Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Atheist?

Lack of belief in God should not bar patriotic citizens from participation in the public life of our country.


Well according to a recently released study detailing worldwide discrimination directed at atheists, a whole lotta folks apparently!

But why? What are people so afraid of?

I think the answer for many is fear, fear that acknowledging that those who deny the existence of God can be moral, ethical, and compassionate, would force an abandonment of the belief that a divine power is the sole source for these human traits.

This study - "Freedom of Thought 2012" -  conducted  by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) shows that throughout the world, "...humanists and other nonreligious people are discriminated against by governments across the world.

In some countries, atheism is a capital offense, punishable by death, in others the right to "freedom of belief and expression is curtailed." In many the right to marry, to a public education, and to hold elective office are denied.  

In the United States, where religion is completely absent from its governing document other than to prohibit government's involvement in it, and where freedom of speech is guaranteed, there still prevails "...a social and political climate...in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans."

According to a number of surveys non-believers are the least trusted identifiable group of people in the United States, with a majority of those polled saying they would not support an atheist candidate for President, would not want their child to marry an atheist, and agreeing with the statement that "not at all [do atheists] agree with my vision of American society."

Atheism is a de facto bar to most public office in the United States. As of this January there will not be  a single avowed atheist serving in either the House of Representatives or United States Senate. It is a virtual requirement that Presidential candidates engage in a prolonged affirmation of their belief in a Christian God to even be considered as a viable candidate.

The constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas specifically bar atheists from public office, and Kentucky's homeland security law passed in 2006 makes it a criminal offense to profess ones lack of belief, punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

Atheists are often discriminated against in child custody hearings, with judges using a person's lack of religious belief as confirmation of a lack of morals.

For politicians, the media, and many members of the clergy, criticism and debasement of non-believers is acceptable in a way it would not be for any other group of people.

One only needs to tune into C-Span, Fox News, or any of a hundred religious channels to find examples of this. Atheists are "grouchy, misanthropic heathens" according to Bernard McGuirk, "a group of terrorists" says Loudoun County supervisor Ken Reid, "a miserable bunch," asserts Pat Robertson, and responsible for all manner of bad behavior, including the recent tragedy at Newtown, CT says the Rev. James Dobson and Mike Huckabee.

What could atheists have possibly done to earn such contempt!?

Well it appears to me the source of this irrational behavior toward atheists is rooted in the fear among many (but not all) of the faithful, that acknowledging non-believers can behave morally calls into question the divine source for this trait - a bedrock belief for many.

And, I guess it does.

The notion that somehow one needs to acknowledge the existence of God in order to behave ethically simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Much of the violence and war that have plagued our planet for thousands of years has been religiously inspired. Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants...and it goes on and on. Where in this equation do you see atheists? When is the last time you heard about an organized atheist inquisition, or an atheist purge of homosexuals, or atheist groups attempting to use their faith to justify discrimination against women and minorities?

History clearly shows belief in a supreme being is no guarantee of moral behavior, just as it does not take belief in a supreme being to behave morally. Morality comes from within. Religions are moral when those who practice them are moral, not the other way around.

It is always difficult not to paint everyone with the same broad brush. Obviously, very few believers would condone the behavior of those who use religion as the reason for committing violent acts. Most recognize the morality of those that may not agree with them (those that don't get the most media attention). Many of the world's greatest advocates for peace - King, Gandhi, Tutu, and Mandela - were and are themselves religious, and used their religion to drive their activism. Abolitionism in the United States was driven by religious fervor.

Here in Centreville, many of the groups working to make the community a better place to live have their basis in religion. The Centreville Immigration Forum is a stellar example of this.

Atheists are not trying to drive God out of people's lives. Most atheists revere the Bill of Rights, and will defend the 1st amendment's guarantee of religious freedom no less strenuously than any other. They simply want it applied fairly; the levers of government should not be used to push any religious ideology on  those that don't subscribe to it.

The Constitution bars a religious test for public office, yet a de facto test exists. I wish that weren't so. The talents of so many are not being utilized because of it.

Many use atheists as a convenient scapegoat for any number of problems that plague our country. I wish that weren't so, because it isn't the truth, and because it is keeping us from getting to the truth.

Atheists and other non-believers are as good, as bad, as smart, as dumb, as patriotic, and as apathetic as any other group of people. And whether one believes non-believers have sacrificed their eternal soul should not excuse barring them from equal participation in the public life of our country, nor should it place on them unwarranted blame for problems that have befallen it.






This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kristen H December 27, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Thank you for this, Jim. It's important for people to know about the discrimination non-believers face, which makes it hard for many to "come out". I've found a very supportive community since moving to VA a few years ago, but have also had to work hard against the stereotypes you cite.
Jim Daniels December 27, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Thanks Kristen...I totally agree. I think it is fair to say that if folks were secure in their own beliefs they would not behave the way they do towards non-believers. Things do seem to be slowly changing though!


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