November 16, 2009

Atheists Face Discrimination in the U.S.

Atheists are one of the most despised minorities in the U.S., and anti-atheist bigotry is both widespread and socially acceptable in many areas. When we consider the fact that many religious believers have convinced themselves that our refusal to share their beliefs makes us inherently immoral, it is not surprising that they condemn us. Some go so far as to claim that we are less than fully human, reducing the prohibitions against inflicting harm on us that might normally be in place.

One response I have routinely encountered from Christians, and even a few atheists, is that negative attitudes aside, atheists are not actually discriminated against. Ah denial, is there nothing you can't do?

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination is not the same thing as being treated unfairly. In the legal context in which discrimination is most relevant, it can be defined broadly as unequal treatment for a reason other than ability or legal rights. More precise definitions and tests of discrimination are dependent on the context. Thus, employment discrimination may work a bit differently than discrimination involving educational opportunity. Still, we can abstract some general principles from U.S. law. Federal (and state) laws prohibit discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, voting rights, educational opportunity, and civil rights on the basis of race, age, sex, nationality, disability, and religion.

Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion and the other factors noted above. That is, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone (i.e., to treat them unequally in certain specified matters) on the basis of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

Examples of Discrimination Against Atheists

What follows is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list. I intend only to provide a handful of notable examples which can be used to educate those arguing that there atheists in the U.S. do not face any sort of discrimination on the basis of their atheism.

  • Some judges consider atheism to be a sufficient reason for denying custody to a parent during custody hearings.
  • Many private organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, deny membership solely on the basis of lack of god-belief. Some of these organizations also manage to receive public funding.
  • Atheists face many forms of employment discrimination, ranging from differential hiring practices to wrongful termination. A school district in Texas went so far as to refuse to do business with an atheist.
  • In addition to widespread anti-atheist bigotry in the U.S. military, there are reports of institutionalized discrimination designed to quash complaints made by atheists who dare to speak out.
  • A handful of states retain laws to prevent atheists from being permitted to hold public office in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The mainstream media in the U.S. regularly excludes atheists, even from stories about atheism, while giving voice to religious believers.
A survey of atheist and other freethought groups completed by Margaret Downey in 2000 reveled that the overwhelming majority of instances of discrimination against atheists are never reported. Why? According to Downey,
...the fear of suffering further discrimination as a “whistleblower” was widespread. Some victims told me that they did not want to go public lest still more hatred come their way. This is the trauma of discrimination, just the sort of intimidation that discourages discrimination reports and makes it difficult to find plaintiffs for needed litigation.
We can all find examples of discrimination against atheists on their basis of their lack of god-belief. We should also be able to understand why there are not many more examples in the public record.

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