Atheism is Indeed A Civil Rights Issue
by Eddie Tabash
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 4.
In “Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue”
(FI, February-March), DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey deny that atheism is
a civil rights issue. They reject the idea that nonbelievers should focus on
electing other nonbelievers to political office. I disagree on both counts.
Is Atheism a Civil Rights Issue?
One test of whether a minority group’s struggle for
equality is a civil rights issue is whether majority attitudes toward that
minority reflect unreasonable prejudice or a desire to deny full legal rights to
its members. By this standard, atheists’ efforts to achieve legal and social
equality indeed constitute a civil rights movement. Consider that, in 1958, a
Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of American citizens would vote against a
Black candidate for president on grounds of race alone. In a 1999 Gallup poll,
that figure had declined to 4 percent.1 That same 1999 Gallup poll
revealed that a larger percentage of American citizens, 49 percent, would vote
against an atheist on grounds of atheism alone than would vote against
someone for any other reason.2 Even though this is the lowest
comparative percentage of people who said they would vote against someone just
for being a nonbeliever, in absolute numbers, it is still a higher percentage
than is applicable to any other historically disfavored group.
Given current attitudes, new laws that overtly discriminate
against atheists would pass easily, and any such existing laws would eagerly be
enforced—save only for the United States Supreme Court, which has held
consistently since 1947 that no branch of government can favor believers over
nonbelievers.3 Enlightened as this position may be, it has never
enjoyed majority support. Quite to the contrary, each time the Supreme Court,
indeed any court, has struck down government preference for religion over
nonbelief, an overwhelming majority of the public has opposed the decision in
Ever since the famous Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and
1963 that ended teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in public schools, in poll
after poll Americans have favored returning government sponsored prayer to
public schools by a minimum margin of 69 percent to 27 percent.4
In many surveys, the percentage favoring restoration of school prayer exceeds 75
In other words, an overwhelming majority of Americans
rejects the offer of fairness that atheists and secular humanists have always
proposed. We don’t want government to favor us over others; we just want
government to be neutral, so that both believers and nonbelievers will be equal
before the law. We want government to stay out of the God controversy, so that
the official structure of society equally embraces both believers and
nonbelievers. We want government to be silent on the question of God’s
existence and on matters of worship. Even a moderate conservative like U.S.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has endorsed this position,
asserting that the First Amendment prohibits all branches of government from
treating people differently based upon “the God or gods they worship or
In contrast, most Americans yearn for government to take
sides in the dispute over whether God exists. And so, we atheists and humanists
find ourselves dependent on a constitutional mandate of equality before the law,
the immediate survival of which depends upon a dangerously narrow margin of just
two votes on the Supreme Court. A shift of these two votes would establish a
five-vote majority on the Court sufficient to abolish the present requirement of
government neutrality between religion and nonbelief. So far, President Bush has
succeeded in appointing judges to the lower federal courts who openly favor a
Christian theological basis for our legal system. These judges, unfortunately
reflecting attitudes held by most Americans, maintain that the Supreme Court has
been wrong in its unbroken line of decisions that require government to treat
belief and nonbelief equally.
Since the majority in our nation regards nonbelievers with
disdain and craves an end to government neutrality between religion and
nonbelief, the struggle of atheists in the United States is indeed a civil
rights issue. But that’s not the worst of it.
Mainstream Americans don’t simply reject atheism. Far too
many of them also revile atheists, secular humanists, and other unbelievers as
persons. In reflecting upon my own narrow loss in my 2000 bid for a seat in the
California legislature, I have written that nonbelievers are the most unjustly
despised minority in the United States today..7
History and current events confirm how sharply nonbelievers
are loathed. Consider the torrent of hatred today directed toward Michael Newdow,
the courageous plaintiff in the effort to remove “under God” from the Pledge
of Allegiance that public school children are expected to recite. Far from being
unusual, the negative public response toward Newdow typifies the rage
with which most Americans respond when anyone from our community demands that
official government pronouncements be as equally inclusive of us as they are of
Or consider a historical example. In February 1964, when
the landmark Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress, the House of
Representatives passed a measure by a vote of 137 to 98 that explicitly
excluded atheists from protection under the new law that would otherwise
abolish employment discrimination.#8 Fortunately, the measure failed in the
Senate. Still, just forty years ago, the same House of Representatives that
declared it illegal to engage in employment discrimination against African
Americans was willing to give employers free rein to go on discriminating
against people who didn’t believe in God.
