Can We Now Define Anti Atheism As Racism?

By Donald A. Collins | 2 October 2014
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

The current discussion of racism in the USA quite naturally focuses on color as it has for so long. That there are constant extremely unsettling charges from both white and black commentators has seemingly made the definition of racism rather restricted to that example.

However, one could easily infer that the pronouncements from religious figures by the exclusivity of their sects’ beliefs amount to “racism” of a clear and even more dangerous sort.

If I am dubbed an “infidel” is my accuser making a racist remark?

How about if I decide I am an atheist and find myself an outcast in a community where I would like to live.

Does the gay rule of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” which was applied (and failed) in the US military suggest that I better not come out of the atheist closet if I want to survive socially, culturally or economically in many states in the good old democratic USA??

A powerful answer was published by Greta Christina in her June 2011 article entitled, “10 Scariest States to Be An Atheist”.

Despite the US Constitution’s call for religious freedom (something our Mayflower Pilgrims sought when they arrived in the New World but didn’t practice) Christina names places in the USA where I, as an atheist, likely couldn’t go without forsaking a large measure of safety and/or comfort.

She begins by saying, “Let’s be clear. It’s not like it’s easy to be an atheist anywhere in the U.S. Atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more.

“But to be honest, there are parts of the country where being an atheist really isn’t all that awful. Heck, I live in one of them. There’s some bigotry, some discrimination, a fair amount of misunderstanding and even hostility… but all things considered, it’s pretty okay. And then, there are some parts of the country where being an atheist sucks.

“Let’s talk about a few of those, shall we?” She then goes on to name those 10 US states in what she sees as the least anti atheist to the most.

I am not going to try to defend or alter her choices, because the point I am making is simple, but perhaps in being so simple, it is profoundly new in the way we should look at racism: Religious discrimination is racism because it tries to defile someone on the basis of a belief which is not universally shared or intellectually defensible — just like racism based on the color of one’s skin or the slant of one’s eyes.

Christina’s further comments simply illuminate my definition of “racism”. She says,

Now, to a great extent, how badly it sucks to be an atheist may not depend on the state you live in. It’s sort of like the red-state/blue-state myth: cultural differences in the United States break down more along urban/rural lines than they do along state lines. Is it easier to be an atheist in New York than in Texas? Maybe… but it may also be easier if you’re in Austin, Texas than if you’re in rural upstate New York.

Many atheist and secularist leaders I spoke to stressed this point. According to Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason (the organization responsible for many of the atheist billboard campaigns), “As for the worst states to be an atheist, it doesn’t generally work that way. It depends on what part of a state you are in.”

In fact, he’s not even sure that this difference always breaks down along urban/rural lines. “Is the key idea that the more rural areas give us the most trouble?” he asked. “Maybe. But we had bus ads vandalized in Detroit, too.” And he added that in Kentucky, “we had no problem in Louisville, but I still can’t get a billboard company to run our ads in supposedly more liberal Lexington.”

And according to the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don’t want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.”

Maybe you wouldn’t get lynched in Alabama but you certainly would be less than wanted there.

Even in my long time former state of residence, not located in the deep South, the author says,

If you’re finishing your degree in secular studies and are trying to decide where in the country you want to plant your godless stakes… here are some places you might want to avoid.

#10: Pennsylvania. Yes, I know. Everyone’s expecting this list to be overloaded with the deep South. And I’ll be getting there soon enough. But religious privilege and anti-atheist hostility don’t stay below the Mason-Dixon line. Anti-atheist bigotry can, and does, happen anywhere.

And Pennsylvania is Exhibit A. Specifically, Annville, Pennsylvania, where atheist veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell. Not once or twice by a couple of fanatics… but repeatedly, throughout the course of the parade.

Let me spell that one out again. In small town America, veterans — veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade — were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.

So let me close with these comments. If the right to practice your feelings about the unknown is one we enthroned in our Constitution and that right is seriously impinged on by present day biases by religions, including all the major monotheistic ones,  can one call that “racism”?? I think so and would welcome your responses, oh ye of any faith who proclaim among a longer list of things that if I don’t buy your brand I will burn in Hell or be killed as an infidel.

Ironically, the lives of us all are perforce mainly secular — you know, going to the supermarket, driving kids to school, trying to show up well in whatever job you can get in a nation where our real unemployment and underemployment is over 12% — yet the attitudes of too many of us still look to ethnic origin, skin color, and professed religious beliefs, despite our proud heritage of freedom from such entanglements. That’s racism true and simple.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
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  1. This is bigotry, absolutely not racism of any sort.

    Just as criticising Islam isn't racist, neither is criticising atheism. In fact, if I was nitpicking, 'atheism' isn't even a belief; it's a non-belief in a god or gods. Just as non-believing in collecting stamps isn't a 'belief'.

  2. I enjoyed this talk and article. Will check out the blog too. Meanwhile, I would suggest a different illustration; this one appears photoshopped. Fakery does not add authority to your arguments.


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