by Lee Salisbury
A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota shows that atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority and that an atheist is the last person for whom Americans would vote in a presidential election. “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians” all ranked higher than atheists in public acceptability. Furthermore, Americans are “least willing to allow their children to marry” atheists.
State laws instill and perpetuate this attitude. Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution states: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas have similar laws.
George H. W. Bush while campaigning for President in 1987 exhibited this same attitude, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
Apparently all theists good and all atheists bad. If this is the case, atheist and agnostic businesspersons like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, investment guru Warren Buffet, Apple’s Steve Jobs and CNN founder Ted Turner should all be exiled for their unbelief. Don’t forget to include the 93% of National Academy of Science members who lack belief in a personal deity. What about atheist Pat Tillman, Arizona Cardinal football star, who left a $3,600,000 salary to enlist in the U.S. Army and subsequently got killed in Afghanistan? The oft-repeated theist claim, “there are no atheists in foxholes” insults a true American hero.
Is there a rationale for this prejudice against atheists or is this just plain theist bigotry? Why are atheists more “despised and distrusted” than any other minority? Why do theists promote this malicious slander? Has it ever occurred to theists to judge themselves by the same standards they judge others? Didn’t Jesus say something about taking the log out of your own eye before you take the splinter out of another’s eye?
How about the theist record? Theist Roman emperor Constantine had 3,000 Christians plus a wife and son murdered. Roman Catholic theists instigated the murderous Crusades and the Inquisitions. Theist Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons beheaded all in one morning. Protestant theists arbitrarily tortured and burned at the stake tens of thousands of women because of the Bible’s admonition against witches. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli advocated death for heretics. Christian theists have persecuted Jews for the past eighteen centuries–most notably by the Roman Catholic theist Adolph Hitler who murdered 6,000,000 Jews.
Naively, many Americans assume theists never act immorally nor lie for fear of their God’s anger. Yet a recent study by The Center for Public Integrity finds that President George Bush and his top administration officials (all theists) issued 935 false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attack. The study concludes these false statements “were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.” That’s 935 good reasons to question god-fearing theist morality.
The January/February 2008 Psychology Today magazine contains an article, “An Atheist in the Pulpit, what happens when religious leaders lose their faith.” The author interviewed Lutheran, Pentecostal, Catholic and Episcopalian clergymen and recorded theism’s cognitive dissonance in their own words. “We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever.” “The disjunction between what clergymen say publicly and what they believe privately is so common that serious cognitive dissonance comes with the territory.” “We spend our lives impersonating who we think others want us to be and end up living as impostors. So when someone comes to me and tells me they are losing their faith, I congratulate them. You’re starting to embrace your own thinking self – the essential, immutable, immortal self – as opposed to the accidental criminal you have been made to think you are.” Integrity and cognitive health are theism’s real sacrifice.
So why this centuries-old acrimony against atheists? Granted some atheists have committed atrocities too. Communists Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung are two heinous examples. Does such justify the entirely one-sided bigotry and prejudice commonly accepted among Americans? America, the land of intellectual freedom, has granted hard-core theists free reign to preach their bigotry against Jews, Blacks, women and homosexuals. However, the deep-seated prejudice against atheists merits special attention because atheism challenges theism’s very existence.
A question seldom asked is what does the prejudice against atheists tell us about those who hold that prejudice? Are theists fearful that their god may not really be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent? Does the cognitive dissonance experienced when trying to explain their god’s indifference to events like 9/11, Katrina, and the 2004 Christmas Tsunami trouble their psyche? Maybe their religious fire insurance has been shaken. When theists must struggle with the ineptitude of their god, who better to lash out at than atheists?
Has religious tolerance for prejudice and bigotry toward atheists so intimidated Americans that they do not even recognize it? Evidently yes, especially when one might be branded one of those terrible atheists. Nevertheless, an intellectually free America, as intended by our founders, remerges as more and more atheist/agnostic freethinkers come out of the closet and stand against theism’s last bigoted prejudicial stronghold of intolerance. As one astute college student said to me, “a man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle”— who needs it?
Lee Salisbury is a former evangelical preacher, founder of the Critical Thinking Club of Minnesota, and writes for Axis of Logic and Dissident Voice. Read other articles by Lee.