Is there really anti-atheist discrimination in the United States, in any practical sense? Do atheists in the U.S. face anything like the economic, social, or other practical discrimination faced by, say, African-Americans, or women, or LGBT people?
Those are, you may notice, two different questions. A fact that seems to escape some people. There can be a significant difference, both in degree and in kind, between anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of bigotry… and anti-atheist bigotry can still be real, with real-world consequences.
In a discussion on this blog yesterday about the American Cancer Society/ Foundation Beyond Belief controversy, a pair of comments from 10000li expressed the opinion that:
What happens to atheist in America today is nowhere near as bad as what happens to gays and non-white minorities still, and it really irks me when atheist writers use terms like “back of the bus” for what happens to us.
There is zero economic or social consequence to being an atheist. The only time we get trouble is when we try to join groups that didn’t want us in the first place.
Atheists do not have second-class status. That sentiment, expounded by white, liberal, middle-income atheists, is pure and total bs. There is NOTHING that the government or society owes us that we don’t already have.
I would have ignored it, but it’s an idea I’ve run into more than once, so I thought I should respond. Here’s what I said.
10000li: You are flatly wrong. There is real bigotry against atheists in the U.S., with real-world consequences. Atheist get denied custody of their kids, explicitly on the basis of their atheism. Atheist students in public high schools trying to organize groups routinely get stonewalled by school administrators. Discrimination against atheists in the U.S. military is widespread and well-documented. Atheists who come out get disowned and kicked out of their homes. Atheist who come out get bullied, harassed, threatened, get their property vandalized. Atheists who come out can lose their jobs. (No, it’s not legal. Neither is theft or murder. And whaddya know? They still happen.) Polls consistently show that atheists are one of the most distrusted groups in the country; they show that people are less likely to vote for us than any other group, less likely to want us to marry into their families.
If you want supporting data, you’ll find it for most of these facts in my piece, 10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist. You can find it for the pieces not mentioned in that post by, you know, using Google.
Are things as bad for atheists as they are for, say, African Americans, or women? Probably not — not in terms of economic disadvantage or physical threat. But if I’m being punched in the face, the fact that other people’s arms are being broken doesn’t make my getting punched in the face okay.
If you and your immediate circle aren’t personally experiencing these things — good for you. You’re lucky. I’m lucky, too. I haven’t experienced most of them myself (although my atheist blogging has gotten me targeted with threats of violence, rape, and death). I live in San Francisco, a part of the country that’s relatively tolerant of religious diversity in general and atheism in particular. But most of the U.S. is not like San Francisco. If you think that no atheists in the U.S. experience these forms of bigotry, I suggest that you are living in a bubble. And I suggest that you step out of it.
I’m now sorry that I didn’t add this: No, I don’t like it when atheists use phrases like “back of the bus” to describe anti-atheist discrimination, either. I don’t think we should be equating anti-atheist bigotry with the systematic racism that’s existed in this country for hundreds of years: it isn’t accurate or proportionate, and it won’t win us any friends among the African- American communities — theists, atheists, or people on the fence. But again: The fact that Bigotry A is not the same as Bigotry B doesn’t mean that Bigotry A doesn’t exist. And the fact that you, personally, have not experienced Bigotry A doesn’t mean nobody else has and that we can safely ignore it.