Some of My Best Friends Are Atheists

Katrina Voss

Several months after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, our giddy disbelief has yet to erode. And rightly so. This was an event we thought we might never see, some might say a milestone in our collective ethical trajectory. True, television might have given us the nudge we needed, a fortuitous wooing from Dennis Haysbert and his hypnotic portrayal of President Palmer in 24. Regardless, here we are, taking an important step toward the eradication of racism.

Still, however well-earned our self-congratulation for racial inclusiveness, we have a long way to go. Racism is hardly over and done with. And as long as we’re picking the nits off the American psyche, neither is anti-atheism. In fact, a 2007 Gallup poll revealed anti-atheism as the strongest remaining American prejudice, with 53 percent of respondents claiming they would not vote for a “generally well-qualified” but godless presidential candidate. It appears the atheist counterpart to Obama’s historical victory is a pie in the sky ’round which unicorns trot and fairies flit on gilded wings.

Lest the Gallup poll leave us unmoved, researchers are now taking another approach, polling not the discriminators but rather the discriminated-against. My father and I, both lifelong atheists, participated in one such study conducted by a team at the University of Missouri. The researchers assessed how much discrimination we had faced as a result of our atheism. Had we been denied a job, lost friends, alienated family, or suffered at the hands of bigoted bullies? Upon completing the questionnaire, my father and I compared notes and realized that we had responded quite differently.

My father claimed to have experienced little or no discrimination or mistreatment based on his worldview. I, on the other hand, claimed to have undergone some moderate harassment, though not of a caliber that has made life significantly more difficult. If anything, as an older atheist having lived through more religious and conservative times, shouldn’t my father have experienced more discrimination rather than less? Wouldn’t we expect the same sort of generational progress found upon comparing the discrimination reports of two African Americans aged sixty-five and thirty-eight? Or should we now conclude that not only is anti-atheism alive and well, as the Gallup poll suggests, but that it is getting worse?

Not necessarily, which is not to say that things are getting better either. For those atheists who seem to have skated through life untouched by inequity, there is a simple, albeit disappointing, reason. Many tests of discrimination begin with a troubling bias: they assume that we all can distinguish the attribute in question. After all, “discrimination” is just that—discriminating, or discerning, a difference between two individuals. Tests of racial discrimination, for example, assume an obvious, categorical difference between individuals. Only recently have some scientists begun to criticize the notion that “races” have unfuzzy, definitive boundaries, that we all agree on where those boundaries are drawn, and that there are only four or five: Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, and sometimes Native American. (Just travel to Brazil or the Caribbean to find myriad racial categories that make North American distinctions appear pathetically insufficient.)

How much more complicated it becomes when boundaries are not visible—fuzzily or otherwise—in the first place. After all, atheism is markedly less discernible than so-called race. It is certainly nothing one wears on one’s skin (except the occasional American Atheists member who has tattooed the atomic symbol on a public part of his or her anatomy). Nor is it hinted at in the shape of one’s eyes, the width of one’s nose, or the texture of one’s hair. Theism is the default position. By definition, an atheist must be revealed as such before he or she can suffer any oppression.

In my father’s case, just how many friends, interviewers, or other possible discriminators knew that he was, in fact, a brash and impenitent atheist? How many, no doubt by some powerful Christian juju, may have discovered his atheism secretly? For that matter, how many acted on their biases against him without his ever identifying the reason? (I asked my father these very questions with a triumphant “So there!”—to which he responded with the eye-rolling concession, “You’ve made your point.”)

So, if my father has suffered less discrimination than his daughter, it is likely because his daughter owns more atheist T-shirts. That raises another question: Has the percentage of nonbelievers grown in recent decades or just the percentage of those who make their nonbelief public? At any rate, whether or not atheists receive fair treatment will remain something of a mystery, elusive and untestable—at least until many more of us burst merrily from the proverbial closet. I suspect that atheists are indeed discriminated against and otherwise mistreated. I suspect it is not difficult to get away with, in the same way that other minorities were fair game decades ago.

I also suspect that since atheism is presumably (and I believe, debatably) a “choice,” unlike race or sex, it might even be easier to attack with impunity. Indeed, only recently has sexual orientation been added to most Americans’ list of “not a choice” categories, and perhaps that explains its greater acceptance. (By the way, in that Gallup poll, the next-most-unforgivable trait in a presidential candidate—after atheism—is homosexuality.) What’s more, it is doubtful that the theistic public even recognizes such a thing as discrimination against the godless in the first place, despite laws against discrimination based on religion—or one’s lack of a religion. In short, anti-atheism is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Then again, the above may reveal something about my own prejudices concerning the expectation of intolerance from my religious neighbors. Anti-atheism may well go the way of racism, and the signs of change will be unmistakable: First, a dashing atheist protagonist will meet the theist parents of his bride-to-be in a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Then, before long, if you accuse someone of hating atheists, that person will name all of his or her atheist friends in a frenzy of contrition. Eventually, an acerbic liberal arts professor will coin the term theist guilt. Won’t my face be red!

And after all that history unfolds, then might we see an atheist president? Perhaps. But it would probably be more efficient if the writers of 24 would just speed up that process for us.

Katrina Voss

Katrina Voss works as a bilingual broadcast metrologist and holds the AMS Seal. She is collaborating with her husband, a Pennsylvania State University physical anthropologist, on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

Several months after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, our giddy disbelief has yet to erode. And rightly so. This was an event we thought we might never see, some might say a milestone in our collective ethical trajectory. True, television might have given us the nudge we needed, a fortuitous wooing …

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