Atheism: The Next Civil Rights Movement?
One of the “most hated” groups in America, atheists face discrimination in everything from employment to child custody. A growing movement is fighting back—in the name of civil rights.
Early last week, Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman was stabbed and killed by three men, and the wounds to his face and neck were so severe that police had to use the voter ID card he was carrying in his pocket to identify him. This comes barely more than a month after Avijiti Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger, was attacked with a machete and hacked to death.
Both attacks happened in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, and both victims were atheists.
In part because of horrors that atheists experience in the rest of the world, and in part because of gross abuses experienced by other minorities in the West, I tend to roll my eyes at rhetoric often used by the public faces of atheism in America. My close friend Chris Stedman has catalogued a few examples: according to Bill Maher of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, atheism is the new gay marriage; Todd Stiefel, a prominent atheist activist and philanthropist, has said that atheism is “the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American Civil Rights”; and Austin Cline of About.com thinks that atheists are “hated more than gays.”
More recently, the president of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, told CNN that “[t]he fact is, we’re the most hated group in the country.” During a commercial specially prepared for the broadcast, Silverman boasted, “American Atheists is leading the charge for equality and the separation of religion and government.” Even on Facebook and Twitter, American Atheists and their representatives often refer to themselves as a civil-rights organization.
That atheists are so hated, let alone more than other beleaguered minority in the U.S., should strike any sensible person as absurd (and the empirical data to support it is scant). Based on the FBI’s statistics on hate crimes, gay men in America are victims of about 13 percent of hate crimes involving a single bias, but only constitute about 2 percent of the population. Contrast that with atheists, who also make up around 2 percent of the population (sometimes more, depending on who asks and how), yet are victims of less than a fraction of 1 percent of single-bias hate crimes. A gay man in America is orders of magnitude more likely to experience hatred than an atheist.
The issue of civil rights and civil equality, though, is more complicated. No one seems to agree on a solid definition of what exactly a civil right’s organization is or does, but issues like suffrage, the Selma to Montgomery march, gay marriage, and prison reform come to mind—not atheism. Danielle Muscato, the public relations director for American Atheists, expanded on the issue via email. “Atheists are routinely demonized (literally!) by the general public,” she wrote. “We face discrimination in everything from employment to custody cases to family relationships to representation in politics.”
Muscato went on, “There are other organizations that focus on separation of religion and government, but we are the premier organization fighting for the de-stigmatization of atheists specifically, normalizing the identify of ‘atheist,’ fighting legal cases, appearing in the media to present the atheist perspective on everything from religious scandals and religious violence to religion and LGBTQ rights, evolution vs. creation in public school science classes, religion and access to birth control and abortion, and much more.”
While it’s a stretch to suggest that American Atheists represent the atheist perspective—they skew strongly anti-religious and our best estimate suggests only 1 in 7 atheists in America agrees—there are nonetheless some legitimate legal activism worth doing. Muscato told me of a recent case American Atheists tried in Kentucky, where a state law required a government employee to affirm the existence of God (they won the original case, but the ruling was later overturned in an appeal because American Atheists lacked standing).
Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA who specializes in free speech law and religious freedom, has an interesting perspective on the topic. “There’s no definition of what a civil rights organization is,” he told me. “A lot depends on whether one agrees with their view of civil rights, but there are several things that various atheist groups tend to object to.”
First, there are some genuine, though seemingly rare instances where the law treats atheists worse than believers. “For example, in an article that I wrote, I observed that in some states, in child custody decisions, there is a preference in favor of the more religious parent,” Volokh told me. “I think that’s unconstitutional, but there have been some state courts that have taken that view on the theory that religion is good for children and therefore being raised irreligious is bad for children.” He went on, “I know that some atheist activists have talked about that, but it’s a hard thing to get involved in because a lot of these cases just bubble up in state court and nobody notices them.”
Volokh went on to describe a case involving Humanist Chaplains that he’s addressed through his UCLA First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic. Humanist Chaplains provide pastoral care in an organization, just as any other chaplain would, but from a positive and secular perspective. Volokh explained the issue, saying the Navy “will hire religious Chaplains, even for very small religious groups, but it doesn’t have Humanist Chaplains. If that allegation is correct, then that seems like a sort of discrimination against those who have irreligious philosophical world views, both against Chaplains who have such views and against soldiers and sailors who have such views.”
Another common point of atheist activism is fighting against religious imagery and symbolism used by the government, such as crosses on public land or “under God” in the pledge. “There are plausible arguments under current Establishment Clause case law out there,” he told me, and while he recognizes that others may disagree, he doesn’t view such cases as civil rights issues. “I don’t think it has to do with individual rights so much as it does supposed constraints on government power more generally. But certainly some people think the Establishment Clause secures an individual right not to be confronted with religious imagery put up by the government.”
Lastly, many atheist groups address public perception of atheism. Some studies show that many people view atheists more coldly than other religious groups and report unwillingness to vote for an atheist candidate. “Now, that’s not a matter of the Constitution,” Volokh told me, “because in the Constitution, people are free to vote as they like. But it is a matter of societal discrimination.”
When it comes to discrimination, though, and when it comes to our status under the law, don’t the stakes here seem relatively small? Whether we get chaplains, and whether Americans rate us more warmly than a 4 out of 10 seems worth addressing, but hardly worthy of the civil rights mantle. Volokh is less sure.
“I don’t think substantiality is that important,” he told me, bringing up the movement to get marriages between gay couples recognized. “They’re not talking about Jim Crow type of laws. One of the things they’re talking about, for example, is having the right to marry. Not just because of the tangible benefits of marriage, which is what civil union legislation would provide, but to actually have their marriages recognized as marriages.”
He went on, “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively minor thing, but I think they think it’s important enough, both symbolically and emotionally for them. I think it’s understandable that that would be treated as part of a civil rights agenda, so it doesn’t to me really turn on how massive the issue is.”