N o . Persecution is a very strong word, and I am extremely uncomfortable applying it to atheists in America.
Recently, Saudi Arabia officially declared that all atheist organizations are terrorist groups. According to a 2012 report from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, atheism is a capital offense in at least 13 nations. The report also says the “overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers” with “laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, ... criminalize their criticism of religion and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.”
That is persecution, and that is why atheists in America shouldn’t claim to be persecuted.
However, a plethora of alternative adjectives present themselves. Without leaving the m’s, I suggest mistrusted, marginalized and misunderstood. Broadening our horizons only slightly brings us to disadvantaged, demonized, and discriminated against.
Each of these applies in a given context. I am not claiming all atheists are all of these all the time, and certainly not atheists like me at so cosmopolitan an institution as Penn. I also want to avoid comparison to the plights of other disparaged minorities, as I’m only arguing for the existence of anti-atheist sentiment in America not its relative severity. With those caveats in mind, I want to offer a defense of all my proffered descriptors.
“Mistrusted”: A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that subjects were more likely to distrust an atheist than they were to trust a rapist. The researchers cited several related studies that reached similar conclusions.
“Marginalized”: Roughly 15 percent of Americans self identify as having “no religious affiliation.” While not all are explicitly atheists, this collective demographic outnumbers the LGBT, Jewish and black minorities. Yet when we look at the U.S. Congress, not a single member is an admitted non-believer. Compare this to eight LGBT, 33 Jewish and 44 black members at last count. Atheists are severely underrepresented in politics. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans would not vote for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate if they happened to be an atheist.
“Misunderstood”: Atheists frequently have to face claims that our lives must be so empty without God, questions about where we get our morals from and other rather confusing misconceptions about being nihilistic Satan worshipers who hate the god we don’t believe exists.
“Disadvantaged”: A close cousin to discrimination, misconceptions and stereotypes against atheists lead to child custody hearings where an atheist parent has a much harder time securing visitation rights than their religious former spouse. The judges in these cases are often quite explicit in their reasoning that the atheism of one parent was a determining factor in the decision.
“Demonized”: In this instance, being demonized often takes a more literal meaning. An email response I received for an earlier column thought “The Devil’s Advocate” was an appropriate moniker since I was in fact a “servant of the devil.” In 2012, atheist student Jessica Ahlquist was called an “evil little thing” by her state representative in Rhode Island for her stance against a school prayer in her public high school. Atheists are constantly being blamed by evangelical leadership for everything from the “moral decline” of society to natural disasters.
“Discriminated against”: It was only in 1961 that the Supreme Court guaranteed atheists the right to hold public office, serve on juries and testify in court, contrary to the constitutions of several states, including Pennsylvania. Many atheists are afraid to come out for a justifiable fear that they would lose their jobs. By some reports, less than 0.2 percent of U.S. prisoners report being an atheist, but it’s quite possible that’s because admitting to unbelief has been documented to derail parole hearings. While the Boy Scouts were being praised for their decision to allow openly gay scouts, many forgot that atheists are still banned outright from the organization.
Atheists are often dismissed as being angry and litigious. Perhaps we genuinely have something to be angry about. It might not be persecution, but it is not equality either.
Collin Boots is a master’s student studying robotics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him ?@LotofTinyRobots.