Atheist “Discrimination”

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.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ThePioneer on May 10, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    I’m only atheist as result of being a naturalist. I don’t want to eliminate theism. I might think adults with imaginary friends are stupid, but I wouldn’t take their teddy bear from them. What I want is theists to be defunded in the political process.


  2. Posted by arthur on May 20, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    “More importantly, though, using terms like ‘discrimination’ and ‘bigotry’ misrepresents the problem facing atheists.”

    In 6 states you can’t hold a public office because you are an atheist. While that’s been ruled unconstitutional, it’s been used as an excuse to try and stop public officials from ‘swearing in’. Further when ever attempts to remove those sections come up…. unanimously they are voted kept.

    Atheists can have there children taken from them because of there atheism as well. It’s been used in countless court cases.


    • Posted by John S on May 20, 2011 at 9:59 PM

      I would be very interested to hear about one of these “countless” cases.


      • Posted by arthur on May 24, 2011 at 7:18 PM

        Carson v. Carson, 401 N.W.2d 632, 635–36 (Mich. Ct. App. 1986) (quoting trial court as opining that it “was a little bit distraught in finding that there was no particular affiliation [held by either parent] with a church,” because “[p]robably 95 percent of the criminals that I see before me come from homes where there’s no . . . established religious affiliation,”
        Sharrow v. Davis, Nos. 244043, 245117, 2003 WL 21699876, at *3 (Mich. Ct. App. July 22, 2003) (noting that “[father] never attended church and his older children were not baptized,” that “[father] felt [the children] should experience many religions and choose one when they were older,” and that though “[mother] did not attend church regularly, she attended periodically and would take all of the children with her”);
        Goodrich v. Jex, No. 243455, 2003 WL 21362971, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. June 12, 2003) (noting “that [father] has a greater capacity and willingness to continue to take the parties’ daughters to church and related activities,” and that trial court had been “concerned with [mother’s] belief that her minor daughters are capable of making their own decisions whether to attend church”);
        Sims v. Stanfield, No. CA98-1040, 1999 WL 239888, at 3–4 (Ark. Ct. App. Apr. 21, 1999) (noting that lower court based award of custody to father partly on father’s having “‘rekindled’ a relationship with his church,” “regularly attend[ing] services,” and providing “a Christian home,” but declining on procedural grounds to review this);
        Tweedel v. Tweedel, 484 So. 2d 260, 262 (La. Ct. App. 1986) (noting that “The child attends church regularly with the mother and receives religious instruction. The father testified that he has not brought the child to church because the child did not want to go and that he would not force the child to go to church.”);
        Staggs v. Staggs, No. 2004-CA-00443-COA, 2005 WL 1384525, at *6 (Miss. Ct. App. May 24, 2005) (noting that “[w]hile [father] is an agnostic and testified that religion is not important to him, [mother] testified that religion is very important to her”);
        Weigand v. Houghton, 730 So. 2d 581, 587 (Miss. 1999) (noting chancellor’s “weighing heavily” as factor in mother’s favor that “mother has seen that [the son] is taken to church and undergone religious training, along with the entire family” and that “[the son’s] best interest would be served by providing religious training”).
        Gancas v. Schultz, 683 A.2d 1207, 1213–14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (reversing lower court’s transfer of custody from mother to father, based partly on lower court’s “fail[ure] to consider ‘all factors which legitimately have an effect upon the child’s physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual well-being,’” and in particular that while “[m]other . . . takes [daughter] to church whenever [daughter] is with her,” “[f]ather, an admitted agnostic, does not attend church”).
        Myers v. Myers, 14 Phila. 224, 256–57 (Com. Pl. 1986) (“Although the issue of religion is not controlling in a custody case, the religious training of children is a matter of serious concern and is a factor that should be considered in rendering a custody decision. ‘A proper religious atmosphere is an attribute of a good home and it contributes significantly to the ultimate welfare of a child.’ Where it appears that the religious training of the children will cease upon placement in a given custodial setting, courts lean in favor of the religious-minded contestant.”), aff’d without op., 520 A.2d 68 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986);
        Scheeler v. Rudy, 2 Pa. D. & C.3d 772, 780 (Com. Pl. 1977) (awarding custody to mother, noting as factor in her favor that she often took children to church, while father rarely did, that “[t]his court has often noted the absence of any regular church attendance in the pre- sentence reports of those who have been convicted of some crime, which appear on our desk,” and that “a religious education and upbringing can have a substantial effect upon the outlook and attitudes of a child, and in turn upon the life of the adult he or she will become.”)
        Pountain v. Pountain, 503 S.E.2d 757, 761 (S.C. Ct. App. 1998) (upholding denial of custody to father whom court described as “agnostic,” and stating that “Although the religious beliefs of parents are not dispositive in a child custody dispute, they are a factor relevant to determining the best interest of a child”);
        In re F.J.K., 608 S.W.2d 301 (Tex. App. 1980) (noting “the mother’s neglect of the children’s religious upbringing,” and “[a]n atheistic philosophy [being] . . . discussed by the new husband to some extent with the daughter, prompting her to advise her nursery school teacher that she was ‘not a Christian or a Jew but an atheist’”).

        Need more?


        • Posted by arthur on May 24, 2011 at 7:22 PM

          …and all of that was but a quick search, If you wanted to really dig in you could find this in literally hundreds of cases per region.

          It’s no laughing matter.

          There is a pattern here. In some cases the *deciding* factor was atheism. not a contributing factor (it shouldn’t be) but a deciding factor.

          This doesn’t count things such as social discrimination in legal systems (oh your an atheist…well how am I supposed to think they are speaking the truth?). required discrimination based on unwillingness to swear an oath on a bible, etc etc.


  3. Posted by HAHAHAHAHAHA on December 7, 2011 at 3:09 PM



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