in him throughout his childhood.

It eventually led him to accept an atheist identity.


These cold feelings toward atheists worsen when looking among party lines. Results showed that Republicans and Republican leaners gave atheists an average thermometer rating of 34.

Despite getting the cold shoulder from those who are religious, atheists and agnostics have a growing voice

Today, Wilson is a philosophy student at Elon University. He uses the outlook developed within atheism as a way of analyzing religion, but not shying away from it entirely.

“All people have a lot to learn from all religions and religious figures,” he said.

However, most Americans who consider themselves religious do not extend the same openness toward atheists.

In a recent study, Pew Research used a “feeling thermometer” to indicate negative and positive perceptions of religious groups. Forty percent of the American public rated atheists in the coldest part of a scale from 0 to 100, 0 being the coldest and 100 being the warmest. Atheists received an average rating of 41, just one degree above Muslims.

These cold feelings toward atheists worsen when looking among party lines. Results showed that Republicans and Republican leaners gave atheists an average thermometer rating of 34.

American astrophysicist and atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in his public talks that politics and religion are often the subjective truths used to prove, disprove or justify the objective truths presented by science and the natural world.

American astrophysicist and atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson says in his public talks that politics and religion are often the subjective truths used to prove, disprove or justify the objective truths presented by science and the natural world.

In a speech at Elon University in early April he urged students to seek objective truths while maintaining and developing subjective ones. He also described his frustration with the conflict between these truths.

“I dream of a world where people are enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them,” he said.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science posted a video with the Four Horsemen in discussion: Hitchins, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris. View the video at https://youtu.be/LIGDMaOkWnc

The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse and others are active supporters of people’s right to choose that in which they believe

Tyson generally expresses his lack of belief in a god or gods without straying away from the science, which is his main passion. He is not the only household name known for more than his atheist beliefs. Many other prominent atheists, including Stephen Hawking, are well-known scientists. Entertainers such as Ricky Gervais and Emma Thompson, among many others, are famous faces of atheism.

A group of this generation’s most prominent atheists advocates for people’s right to not declare a religious affiliation or any sort of belief. They even, at times, speak out against religion. The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse are considered to be among the most important and active voices in today’s atheist community.

The group includes author Sam Harris, scientist Richard Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Daniel Dennett.

These men have spent long years studying religion, reason, psychology and other subjects that made them knowledgeable about perceptions of atheism. All four are public critics of religion, some more than others, but each has also pointed out what could be considered to be a disconnect between religious beliefs and real morals.

The Four Horsemen are not alone in suggesting the creation of new codes of ethics that are fully detached from writings in religious texts. Many of the world’s prominent atheists studied a range of religions before settling on the belief, and some of them use that as an underpinning to inform the spirituality they experience, despite their lack of belief in a deity.

Contrary to stereotypes, atheism is often the presence of community, knowledge, spirituality and morality, even with the absence of belief in a god.


A growing percentage of people identify as atheist or agnostic, nearly 1 in 4 say they are ‘not religious’

Atheists may not be part of a belief system, but they are not alone — in fact their numbers are growing.

A recent Gallup Poll study found that 13 percent of the world population identifies as a “convinced atheist.” This was among 59 percent who identify as religious and 23 percent who identify as not religious. In the United States, religiosity declined by 13 percent between 2005 and 2012, ranking the nation seventh in the world for this drop.

This silences the misconception that because atheism is not a belief system, it cannot be a community. While belief in a higher power is not the unifying force, the atheist experience can be viewed as common ground.

“The best part about being an atheist is definitely hanging out with other atheists,” he said. “I feel like we tend to connect in a special way. It’s like a little celebration every time two atheists ‘come out’ to each other.”

This celebration is felt more and more around the nation and the world. Not just by average people, but by those with prominent voices as well.

British philosopher A.C. Grayling’s “The Good Book: A Secular Bible,” outlines the intersections and conflicts between religion and the needs of modern society. He points out, for example, his frustration with polls that ask “what is your religion?” which stems from his belief that while religious groups should be free to promote their ideas, they are no more authorized to do so than non-religious groups.

“Religious groups are self-constituted interest groups,” he said. “They exist to promote their point of view. They have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or women’s institute or trade union. We’ve got to push it back to its right size.”

Resizing religion may begin with preventing it from becoming something of a requirement for morality, spirituality, education or community.

In a Pew Research study conducted in 2014, it was discovered that 53 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if he or she were an atheist. This figure indicated a disdain for atheists more than those who had committed adultery or had never held an office.

Because it has not been proven that religion and morality are inextricably linked, it is hard to refute the idea that disdain for atheism is cultural. Wilson desires an atheist community that comes together based on their minority status and common lack of belief in a higher power.

“It’d be nice if atheist communities were stronger and less isolated, so that we could come together and do more church-like activities, like group readings, signings, and life chats,” he said.


Most who do not identify with religion made an educated decision to eschew organized religion

Much like Wilson, Elon junior Aidan Dyer’s childhood consisted of weekly church attendance. After much studying, though, Dyer found himself on the opposite end of the religion spectrum.

“I started off being Methodist and throughout the course of my life, I broke away from that and I started studying all different types of religions,” he said. “I’ve studied Buddhism, Daoism, Islam. My end conclusion was pantheism. I still consider myself to be atheist.”

Pantheism is a derivative of atheism where one does not believe in god, but regards the universe at the manifestation of divinity. Dyer considers this a step beyond atheism.

Dyer and Wilson share the idea that the decision to identify as atheist is not one that is easily made. For some, it may require years of uncertainty and study. Wilson said this leads to a more curious mind.

