The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com.
As an atheist and materialist, I sometimes wonder why I don’t feel the love from gay people. Perhaps I should rephrase that: it seems that atheists are perfectly willing to stand up for freedom and liberty for the LGBT community, but the favor is rarely returned. Likewise with the African-American community: we welcome black atheists, but the black civil rights community is not conspicuously supportive of us.
It may be because we are all immoral, hell-bound, baby-eaters… or it may be for another reason – a reason for which they are blameless.
I was listening recently to one of my favorite podcasts, “The Best of the Left,” hosted by Jay Tomlinson. I was pleased to hear a rare voice call in: an atheist who was hoping nonbelievers “are the next group to fight for their rights and come out of the closet and not be afraid to say who they are.” Hear, hear, I said to myself. But the host killed my momentary buzz, saying that “equating the civil rights movements of the LGBT community and racial minorities to the struggle for acceptance by atheists” is “an inappropriate comparison.”
And Jay is an atheist! Maybe he’s not as angry or aggressive as we are, those of us who listen to and comment through “American Heathen” – or maybe it’s because his podcast is called “Best of the Left” and not “Voice of the Godless” – but Jay admits that he shares our disbelief in sky-gods. He just thinks the law is already on our side.
I began to think Jay got it all wrong: there are so many examples of anti-atheist discrimination: an atheist can’t get elected to public office; believers are preferred in child custody; atheists can get fired from at-will employment for any reason or no reason; schools can stifle free association if they don’t approve of an atheist group; atheists are under-represented and misrepresented in the media; atheists are repudiated by their families; many famous people were actually nonbelievers, but history classes never teach this; and have you ever noticed that atheists are not one of the protected groups covered by Hate Crimes laws?*
Given a second look, this list conflates public discrimination, which is discrimination as official policy of state or federal government, with private discrimination, or just not being liked. Sure, atheists, are liked a lot less than almost any other group. But does that raise the cause of anti-atheist discrimination to the level of a civil rights issue?
It is true that there seems to be a kind of institutionalized discrimination against atheists in the military. The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program spends millions of tax dollars to assert, without scientific evidence, that soldiers must be not just physically fit but spiritually fit. And the spiritual fitness program is biased toward a certain fundamentalist religiosity that critics, myself included, find troubling.
It is also true that in the United States, seven state constitutions (Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and, surprisingly, my own state of Maryland) officially include religious tests that could forbid atheists from holding public office or being a juror or witness at trial. But it is also true that the 1961 Torcaso decision specifically overturned the Maryland religious test, and presumably invalidated all the others.
Yes, it is tougher in life being an atheist. I think we can all agree that discrimination against atheists does exist. But at what point does anti-atheist discrimination become a civil rights violation? And is it on par with discrimination against the LGBT community, women and racial minorities? It is clear that, unlike other rights groups, atheists are not denied equal access to housing, they are not kept from seeing their partners in hospitals, they don’t earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, and they are not prevented from voting. And atheists don’t make up 39% of the prison population but only 14% of the general population.
A true civil rights movement is characterized not just by discrimination, but by the politics of some identifiable characteristic. Gays and lesbians have their sexual orientation. African-Americans have their skin color. Women have… well, you get the idea. But the only characteristic atheists have in common is their disbelief.
Atheism is a minority viewpoint and all minority viewpoints are unpopular, if not downright suspicious, among the general public. We atheists can claim to be misunderstood and misrepresented, caricatured and shunned, even painted with the same brush as Hitler – a Roman Catholic who was never excommunicated, by the way. But are we actually oppressed? Now I think that’s going too far.
Like me, everybody is born an atheist. Some of us return to our roots and find out that you can’t go home again. That’s not oppression: that’s inconvenience. The law is on our side, right?
That is, until the law is changed. And, with more of us coming out of the closet, with government increasingly in the hands of unelected sectarian officials, do I detect a little pushback? Is public vs. private discrimination becoming a distinction without a difference? We are excluded by “In God we Trust” on our coins and currency, by “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Hmm. Maybe I’m agnostic, after all.
* Austin Cline, http://atheism.about.com/od/attacksonatheism/p/AtheistBigotry.htm. Retrieved 4/18/12.
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: We’re Born This Way