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In America, atheists are still in the closet

No, non-believers don’t face legal discrimination, but their rhetoric about ‘coming out’ is not mere melodrama.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

Topics Politics

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Collectively, American atheists are aggrieved; they feel marginalised and maligned, if not exactly oppressed.

So do many other interest and identity groups. Complaint is our political lingua franca: it’s what Occupiers, Tea Partiers, Wall Street titans, religious and irreligious people share. You can dismiss complaining as a political tactic or an excess of the therapeutic culture, but one person’s complaint is another’s injustice. How should we characterise the atheist lament? Is godlessness tolerated or stigmatised, at a measurable cost to the godless? Or is it ascendant, as some anti-secularists fear? Atheism is on the march, presenting a clear and present danger to America, religious conservatives complain.

America is under attack from ‘the father of lies’, according to former senator and now former presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Satan ‘has his sights on a good decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?’ Former House speaker and also-ran Newt Gingrich imagines that we’re threatened by a weird coalition of atheists and Islamists: ‘If we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America’, he warns, his grandchildren will inherit ‘a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists’. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney fears a horde of godless Democrats intent on establishing the ‘religion’ of secularism: ‘There is in this country a war on religion; there is a desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism and based on reports the Obama administration gave this a lot of thought.’

Put aside the illogic of this assertion that secularism, a religion on the rise, is at war with religion. Romney is not a stupid man, and he probably doesn’t take seriously his nonsensical equation of secularism with religion or his claim that religion is under siege in this extremely religious country. But he is running in a particularly stupid electoral season, and he’s speaking to right-wing religious voters who know what he means – that Barack Obama is a usurper, either godless or Muslim, or both. (As Gingrich suggests, ‘radical Islam’ is at one with atheism.) He’s speaking to voters on alert for atheistic Islamists slithering through America’s garden.

Rick Santorum, the only candidate who has posed a serious threat to Romney, invigorates these voters when he confirms, ‘This is not a political war; this is not a cultural war; this is a spiritual war.’ Satan ‘has attacked the great institutions of America’, beginning with academia – ‘he understood the pride of smart people’. Because academia educates the elites, Santorum explains, its fall from grace had a ‘domino effect’, which knocked down mainstream Protestantism and then popular culture.

‘I need not even go into the state of the popular culture today’, Santorum notes correctly. Religious conservatives have long felt besieged by a godless, sexually permissive culture, marked by pornography, sex education, homosexuality, reproductive rights, and the separation of church and state, which frees public-school students from officially imposed or sponsored prayers and subjects them to the teaching of evolution. As Santorum observes, ‘I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution, and do believe it is used to promote a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.’

It’s tempting to dismiss this fearmongering about secularism and atheism as a fringe phenomenon, along with talk of Satan. A recent Pew Forum poll indicates that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the political primacy of religious rhetoric: ‘38 per cent (a 10-year high) now say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders, while 30 per cent say there has been too little… most Americans continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics.’

But most Americans (67 per cent) also say they would ‘feel uncomfortable’ with an atheist president; 48 per cent say they would feel ‘very uncomfortable.’ A majority of Americans agree that ‘it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral’, and according to Pew, atheists have higher unfavorable ratings – 53 per cent – than Muslims, the most maligned religionists, whose unfavorable rating is 35 per cent. Contrast these figures to the 60 per cent favorable and 19 per cent unfavorable ratings of evangelical Christians, who feel threatened by a small minority of widely mistrusted, presumptively immoral atheists.

Who’s besieging who? Atheists do not suffer the unavoidable legal discrimination historically suffered by women, racial minorities and openly gay people, but their rhetoric about coming out is not mere melodrama. In conservative religious communities and workplaces, they have social and economic reasons to closet their godlessness. In politics, numerous surveys confirm, atheism is a significant electoral disadvantage: some 28 members of Congress have privately acknowledged not believing in God, in response to private inquiries by the Secular Coalition for America (on whose advisory board I sit); but only one, Northern California congressman Pete Stark, has been willing to acknowledge his atheism openly.

