Atheism as Civil Rights Issue? July 2, 2007

Atheism as Civil Rights Issue?

A few years ago, DJ Grothe (host of the Point of Inquiry podcast) and Austin Dacey, both of the Center for Inquiry, wrote an article in Free Inquiry magazine (got all that straight?) that has re-emerged among science/atheist bloggers recently.

Grothe and Dacey argued that atheism was not a civil rights issue.

… is it really legitimate to compare the situation of nontheists in America to the oppression of women, ethnic and racialized minorities, and the GLBT community? Can their struggle for public respect be modeled on the civil rights struggles of the last century? In fact, the analogy with gay rights is seriously flawed. Atheists need a public awareness campaign, not a liberation movement.

Atheists are not denied equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don’t earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they prevented from voting.

They had a good point. They went on to say that atheists were also not physically beaten as many other minorities have been (though, truth be told, we’ve seen cases where that has happened). Also, they added, the fact that we can’t get elected as president is not a civil rights issue– it’s an image issue.

Eddie Tabash, a California attorney, disagreed and wrote a piece for the same magazine. So did Margaret Downey, current president of Atheist Alliance International. After citing examples of how atheists were treated as second-class citizens, she said this:

One would think that any atheist who had experienced discrimination would be eager to submit an affidavit [for the purpose of a lawsuit]. Instead, the fear of suffering further discrimination as a “whistleblower” was widespread. Some victims told me that they did not want to go public lest still more hatred come their way. This is the trauma of discrimination, just the sort of intimidation that discourages discrimination reports and makes it difficult to find plaintiffs for needed litigation.

Had Grothe and Dacey contacted me before writing their article, I could have opened my files and shared accounts of physical and mental abuse, job loss, cruel media stereotyping, and other instances of discrimination. I believe they would have been satisfied that “atheist bashing” really exists and is getting worse.

There was also a rebuttal (PDF) to the rebuttals.

In fact there are many cases of blatant and not-so-blatant discrimination against non-religious people.

Back to present day.

Matt Nisbet recently reiterated the notion that atheism is not a civil rights issue and all hell broke loose.

PZ jumped in the fray and said they were all wrong and it is a civil rights issue:

[Grothe is] resting his argument on the fact that atheists haven’t suffered comparable harm to minorities and women, and yes, we already know this. We aren’t being lynched or imprisoned in our own homes, we’re just being metaphorically kicked in the shins every day. The fact that injustices are small does not change the fact that they are injustices, nor does the fact that there are greater crimes being committed mean that the littler ones should be ignored. Grothe’s litany of greater problems is nothing but a demand for passivity from atheists.

Jason agrees:

The question isn’t whether there are groups in American society who have greater reason than atheists to feel aggrieved. The issue is simply whether atheists have anything to learn from the struggles for acceptance of those other groups. The answer, it seems to me, is an obvious yes. In each of those cases a despised minority was able, over a period of many years, to attain a position in society of far greater visibility and equality. Atheists also face a situation where open hostility towards them is considered acceptable, and in many parts of the country face outright bigotry when their views become known.

He adds that our PR problems are not coming from the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who may come across as unpleasant to many religious people. They are coming from the religious bigotry and ignorance that is so rampant when it comes to perceptions of atheists.

Grothe is now responding to the comments:

… speaking strategically, we should also just admit that our moral indignation, our anger, is not on par with those who marched on Washington in 1963 to end public school segregation, and for legal protection against police brutality, and to make it illegal to racially discriminate in public and private hiring, and the like. Our indignation is not about how oppressed we are in society, but about how wrong we think society is to believe destructive nonsense. Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities. The same goes for many Christian activists who are these days talking about Christians themselves being the last oppressed minority in America. Both are wrong. Being popular is not a civil right.

Grothe adds another comment here.

One person has already said Nisbet would have a different view of atheist discrimination if he didn’t live in Washington, D.C.

