Fighting Anti-Atheist Sentiment

There is an article by atheist activist Greta Cristinawritten for AlterNet, that tackles a very underrated civil rights issue in America: the widespread contempt, and subsequent legal discrimination, towards nonbelievers. Atheist are frequently accused of playing the “victim card” when they raise this issue, and they’re often met with the curt response that such discrimination is illegal anyway, so we’ve got nothing to fear. But as Cristina notes, what’s on the books is hardly a deterrent:

If you’ve ever made this “discrimination against atheists is against the law” argument, I have some really bad news for you. You may want to sit down for this, it may come as a shock:

People sometimes break the law.

Theft is against the law — but people sometimes steal. Bribery is against the law — but people sometimes bribe other people. Arson is against the law — but people sometimes set buildings on fire.

Anti-atheist discrimination is against the law; in the United States, anyway. But people still sometimes discriminate against atheists.

It’s illegal for public schools to prevent students from viewing atheist Web sites, while allowing them to look at religious ones. But the San Antonio Independent School District did it anyway.

It’s illegal to make atheists swear religious oaths when they testify in court. But the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers did it anyway.

It’s illegal for the U.S. military to spend money evangelizing to U.S. soldiers, todemand that U.S. soldiers attend chapel, or to order U.S. soldiers to take a“spiritual fitness” test and order them to visit evangelizing chaplains when they fail it. But the U.S. military did it anyway.

It’s illegal for businesses to give church-goers discounts they don’t give to non-believers. But the Fisherman’s Quarters II restaurant in Asheville, N.C. did it anyway.

It’s illegal to deny atheist organizations the right to advertise in venues where religious groups advertise regularly. But when American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society tried to place a bus ad in Pennsylvania that simply had the word, “atheists,” with the names and URLs of the organizations in smaller type, the transit system rejected the ad because it was “too controversial.”

It’s illegal to deny atheist students in public high schools the right to organize clubs. But it happens all the time. Talk to Secular Student Alliance high school specialist JT Eberhard. He spends a ridiculous amount of his working day pushing high school administrations to stop throwing up illegal roadblocks to atheist students, and to let them have the clubs they’re legally allowed to have.

And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the National Center for Science Education, or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or American Atheists. Ask them about the lawsuits they’re filing every month — heck, every week — about public school prayersbible instruction in public schools, public schools’ promotion of faith and religious activities as “developmental assets,” government displays of the Ten Commandments and other religious texts, city council meetings and other government events being opened with prayers,religious creationism being taught in the public schools, or any of hundreds of similar incidents.

And then tell me — or any other atheist — that we don’t experience discrimination.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. There have been several high profile cases as of late that reveal the consequences of standing up to these sorts of things. Like many other minority groups, fighting this kind of discrimination can be as costly as being disenfranchised by it (indeed, that’s pretty much the idea: don’t speak out or else).

High school student and atheist Jessica Ahlquist fought a legal battle she never should have had to fight: the battle to get her public, taxpayer-paid high school to take down a prayer banner from the auditorium. From a purely legal perspective, this was an utterly non-controversial issue: decades of legal precedent clearly supported her position, and to anyone familiar with the law, the ruling in her favor was almost entirely unsurprising.

But as a result of filing this lawsuit, Ahlquist was bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence. She was called “evil” in public by her state representative, and was targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape and death. And this wasn’t just from hateful strangers trolling on the Internet — it came from her own schoolmates and her own community. This wasn’t in the Bible Belt — it was in Rhode Island.

And Ahlquist is hardly alone. When atheist student Damon Fowler tried to stop his public high school from having an illegal prayer at his graduation, he was physically threatened, publicly demeaned by one of his teachers, pilloried and ostracized by his community, and kicked out of his home by his parents. When atheist student Skyler Curtis tried to publicize his group at his high school, his posters were torn down, the local newspaper ran a letter from a parent calling his atheism an “atrocity,” and he received threats of violence. When atheist John Kieffer protested prayers at his local school board meeting, he was arrested.

Not everyone is able to fight these fights. Not everyone is able to risk hateful ostracism and violent threats from their community. It’s hard enough for a 16-year-old high school student like Jessica Ahlquist to face down this kind of venomous hostility. It’s even harder when you’re trying to hold down a job and support your family, and you literally can’t afford to alienate your bosses and co-workers and customers. Yes, the law is mostly on our side, and atheists and church-state separation advocates generally win these lawsuits. (Although not always — more on that in a tic.) But it doesn’t do much good to have the law on your side if fighting a legal battle is going to destroy your life.

Cristina goes on to highlight heart-wrenching cases where parents were explicitly denied custody of their children for being nonreligious. I can’t imagine having to make the sort of sacrifice in the name of freedom of conscience, of facing that level of public shaming and repression just because I’m putting out established legal precedent. Luckily, I live in a relatively secular part of my otherwise conservative state (Florida). But given the widespread and visceral dislike of atheists, I mustn’t become too complacent. There’s a reason why

The fact that atheists are the least-trusted group in America? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that atheists are the minority group Americans least want their children to marry? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans think atheists could share their vision of society?Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president — a lower number than any other group? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. People have the legal right to not vote for an atheist… just like they have the legal right to not vote for a woman, or an African American, or a Muslim, or a Jew. It’s still discrimination. It’s still screwed-up.

And it’s still worth fighting.

And to be clear…

Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No. Almost certainly not. Not in the U.S., anyway. It’s worse in some ways — we consistently show up in polls as the least trusted group in America, and the least likely to be voted for — but atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people, or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color.

That’s not the point. Here is the point.

If you were mugged, nobody would tell you, “Quit whining — there are laws against mugging, you have legal protection, you don’t have anything to complain about.” The fact that there are laws against mugging did not stop you from getting mugged. It is reasonable for you to say something about it, and to express distress that it happened. And if muggings are happening a lot in your town or your country, it is reasonable to ask your community to pay attention, and to do something about it.

Atheists are getting mugged. Atheists are experiencing real, law-breaking discrimination. The fact that it’s illegal does not always stop it from happening. It is reasonable for us to speak out about it. And it is reasonable for us to expect people to give a damn. It is reasonable to expect our friends, our families, our colleagues, our communities, our country, to pay attention — and to do something about it.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I think it’s in the interest of every law-abiding and ethical member of our (ostensibly) free society to ensure that these sorts of things are talked about and dealt with. I’d gladly defend the right of my opponents to be treated fairly and equally before the law. That’s supposed to be one of the central things that units us as a nation.

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