This past May, Joni Mars’ 6-year-old daughter was assaulted on the school bus after telling another student that she didn’t believe in God. The other child started by spitting on and pinching her daughter. “The other little kids on the bus were egging him on and telling him to hit her and kick her. So he did,” Mars told me.
Joni’s daughter came home, covered in bruises and crying. When her husband approached the other child’s family, they promised to take care of it, but the child assaulted her daughter again three days later on the playground. “That was the final straw,” she said. This month, the Mars family moved from Oklahoma City to upstate New York, hoping to live somewhere more progressive.
Now, a new organization is purporting to highlight abuses like this one, hoping to address what they describe as “a major civil equality issue of our time.” Openly Secular, an effort composed of two dozen nonreligious organizations, provides a collection of stories from everyday nonbelievers as well as resources for students, parents, and secular Americans. Efforts like this can only be a good thing, but I think it misses atheist prejudice for what it is: part of a larger tussle in the United States over moral choices outside of the mainstream.
Atheists don’t typically come to mind as victims of prejudice, perhaps because they skew demographically toward privilege—they’re more often white, male, rich, better educated, and younger than the general population. Though it might be tempting to lump the quickly-growing group of religiously unaffiliated among the nonbelieving ranks—about 20 percent of American adults have no religious affiliation, and that number jumps up to more than one-third when looking at Millennials—more than two-thirds of these “Nones” report believing in God or a universal spirit.
Instead, depending on who asks and how, self-identified atheists and agnostics make up between 2 percent and 6 percent of Americans. Though this remains a relatively small and disjointed group, atheists still outnumber Mormons, Jews, and Muslims, and it stands to reason that atheists may face unique troubles of their own.
Though “civil equality” and “major” may be stretches, recent surveys and studies suggest reason for concern. In July, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans felt most coldly toward atheists and Muslims, with Evangelicals, Jews, and Catholics rated the warmest. According to another recent Pew poll, more than half of U.S. respondents reported that it was necessary to believe in God to be moral (though a recent study shows this isn’t the case). Moral concerns are a common theme surrounding research on attitudes toward atheism. One recent study shows that online subjects saw immoral behavior as more compatible with atheism than with any other religious group. Another showed that reading a story about moral decline, rather than a neutral story about the expansion of a dental school, increased harsher feelings towards atheists but not other groups, like college students or gay men.
Openly Secular hopes to push back against the sentiments demonstrated by these findings, providing a host of videos from atheist figures, a former congressman, and average Americans who are open about their religious views and the troubles they’ve faced as nonbelievers. Feelings of atheist prejudice are actually surprisingly common.
According to a 2012 poll, whether secular Americans faced discrimination had little to do with whether or not they were atheists or agnostics, but instead whether they identified as such. About 40 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics reported being targets of prejudice, compared to only one in five nonreligious Americans—a ratio which almost perfectly mirrors the percentage of believers in the study who reported feeling discriminated against for their beliefs. The poll didn’t give any specific examples, other than to note that most of the discrimination happened in a social or familial context. In fact, apart from this study and the collected anecdotes in “Openly Secular,” I couldn’t find much to document what anti-atheist discrimination looked like on the ground.
In my years as an atheist writer, blogger, and campus leader, I’ve talked to a lot of atheists about their experiences, and it seems that the most common instances of discrimination were for the most part mundane—passive aggressive comments from parents, a rude taxi driver, strained friendships, awkward moments of public prayer, and so on.
Not to minimize the harm these situations cause, but it’s a stretch to see a major breach of civil equality there. For those who’ve faced worse—troubles from school administration, seriously negative responses from family members, the bullying Joni’s children received—there seems to be a relatively narrow set of circumstances in common: ex-Muslim families, the tight religious connection in black communities, rural areas where there’s a church every half-mile, religious colleges, and so on.
