This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the second in a series of five posts that will run this week. The first myth and the introduction to this series are here.
Myth #2: Atheists want a government that is anti-God and anti-religion.
Atheist activism is often interpreted as hostility to religion, but most atheists only want to see laws balanced so that religious citizens and organizations are playing by the same rules as secular individuals and unaffiliated non-profits. Religion actually receives preferential treatment from the U.S. government in many areas such as tax-funded grants for faith groups, exemptions for religious homeschooling parents and church-owned schools, property taxes, IRS reporting, and employment law.
Still, what would an anti-religious government look like? It could criminalize private religious observances, something even atheists would oppose, but a more realistic indicator would be whether churches that run social service programs are denied government grants made available to other types of non-profits.
Currently, religious organizations do receive tax dollars through the “faith-based initiative.” The majority of Secular Census registrants (54%) polled about this practice did object to it, but another 45% took a softer stance: “Religious organizations should be eligible for government funding if they are held to the same standards as other organizations.”
Since other issues like gay marriage earned near-unanimous support in the Secular Census, this close a split on the question of faith-based funding reveals more ambivalence than antipathy in the atheist community’s views of religion and government.
What about a military that privileged atheist soldiers — and disadvantaged religious ones — by hiring only secular humanist chaplains? (Presently, the exact opposite is the case.) That would signify an anti-religious government.
Less than 1% of Secular Census respondents expressing an opinion about military chaplains selected that option, while 68% chose the response which accommodates all soldiers regardless of faith status: “Both religious and specifically secular or humanist chaplains should serve in the military.” Even the position of total neutrality, no chaplains at all, received just 16% support.
The take-away message? Atheists don’t like to see government endorsement or funding of religion, but we aren’t as hard core as many would assume.
Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.
American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.