Hate Crimes Against Atheists: Not Reported or Not Happening? October 29, 2008

Hate Crimes Against Atheists: Not Reported or Not Happening?

The FBI just released statistics on the hate crimes committed in 2007. They break them down into multiple categories, including the number of crimes committed against those of particular religious faiths or sexual orientations.

Of the 7,621 incidents that were motivated by a single factor, how many do you think occurred because someone had it out for atheists?

1%? 10%?

Both percentages are too high.

The correct answer: Only 6. Not 6%. Just 6 crimes. Against 8 non-religious people in total. Committed by 5 offenders.

Of course, one crime is too many. But that number seems extremely low. I would guess that many crimes against atheists go unreported, perhaps because victims don’t want to identify as such. But perhaps we’re also not as hated as we think. Or at least the “hate” we endure is emotional or psychological, not physical.

For the sake of comparison, the number of anti-Jewish crimes was 969. Anti-Islamic? 115. Anti-male-homosexual? 772. Anti-black? 2,658.

What does this number say about atheism in our country?

Are we simply not visible enough to be the focus of hate crimes?

Are we not reporting these crimes for a variety of reasons?

Is the relatively low number a sign of “victory” or a sign of what’s to come when atheism goes more mainstream?

(Thanks to Sasha for the link!)

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  • Vincent

    what percentage of self-identified atheists were victims of hate crimes?

    What percentage of African Americans were?

  • Seth Pollack

    These crimes aren’t reported as such for a number of reasons.

    First of all, the majority of hate crimes reported were “intimidation.” I think many atheists feel as though by arguing atheism, they open themselves to shows of intimidation.

    Secondly, I think that many hate crimes towards atheists are not explicitly because of theology. Atheists, as a minority group, are often in other minorities as well- political, cultural, etc. I can’t imagine being roughed up because I reject ontology, but I can very easily imagine being targeted for being different– and incidentally, an atheist.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I think that all hate crimes in general probably are under-reported, but I don’t believe that there is any particular reason that hate crimes against atheists would be more so than any other category.

  • We’re just not selling enough, “Hit me, I’m an atheist” T-Shirts.

  • Also, there’s no “Mark of the Atheist”. In some ways, I wish there were. I default to assuming everyone I meet is an atheist, and am constantly surprised when people I thought were normal start swapping tips for how to arrange the best baptism for their newborns.

    Anyway, there’s no distinctive trait or action that marks someone as an atheist. You can’t spot an atheist in a crowd. They look like anyone else. Racial attacks have an obvious signal. Religious folks may wear their trappings. Homosexuals may be spotted engaging in a public display of affection (and among some subsets of the community, there appears to be a dress code).

    Hate crimes are, usually, crimes of passion. They’re rarely premeditated, and that usually means you need some obvious signifier to identify your targets. Atheists don’t really have that sort of signifier.

  • Seth Pollack

    To backtrack a bit– if there were 6 hate crimes committed against atheists, you would think they’d stick out quite a bit.

    Can anyone name any of these incidents? Surely using the collective computing power of all the brains scanning this very website, we could come up with this information.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I really can’t stand the whole notion of ‘hate crime’. It is illegal, and rightly so, to assault and or kill another person. This is enough. To try to parse the motivation and declare the crime to be worse if the motive was one that we do not agree with is an attempt to legislate thought. A government that will legislate one thought will legislate another.

    The whole concept is basically saying it is illegal to think bad things about another person. No, it is the act that must be illegal. The motivation should be irrelevant to the rule of law. If you cross that line and regulate thought, then where does it end? What other thoughts are going to be illegal. Will it be against the law to have same sex attractions in Georgia even if you don’t act on them? Will it be illegal to not like partying with open homosexuals in California? Will it be illegal to dislike stupid people? Or bad drivers?

    What goes on in my skull, is my business, when I act and do wrong then punish the act.

    I don’t care what the motivation was behind the average German citizen in the 30’s, I do care that they allowed their governement to commit mass murder.

