Cindy Hoedel

Let 2014 be the year we accept atheists

Editor’s note: This column was published Jan. 19, 2014.

I don’t make resolutions, but January always inspires me. There’s something about the bright cold sunshine and the bare trees that reveals things that are hidden in spring, summer and fall.

Also, after the holiday hullabaloo subsides but before the ground yields to a spade, there is an enforced downtime, as a friend describes it, that fosters reflection on societal currents and how I fit in.

As I was hiking recently at Chase State Fishing Lake outside Cottonwood Falls, Kan., marveling at the grandeur of the rugged hills and thousands of geese sunning themselves on an ice-sheeted lake, I thought that in the same way that 2013 saw a tidal shift in attitudes toward gays in America, 2014 portends a wave of acceptance for one of the few remaining groups people feel justified in disrespecting: atheists.

One of my great heroes, open-water swimmer Diana Nyad, pried open the door a few inches for nonbelievers on Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” in October, after Nyad’s historic Cuba-to-Florida swim.

Winfrey challenged Nyad’s self-proclaimed atheism after Nyad described having feelings of wonder and awe, saying: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is. ... It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”

It’s hard to imagine Winfrey remarking to a guest who proclaimed herself gay, “Well, I don’t call you gay then.” That would be rude. But to tell an atheist she isn’t an atheist is OK.

Nyad wasn’t having it. She told Winfrey, “It isn’t bearded, but there is inference with God that there is a presence. ... I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching being who created all of this and sees over it.”

According to Pew and Gallop, a lot of Americans agree with her. Gallop found the number of atheists has grown from just over 1 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2012. Pew found 1 in 4 Americans do not identify with a religion, the highest percentage ever. Among that group, 13 million Americans describe themselves as atheists, and 33 million say they have no particular religious affiliation.

I suspect a large number of the 33 million are in-the-closet atheists who don’t want to be the only person in their family, workplace or book club to use the “A”-word.

Let me go first: My name is Cindy and I am an atheist.

Wow, that sounds weird. For decades, when the subject of faith has come up, I have given friends and acquaintances whatever answer I thought would make them comfortable without crossing over into outrageous lies.

My fellow nonbelievers know all the standard dodges: “I am very spiritual.” “I believe in God but not organized religion.” “I think there is a supreme being” and the new fave of atheists everywhere, “I love Pope Francis!” I am sure some people who say these things are actually spiritual and not atheists, but maybe not as many as you think.

Once at a cocktail party I told someone who asked about my faith that I was a Judeo-Presbyterian-Mennonite-atheist. I love the Jewish emphasis on learning and philanthropy, the live-and-let-live message of the Presbyterian services I occasionally attended as a child and the pacifism and service of Mennonites, but ultimately I think all religions are human inventions. Nothing wrong with that: Humans have created wonderful things. Look at Michaelangelo’s “David” and our Constitution.

I think religion expresses a human striving to live a virtuous, meaningful life. But you can lead a virtuous, meaningful life without religion.

A new church for the Godless called Sunday Assembly has been attracting crowds in 14 U.S. cities, including Dallas, Chicago and Nashville, but not Kansas City. They offer fellowship, social interaction and networking without the religious component. Scientific talks and pop songs replace Scripture and hymns. Their motto is “Live better, help often, wonder more.” What’s wrong with that?

Salon jumped on the atheist wave last week, posting a column with the headline “15 ways atheists can stand up for rationality.” Author Jeffrey Tayler argued, “There is no reason why we should shy away from speaking freely about religion, no reason why it should be thought impolite to debate it, especially when, as so often happens, religious folk bring it up on their own and try to impose it on others.”

I appreciate his logic - if it is OK to say you believe in God, it should be OK for me to say I don’t. But some of his suggestions sound confrontational; for example, opting out when invited to join hands and say grace before a meal. I think that’s just silly. I will keep on saying grace with friends and family who enjoy that, and we’ll skip it when they eat at my place.

Part of the reason a lot of atheists masquerade as “unaffiliated” came to light when Fox News host Gretchen Carlson used “atheists” to refer to Satanists on Twitter. Carlson’s innocent mistake reveals a misconception held by many people of faith: that not believing in God is the same as hating God or worshipping the devil.

Not so. Just as gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, atheism is not a threat to religion.

Religious freedom means everybody is allowed to believe what they want. It’s time atheists are accorded the same respect as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel