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Aug 09 2012

4 Reasons Atheists Have to Fight for Their Rights

In the U.S., atheists have laws protecting them. But laws aren’t always obeyed, or enforced — and fighting for legal rights can have dire consequences.

“You atheists are just taking on the mantle of victimhood. There are laws protecting you — especially the First Amendment. Therefore, you’re not really discriminated against. And it’s ridiculous for you to claim that you are.”

Atheist activists get this one a lot. When we speak out about ways that anti-atheist bigotry plays out, we’re told that we’re not really oppressed. We’re told that, because we have legal protection, because anti-atheist discrimination is illegal, therefore we don’t really have any problems, and we’re just trying to gain unearned sympathy and win the victim Olympics. (I’d love to hear Bob Costas do the commentary for that!) It’s a classic Catch-22: If we speak out about oppression and point to examples of it, we’re accused of “playing the victim card,” and the oppression becomes invisible. And if we don’t speak out about oppression … then the oppression once again becomes invisible.

If you’ve ever made this “discrimination against atheists is against the law” argument, I have some really bad news for you. You may want to sit down for this, it may come as a shock:

People sometimes break the law.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 4 Reasons Atheists Have to Fight for Their Rights. To find out how anti-atheist discrimination still happens — even though there are laws in the U.S. banning it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

16 comments

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  1. 1
    feralboy12

    (I’d love to hear Bob Costas do the commentary for that!)

    Or not.
    The last thing I recall hearing from Bob Costas last football season was about how we all had to respect Tim Tebow’s faith.
    Don’t think so, Bob.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    I’ve bookmarked the Alternet column. I am sadly aware that I will be needing to reference many, many times.

  3. 3
    Synfandel

    Wow! Can you write! That was a locomotive of a column. Brava, Greta!

  4. 4
    'Tis Himself

    Often it’s the same people claiming that atheists have full rights while whining that Christians or other theists are being persecuted.

  5. 5
    DrVanNostrand

    The comments section at salon.com is depressing. The second comment contains the following gem:
    “In general I think a lot of predudice can be blamed on Atheists themselves. A lot of the New Atheist crowd is just as hateful and dogmatic as Fundamentalist Christians.”

  6. 6
    lpetrich

    As to the argument that “there are laws protecting you”, laws don’t mean anything unless they are enforced. Some centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes noted in Leviathan that “covenants, without the sword, are but words.” Bertrand Russell noted that President Woodrow Wilson had apparently forgotten that.

  7. 7
    MNb0

    Nah, don’t think I’ll ever want to live in the States. Atheists in The Netherlands and Suriname are much better off.

  8. 8
    WCLPeter

    Slightly off topic…

    I initially tried reading this on my iPad, but there were all kinds of missing links and words. It was very disjointed and I was thinking, “This isn’t up to Greta’s usual level of work.” It was only after I switched it to the “Desktop Site” did I get to see the whole article.

    As for the article, I don’t really have anything to add as you pretty much nailed it.

  9. 9
    Eclectic

    Personally, I think “discount on Sunday if you bring in your church bulletin” is actually not a problem.

    The businesses have the completely reasonable secular intent of attracting people who regularly go out for a family event, and hope to encourage people to regularly patronize their business part of that pattern.

    It’s actually nothing to do with religion, just a common weekly family event at a time when the restaurant is not already busy.

    I expect that the restuarant could be trivially persuaded to extend an equivalent offer to any other rain-or-shine weekly event on a slow day, be it a Rotary club meeting or Contra dance group.

    An area church bulletin is just another on-line coupon I can download and print out. Better, because it doesn’t include an ID number that identifies the download and thus the browser session and history. Me, I use the ones from the local UU congregation, since that’s a church widely patronized by atheists, and I figure it’s a desirable direction to skew any demographic statistics they collect.

  10. 10
    maudsilver

    It’s the classic way that bullies try to suppress their victims, the atheism thing is a sub-set of that. By fighting back as atheists we are in a way also fighting back against bullies in general and helping those who are bullied in a wide range of situations.

  11. 11
    Tuppy Glossop

    Eclectic says:

    ….a church widely patronized by atheists…

    I can’t quite get my head around that. Do you need to be and American for that to make sense?

  12. 12
    Nick Gotts

    Yes, Tuppy old chap, I rather think you do. From what I’ve gathered in confabs with our transatlantic cousins, a lot of American atheists have, not precisely a god-shaped hole, but a church-shaped hole in their lives; and the UU exists mainly to satisfy this long felt want… Though while we’re on the subject, what exactly is a long felt want? Some sort of door-sausage?

