Many of the millions of Americans who do not believe in the supernatural have had enough of being targeted by unremitting discrimination. I know this because of the telling reaction to a Washington Post opinion article I wrote last month.
After the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it occurred to me that gays were making greater strides than atheists and agnostics in popular acceptance. Support for gay marriage is now at majority level. Houston, of all places, has a lesbian mayor. No one considers sexual orientation of guests entering the White House, yet it remains an event worthy of comment when the president remembers to note Americans of non-faith along with those of faith, The subtle bigotry begins in childhood, when atheist kids are asked to recite “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or are unable to join Boy Scouts. If Jews or blacks were being excluded in the same ways, there would be indignation.
The bum deal American atheists have constantly received is extensively documented in “Atheists as Other” published in the journal American Sociological Review. American anti-atheism that sees the nonreligious as a dangerous foreign element dates to the early years of the republic, with Christians being the main perpetrators. Never mind that a number of founders, including crafters of the Declaration of Independence, were deists, or that the writers of the Constitution were careful to state that the power of the government derives from “We the people,” not “We the people under God.” And the Cold War did not help matters, causing many Americans to conclude that being ungodly meant somehow being in league with the atheistic commie Reds, while true-blue Americans (before blue meant liberal Democrat) were faith-based churchgoers.
But the history of the matter is moot. The “crime” that the nonpious are committing is nothing more than declining to believe in supernatural beings and forces that lack sufficient verification of their reality. There is no excuse for discrimination that is as under the radar as it is persistent. So I wrote an op-ed that, in the tradition of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, would put the nation on notice by calling for the societal civil rights of Ameroatheists.
I realized things were really cooking when I received a message that the column was exploding on Facebook (the recommends are now over 81,000). It may be the most read atheist text since the best sellers of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.
So what the heck was that about? Here’s a story that helps explain: The day before the Rapture (that did not come) at the Secular Coalition Strategy meeting in D.C. I was sought out by a young woman. A month earlier, she had come out to her devoutly Christian family about being an atheist. The reaction was an outrage: Some disowned her. Others demanded she change her last name. Her parents were upset. A few days later she received a call from her mother who had just read my op-ed. She told her daughter that she had not understood how hard it was being a nonbeliever, and understood her child’s opinion better. No doubt there are many stories like that – the essay was meant to be a resource atheists can use in such situations.
The article went viral because atheists are fed-up and the piece says what we have long been feeling. There is not the slightest reason for all the abuse, and we, dear theists, are not going to take it anymore! No family member would be taken to bitter task for failing to believe in the ghosts that Gallup finds nearly half of American think haunt houses (Really, they do!). Why in the world are those who do not believe in the Biblical Holy Ghost so treated? So knock off making us miserable for expressing our All American freedom from religion. Just be nice. If a family member goes atheist, don’t berate them. Sit down and have a chat -- both of you might learn something.
But make no mistake: Nontheists are not meekly asking for full acceptance and citizenship any more than blacks did after the World War II, or gays did after Stonewall. We are telling you observant Christians, Jews, Muslims, et al., to be as respectful to us atheists as you are to other believers. Do the right thing! After all, remember what Thomas Jefferson said in 1787: “Question with boldness even the existence of God.”
Where the response to the great popularity of my article has been inadequate is among the media, which continue to pay the chronic anti-atheism problem the minimal attention they always have. The absence of progressive media on the issue is especially remarkable because atheist bashing is part and parcel of the theoconservative PR campaign to discredit all who dare not agree with them. Much as theists need to be kinder to nonsupernaturalists, societal leaders need to regularly address and denounce anti-atheism.
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He wrote this article for washingtonpost.com/onfaith.