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Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue

by DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.


Don't Opress Me!On the steps of City Hall, throngs of college students in bandannas and T-shirts press against a tightening police cordon, chanting, "Hell? No, we won't go! Hell? No, we won't go!" On the outskirts of the fray, a circle of retired ladies raise their frail but insistent voices in a stirring song of protest: "Deep in my heart / I still believe / We shall oversleep Sunday." A man being thrust handcuffed into a paddy wagon turns and flashes them the Bright Power hand signal, a variation on Mr. Spock's Vulcan salute.

While it might make for good television, you won't find this scene of social unrest on the nightly news. It exists only in the imagination of some self-identifying atheists and secular-humanist activists. Unbelievers, they claim, are the last oppressed minority in America, and the time has come for a civil-rights movement all their own. Atheists are told to "come out of the closet." Some have even invented a new term for nonbelievers-Bright-drawing an analogy with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) community's alleged hijacking of the word gay in place of homosexual.

But is it really legitimate to compare the situation of nontheists in America to the oppression of women, ethnic and racialized minorities, and the GLBT community? Can their struggle for public respect be modeled on the civil rights struggles of the last century? In fact, the analogy with gay rights is seriously flawed. Atheists need a public awareness campaign, not a liberation movement.

Women, people of color, and GLBTs have consistently faced discrimination that substantially diminishes their basic life prospects-access to housing, health care, education, political participation, employment, and family benefits. Additionally, they have suffered violence and intimidation. For minorities defined by race, sex, and sexual orientation, civil rights movements were necessary to correct such grievous ill-treatment.

But do unbelievers really suffer comparable harm? Atheists are not denied equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don't earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they prevented from voting. To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing." If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.

Sure, it would be hard to be elected to higher office in America as an avowed unbeliever, but it would also be impossible for a socialist or a Mother Earth spiritualist. And being barred from the Boy Scouts hardly affects one's basic life prospects. Besides, most experts agree that Scouting is not a "public accommodation" in which everyone has a right to be included.

Civil rights struggles are related to a more general approach to social action known as "identity politics." In identity politics, people organize around their shared identity rather than their party affiliation or political ideology. This is quite appropriate for groups whose collective, historical experience of oppression has forged some substantial unity in belief and social agenda. Yet atheists have no beliefs in common but their disbelief. Imagine a voting bloc that would back a candidate merely for lacking faith in a personal deity.1

No doubt, skeptics of religion risk alienation from family, friends, and coworkers by revealing their heterodox views. One of us (DJ Grothe) had more of a problem with his family when he "came out" as a nonbeliever than when he came out as gay years previously. It is undeniable—and infuriating—that public officials can still get away with slurring the nonreligious by suggesting they aren't good people or good citizens, as George H. W. Bush once did. And the old canard, "There are no atheists in foxholes," is an insult.

Atheists are a cognitive minority (or as Christopher Hitchens more proudly put it in his keynote address at a Council for Secular Humanism conference on April 12, 2003, a "cognitive elite"). By their nature, minority viewpoints are unpopular and held in suspicion by the general public: just ask a Wiccan or deep ecologist. Are atheists misrepresented? Misunderstood? Often. Oppressed? Hardly. The proper remedy is to educate the public about secularism and scientific naturalism. We do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity. Incredible analogies with the plight of the truly repressed will further neither cause.

Note

1. Remarkably, one national atheist organization has actually launched a political action committee whose primary purpose is just this. Also, West Coast activist (and Council for Secular Humanism board member) Eddie Tabash has urged atheists to become single-issue voters based on their unbelief. See "Thoughts on December 31, 2001," online at http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/www/tabash_01_02.htm.


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