Millennials are officially, at around 80 million, the biggest age group in the United States. We are also consistently maligned. Millennials have been called narcissist, selfish, lazy, materialistic, entitled and individualistic by parents, grandparents, researchers, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists alike.
Depending on whom you talk to, millennials are also heralded as risk-takers, tech-savvy rule breakers, dare-to-be-different trailblazers. We are the future. And the future, as far as millennials are concerned, is increasingly godless.
Nonbelievers (agnostics, atheists, unaffiliated) make up 16% of the world’s population, about 22% of Americans overall and over 35% of American millennials. More telling: the percentage of Americans who identify as “nones” has jumped by almost seven points in the last seven years alone. Atheists are the biggest religious minority — and yet they’re consistently left out of the conversation.
That’s because atheism, in spite of its growing number of subscribers, is still seen as a dirty word. A Pew Research Center study found that 9% of Americans say that they don’t believe in god or a universal spirit, yet don’t identify as atheists. 65% of atheists say that they seldom or never discuss their views on religion with others. Second only to Muslims (and only by one point), Americans like atheists less than they like members of any other religious group.
It seems that atheism may have more subscribers than are willing to cop to it. Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, along with three other atheist authors cheekily known as the “four horsemen” — the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris — consistently write bestsellers on the topic of atheism. (If you’re looking for a primer, Professor Dawkins’ TED Talk on the topic may be a good place to start.)
This consistent sidelining of atheists is most obvious in politics. If we take the most conservative estimate of atheists in our general population, their equivalent number in Congress would be somewhere around 100 representatives. The actual number: a resounding zero, after Pete Stark — to this day the only openly atheist member of Congress — lost his seat in 2013.
The most convincing answer I’ve come up with as to why this is the case is that religion is often conflated with morality. In practical terms, this means that declaring a lack of religion or belief in God, for some, would be the equivalent of shouting from the rooftops that you’re amoral or immoral. When it comes to politics, there’s really no bigger turnoff to the electorate than the possibility that a candidate could be morally bankrupt. Yes, it’s all very ironic. Very, very ironic.
When thinking about religion, I’m always reminded of one scene in a Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, in which the main characters, Sonja and Boris, are arguing about the existence of God. Sonya says, “But, if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?” And Boris humorously replies, “Well, let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the paper that they found something.”
That’s really the case with atheism, too. It seems, for many, like too theoretical a topic to consistently spend very much time on — especially when there are more pressing and practical matters at hand. For others, it’s too controversial. For others still, it’s a personal topic in an age when absolutely everything else is up for debate.
I hold this to be true in all parts of life, not just religion alone, that no belief should be unassailable by reason and beyond the reach of probing, respectful, intellectual conversation. This especially shouldn’t be the case when such “personal” beliefs inform and affect public stances on social and scientific issues, such as homosexuality, climate change, a woman’s role in the world and her right to exclusive domain over her own body when it comes to a choice in childbearing.
So, what better place and time to start than right here?! It’s a thorny and difficult topic, but most conversations worth having usually are. What’s your stance on religion and atheism? If you don’t know or are unsure, head on over here for a quick quiz to see where you fall compared to other historical figures.
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Illustrations by Emily Zirimis and Maria Jia Ling Pitt.