Non-belief in the United States: An Influential Minority Tradition


Sean Michael Murphy/Michigan State University


My immediate family does not include themselves in any type of religious tradition. They do not see a deity as part of their worldview or life. But neither do they consider the denial of the existence of a higher power part of their identity.  Since my family does not closely identify with the title “Atheist” as it is commonly used (although it may be technically true), I use the term “non-belief” to identify the religious tradition of my family. This paper will briefly trace the ideas that are consistent with non-belief through United States history. It will examine the events and circumstances that led to the national environment, which caused my parents to adopt this tradition in lieu of the religious traditions in which each of them was raised. I will also use my family as a case study to examine why some people in the United States choose non-faith as a lifestyle, as well as note the political and social impact that this group has had on this country.

            It would be nearly impossible to discuss non-belief in the United States without mentioning the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. The Age of Enlightenment, spanning from the late 1600's to the late 1700's, changed the way people thought about religion, and its relationship with the world. For example, Thomas Hobbes criticized religion for its propagation of wars in Europe (Schultz et al, 89). Enlightenment thinkers also promoted the idea that the universe could be wholly understood through scientific observation, and that hanging on to old religious ideas would severely hamper the progress of humanity (Lippy and Williams, 731). This idea was perhaps most clearly embodied in the 1791 book by Thomas Paine titled The Age of Reason, which had a significant impact on the role of religion in the United States (733 and and

            Reliance on science and technology, to the exclusion of religion, is central to the tradition of non-belief to which, I believe, my family adheres.  During and after the Age of Enlightenment, the people who subscribed to the idea that observation and science could explain the universe without reference to the supernatural became known as Freethinkers, and that school of belief has been coined Freethought (Schultz et al, 109). Freethought was a very influential force during the founding and forming of the U.S.. Through the writings of Thomas Paine and John Locke, Freethought found its way into the American constitution (89). Founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, although likely Deists themselves, promoted the separation of church and state, based on the ideas of the Enlightenment (89). This separation would be critical to the future of the country and to many of the reasons why my family abandoned their religious traditions.

            As we have studied in class, the era after the revolutionary war was an active time for religion in America. During this time the Great Awakening was revolutionizing American religion (DeRogatis 9/7/03). In contrast, there is also evidence that non-belief was active during this time. In 1787 Ethan Allen published the book Reason the Only Oracle of Man which is noted in the Library of Congress as the first American work to oppose religion (Lippy and Williams 732 and Schultz et al 109). Later, in the 1820's, Robert Owen set up a commune similar to that of the Oneida Perfectionists, except that it openly opposed Christian ideas and support from Christian groups. Owen himself traveled widely and debated religious leaders, although his fame and the commune was short lived (Lippy and Williams, 734).

            Just after the Civil war, two complimentary actions helped to promote Enlightenment ideas and foster skepticism about the existence of God and the value of religion. It was during this period that Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, which was published in 1859, began getting attention in the United States (Queen II et al, 240). This book supported the idea that nature could be explained without reference to the supernatural, and challenged religious world creation stories (240). At the same time, state sponsored universities became popular. Prior to this, many colleges were sponsored by churches, and many, like Harvard and Dartmouth, were primarily seminaries (DeRogatis, 9/10/03). The new, state sponsored universities, because of the separation of church and state, were free from obligations to adhere to religious ideas (Lippy and Williams, 735).

            The combination of new scientific ideas that threatened religion and new places where science could be freely explored created an environment that was supportive of Freethought ideas. During this time, the idea that the scientific method, and not religion, was the only way to correctly understand the universe, and even the only correct way to make moral decisions, became more popular (Schultz et al, 109). This idea spread into other fields of knowledge through European "God killers" such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Lippy and Williams, 735).

            The tension created by these new ideas is evident in the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. In that case, a teacher was charged with violating a law that forbade teachers from teaching any theory of creation that was not in accordance with the Bible. That case let to a Supreme Court ruling which declared such laws unconstitutional under the separation of church and state (Schultz et al, 222).

             A similar explosion in science and the resulting effect on religion occurred during the World War II era. During the war, and the space race that followed later, technology and science grew so rapidly that it seemed to some to be only a matter of time before all of the mysteries of the universe would be explained without the need of referring to God in any way. This scientifically progressive era is one of the factors that my father mentions when describing his loss of faith.

