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Atheists Are People Too
Discrimination against atheists is one of the last types of socially acceptable discrimination. It comes in many forms, the most shocking of which is legal: Some state constitutions attempt to strip atheists of their legal rights. Before I go any further, I would like to make a disclaimer. Though I think discrimination against atheists is real and runs counter to the spirit of our nation, it is nothing compared to what is been faced by black Americans, gay Americans or female Americans at various times in our country's history. It's also different because we choose it (unlike race, gender and sexual orientation) and we choose how public to make it. If I wanted to, I could present myself as a nominal Christian or I could choose to not discuss religion at all. But if a person decides that they don't believe in any invisible, undetectable deities and they make this unbelief known, they will find that they are often the odd man out.
Although the U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for any federal office in Article VI, section 3, several state constitutions create just such a test. The following states require belief in God to serve in public office: Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Two states (Arkansas and Maryland) require belief in God in order to testify as a witness in court. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 (Torcasa v. Watkins) that all of those tests are unconstitutional, but the laws mentioned above are still on the books.
In the minds of many voters, there remains a de facto religious test for public office. Several studies have found that, all other things being equal, voters are less likely to vote for an atheist candidate than (in order) a homosexual, 72-year-old, thrice married, Mormon, Hispanic, female, Jewish, black or Catholic (Gallup). In that study, atheists were the only group that more than 50% of the respondents wouldn't vote for. This study was one of the reasons that I ended up not running for state representative when I was asked this spring.
Where are people getting the idea that a person is unfit for public office just because they don't believe in an ancient tribal god? How about their pastors, a President and the Bible. Pastor Rick Warren, days after hosting both presidential candidates at his church, said he would never vote for an atheist. George H.W. Bush (41) said that he didn't think atheists should be considered citizens. The Bible says that people who deny that Jesus is Christ are antichrists. I doubt that many Christians who believe in the Bible would vote for a person who they consider to be an antichrist.
It's not just in the political arena where atheists are at a disadvantage. When I started a new job this spring with a web development company my boss found my website and asked me to never link to the company site or any client sites because they might find out that an atheist is working for him. While I think it's sad that I can't link to projects that I'm proud of, I don't hold it against my boss. It's not his fault that he could lose business because of my beliefs. I might do the same thing if I was in his position. I only wish that non-belief didn't turn a person into a pariah.
I've also found that some from my old church are no longer interested in being my friend and they don't return my emails. I'm sure I share part of the blame for that because I've been so vocal about my loss of faith and the problems I see in religion. Perhaps if I kept quiet about it they wouldn't shun me. But I've heard many of these people say that atheists are going to be tortured for eternity in Hell, so I'm not the only one criticizing. I do regret some of the things I've said about religious people and I intend to be more considerate in the future. I will continue to discuss religion, but I'll try focus my attacks on ideas, not people.
There are signs that things are getting better. While the world celebrated the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American President, another milestone was quietly reached out west. Pete Stark of California became the first openly atheist person to be elected to the U.S. Congress. There have already been female, black, gay, Jewish and Muslim people elected to Congress. Another bright spot was in North Carolina where incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole attacked challenger Kay Hagan for associating with atheists. Dole's attack fell flat and she lost, in part because Hagan returned fire, calling Dole a liar and affirming the fact that she is a Christian. I'd like to think that Hagan also won because voters rejected the idea that atheism is evil, but I'm not too sure.
If you are a non-religious person, what has your experience been? Do you keep it quiet? Has it affected your relationships or career? Do you think things are getting better? What can we do to improve our status in this country?
I am pretty open about the fact that I associate with atheists despite the fact that I believe…it’s actually on my blog which lots of folks read. I think you would bring a lot to the political table just based on the email conversations I’ve had with you. What a sad thing to know people are that bias.
I think in order to change the status in our country what we need is to redefine the word atheist. I think it has taken on a lot of bad connotations because people want to think they know rather than actually seeking out what is true.
I don’t live in your state but if I did I would vote for you :)
Interesting post and observation. I think that anyone publicly announcing any arguable believe, faith or conviction runs the risk of being ostrasized by people that believe differently. It’s just human nature to gravitate toward those that think, act, believe, do … as we do. (Organize and compartmentalize)
Diversity and tolerance are uncomfortable bedfellows and often sleep apart.
Personally, I don’t spend much time on arguable things (e.g., politics, religion, sexual orientation or topics like abortion). I’ve known for many years that my original thoughts on these topics often provoke angst and ire. I’ve always thought that such topics were personal anyway … I don’t feel the need to share, although it’s been nice to find the rare person whom I find believes similarly.
I’ve always found it odd - the need for public worship, which - I guess - provides tangible validation their belief is shared by others. (Hardly an indication of strength of their believf if it must be propped up with weekly brainwashing sessions) :p Even more odd (almost to the point of being sinister) is the insatiable need to convert non-believers into believers. And lastly, something that I abhor - the thought that anyone who believes differently is evil, will burn in hell, or [insert your own awful result here].
There are many religions in the world. Each one claims to be the “only right one". They can’t all be right. They really should be more tolerant of other people’s religions, because gee … odds are, if there is a “right one” … it isn’t theirs!
Anyway, I just avoid talking about such subjects in public. I generally just nod and listen and stay mum. If pressed, I’ll used the word “agnostic” and never the word “athiest". I then follow up with, “Hey, I just don’t know, right? I’d love to believe, but I’m not sure what to believe. I have a hard enough time finding time to spend with my friends and paying my bills.”
I was never in a position to be elected into public office and if a prerequisite was religious belief, I never will. I might be tempted to put “Christian” down as my faith, not only for palatable consumption, but also as a statement that religious beliefs are immaterial to the job of governing.
Having said all this, I can also see an argument that a (moderately) religious candidate may be perceived as having more empathy than an athiest candidate.
As an aside, I see you’ve answered one of your own polling questions about sexual orientation. :p
Thanks so very much for your article. I am sick of everyone wallowing up to the religion bar. Maher’s Religulous had a nice call to arms at the end: 16% of us are atheists - let’s make some noise!
things are getting slightly better but we have a long way to go.
On two different TV shows the other night two people (one the host of one of the shows) both declared outright that they were atheists. It has been very obvious for a long time that they were atheists but this is the first time I’ve seen them specifically say it. So we must be heading in the right direction if people have no qualms in announcing it so publicly.
No matter which god you believe in, you’re still an atheist in another religions eyes.
So, being an atheist, I only piss off one more religion than a religious person :D
I can live with that ;)
Damn, gotta love the internet …. here was me being all “uniquely profound” …. and some arse has made a website about it already :P