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Is America Greater Without God?
01:29 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Atheists point to Internet as one reason some Americans are losing their faith

For many atheists, the scariest thing about coming out is the loss of community, Greg Epstein says

Biggest misconception about atheists is that they are a threat, says pastor

CNN  — 

Many Americans are leaving their faith behind. While fewer than 3% consider themselves atheists, about 20% of Americans don’t identify with any religion, according to a Pew Study.

CNN’s documentary, “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers,” tells the story of a number of people who put themselves in that group – and the stigma they’ve faced.

Stan Bennett” is a minister in a small town, but he no longer believes in God. He’s actively searching for other employment so he can leave behind the job he’s known for more than 30 years. He knows he’s going to come out as an atheist one day, but he’s not ready yet. (He is a closeted atheist, so CNN concealed his identity).

Jerry DeWitt knows how Stan feels. DeWitt spent 25 years as a Pentecostal preacher in the evangelical South, but a few years ago he lost his faith. He still preaches, but he now speaks before a congregation of atheists.

David Silverman is the firebrand head of American Atheists, a group formed in the early 1960s that now has more than 5,000 members. He wears his atheist badge with pride, and his “in your face” tactics have made him a legend in the atheist world.

Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of the best-selling book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” He’s also the executive director of The Humanist Hub, which connects nonreligious community programs in the Boston area and beyond.

After the documentary aired, CNN asked this group some of the tough follow-up questions about atheism. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. The opinions expressed below are solely those of each speaker.

Why are Americans losing their faith?

Bennett: Little by little, we are growing up. It’s more difficult for people to stay in their religious cocoons away from the rest of the world. Higher education, travel and the Internet all contribute to our awareness of a bigger world with bigger concepts than the cultural superstitions in which we were raised.

DeWitt: One word: Google. The questions have always been at hand, but now the answers are within our grasp.

Silverman: Religion is factually wrong. As a result, religion lives on ignorance of facts. The reason people are giving up on mythology is the Internet, and the access to information it represents. When religion can exist in a bubble, the lies it pushes cannot be challenged. But when there is a wealth of information at the fingertips of every believer, those lies can be refuted easily, from multiple sources and multiple perspectives. This is why religion is waning, this is why it will continue to wane and this is why it is waning primarily in millennials who are most likely to spend lots of time on the Internet.

Epstein: Some of it is because people have too often been “Bad with God.” But also, people are learning more about science, and having their minds opened by meeting people all of faiths and none in our more diverse society.

Finally, the growth of the nonreligious population is also accelerating because we atheists are building something people want to get involved in. The Foundation Beyond Belief, the Secular Student Alliance, the American Humanist Association, the Sunday Assembly, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Black Atheists of America, and so many more. I can’t even list them all – check them out! Welcome to your community.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about atheism?

Bennett: That we are somehow a threat. Atheists are associated with other labels such as satanists, communists, fascists, and in my part of the world – Democrats. We’re the bogeyman that will trample their rights, steal their children and TP their front yards.

Epstein: The biggest misconception about atheism is that atheists are a just a bunch of angry white men who want to destroy religion and who don’t have high opinions of most religious people. A relative handful of atheists fit that description, and they make a lot of noise, but that’s not representative of atheists.

Meet the ‘friendly atheists next door’

Why are there so many names for atheists? Is it all the same thing?

Bennett: I’ve seen many lists out there of the different kinds of nonbeliever, and you know what? It will never be long enough. We value our individuality too much to let someone else categorize and label us. Perhaps you should also ask why there are so many names for Christians. Why are there Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.?

DeWitt: Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Absence of belief.

But of course nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? I could ask, “Why are there so many versions of Italian dressing?” or, “Why are there so many different makes of trucks?” The answers might be the same for all three questions: purpose, branding, logistics, awareness, but probably more than anything, taste.

Same position, similar purposes, sundry personalities.

Silverman: Yes, they are essentially the same thing. As I mention in my upcoming book “Fighting God,” atheism is the broadest term, and it is the best understood term, so it is the term I think people should use. Some choose to use multiple terms, i.e., “I’m a humanist and an atheist,” but others literally hide behind those other words, i.e., “I’m not an atheist, I’m a humanist,” which is simply misleading. If you lack an active belief in the existence of