Where are the atheist warriors that religious conservatives fear? Only four per cent of all Americans identify as atheists or agnostics; 16 per cent describe themselves as unaffiliated, which reveals nothing about their beliefs or disbeliefs. The emerging non-theist movement has its share of rabble-rousers, like most movements, as well as its share of accommodationists. Some express contempt for religion, while others seek respect for the lack of it. Neither faction defines itself simply by what it is not (religious): the Dawkins Foundation is devoted to promoting science education and critical thinking – a worthy goal in a country in which 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the population doesn’t believe in evolution. The American Humanist Association offers its own ethical manifesto; at worst, it’s inoffensive.

How influential are non-theists? Demographically speaking, America remains a Christian country. Nearly 80 per cent of Americans identify as Christian; (about 50 per cent are Protestant and 24 per cent Catholic). Naturally, this strong majority has made Christianity, in its generic form, a dominant cultural force, as our national celebrations of Christmas attest. If there is a war on Christmas, as Fox News pundits annually complain, its primary success has been popularising ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ as alternatives to ‘Merry Christmas’. If I believed in God, I’d doubt He cared.

Legally the US is still a predominantly secular country – to the dismay of many religious conservatives, who believe we should be a Christian country under law and strive to make us one. Abortion prohibitions, laws mandating anti-abortion counselling and ultrasounds for women seeking abortion, limits on stem-cell research, and efforts to require the teaching of creationism or allow proselytising in public schools all reflect campaigns to codify sectarian religious beliefs; and all have enjoyed some measure of success.

American secularism is not written in stone. The lines between church and state, theology and law, are sharply contested and periodically redrawn. In recent years, the Supreme Court has adopted a relatively permissive approach to church/state partnerships, allowing the disbursement of tax dollars to sectarian institutions, often through school vouchers and tax credits; in addition, sectarian social service providers enjoy government financing. But while the court has increased the rights of sectarian institutions to receive public funds, it has decreased their responsibilities under public law, exempting them from a broad range of civil-rights laws even when they provide secular services to members of the general public.

Tension between special rights and equal responsibilities for religious institutions is embedded in the Constitution, in the interplay between the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom and its prohibitions on state-established religion. At what point does official accommodation of religious belief, in the interests of liberty, become unconstitutional religious establishment in opposition to liberty?

That’s a general question for which there are no general or permanent answers. There are, instead, particular answers to particular cases and a perennial church/state debate in which non-theist perspectives should be heard, along with the perspectives of religious people committed to secular government. The wall between church and state conceived in the 1600s by Roger Williams, a devout Baptist and founder of the state of Rhode Island, and written into the Constitution by Jefferson and Madison, was intended to protect religion from civil rule. As the Supreme Court stated centuries later in striking down official school prayer, ‘a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion’. Naturally, staunch advocates of Christian or Judaeo-Christian government disagree and view the 1962 school-prayer decision as a paving stone on our road to hell. Fifty years later, we’re arguing about it still.

This ongoing conflict between sectarianism and secularism is the raison d’etre for a non-theist movement, and it is why categorical disrespect for godlessness matters. The assumption that religious belief is essential to morality advances mistrust of secular governance. Of course, religious people have a right to their biases, and the irreligious have a right to challenge them. Non-theists can always voice their opinions individually, but, like other ideological and demographic minorities, they need a movement to amplify their voices. And regardless of their individual psychic needs for recognition (which do not interest me), non-theists have a collective political need for a movement that encourages openness about disbelief: The more godlessness is normalised, the less it will seem inherently immoral, the more likely the perspectives of non-theists will be considered, instead of reflexively condemned.

What should they bring to the church/state debates? As a small, disrespected, irreligious minority, non-theists should appreciate freedom of conscience. Non-theism is often associated with hostility toward religion, thanks partly to the prominence of a few ‘New Atheists’, but it can and should promote respect for religious liberty. People who believe in no religions are not apt to privilege any one of them: evangelicals tend to be wary of Mormonism, as the Republican primaries have demonstrated, but to an atheist or agnostic, belief in the resurrection is no more or less worthy of respect than belief in the Angel Moroni.

Scepticism is a great leveller; it favours extending equal speech and religious rights to all orthodoxies, which is the essence of civil liberty. Freedom of conscience doesn’t distinguish between new, outré religions derided as cults and traditional mainstream faiths, as former American Civil Liberties Union executive director Ira Glasser tried explaining to an interviewer years ago. He was asked about the chanting, saffron-robed Hare Krishnas, who commanded little popular respect. They were ‘weird’, the interviewer remarked to Glasser. ‘I don’t know’, he replied. ‘Have you taken a look at the College of Cardinals?’

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics

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