    If your thoughts are not your own, then you truly are a slave to the government.

  • The motivation should be irrelevant to the rule of law.

    That has never been the case. Motive is central to all criminal cases. Motive is the factor that’s used to distinguish First Degree Murder from the Second Degree, Murder from Manslaughter. Motive is key to establishing guilt.

    The idea of a hate crime is that, when assessing the facts of the case, a motivation based on some sort of prejudice is similar to demonstrating premeditation.

    That said, I mostly agree with you. It’s a very tricky thing to define, and we’d be better off giving the bench more leeway in setting sentencing by their own assessment of the case, instead of trying to codify it in a static law.

  • ubi dubius

    I sympathize with your point of view.

    The reason for specific hate crime legislation, in my view, is to get law enforcement and judges to treat crimes against minorities seriously. When I started law school in the 80’s, it was not rare for me to read about crimes against gays or blacks being laughed off by the police and judges too, with the attitude that “they” shouldn’t be in our community – if “they” weren’t here, the crime wouldn’t have happened. Hate crime laws got their attention and they started treating them seriously. That’s a good thing.

    Do we need hate crime laws anymore? I’m not sure.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Viggo, you are missing the point. If you think that motive is irrelevant in criminal law, I am afraid you might want to brush up on the topic a bit. Motive is always important when understanding any crime, regardless of whether or not the crime was a hate crime. The police work to understand motive and motive is often addressed in criminal court. You think this is wrong? How could a case be prosecuted when the prosecutor could not address why the crime happened in the first place? That makes no sense.

    The reason that hate crimes are recognized as such is because they have a particular danger. An assault or crime motivated by hatred of a particular population can be understood to have wider threatening implications than an assault or crime that is motivated by the desire to illegally obtain a car stereo or someone’s wallet.

    Let me put it this way: if some punk kids spray paint any random thing on your house, that is a crime and annoying and wrong. If someone spray paints a swastika on your house and you are Jewish, that has much more terrifying implications for you and for all the other Jews living in your area. Doesn’t that make sense?

    Hate crime laws do not outlaw thinking things or holding certain beliefs (here in the United States). You are free to hate a certain population, but if you act on that hatred, then your hatred may be a part of the criminal case filed against you.

  • Catherine

    I’m sure there are going to be more crimes than are actually reported, however, it doesn’t really surprise me that the number for atheists is quite low. It isn’t going to be all that easy to pick out an atheist if one was interested in targeting us (really, how do you know if someone is an atheist unless they tell you, or happen to have atheist bumper stickers or something like that). You can’t tell if a person is an atheist by looking at them, and there aren’t specific neighborhoods, bars, etc which are clearly known as atheist hangouts like there are with the gay community.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I was not trying to down play motive in the prosecution of a crime. Obviously, one way to narrow down suspects is to determine who had motive. I do not miss the point that if you have 3 suspect and one is known to have a viscous hatred of gays and the victim is gay then you have a motive in play.

    But that is not the way the concept of ‘hate crime’ has been used in out society. It has been and continues to be wielded as a weapon. Every time anything happens and the victim happens to be a member of a minority, someone starts poking for evidence of a hate crime. The implication is that if you were thinking incorrectly at the time then you should really get hammered.

    Why is assault and murder not bad enough on its own?

    If protecting minorities was the actual motivation and function of such laws, I would be for it but I’m afraid I don’t see it being that way. I do not trust the government to ever get things right. They never have, regardless of party and when they are empowered to punished based on what a person was thinking… well that scares the hell out of me.

    I don’t belong to any protected minority and frankly I would reject the status as an insult to my ability to stand on my own if anyone tried to give me such status so I don’t really have a pony in the race so to speak. Except of course, being outside of any such class, my thoughts surely would be analyzed much closer than someone who is. And that is the heart of the problem.

  • I suspect that I will catch a huge amount of flack for this but this discussion, in my opinion, shows a huge misunderstanding of Christianity.