No doubt there are atheists who have lost jobs as well as friends because of their religious views. Just because the laws aren’t in the books, there is still de facto discrimination. While it’s not nearly as horrible as what other minorities have had to go through, it was through conscious-raising on their parts that they became more accepted. By bringing light to how atheists are treated in this country, and how many churches and well-meaning Christians are in large part to blame for that, that’s the only way we are going to be able to make a positive change happen.

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  • Being popular is not a civil right.

    What a gi-normous strawman that is.

    I don’t want to be popular. If I wanted to be popular I’d be a Christian.

    I want not to be fucked with.

    The problems faced by atheists are the pick my pocket, break my leg variety.

    Compounded by the not so subtle messages from the crowd who say “shhh…. just be invisible and silent, and nobody will mind if you’re an atheist.”

    As this country marches forward to yet another religiously fueled war…. IRAN!!!

  • Darryl

    It’s a matter of priorities: the worse forms of discrimination need addressing first. We’ve got our hands full with those. I’m not suffering because I’m an atheist; although I don’t go around advertising my atheism. Should the day come that we really get persecuted, then I’ll be ready to fight back.

    In the mean time, I’m hoping that Americans–religious as well as non-religious–will get their belly full of the meddling of religion into politics by the militaristic fundamentalist-Christian nationalists and the Islamo-fascists, and average Americans will gain a new-found respect for people like me. This may take decades, but it’ll be worth the wait.

  • stogoe

    The funny thing is that absolutely no-one is claiming that our discrimination is similar in scope to the discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities and GLBT identity. Only Nisbet (the wank) is claiming that, to beat up a strawman.

  • It’s a matter of priorities: the worse forms of discrimination need addressing first.

    Dude, I’ve been marching for those guys’ rights all my life. Now that they’ve got some respect, they want to throw us under a bus.

    There will always be wrongs worse than the ones you suffer from. It doesn’t mean we lie down.

  • Miko

    Most importantly, whether it’s a Civil Rights issue or not is subordinate to whether we use the model of the Civil Rights movement to achieve our aims. We could use the model because it’s effective even if we didn’t see our particular complaints as Civil Rights issues.

  • Anthony

    I think the “atheist” contribution to civil rights is that we have identified a root cause of most civil right violations.

  • Maria

    I don’t want to be popular. If I wanted to be popular I’d be a Christian.

    I want not to be fucked with.

    I agree

  • Heehe…. sorry, I was in a cranky mood this morning.

  • I think they all make good points. No one can deny that there are many civil rights violations that happen to atheists. I agree that the biggest problem is an image problem, and that some consistent good PR would go very far to improve that.
    When I can freely admit to the parents of my kids friends that I am a non believer, without fear of their reaction (and especially the kid’s reactions) then I’ll consider that PR a success. When people do not first assume that someone is a believer when they meet them, I’ll consider the PR a success. Atheism should be a complete non issue.

  • All I can say is that the folks who claim atheist don’t need civil rights have never lived in The Southeastern part of the old US of A!!!

  • anon

    What a bizarre thing – persecuting people because they refuse to embrace the absurd as ‘truth’. Is it insanity or stupidity, or some combination of both?

  • Darryl

    All I can say is that the folks who claim atheist don’t need civil rights have never lived in The Southeastern part of the old US of A!!!

    You probably have a point there. I’ve been ‘blessed’ to have lived in CA and AZ all my life. My sister lived in Louisiana and Virginia for a while, and she told me some unbelievable stories. I’m sure I would not be comfortable in the Southern States, beginning with Texas (my apologies to you remnant of truly good folk that abide therein).

  • Maria

    One person has already said Nisbet would have a different view of atheist discrimination if he didn’t live in Washington, D.C.

    That is true. We have people of so many different backgrounds here it’s really hard to stereotype anyone. I got quite a shock when I went down to the southeast. We do have fundies here, but they are in the minority, thank goodness.

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