The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As the court forces Christianity on America, time for atheists to speak out

A crowd in front of the Supreme Court on June 27, the day it ruled in favor of the right of a former high school football coach to pray with his students on the field. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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With its ruling last week to retract federal abortion rights, the Supreme Court essentially declared it won’t protect Americans from a powerful minority who insist their God gets to make the rules for everyone. This week, it declared it will not protect students from the coercion inherent in official-led prayers to that same God.

How do we fight the growing power of the Christian right?

One way is with other religions. A Florida synagogue recently sued the state over its abortion ban, arguing, in effect, that its God has different rules. (In questions of abortion, Jewish law prioritizes the woman’s life and well-being.)

It's gratifying to watch Jews take on this legal battle, daring the courts to say out loud that one religious perspective deserves more protection than another.

But even if that works, it would mean that every time the Christian right tries to force the rest of us to live by their God’s rules, we’d have to find another Certified Religious Group to fight back. Okay, listen up: Whose God specifically endorses same-sex marriage? Can anyone cite scripture sanctifying contraception?

We shouldn’t have to use one God to fight another God. We shouldn’t have to be religious to be free. What we need — and what our Constitution conveniently provides for — is freedom from all gods.

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So how do we get there, living, as we do, in an unusually religious nation? Maybe the atheists can help.

According to a recent Gallup poll, we’re already getting closer: Only 81 percent of Americans say they believe in God — a new low. It was 87 percent just five years ago.

In seeking a theory to explain the trend, Religion News Service found what I consider to be a hopeful notion:

‘“It could be that the increase in the number of atheists is a direct result of Christian nationalism,” said Ryan Cragun, a sociologist studying the nonreligious at the University of Tampa. “They seem to be dominating the rhetoric. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is legitimately backlash against it and people saying, ‘You know what? I’m an atheist.'"

Backlash! Great idea! Atheists: Let’s lash back against Christian nationalism — and quick.

Before you decide this call to action does not apply to you, remember: You can be an atheist whether you’re religiously unaffiliated or headed to a pew this weekend. Whether you come to nonbelief from disgust with organized religion, knowledge of evolutionary biology or because the whole thing just seems made up. Ask yourself: Do I believe there’s a Supreme Being in charge of the universe? No? Done.

Now on to our backlash.

Some people work up a good backlash using bogeymen and lies. They invent a completely fictional world of child grooming, elementary-school CRT classes and sports teams overrun by transgender girls. For our backlash, we don’t need to make anything up. To demonstrate the looming threat of theocracy, we can (as atheists tend to do) stick to the evidence: actual laws passed, platforms approved and rulings handed down.

For example, the current Supreme Court ruled, in Carson v. Makin, that if Maine doesn’t subsidize religious schools in its tuition assistance program, it’s in violation of the free exercise clause. In his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer asks, “Does it mean that school districts that give vouchers for use at charter schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to give their children a religious education?” It certainly seems that way.

Meanwhile in Texas, Republicans just approved a party platform that thoroughly embraces right-wing Christian beliefs: “We affirm God’s biblical design for marriage and sexual behavior,” they aver. They would rescind no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage, declare homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” and put “prayer, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments” in schools. Legislators around the country are passing laws that will force women to bear children they don’t want because, in Gov. Greg Abbott’s words, “Our Creator endowed us with the right to life.”

And thanks to Christian nationalism and its allies on the Supreme Court, American women have just lost all federal legal protection against this God-given oppression, which former vice president Mike Pence, for one, wants to make into U.S. law.

So, if you haven’t done so already, now would be an especially good time to say, “You know what? I’m an atheist.”

You could call yourself an “agnostic” if you want, a “nonbeliever” or a “humanist.” But a good backlash should pack a punch, and nothing punches like the word atheist.

Tell someone you’re an atheist. Start with yourself if you need to. Tell your spouse, your kids, your parents, your pastor, your political representatives. And if pollsters come calling, definitely tell them.

Make it clear that, to you, no legitimate public policy can be based on the supposed wishes of a supernatural being. Right-wing politicians will have to find some other moral justification for forcing women to bear children they don’t want, keeping students from getting the education they need and withholding health care that might save children’s lives while protecting the guns that might end them.

America is not and has never been a Christian nation. Keeping it from turning into one may be up to us.

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