    By and large, the only people who really care that you are atheist are people who are of faith. In the United States, then, that means that the majority of people who care that you are an atheist are Christians.

    If someone is on a pathway following Christ, then they have no desire to commit a crime against you because you’re atheist. We may want to see you enjoying the love of Christ, as we do, but we really don’t want to hurt you.

    You can fire away at my opinion but, the fact is, it is how I lead my life and how anyone who is truly a Christ follower will lead their life.

  • llewelly

    Homosexuals may be spotted engaging in a public display of affection (and among some subsets of the community, there appears to be a dress code).

    Homosexuals need to be able to identify each other in order to get dates. Said identifiers need to be understandable to strangers.

  • SarahH

    People have already mentioned this, but I think it’s definitely in part due to the low visibility of atheists. Unless we’re wearing an “I’m an atheist” t-shirt or something, random assholes who might hate atheists enough to do something violent or destructive have no way to know someone’s an atheist and then target them.

    Big Name Atheists get all sorts of fun threats and sometimes stalkers, but everyday atheists – even those who are “out” – just aren’t identifiable by your Random Jackass.

    I think atheists are subjected to emotional torment and abuse by those close to them (family especially) for their lack of religion much more often than they’re attacked verbally or physically in ways that would be classified as “hate crimes” by a poll.

  • Ian

    I have to agree that’s it’s to do with the low visibility.

    I can bet the prejudices are out there though. I’ve seen a lot of editorials (from the major newspapers and individual citizens) who are trying to tell me to shut up for suggesting my school shouldn’t charge students to use their degrees for the “Glory of God.” The most extreme is a popular radio commentator who suggested that the reason for school shootings is that we’ve “expelled” God from schools.

  • Santiago

    To add something to what people have said above, I think that a lot of Atheists go to the “one crime is too much” camp, as in: they feel they shouldn’t advertise their atheism because it could, if only very slightly, increase their chances of having a hate crime committed on them, or just simple vandalism.

    As some others have said, there is no “mark of the Atheist”, and atheists don’t tend to congregate in a certain neighbourhood, making it easy for us to blend in if we so choose.

    Also, I think the very fact that atheism has been kept so much in the down-low for much of history means that we are just not prominent enough for some bereaved group to blame us for bad things happening and whatnot, especially if you compare atheists to the long, troubled history of Jewish people, who just seem to be magnets of misfortune throughout history.

  • mocular

    Wow. These stats are all over the place.

    17% of victims due to religious bias (yes, I’m rounding) of those, %57 were crimes against individuals and %43 were crimes against property. So a big chunk of the crimes we can assume were on the level of graffiti or that age old hobby of the Christians, “Knocking over grave stones in Jewish cemeteries.”

    And another big chunk (%47 of %57) were intimidation – somewhat non-specific but we all know what it means.

    So we’ve got a lot of targets of opportunity – recognizable people being intimidated and their property being vandalized.

    Atheists are pretty much under the radar for the most part and would not likely be targeted by the lazy perps.

    Although, I wonder how many of the property crimes committed against atheists were due to someone breaking off the legs of the Darwin fish badges on their cars?

  • I once asked somebody from the anti-defamation league if a crime against an Atheist counts. I was told that Atheism isn’t considered a religion (it’s not) but agnosticism is (it’s still not a religion).

    I dunno what to make of that or if that varies by state.

    Either way, I guess I’ll admit that now I feel safer when I wear my Out Campaign shirt in public.

  • No, no, no. You’re all wrong.

    You have to see it from the Christian mindset. Only things they believe in exist. This list includes such fun things as Jesus, original sin, Santa Claus, and abstinence only sex ed. Belief blinders serve to render non-existent everything else, including the scientific method and the concept of evidence.

    Christians can live a much happier life by believing that atheists don’t exist. We’re just souls waiting to be saved! Thus if we don’t exist, we can’t be the victims of hate crimes.


