Loyal NPI readers will know that I’m a very proud atheist. In fact, atheism is one of the few intellectual positions that I try to actively promote—in some ways, I consider it the defining ideological debate of the modern era.
But for all my staunch pro-atheism, I care surprisingly little about anti-atheist “discrimination.” Every so often a new study will come out showing that atheists are the least trusted, or least tolerated, or most feared “minority group” in America. While I find these facts disconcerting, I don’t really expect anything different. A recent op-ed in The Washington Post, though, referred to the “bigotry” that atheists face:
“As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s.”
This kind of hyperbole is far more upsetting than the facts themselves, and is often counterproductive to the goals of atheists.
For one, using the same terms that we use to discuss the adversity faced by racial minorities, women, and homosexuals to discuss the problems facing atheists implies a false equivalency. After all, atheists tend to be better educated and have higher income levels than the average population, and there are very few practical limitations on what schools they can attend, or what institutions they can join. Atheists can’t join the Boy Scouts, but that’s hardly analogous to growing up in the Jim Crow south, or being unable to get legally married.
Some atheists will point out that, practically if not legally, there are plenty of instances of discrimination against atheism. They are right. An atheist doesn’t have much chance of holding high political office, even if there are no official legal barriers preventing him from running. Often, the news will report on an atheist who was pressured to leave his job (or the military) because of his beliefs, or lack thereof. And there are many people who consider atheism immoral.
These are technically examples of discrimination, but only in the strict sense by which “discriminate” merely means to “make a distinction in favor or against a person or thing.” In this sense, we discriminate all the time—when picking friends, or cars, or fresh fruit. It’s only when we discriminate based on incidental and unchangeable things—like race, sex, sexuality, physical disability, etc.—that it becomes problematic.
Atheism is decidedly not something like that. Atheism, by and large, is not inherited, and it is certainly not passive: It is an intellectual position that is almost always arrived at after much thought and deliberation. Most importantly, being an atheist does say something about your character and personality, in a way that a person’s race or gender cannot.
In other words, atheism is something that can be disagreed with. Presumably, most of the people who mistrust or fear atheists disagree with the philosophy (this is an overwhelmingly religious country), so it is fair for them to discriminate against those that support it. Most religions teach that morality stems from a god, so it is a natural extension of that belief to assume that people without a belief in god are immoral.
Certainly, there is a point where discrimination becomes persecution, and becomes unacceptable: It would not be appropriate to ban atheists from school, for doctors to refuse to see them, or subject them to violence. But, at least at this point, our society is nowhere close to that. The discrimination atheists face is much more benign. When people say they don’t trust atheists or that they fear them, it is because they believe morality must stem from belief in a god. If they don’t want relatives to marry atheists, it’s because they feel like religion is an important part of a family. If they say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist, it’s because they want their representatives to share their moral beliefs.
These are all valid positions to take. In fact, I suspect most atheists share them, but in the other direction. Atheists are probably more likely to have atheist friends, more likely to marry atheists, and would be more likely to vote for atheists if any of them ever ran for office. This is because they are discriminating in favor of those that share their beliefs. There is nothing wrong with this.
Of course, it is somewhat disconcerting to hear terms like “fear” and “distrust” tossed around about atheists, but I think talking about it in terms of “discrimination” does more harm than good. For one, there is the public relations disaster that comes with the false equivalency: When atheists use Civil Rights terms like “discrimination” and “persecuted minority” it sounds a little hyperbolic.* As I said, atheists have it pretty good in this country.
*While I agree with Michael Newdow’s crusade to expurgate the mention of God from every pledge, oath, and sign in American government, he’s probably doing immense damage to the public perception of atheists for what is basically a symbolic cause.
More importantly, though, using terms like “discrimination” and “bigotry” misrepresents the problem facing atheists. Those terms are generally used when a group is looking for tolerance or assimilation. Gay individuals do not want to eradicate heterosexuality (no matter what Fred Phelps says), (most) blacks don’t want to eliminate whites, and (most) women don’t want to live in a world without men.
But the debate between theists and nontheists is a substantive, philosophical debate between two incompatible views of the world. Atheists do want eliminate theism. The ultimate goal should not be to end “bigotry” against atheists. It should be to annihilate systems of belief that insist morality flows from a supernatural being, that personal revelations provide adequate justifications for violence, and that different beliefs can consign you to eternal damnation.