Luke Sanders might think that his November 11 Hillsdale Collegian article “Church and state, inseparable entities” constitutes a sensible and prudent approach to the relationship between religion and government. He even asserts that, if he had his way, he would “remain legislatively silent on… someone's decision to be an atheist.” Why, thank you, Mr. Sanders, for graciously allowing me to retain the freedom of thought and conscience!
But, in truth, Mr. Sanders’s positions are only prudent by the standards of the institutional ideology at Hillsdale College. To a more cosmopolitan observer, they showcase the vestiges of one of the last accepted prejudices in contemporary American society: the reflexive perception of nonreligious people as second-class persons.
This implicit and insidiously insulting premise is reflected clearly in the following words of Mr. Sanders: “As long as we function on the pretense that there is, liberty sounds more palatable. But what of the child who is raised in a godless home?” Well, Mr. Sanders, I will have you know that I come from the fourth generation of persons raised in exactly such homes. Unlike those who cast uninformed and unsubstantiated aspersions on the lives and upbringing of atheists, I have directly experienced both. This article is not meant to focus on my background – so I will only say that I was a triple-major and salutatorian of the Hillsdale Class of 2009, and I attribute my success to my staunch adherence to reason and reality, which includes my atheism in no small measure. Personal religiosity can be harmless for many, but it would have crippled me.
What else is true of children raised in godless homes? For a start, the higher up the educational ladder one climbs, the larger a proportion of them one will see. In the National Academy of Sciences, 93% of the members are atheists. Countries and American states with higher proportions of nonbelievers also exhibit lower rates of homicide, abortion, and teenage pregnancy. While no country is perfect, Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Estonia – some of the least religious countries in the world – are certainly not cesspits of moral depravity, even in a relative sense. In the US, while the proportion of Christians in prison is roughly the same as their percentage in the population, there are about 15 to 50 times fewer atheists in prison than in the general population – depending on how one classifies atheists.
Further, has Mr. Sanders wondered how it is that some of the wealthiest people and most famous innovators in the world – including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Wozniak, and Linus Torvalds – are atheists? Has he also wondered why many of these people are not just wildly successful but philanthropic on a grand scale? To how many of them would Mr. Sanders deny the liberty to raise their children as they see fit?
I have not even scratched the surface. Through a simple Google search, one can find vast lists of famous atheists, both historical and contemporary. Even in the much more religious 18th century, Voltaire observed that "Most of the great men of this world live as if they were atheists.” Mr. Sanders assumes that atheists constitute a social underclass, representing a danger to morals and societal cohesion: to be tolerated in adults but kept closely in check by government through indirect means. But reality suggests that atheism is, rather, a pathway to personal liberation and empowerment – a way out of the servile misery of most humans throughout history. Atheism offers the possibility that, when freed from arbitrary institutional restrictions on the mind, the individual can discover truth, forge his own destiny, and flourish. If this world and this life are the only ones, then they become paramount and precious: impermissible to squander or surrender.