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.

But do these incidents of adverse conduct and prejudice against nonbelievers make discrimination against the nonreligious a civil rights issue? Here’s a lawyer’s answer: yes and no. It depends on what one means by “civil rights issue.” If one means that legally one can discriminate against an atheist or an agnostic in employment, education, and housing, then the answer is no. Since the 1960s, atheists and other nonbelievers have been protected by most of the same civil rights statutes that protect African Americans, women, persons of different nationalities, and other groups. Accordingly, if by characterizing discrimination against atheists as a “civil rights issue” one means to imply that there needs to be a change in law, then this characterization is (largely) incorrect. For the most part, there is no de jure, that is, legally sanctioned, denial of basic civil rights to nonbelievers.

This distinguishes the present situation of nonbelievers from the situation confronted by African Americans, women, and others prior to the legal reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. I’m sure that I do not need to remind anyone old enough to recall that era that prior to the passage of federal and state civil rights legislation, African Americans and women were legally second-class citizens. In many states, one could legally deny public accommodations to African Americans; many states had legally segregated schools; and denying a job to a woman because she was a woman was legally permissible. As a matter of law, second-class citizenship no longer exists for women and members of minority groups—just as it no longer exists for atheists or other nonreligious.

It is true that the nonreligious did suffer from express legal disabilities in the past. Arguably, those legal disabilities were as onerous as those experienced by women and African Americans in the early twentieth century. For example, not only did atheists not have any protection against employment or housing discrimination, but in many states they could not hold public office, testify in court, or serve as jurors. The “justification” for all those prohibitions was that the nonreligious could not be trusted, because they did not believe in a deity that would punish them for deceit or other misconduct. It apparently escaped the notice of legislatures that belief in a deity often had little effect on the behavior of the religious. The overwhelming majority of felons have been religious.

In any event, those legal disabilities, for the most part, have been abolished. There are still a few state constitutions that contain language prohibiting nonbelievers from holding public office and some state laws that stipulate that jurors or witnesses must take an oath invoking a deity, but those provisions have been unenforceable since the 1961 Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, which concluded that Maryland could not require notaries to believe in God (see Tom Flynn, “Outlawing Unbelief,” Free Inquiry, Winter 1999/2000).

Perhaps the only significant legal distinction between the religious and the nonreligious that both survives and is considered by some jurists to be defensible is the special privilege given to the religious to solemnize marriages. In most states, only certain designated civil officials (e.g., a judge or a justice of the peace) and representatives of religious bodies may solemnize a marriage, that is, perform a marriage ceremony that is legally binding. Other than the historical connections between religious institutions and marriage ceremonies (ecclesiastical institutions controlled marriage for centuries in Europe), there is no reason for granting the religious special privileges to officiate at marriage ceremonies. This may not be the most intolerable injustice embodied in our legal system; nonetheless, the nonreligious should not be forced to have their official marriage ceremonies performed by anonymous government officials while the religious are permitted to choose their celebrants. (Note: I am one of the attorneys representing William Woods-Bateman, a Hawaii resident who is pursuing a constitutional challenge to that state’s law restricting legally binding ceremonies to judges and representative of religious bodies.)

The foregoing sets forth the current legal landscape. As one can readily infer, if we think of a civil rights issue as an issue about legal denial of certain rights, then discrimination against atheists is not—for the most part—a civil rights issue. On the other hand, atheists do sometimes lose their jobs because they are atheists, are otherwise discriminated against, and are bullied or otherwise treated inappropriately. The civil rights of nonbelievers are being violated—but not with the approval of the law; to the contrary, this type of conduct (usually) constitutes a violation of the law.

I believe this distinction between legally sanctioned discrimination (de jure discrimination) and discrimination that results from the illegal or inappropriate conduct of individuals (de facto discrimination) both clarifies the key issues in the debate and—I hope—demonstrates that this debate has little utility. Instead of concentrating our energies on what label to apply to the objectionable conduct of some of the religious, we should work to eliminate this conduct. In this case as in many others, action is more effective than talk—especially when we are just talking among ourselves.

Naturally, being the thoughtful people that many secularists are, there are also disagreements about the
tactics that should be followed in combating discrimination and prejudice against nonbelievers. Some contend that we should focus on public education and awareness: let others know that we are atheists or humanists and that we also believe in the common moral decencies and conduct ourselves accordingly. Others maintain that we should focus on legal action, such as lawsuits against those who engage in discrimination.

I do not understand why we cannot and should not adopt both courses of action. Prejudice against nonbelievers is not very susceptible to redress through legal action. You cannot sue someone simply because he or she is a bigot. So we cannot rely entirely on legal action. We do need tactics designed to change attitudes. But for someone who is being terminated or bullied because he or she is an atheist, a gradual change in attitudes is not much help. He or she needs legal redress. Therefore, we should have both public awareness campaigns and legal efforts to protect those who experience discrimination. Different organizations can emphasize the approach best suited to their resources and talents.


Speaking of different organizations (segue alert!) you may be aware that there are a couple of dozen different secular organizations in the United States. The Council for Secular Humanism and its affiliate, the Center for Inquiry, may be the largest of these organizations, but there are some others of not inconsiderable size, both with respect to supporters and financial resources. You might also be aware that these various secular organizations and the individuals who lead them have not always had amicable relationships. Not going to get into any history here. Don’t want to make any misstatements. More important, there’s no point in doing that. We need to look forward and not continually nurse our grievances, real or imagined. The only reference that I will make to past events is that it is disheartening that so much of the time and energy of secular organizations and their leaders have been devoted to squabbles that, in principle, should be fairly easily avoided by rational individuals who share similar objectives and goals.

Let’s put matters into perspective. Recent surveys suggest that roughly 10 percent of Americans are not religious. Confining ourselves to the adult population of the United States, that means about twenty-two million Americans are not religious. How many of these are members or supporters of the twenty or so secular organizations in the United States? For a lot of reasons, I cannot provide you with exact numbers, but it’s probably less than 1 percent. That’s right, less than 1 percent. There is a large pool of untapped potential supporters of secular organizations. However, many of these potential supporters may not even be aware of the humanist movement, because instead of directing our message to them, we spend an inordinate amount of time on internecine quarrels. This is shameful and, in light of the size of our organizations, ridiculous. In fact, it’s so ridiculous that it reminds one of the schisms and petty quarrels that plague small religious sects. (Ouch! I know that hurts, but it’s the truth.)

I do not mean to suggest that there are no significant differences among the various secular organizations—there will continue to be such differences. Some of these differences may be matters of principle; some may be serious matters of tactics. These differences, however, should not prevent us from treating each other with respect and, where possible, engaging in cooperative efforts. In fact, all the various secular organizations might benefit from cooperative activity, at least in certain discrete areas, because it may bring our mission and work to the attention of those who might otherwise be unaware of it.

Perhaps if we spend more time advancing humanism and less time in turf wars, we will no longer need to worry about whether prejudice against the nonreligious should be characterized as a civil rights issue—because we will have succeeded in enlarging our numbers and in changing public attitudes. Let’s combat bigotry, not each other.

* See Austin Dacey and D. J. Grothe, “Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue,” Free Inquiry February/March 2004; Margaret Downey, “Discrimination against Atheists”; Edward Tabash, “Atheism Is Indeed a Civil Rights Issue,” June/July 2004; and D. J. Grothe and Austin Dacey, “Atheism and Civil Rights: A Reply to Tabash and Downey,” August/September 2004.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.