  13. 13
    Ani Sharmin

    Very much enjoyed the article, Greta. I find this type of attitude (the “atheists don’t experience discrimination” thing) even more frustrating when it comes from people who recognize the discrimination against various minority religious groups. It’s the same idea (people being treated unfairly because others get unfair advantages), just applied to atheists. Personally, I think there’s this weird idea that a religious view is somehow more important to a person, that it’s more wrong to infringe on someone’s right to practice their religion, but less wrong to infringe on a nonreligious person’s right to not practice religion — as if lack of religion means you shouldn’t be as upset about being forced to support someone else’s religion as a religious person would (hence, people who think it’s okay to have days of prayer, council meetings opened with prayer, etc. so long as it does not specify Christianity).

  14. 14
    GreaterThanLapsed

    Nice article, but it seems a bit of a straw man. Very few people are actually saying that atheists don’t face discrimination–only that atheists need to keep things in perspective and that atheists very often experience race, class, and/or gender privileges that enable them to center their activism around atheism.

    It’s not right for a school to have prayers posted in the gym, but that’s not exactly forcing people to be Christian. It’s more like something that is mildly annoying and technically unconstitutional. It’s nice that people are able and willing to stand up for these minor breaches of the law, but if a prayer banner in your school gym is the biggest source of oppression in your life maybe you are extremely privileged to have so few worries.

    Even the supposed accounts of discrimination against atheists in custody hearings are something that I have a hard time giving a lot of credence to these days, as movement atheism seems to increasingly overlap with so-called Men’s Rights activism.

    To be sure, there are some nasty things happening to atheists internationally, but there are also nasty things happening to, say, Muslims and Sikhs in the US. AND the marginalization of Muslims (and the danger that extends to people like the Sikhs who may be mistaken for Muslims) is something that has been contributed to in no small part by atheists. Christopher Hitchens was a notable warhawk and eliminationist. Sam Harris has written in favor of things like torture and racial profiling. Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains popular, in spite of basically her entire life story being a lie to slander Islam for her own personal gain. And so on.

    Atheists may be the “least trusted” or “least desirable as in-laws” minority in the US, but we’re generally not in danger because of it. Even in situations like Jessica Alquist’s, she was not facing threats to her safety simply for existing as an atheist–she was facing retaliation against her actions, which were a threat to the status quo. It’s not her fault, and it’s not okay, but that type of retaliation is largely to be expected when you engage in any type of activism–and engaging in activism is a choice. If you are not an activist or otherwise public atheist, you will likely live your whole life without being threatened for being an atheist.

    It’s cool if atheists want to center their activist efforts around atheism, but it would be nice if they didn’t act as if it’s the most important work they can do–or even as if there is some kind of united atheist movement with universal goals, which is most assuredly not the case. There is a fractured atheist movement, with a bunch of white dudes worried about prayers at high school graduations, a bunch of Ayn Rand worshiping misogynists, a handful of white women willing to throw in with the men who are running the show, and a confused minority of atheists who have an interest in social justice but haven’t yet become completely disillusioned by the continued popularity of Bill Maher and Penn Jillette as atheist heroes.

    It’s not that people don’t think anti-atheist discrimination happens–it’s that atheists take it at once too seriously (by focusing on it as an exclusive activist issue) and not seriously enough (by focusing on trivialities like dusty prayer banners in forgotten corners of high schools).

  15. 15
    DSimon

    GreaterThanLapsed:

    It’s not right for a school to have prayers posted in the gym, but that’s not exactly forcing people to be Christian. It’s more like something that is mildly annoying and technically unconstitutional.

    No, it’s a bigger deal than that. It’s not “forcing” people to be Christian, but it sure as lack-of-hell makes it clear that if you’re not Christian, you’re expected by the school and the community to keep your mouth shut about it and pretend to be like everybody else.

    This was confirmed by the reaction of the community to Ahlquist’s objection. It’s not about the banner itself so much as it is about Christian normativity. You say as much yourself:

    If you are not an activist or otherwise public atheist, you will likely live your whole life without being threatened for being an atheist. [emphasis added]

    Yeah, atheists can avoid discrimination by staying closeted and pretending to be at least mildly religious. How is this at all acceptable? I’m confused that you seem to regard this situation as being only trivially problematic.

    Even the supposed accounts of discrimination against atheists in custody hearings are something that I have a hard time giving a lot of credence to these days, as movement atheism seems to increasingly overlap with so-called Men’s Rights activism.

    There are court decisions that grant custody based specifically and unambiguously on the religiosity of the selected parent. Greta links to a description of some in the Alternet article.

  16. 16
    Joe T

    A couple days ago I had a very frustrating conversation with my mother where she questioned me about being so strident about my atheism and also questioned me about what kind of discrimination i was facing. I only gave her a couple examples off the top of my head. I sent her this article because it does a much better job.

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