Split Hairs and Split Movements

Ronald A. Lindsay

A random observation: members and supporters of secular (humanist/atheist/freethought, etc.) organizations are seldom reluctant to voice their disagreement with a particular point of view. This is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be a desirable trait, at least when contrasted with the submissiveness one sometimes finds among the religious. Nonetheless, a tendency to be disputatious can be counterproductive, especially when there is nothing of substance to dispute. I find this to be the case with the debate that one encounters from time to time among us secularists as to whether discrimination against atheists and other nonreligious is properly characterized as a “civil rights issue." This topic has been debated in the pages of this journal and elsewhere.* Not too long ago, I was a party to a prolonged discussion of this topic—which I found, for the most part, pointless. Let me suggest to you that once we agree on the facts—and I hope that is not beyond our reach—disputes about how to characterize these facts should fade away. Our focus should be on eliminating prejudice against the nonreligious, not determining the most appropriate label for this prejudice and our efforts to combat it. Semantics are not always unimportant; however, in this case they are.

To begin, presumably few secularists deny the reality of discrimination and indeed occasional violence and intimidation directed against atheists and other nonbelievers. There may not be unanimity about how often the nonreligious suffer discrimination, but it happens often enough to be a concern. Moreover, beyond conduct that adversely affects the nonreligious, whether accompanied by violence or not, widespread prejudice against the nonreligious still exists in culturally backwards countries—to name one, the United States. To cite just one example of this prejudice, survey after survey confirms that the majority of Americans still would not vote for an atheist for president, whereas substantial majorities would have no problem voting for a woman or an African American, and at least a thin majority claim no reluctance to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. In that sense, bigotry against nonbelievers is one of the last respectable prejudices.

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