            The atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair defined this era. She is an excellent example of the influence of non-believers on U.S. history. She fought for her religious position to be recognized and respected, and by doing so, made it more acceptable to be a non-believer in the U.S.. She took her position to the courts, successfully leading an attack on prayer in schools in 1963 (Roof, 520). She also used legal means to oppose holding Catholic Mass on government property, and the inclusion of the words "in God we trust" in the Pledge of Allegiance (Roof, 520). Despite her progress, she was eventually murdered, a tragedy that was likely influenced by her outspoken religious ideas (Roof, 520).

            The years from the 1920's through the 1940's also saw the creation of many atheist organizations. These include the “Atheist Association” in 1925, the “American Association for the Advancement of Atheism” in 1925, the “Free Thinkers of America” in 1946 and Madelyn Murray O'Hair's own “United World Atheists” somewhat later in 1976 (Shulman, 348-349).

            My parents were both born in the 1940's, and their faith decisions chronologically fit just after the events described thus far, and reflect the religious tensions in American society at the time. My father was born into a devout Roman Catholic family. He attended church a minimum of 3 times a week, and served as an altar boy. He also went to a private Catholic school that included formal religious training. Part of his education was spent in a Roman Catholic boarding school where practice of the Catholic faith was a required part of life. In 1962, during his sophomore year, he switched from the boarding school to a public high school. After the switch, he was exposed to secular hard sciences, in which he was very interested. He felt that logic and pure science had a lot to offer the world, but recognized that they were at odds with what he had been taught in the Catholic faith. He even spoke to clergy of various faiths about this discrepancy, trying to reconcile the inconsistencies, but found the clergy’s appeal to faith alone to be unconvincing.

            He went to college for engineering leaving these issues unresolved, but continued to practice Catholicism. The year 1965 was his second year of college, and the year of Vatican II, which would have a tremendous impact on his faith. Suddenly, many of the things that he had believed were sacred were tossed aside. It severely bothered him that any layperson could now touch Eucharist, a duty once reserved solely for a priest. The interdenominational masses and casual attitude that resulted from Vatican II left him feeling betrayed. He had lived his whole life adhering to certain sacred ideas and participating in solemn liturgical ceremonies. Now, after some meeting in Rome, he was being told that what he had been doing was not, in fact, what God wanted from man. One thing above all deeply wounded him. An uncle of his had gotten a divorce, and had been excommunicated from the church. That uncle died while my father was in high school, and had not been allowed to be buried in a church cemetery. This was a source of sorrow and shame for his family. After Vatican II, divorced people were welcomed back into the church. His uncle, however, remained buried alone, and the pain of that incident could not be taken back. I think that this was the kind of hindrance to society that Enlightenment writers may have meant could be avoided by abandoning religion.

            These major changes told my father that the Church, and its rules, were not inspired by some higher power, but simply inventions of man which were subject to the whim of social trends. In addition, his education in the sciences was continuing, and the creation story that the church continued to endorse made no more sense to him than any of the other seemingly random rules and beliefs of the church. He decided that he was better off trusting his own perceptions of the world than those of any system based on unsupported stories and rules. He abandoned his faith then, and continues to use science and his own perceptions to form his beliefs about life, the world, and the universe.  

            My mother grew up in upstate New York, in the heart of the burned over district. Her family was very involved in religion, and she says that her early memories of church were very good. In addition, she remembers that there was tremendous competition between the many denominations in the area. Before her teen years, her family converted from a Congregationalist church to a conservative Wesleyan church. In this tradition dancing was a sin, and women were not allowed to cut their hair after they married.

            After this conversion, the role of the denominational competition in her life intensified. Some of her relatives converted to Jehovah’s Witness, and she remembers being sternly warned about the impending eternal damnation of her whole family if they did not convert. She reports that religion was very dark for her during this time. The focus was on avoiding hell, and finding the correct faith. Church was not a joyous event, but more an effort to try to avoid eternal suffering.