“I think atheists are more likely to question the official word because they had to have done quite a bit of questioning to end up as an atheist,” he said. “Questioning the official word is really important, ethically speaking, in such a complicated world.”

The ability to question the word written in religious texts comes from the study of these texts, Dyer says. And while this study may not lead to belief, it could lead to greater appreciation of different religions and experiences.


The spiritual atheist is becoming more common and more public

The dictionary definition of spirituality connotes the word with religious belief, which counteracts the idea of an atheist being spiritual.

Prominent atheist Sam Harris wrote in his book “Letter to a Christian Nation,” the term atheist is, in itself, unnecessary and indicative of a world that revolves around religion.

“In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist,” Harris wrote. “No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

Dyer is proof that the term ‘atheist’ is limiting — especially with ignorance of non-religious spirituality.

“I conclude that I can never know whether there is a god or not, but I choose to still be spiritual about what is here and take the world around me as beautiful,” Dyer said.

Wilson reflected back on childhood memories of spiritual moments in church to develop his inclusive definition. “I think a pretty solid definition is something like, ‘feeling of connection to others and a sense of purpose in life,’” he said. “If that’s the definition we agree on, then yeah, atheists certainly have the potential to be spiritual.”

“I think a pretty solid definition is something like, ‘feeling of connection to others and a sense of purpose in life.’ If that’s the definition we agree on, then yeah, atheists certainly have the potential to be spiritual.” — Sean Wilson

He said because atheism is not an organized belief system like religions, it does not offer the same opportunities to gather for spiritual practices.

In places of worship, believers are often encouraged to talk through situations that seem unexplainable. While theists may look to their holy book for guidance, atheists, often focused on objective truths, revel in inexplicable occurrences. Tyson referenced this in an interview with Paul Mecurio.

“We think about the universe as an intellectual playground, which it surely is, but the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual,” Tyson said. “I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe.”

Unlike the “everything happens for a reason” model Wilson experienced early in his spiritual journey, the atheist approach allows for shreds of uncertainty because it is based in facts and physical evidence. When atheists experience something that supersedes description using mere words; it may be defined as a spiritual experience.


Some see religion as less than capable of serving the people and the issues of today much less truly representing some sort of universal morality

Broadway Jackson, an Elon senior and leader of the university’s secular student society, said his path of spiritual inquiry began quite early in his childhood.

He was raised by Christian parents, but after his best friend was murdered at the age of 9, he immediately felt uncertain about the intentions of the god he was taught was an all-knowing, all-powerful creator. He could not believe in the morality of that kind of god or in the belief system that supported him.

After his loss, he found his sexuality as another point of contention with the religion he was raised to follow.

“As I begin to come into my own with my sexuality — I now identify as gay,” he said, “I wondered about why being gay was so demonized by both biblical texts and rhetoric from the church itself when there were genocides going on in Darfur. These all encouraged me to seek out evidence to draw conclusions from instead of believing what I was being told to believe.”

Through his exploration, Jackson found often morality is rooted in religion, marginalizing those who do not identify with the dominant religion as well as those with no religion at all. Now, he said, he seeks ways to redefine morality using a multitude of tools rather than one holy book.

“Saying that atheists don’t have morals is, one, not true, and, two, derived from a question about where we find our morals, which changes from person to person,” Jackson said. “I ground my morals in a mixture of humanism, Kant’s Categorical Imperative — a more thought-out version of the Golden Rule — and things I’ve learned from religious texts.”

Darrel Ray, an atheist psychologist, notes that “tradition and the need to live peacefully within a larger group” is what develops moral codes.

“Where do we get our morality?” he said. “From the constant development of our culture. From the evolution of laws and guidelines that help us create a peaceful and prosperous society. We are who create our morality and we pass it down to our children and grandchildren. We have a morality that supersedes all religions and is beholden to none.”

Harris discussed morality in his popular bookLetter to a Christian Nation.” “If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures,” he wrote.

Though the need for a new code of ethics is agreed upon by many atheists, it is often a point of contention with those who are religious. Some say that one of the reasons atheists are regarded poorly by theists is because the latter group believes the former group has no set of morals, which is not true for many atheists.

Aidan Dyer talks about morality, saying, “There’s a universal morality.” Video by Danielle Deavens

“For some reason people think that we can’t be moral or ethical if we don’t believe in religion but the thing is religion is just a system of belief and a tool and it doesn’t have any indicator for your system of ethics,” Dyer said. “There needs to be a new system of ethics and morality that isn’t based on Christianity or any other form of religion that can act as a new guiding point based on rationality and common sense. There’s a universal morality.”

With lack of understanding and acceptance, atheism is often regarded with a level of disrespect and distrust that serves to further alienate the group. Though they are all godless, atheists are not without morality. Though they are without belief, they do not lack spirituality. And though they are without a religion, they often build knowledge of many before deciding to do without.

In this way, it is their journey with atheism, not their lack of belief, that most defines them.

“One thing to understand about atheists is that atheism only says what we don’t believe in but not necessarily where we, as individuals, get our morals or guide ourselves,” Jackson said.

About the multimedia journalist:

R4PG sat down with reporter Danielle Deavens to discuss atheism, religious affiliation and her work on this in-depth piece.

Danielle Deavens is a rising senior print and online journalism major from Farmington, Connecticut. Deavens was selected by ASME to be an editorial intern at ESSENCE for summer 2015. She is a member of the Communications and English Honors Societies, Lambda Pi Eta and Sigma Tau Delta. She is passionate about writing and editing, but also enjoys music and cooking in her free time. She plans to pursue a career in magazine journalism. Visit www.danielledeavens.wordpress.com to see more of her work.