Public Atheism: A Question of Image or Discrimination?

by J.C. Samuelson

I don't know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

- George Bush, August 27th, 1987

In a world in which faith and supernaturalism have always ruled, being an atheist (in the broadest possible sense and including naturalists of many stripes) has never been easy. Classically, the individual claiming that title (or one like it) risked alienating his/her entire social circle and, depending on prominence, society at large. In other words, choosing atheism seemed to be - and perhaps still is in some places - a choice to be alone.

Recently, however, atheism has a new public face and a new campaign seems to be underway with the objective of upsetting the status quo. Authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Daniel Dennett, and more have breathed new life into arguments against religious faith. Other long-standing skeptics, such as James Randi and Michael Shermer, have continued to promote science and methodological naturalism. Then there is the Brights' Movement started by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, which is a growing constituency of secular thinkers who are also naturalists (in the scientific sense). Today, how 'lonely' an atheist may be in societal terms depends in part on where one lives.

Even so, this so-called "Neo-Atheism" is controversial, even within secular circles. Needless to say, those who subscribe to supernaturalism, religious or otherwise, aren't pleased. Yet even atheists - or rather, secularists in general - seem to disagree as to whether this is helpful or harmful.

Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University recently created a stir in secular circles when he labeled authors such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens as "fundamentalists." He is joined by noted Humanist and Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson who suggests that these authors have "overdone it." (see here). Both argue for a more embracing movement that focuses on building something, rather than the "religion bashing" that seems to have come into publishing vogue.

It would seem then that the apparent "image problem" atheists have always had (to varying degrees) still exists. But is the difficulty atheists have finding acceptance really nothing more than a public relations issue? Could it also be that there is an inherent discriminatory bias against non-believers in general that calls for a similar kind of activism previously seen in the civil rights movements of the past (cf. racial, homosexual, women's suffrage)? After all, atheists have long been a mostly silent minority here in America, and as recently as the 1960s were legally prohibited in at least a dozen states from holding public office, voting, and in a few locales, an atheist could not give testimony in court! The quote that opens this piece seems to demonstrate that atheists' troubles didn't end with the abolishment of these laws.

Then again, according to Matthew Nisbet, a professor in the School of Communication at American University says that atheism is not an issue of civil rights, and that the public relations problem that confronts today's atheists has only been made worse by the aforementioned prominent atheists. He is joined by DJ Grothe, VP for public outreach at the Center for Inquiry, and Austin Dacey, who note that today "Atheists are not denied equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don't earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they prevented from voting." Somewhat ironically, however, he also acknowledges some degree of public discrimination by saying that "it would be hard to be elected to higher office in America as an avowed unbeliever," and raises a bit of a straw man by comparing this to "a socialist or a Mother Earth spiritualist" having equal difficulty attempting the same thing.

While I agree with Nisbet, Grothe, Dacey and those like them who argue that atheists have a public relations problem, and have winced more than once at some of the things a few of my favorite authors have proposed, I can't help but wonder if these folks having fully considered the problem. Though I have not been discriminated against (to my knowledge), and do not feel oppressed in any way personally, it is impossible for me to ignore the obvious bias in favor of belief and against non-belief which even today finds expression in public policy, civil actions, and cultural attitudes in general.

Take, for example, the Smalkowski family. In 2006, the Smalkowski family attracted national attention when Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off the girls' basketball team in Hardesty, Oklahoma. The alleged infraction? Refusing to stand with her peers in a post-game recital of the "Lord's Prayer." This set off a series of events which resulted in the Smalkowski's experiencing threats and other blatant forms of discrimination. These events reached their peak in a trial against Nicole's father, who was charged with assaulting the principal of the school. Though he ultimately prevailed, Chester Smalkowski and his family have become pariahs in their own community, simply due to their atheism. They now homeschool their children (read about their ordeal here).