The friends I talked to were often quick to mention that the discrimination they faced as atheists didn’t compare to other prejudices experienced by sexual, gender, or racial minorities. Some even reported that they received more abuse online for their feminism, or even from other atheists for seeming too soft on religion, particularly Islam.
On the whole, it’s hard to distinguish the hardships most atheists face from cases we wouldn’t take as examples of widespread prejudice. Even in my conservative small-town high school, I was bullied more for wearing skinny jeans than I was for being an atheist. My family reacted worse to my vegetarianism than to my atheism—my mother never tried to convert me, but she has served me vegetables flavored with pieces of bacon. In fact, if we take skepticism about our moral values, negative social interactions, or cold-feelings to be discrimination, it seems like we need to radically expand our conception of what discrimination is and who faces it. There probably aren’t surveys on this (yet), but it seems unlikely that self-identified nerds would fare much better than self-identified atheists do in terms of negative attention.
One of my favorite studies, a 2011 paper by Julia Minson and Benoît Monin, showed that 47 percent of their undergraduate subjects freely associated negative words with vegetarians. It’s worth noting that Public Policy Polling, in what I’ll admit is a tongue-in-cheek report, showed that 86 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a hipster president, and overall, 42 percent of Americans rated hipsters unfavorably. If the typical atheist experiences discrimination, it’s not obvious that hipsters, nerds, and vegetarians don’t.
Even more, these discussions often seem detached from real-world experience. Richard Dawkins said in The God Delusion that the struggles of atheists today are “on par with that of homosexuality 50 years ago,” citing a 1999 Gallup poll that showed that 79 percent of respondents would vote for a qualified homosexual candidate, as opposed to 49 percent who said they would vote for an atheist. This data is certainly troubling, but such comments seem to act as if it wasn’t hate crimes, anti-sodomy laws, and the absence of legal recognition for their partnerships that held back gay men and women, but rather how electable they were.
Warmth, electability, and moral standing are abstract compared to other civil rights struggles, which focus on issues more vital: the pay gap, rape on college campuses, stop-and-frisk, marriage equality, the brown bodies shot with their hands up, the teenagers beaten or worse because of who they love. Atheists speak a lot of being distrusted—and studies about moral character show what they show—but you rarely hear stories of how regularly atheists are followed in convenience stores, or disproportionately jailed, or kicked off a plane because they might be terrorists.
You do sometimes hear stories like Joni’s, though, and there’s still the palpable relief you can hear in her voice as she tells you how well her kids are adjusting to their new school and how excited they were to meet other atheists. It’s hard to be a curmudgeon if programs like Openly Secular can help, no matter how they’re framed.
Studies show that people rate religious groups they’re more familiar with more favorably. But atheists face an additional hurdle—our moral credentials are called into question. According to research by sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam, atheists actually are less charitable and civically engaged as a whole than religious believers, but this is less a product of religious belief and more the effect of belonging to a moral community—atheists who went to church with their spouses were just as charitable as any believer.
While it strikes me as disingenuous to put atheism on par with the civil rights issues of the past and of today, organizations like Openly Secular are helping with problems that, civil rights issue or not, are no less real. And it seems to me that, given the scientific data on the subject, it’s a step in the right direction to be open about our atheism in ways that aren’t antagonistic, but positive. I’d love to see us go further, though, and be collaborative by forming communities and doing good work, both as atheists and with our religious neighbors.
Thankfully, our options here have expanded in recent years. Humanist communities and chaplaincies—nonreligious groups explicitly devoted to secular and moral living—are gaining momentum across the country, particularly in universities (disclosure: I’m on the board of the Yale Humanist Community and very proud of the work they do). Interfaith organizations, like the Interfaith Youth Core, encourage and welcome atheist involvement and focus particularly on issues of shared moral concern. These are all fruitful options to pursue for any atheist interested in challenging the immoral stereotypes we have.
Whether we decide to follow this path, the best we can do to help people like Joni is to normalize and humanize atheism. To do this, we need to be openly constructive, positive and ethical. Being openly secular is only the first step.