April 7, 2009

Raising Awareness of Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Seal of the University of OklahomaImage via Wikipedia

College student, Zac Smith, has written an excellent column in The Oklahoma Daily, the University of Oklahoma's student paper. The column, "Anti-atheist prejudice widespread in America," is an impressive step toward raising awareness among readers about what it is like to be an atheist in America today. I applaud Zac for having the courage to write this. I hope it will be widely read and inspire others.

I'd like to highlight a few excerpts that really caught my attention. Remember, this is a college student writing in his college paper under his real name.
The prevalence of this sort of stereotyping, particularly in highly conservative areas like Oklahoma, is unfortunate.

The reality is that an atheist is not someone who is morally rudderless, who wants to eradicate all religion, who is “angry at God,” who worships Richard Dawkins or who is even certain of the nonexistence of a god.
Right. An atheist is someone who does not accept the theist's claim that god(s) exist. Nothing more. But the consciousness raising Zac does here is not limited to religious believers. There are plenty of atheists who would do well to heed his words too.
Nor am I incontrovertibly certain of the nonexistence of a god or gods. If evidence emerged suggesting the existence of a god, I would readily adjust the certainty of my atheism.
I have encountered nearly as many atheists who buy into this view of atheism as requiring absolute certainty that no god or gods exist as I have theists who hold this view. Both are mistaken. As Zac reminds us, we do not accept the theistic claim because there is insufficient evidence for doing so. If such evidence were to emerge, we would change our minds. That does not make us somehow agnostic; it makes us rational.

Zac also reminds his readers that atheists do not seek to ban religion. He mentions that he has never met one who would advocate a legal ban on religion, and I echo that experience here. It is not the existence of religion that bothers us.
However, it does bother me when unwarranted stereotyping is used as a justification for intolerance toward atheists.

It bothers me that coming out as an atheist would be suicide for politicians in most parts of the country.

It bothers me that my sister was mocked and harassed in high school for her own lack of belief.

It bothers me that, throughout America, people are being intimidated into silence about the very simple and unthreatening fact that they don’t believe in a god.
This is precisely why increasing numbers of American atheists are beginning to "come out" and say enough is enough. We are tired of the anti-atheist bigotry, and more of us are willing to speak out against it. If this leads panicking theists to label us as hostile, then so be it. We should remember that other marginalized groups have been called this and worse when fighting for their civil rights.

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