I submit that bigotry against a person just because that
individual rejects unproven supernatural claims is every bit as destructive of
the quest for a just and enlightened society as is bigotry against someone on
grounds of race or ethnicity.
To the extent that a clear majority of Americans, let alone
an overwhelming majority, wants government at all levels to officially
favor religion over nonbelief—to the extent that more Americans still view
atheism as a disqualifying characteristic in a political candidate than they do
any other factor—I submit that we nonbelievers are in just as much danger of
suffering open discrimination as is the gay community. Even though there have
not yet been any notable physical attacks on atheists—just for being
atheists—discrimination does not have to be accompanied by overt violence in
order to pose a grave threat to a minority group’s struggle for full equality.
Further, if President Bush succeeds in restructuring the Supreme Court so as to
create a majority willing to nullify church/state separation, open
discrimination against atheists and secular humanists may become the active and
enforceable law of the land.
Accordingly, the efforts of atheists, secular humanists,
and other nonbelievers to secure and preserve their equality before the law is
every bit as much a civil rights struggle as is that of the gay rights movement.
Should Atheists Elect Their Own?
One of the most important advances members of any unjustly
despised minority can make is to begin electing members of their own community
to political office. Consider how pathetically contemporary politicians pander
to religion—for example, when every United States senator gathered on the
Capitol steps to support “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance after the
initial Ninth Circuit finding favorable to Newdow was announced. Clearly our
best protection against legislation hostile to nonbelievers would be to get some
atheists elected to Congress and state legislatures.
In their article, Grothe and Dacey reproach what they
portray as my stance that atheists should vote for an atheist candidate solely
because of his or her atheism. My actual position is that, given the dearth of
nonbelievers currently holding significant political office in the United
States, when one of our colleagues in freethought makes a bid for office and has
a significant chance of winning, we should try to give that candidate our
support even if we do not agree with him or her on every issue. We nonbelievers
can be a contentious lot, often withholding our backing from anyone with whom we
disagree on even just one issue. As a practical matter, we will never find a
candidate with whom we agree on everything. My suggestion, then, is for atheists
and secular humanists to try to give a viable candidate from our own community
greater leeway on topics not directly germane to the equal rights of
nonbelievers and church-state separation. Each of us should try to support that
candidate, unless he or she holds a position on some issue that violates one of
our core individual beliefs.
The gay community, women, African Americans, and other
minority groups have learned the importance of civil rights activism, and of
electing their own to political office. Since the mood of the country is so
antagonistic toward atheists, our own quest to secure and preserve equality
before the law is clearly a civil rights issue. As such, just like any other
unjustly despised minority, we must learn how to elect a number of our own to
the halls of power.
1. Laurie Goodstein, “And Now for Something Completely Different,” New
York Times, August 12, 2000, sec. 4, p. 1.
3. Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947).
4. “Bush, Lieberman Religion Has Little Influence, Americans Tell
Quinnipiac University National Poll; Large Majorities Favor School Prayer, God
In Pledge,” press release, June 12, 2003, available online at http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x6355.xml.
5. Michelle Marie Southers, “School Prayer,” National Parliamentary
Debate Workshop background briefing, online at http://www.willamette.edu/cla/rhetoric/workshop/DebateResearch/michellesouthers.doc.
6. Board of Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 714
(1994) (O’Connor, J., concurring).
7. Edward Tabash, “Electing Atheists to Political Office,” The Secular
Web Kiosk, August 2001. http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=122.
8. 110 Congressional Record 2607–11, February 8, 1964; Brian F. Le
Beau, The Atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (New York: New York University
Press, 2003), pp. 105–08.
Edward Tabash is a member of the Board of Directors of the
Council for Secular Humanism and is a constitutional lawyer in Beverly Hills,
California. In 2000, he was the only known secular humanist/atheist to have been
a viable candidate for a seat in a state legislature.