            The competition between faiths affected her as well. She had to adjust to her own switch from Congregationalist to Wesleyan while trying to understand and accept that her new faith was superior to the others in the area, and others in her own family. She remembers that the only thing on which her family was united was their hate for Catholics. She speculates that her family would have preferred that she kill herself rather than date a Catholic boy. To add to these conflicts, all of this was occurring only a 10 miles from Hill Comorah, the founding place of the Mormon tradition.

            She was dealt a major blow as she approached High School graduation. She was an excellent student, and aspired to study medicine at Duke University. Her Father, however, had never approved of universities that were not based on a faith. He thought that a university would teach her to stop believing in God, and that she would go to hell as a result (he even lectured me on this issue 40 years later as I prepared to attend college at MSU). This issue of state sponsored universities, which I discussed previously, would have a major impact on her life. A long debate and argument with her parents resulted in them telling her that she was absolutely not allowed to go to college. Instead, she did what was expected of a female in that particular religious tradition, she got married the summer after graduation from high school.

            A few years later her husband left her, and she was left alone with two young children, no money and no marketable skills. She then examined the role of religion in her life up to that point. She decided that she would be better off to avoid religion altogether from then on, and she has done so.[1]

            The battle between non-believer’s scientific beliefs and religion picked up again in the 1970's. In that time, the U.S. saw the rise of "creationism" (Queen II et al, 240). Creationism is the idea that God dictates the process of the development of life on earth. It seeks to counter Darwin's theory of natural selection with another theory that is consistent with empirical evidence gathered from nature (241). This battle was fought in courtrooms in 1981, and yielded small victories for creationists in Arkansas and Louisiana.

            The 1973 The Roe v. Wade decision concerning abortion, which was a victory for Freethinkers and non-believers, countered that case. Even today, in my own church, abortion is a contentious topic, and debates with my father show clearly the extent to which religious faith, or lack of faith, affects one's personal politics. Looking forward, I think that the human genome project will also open a whole new chapter of debate in this country over the merits of traditional religious beliefs and modern science.

            Although it appears that some of the atheist organizations mentioned in this paper have disappeared, I did uncover several active organizations, including a Michigan chapter of American Atheists. I conversed over e-mail with that organization’s president, Arlene Marie, to try to get a feel for the state and concerns of modern atheist organizations. The theme of science and technology, which has been a pivotal part of American atheist history, is still a focus today. In regard to the present and future of atheism, and non-faith in the U.S. she said:

 I imagine that within the next decade people running around with cross around their neck and a bible in their hand while talking about their invisible, unproveable friend will begin to look rather foolish to the mass [sic], as the Atheist community moves further and further out of the closet with the help of information and technology.”

She may be correct, but based on what little evidence is available, it seems that atheists have been a struggling, but influential minority in the U.S since the birth of the country, and currently, 96% of Americans believe in God (Belief by the Numbers).

The tradition of non-belief is a very important part of the history of the U.S.. Non-believers have stood up for their rights, and changed the country by doing so. Just as abolitionists and women’s rights activists have done, non-believers have fought and won the rights guaranteed to them in the constitution, and my family is a part of that tradition. My parent’s freedom to choose a life that does not involve a religion is a demonstration of this country’s commitment to religious freedom, and to individual choice. The political efforts of non-believers have helped protect these freedoms, and helped the United States maintain the ideals with which the country was founded.

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Belief by the Numbers.

            Class handout.



DeRogatis, Amy.

Rel 220 class notes.

             Accessed 11/11/03.

            Accessed 11/15/03.



Lippy, Charles H; and Williams, Peter W.

Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1988.



Marie, Arlene.

            State Director of Michigan Atheists. E-mail correspondence 11/13/03.



Queen II, Edward L.; Prothero, Stephen R; and Shattuck Jr., Hardiner H.

Encyclopedia of American Religious History. Proseworks, 2001.



Roof, Wade Clark.

Contemporary American Religion. Macmillan Reference U.S.A. 2000.



Schultz, Jeffrey D.; West Jr., John G.; and Maclean, Ian.

 Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics. Oryx Press. 1999.



Shulman, Albert M.

            The Religious Heritage of America. A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc. 1981.


[1] Interestingly, she and my father got together later in life and had one son, me. I am now the president of a student religious organization, and I work at a church planning religious activities for college students...rebellion I guess.

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