Are such cases rare? Research by Margaret Downey possibly suggests otherwise. Founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and the Anti-Discrimination Support Network, she asserts that Grothe & Dacey "overlooked" or "elected to dismiss" some of the evidence in researching their article. Downey has compiled hundreds of case files that demonstrate that there is clearly such a thing as "atheist bashing" and discrimination against non-theists in America (see this sample). Though she feels that writers such as Grothe & Dacey do unbelievers a service by highlighting their need to come forward, she persuasively argues that there is certainly evidence that atheists and other non-believers have, in fact, suffered (and continue to suffer) "physical and mental abuse, job loss, cruel media stereotyping, and other instances of discrimination" (see Discrimination Against Atheists: The Facts).

Of course, there is also the Bush administration's touted and troubling Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Though the program rules specifically state that religious faith is not a requirement for an organization to apply for a grant, it decidedly favors those that have that characteristic. While no one would argue that providing Federal funds to relief and aid organizations is a bad thing, Federal money being used to support organizations that have discriminatory hiring practices is. Furthermore, since most religious organizations already enjoy tax-favored status, it enables the government to directly fund these organizations, blurring the line between Church and State.

This was enough for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to challenge the program on Establishment Clause grounds, arguing that the government had, in effect, used public funds to create “faith-based centers” in various departments. In turn, these departments sponsored conferences and workshops so as to funnel grant money to faith-based contractors. The government's primary response was to argue that the FFRF lacked standing to sue as taxpayers; they did not even have the right to hear their claims heard. In this case, the government prevailed, having successfully argued before the Supreme Court that because the FFRF was challenging Executive, and not Congressional, action, they could not argue an Establishment Clause violation.

Maybe it's just me, but isn't this a technicality? Isn't this an example of a loop-hole through which a President may impose his (or her, in the future) own agenda without having to answer to taxpayers? Such questions aside, is there really any question that religious people and organizations enjoy favored status, leaving atheists and other non-believers and organizations with few options but to lie in order to find acceptance (and funding)?

There are other potentially troubling trends in government support of supernaturalism, such as the assertion by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine that "some scientific evidence exists regarding the effectiveness of some [complementary and alternative medicine] therapies," but those issues are perhaps best left to those more knowledgeable than I (such as James Randi). To be fair, the NCCAM does qualify the previous statement with: "...for most there are key questions that are yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies-questions." But I digress.

Having established that there is a distinct cultural and political bias against atheists and other non-believers, what can we conclude? Is it really a binary (either/or) choice between better public relations versus civil rights, or is it a question of combining them into one, asking instead how we can simultaneously improve public relations and reduce discriminatory policies and attitudes through both rhetoric and other forms of overt civil advocacy. Necessarily, this includes taking religion down off the cultural pedestal it has been on for so long. There is plenty of room for not just the gentle, grass-roots activists, but also the polemicists and other, more vocal advocates for secularism.

On a cautionary note, I think unbelievers should take care when drawing parallels between previous (or ongoing) civil rights movements and their own quest for acceptance. Gays, lesbians, and people of minority races still face very real challenges in their fight to gain full acceptance and integration into society. While all anti-discriminatory movements share the characteristic that they are against discrimination, each is also unique, having distinct characteristics and interests that don't directly parallel the others. Each can (and should) stand on its own merits.

So what do you think? Do you think the "New Atheists" have gone too far? How would you do things differently, if you could (or if you are)? Have you ever been discriminated against on a religious basis? If so, in what way?


On a personal note, recently I decided to improve my social life while at the same time doing whatever I can to educate and inform my fellow human beings about secular ethics and scientific naturalism. Last year, I registered with the Brights' Network, and in late June of this year decided to form a local group of similarly-minded individuals in my area. Though we're just getting off the ground, I'm hopeful that we'll be able to take some positive steps toward promoting awareness of a naturalistic worldview as a rational, ethical approach to life. If nothing else, we'll have some good coffee. You can visit us on the web here.

If you're in the area, it would be great to hear from (or even meet) some of my fellow Ex-Christians.

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