“I am nothing,” she says, her eyes avoiding mine. In her face I see contradictory tinges of apathy and embarrassment, further complicating the interpretation of her already polysemous declaration. I am nothing. Maybe she thinks her life is a failure. Maybe she feels ineffectual in some specific regard. Or maybe she has accepted her relative unimportance in the vast cosmos.
At least explicitly, however, her statement was meant to convey none of these. It was a response to a simple question: What’s your religion?
We should not be surprised by the linguistic implications of her answer. The very term we use to describe her defines her by what she is not. But she’s afraid of that term now. She’s too often heard it used in a derogatory fashion: as an apocryphal tag for Hitler, for the “Godless” communists, for a whole array of evils that our Great Christian Nation toppled in the 20th century.
Distrust of atheists is certainly nothing new. John Locke, who of all philosophers had by far the greatest impact on the founding of the United States, was suspicious of atheists, believing them “immune to the covenants and bonds that hold together human societies.” That sentiment has reverberated through the intervening 230 years, today as deeply ingrained as ever, and much more insidious.
atheists occupy virtually the same place in society today that homosexuals did fifty years ago.
In 2006, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota found atheists to be America’s most “distrusted minority,” as well as the group that parents are “least willing to allow their children to marry.” Journalist David Baltimore observed in an American Scientist review that atheists occupy virtually the same place in society today that homosexuals did fifty years ago. Atheists are subject to at least as many everyday exclusions and offenses as other minorities, and in turn enjoy the least protections. Federal courts have repeatedly privileged religious objections over identical arguments based on secular morality. Groups like the Boy Scouts of America do not allow atheists into their organization. Neither did the Veterans of Foreign Wars until just recently rescinding their ban. Concordantly, statements like “There are no atheists in foxholes” deeply insult atheist men and women who have served in the military – so much so that an organization called Atheists in Foxholes has sprung up to protect their rights. A general assumption of religious faith pervades the most celebrated periods of the lifespan, from weddings to funerals to national holidays and almost everything in between.
A Gallup poll found that 51% of Americans believe it is impossible to be a moral person without believing in God. This view is shocking, considering the U.S. government’s principle of separation of church and state implies theism is not a necessary component of moral and just decisions.
But politics remains an especially unwelcoming place for atheists. An intolerant voting base makes it virtually impossible for an atheist to be elected to public office. There are three openly gay congressman and eleven Jewish U.S. Senators, yet despite there being more atheists in the United States than Jews and homosexuals combined, there are no atheists in either Congressional house. The President of the United States is an evangelical who considers his international policy to be an extension God’s Will. In a 2001 New York Times article entitled “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” Natalie Angier draws attention to the rhetoric used in one of George W. Bush’s first speeches as President. Although meant to be a call for conciliation, unity, and inclusion, Bush’s speech asked “every American” for one thing: “to pray for this great nation.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose own religion’s history of persecution has apparently not imbued him with empathy for similarly disaffected minorities, is quoted by Angier as stating that our Constitutional freedom of religion should not lead us to “indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Perhaps the most surprising and ironic phenomenon, though, relates to the high proportion of atheists among two of our country’s most respected professions: scientists and professors. Far from having a positive impact on the general acceptance and perceived trustworthiness of non-religious individuals, it appears that scholars themselves display a sort of self-loathing intolerance for atheists. How else can we explain the disapproving and even mocking response within academia to Richard Dawkins’ admittedly passionate breed of atheism? Throughout history, religious extremists have persecuted and oppressed freethinking individuals. Today, fundamentalists viciously attack scientific principles that contradict their beliefs, often using the public school system as a battleground. Yet when a scientist offers a passionate defense and – scandalously – even ventures to go on the offensive, he is ridiculed as being overzealous and “fundamentalist” in his own right. Perhaps most scholars’ long residency in secular intellectual havens has made them forget just how atheists are treated outside of those enlightened enclaves.
Clearly, the very use of the term atheism needs to be rethought, and it may need to be discarded. Not only does atheism encompass such a broad range of belief systems that it’s difficult to offer an essential definition that isn’t a negation, but the term is inaccurate in its implication that there are only two categories of ideologies in the world and offensive in its suggestion that theism is the natural default from which all other belief systems diverge. This argues for a subdivision of the classification of atheists, which in turn calls for scholarly efforts to better understand atheistic worldviews.
Politically, however, there is a more immediate and workable remedy to the unequal treatment of atheists. Over the past half century, our society has (very) slowly honed its aptitude in protecting minorities, and the most important step in this case is simply to add atheism to the list of those in need of protection. And although some extremists would call for a substantial reduction of religion’s influence in the West, they represent a tiny fraction of atheists in this regard. The overwhelming majority of atheists are models of tolerance, perfectly comfortable coexisting with individuals of all faiths and backgrounds. It is time they receive the same respect.