Stop Picking on Atheists (or Knock Off the Anti-Atheist Bigotry)

    By Gregory Paul | 11 May 2011
    The Daily Kos

    The below essay is an expanded version of an op-ed published on 4/30/11 on the opinion pages of the Washington Post. With a print edition run of over half a million, 75,000 Facebook recommends and rising, and 1500 comments, the op-ed was among the most widely read in the WP that year, and is among the most read proatheist essays ever. Written in the tradition of Letter From Birmingham Jail, the essay has put the nation on notice that there is chronic bias against those who do not believe in the supernatural, that this is unwarrented, and that it must cease. The popularity of the piece reflects how fed up nonbelievers are with being picked upon for no good reason. Originally there were 5 cosigners, but because only 2 are allowed in WP op-eds Daniel Dennett, Darren Sherkat and Linda LaScolla had to be dropped, they are cosigners of the below.

    Long after Blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, a major portion of Americans still don’t like atheists much. Those who don’t believe in God are considered by many to be immoral, wicked, angry. To the degree that youth cannot join the Boy Scouts merely for refusing to believe in the supernatural. It would be considered an outrage if Jewish boys or young Blacks were so treated. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. It remains common to casually comment that “there are no atheists in foxholes” – try replacing the atheists with Christians, Jews or Blacks. The atheism of family members frequently becomes a point of strife in a way that used to be typical of those of differing religions (while atheists tend to be tolerant of their pious relations). How many openly nonsupernaturalistic persons host a prominent national opinion program? When a recent survey found that atheists tend to know more about the Bible than do Christians, why were the resulting panel discussions on CNN and the like the usual sets of believers of various sorts with nary an atheist to be found? Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to vote for nontheists (who vote for believers all the time). In other words nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

    As deep set as the bigotry against skeptics of the supernatural is, it has been slipping under the American sociopolitical radar. So much so that even Bill Maher on the 2/11/11 Real Time said that gays are the only group still subject to widespread discrimination in the US – a Muslim panelist pointed out that Muslims are too, but Bill of all people forgot his own nontheist cohort.

    The stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by many religious conservatives who stridently and uncivilly declare that the lack of Godly faith is dangerous and detrimental to society, rendering non-believers intrinsically suspect, as mere 2nd class citizens. It has long been an American political sport to verbally assault those who commit no greater crime than to rationally conclude that the evidence does not support the existence of extraordinary entities and powers. Designed to exploit the anti-atheist feelings of the public, these slanders would not be tolerated if directed towards other minorities.

    Almost as disturbing as the casual and common prejudice against nontheists is how the bias is rarely denounced by the mainstream that does not tolerate similar intolerance towards other minorities.

    Is all this knee jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.

    A large segment of scientists are skeptical when it comes to anything supernatural. In other words many of our best and brightest, the people that the success of our nation depends upon, are ungodly. Atheistic scientists tend to be good and very productive citizens. Yet they are disparaged for their refusal to conform to the religious norm.

    A new and fast growing body of social science research reveals that atheists of various stripes – and non-religious people in general – are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. Many studies have found that on basic questions of morality and human decency – things like the governmental use of torture, the death penalty, the punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation, human rights, militarism, etc., the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious – especially very religious – peers. At the societal level we know that murder rates are always far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than the much more United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within our own country, it is those states with the highest levels of faith in God and church attendance such as Louisiana and Mississippi that have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states like Vermont and Oregon.

    As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make their own minds up when it comes to existential questions, and to obey the golden rule when it comes to not causing harm to others. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious, and are also less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought. They tend to be voracious readers. And while many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is actually challenging and complicating such claims, showing that the relationship between atheism, theism, and mental health/well-being are extremely complex. After all, Denmark, which is among the least religious countries in the history of the world, consistently rates as being the happiest of nations, full of satisfied, content citizens. And studies of apostates – people who were religious but then went on to reject their religion – report feeling happier, better, and quite liberated in their post-religious lives.

    Nontheism isn’t all balloons and ice cream. Some studies suggest that suicide rates tend to be higher among the nonreligious, although others disagree. But surveys indicating that religious Americans are better off are apparently misleading because they include fence sitters who are as likely to believe in God as not among the nonreligious; more convinced atheists are doing about as well as devout believers. On the great majority of measures of societal success, from poverty rates to teen-pregnancy, abortion and STD infections, from obesity rates to crime, from juvenile and adult mortality to healthy economies, to illicit drug use to mental health, high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in 1st world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America.

    Over 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 of the Bible, claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had tenacious sticking power over the centuries, and the negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. And yet, like all stereotypes, they simply aren’t true – and perhaps, tell us more about those that harbor them than those that are maligned by them. So when the likes of Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingerich engage in the politics of division and destruction by maligning atheists, they do so in flagrant disregard of reality.

    Like some other minorities, atheists are enjoying rapid growth. Despite all the bigotry, nontheists have tripled their proportional numbers since the 1960s. Driven largely by conversion, this growth is all the more spectacular since nonbelievers do not reproduce rapidly – unlike Mormons who have only doubled in proportional numbers over the last half century. Studies by PEW indicate that the nation is only half as religious as the most theistic countries. A lack of religious sentiment is especially popular among the newest generations whose interest in religion and its endless disputes and intolerance is fast waning. Surveys designed to overcome American’s understandable reluctance to admit atheism find that as many as 60 million, a fifth, are not believers to a greater or lesser extent. So when it comes to your irreligious fellow citizens, accord them the same 1st class citizen respect that you do other minorities. It’s the American thing to do.

    Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work has appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, Journal of Religion and Society, The Journal of Medical Ethics, Philosophy and Theology. Popular essays are at Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post/On Faith, Edge and one of the most widely read Washington Post op-eds (5/29&30/11). Coverage of Paul’s research has appeared in Newsweek, USA Today, The Guardian, London Times, LA Times, MSNBC, FoxNews.

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