  • Polly

    Last night, YET another unarmed black man in SoCal was shot by the police. He was completely innocent.

    It strikes me that the myriad shootings of unarmed black men do not get reported as if they are hate crimes. And they probably aren’t conscious acts of racism (No news has mentioned the race of the cop who shot and killed Julian Alexander on his own property last night) but there is the pervasive spinal-chord level reflex that equates darker skin with threatening.

    Is it a hate crime when a Muslim is arrested or detained for donating to the “wrong” charity. Is racial profiling a hate crime? Our government commits hate crimes every day.

    The statistics are bullshit.

  • LE

    By and large, the only people who really care that you are atheist are people who are of faith. In the United States, then, that means that the majority of people who care that you are an atheist are Christians.

    The vast majority of people in the U.S. may self-identify as Christian, but not all of them are what you would call “Christ-followers”. Believing in God is as much a cultural value as a religious one in this country, if not more so. I see hate crimes against atheists as having to do more with culture than with belief.

    My take on the low number? I think atheists just have thick skin. All that baby-eating tends to desensitize you.

  • Ann

    As a group, we believe in “nothing,” so it would essentially be a hate crime against “nothing” and thus hard to categorize.

    Either that, and as mentioned by others, its very hard for those haters to know what an atheist looks like unless that atheists makes it known that they are one.

  • On October 29th, 2008 at 9:48 am, Todd M said:

    If someone is on a pathway following Christ, then they have no desire to commit a crime against you because you’re atheist. We may want to see you enjoying the love of Christ, as we do, but we really don’t want to hurt you.

    You can fire away at my opinion but, the fact is, it is how I lead my life and how anyone who is truly a Christ follower will lead their life.

    Like most on this list, I am an atheist, and I do not doubt your sincerity at all. But please keep in mind that a lot of people in the USA who call themselves Christians are not the “live and let live” type.

  • Aj

    I agree with Viggo, the concept of a “hate” crime is nonsense. It mainly seems to be used to punish people if it offends someone’s “woo”, thus isn’t likely to effect atheists often. I don’t think many atheists have overt symbols and sacred cows.

  • SarahH

    Although, I wonder how many of the property crimes committed against atheists were due to someone breaking off the legs of the Darwin fish badges on their cars?

    I don’t know who’d report that as a crime, lol. My housemate has one on his car with one of the fin parts pulled off (the top one) and we just joke that it’s evolved to a land mammal and has a tail now instead of fins.

  • My theory? We are protected by a divine influence. Those Christians, with their pathetic anthropomorphic deity never had a chance to take us on. No-god is the one true god!

  • Well, just for the record, I am a Christian and I have no desire to hurt someone who is not. I also have never heard any of my Christian friends talk of hurting someone who is an atheist.

    Additionally, despite the tendency toward baby eating comments on this site, I will continue to live my life under the belief and trust that atheists do not have any desire to commit hate crimes against me either.

  • Nathan

    I know that I am really really late on this topic, but I just happened to stumble across it when looking up info about hate crimes against atheists. I recently put a big atheist sticker on my truck, which includes the scarlet A, and feel somewhat like a target, but also don’t feel I should hide. Does anyone else feel this way out in public when either wearing their atheist t-shirts or wearing their bumper stickers on their car?

  • There is also discrimination. There are those with, “Scarlet Letter Syndrome”, who use their religious proclivities, as an excuse to justify their works of iniquity. The hypocrites, for example, may be judges, and based on their paradigm, may render a decision, based on, “You do not live your life the way MY, one true god, says you should live, therefore I have to punish/kill you. They are in the U.S.A. also, some believe religious zealots are in foreign countries, only. Abortions, what if one does not believe in “the one true god”, and is seeking an abortion, in America? Do atheists have a right to not believe in “the one true god”? Are they protected by the Constitution of the Unites States of America, from discrimination, when they “break” moral laws, but not legal ones?
    Peace, always.
    Think logically, accept the truth, and, love accordingly.

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