July 28, 2016


When I write about bigotry, I generally use the word bigotry. This works reasonably well when I am referring to bigotry at the broadest level; however, it is often helpful to be able to address bigotry directed at specific groups of people. For example, it can be handy to refer to bigotry against LGBT persons, bigotry against Muslims, and/or bigotry against atheists. Thus, being able to specify which specific form of bigotry I am referring to is quite useful at times. 

And yet, phrases such as "anti-LGBT bigotry" are often perceived as awkward by readers who are more familiar with the popular alternative of slapping "-phobia" on to the end of whatever word or prefix we like. In this post, I'll take a brief look at some of the "-phobia" terms with which most atheists are likely to be familiar before posing the question of whether "atheistophobia" is a term we should embrace for referring to bigotry directed against atheists. Granted, this is not a term we often encounter. The question is whether it is one we should be using or not.


It is hard to imagine that any atheist living in a Western democracy will not have heard this term countless times. It makes sense to start here because this is the one with which we are likely to be most familiar. To say that this term has caught on would be an understatement. It is so popular that is really does seem strange to discuss bigotry against LGBT persons without using it.

I've never been a fan of the term "homophobia" because I am not convinced that all - or even most - of the bigotry and hatred aimed at LGBT persons is rooted in fear. Thus, my objection to the term is that I find it inaccurate and potentially misleading. And yet, I do recognize that the term has utility. If nothing else, it is a hell of a lot more convenient to refer to "homophobia" rather than having to spell out "anti-LGBT bigotry" or "bigotry directed at LGBT persons" every time one wants to make such a reference. At least to some degree, I have come to accept that the utility of the term likely exceeds whatever distaste I might have for it.


Back when I first encountered this term, I had a similar reaction to it. I did not see it as having much to do with fear and even less to do with the sort of excessive and irrational fear we characterize as a phobia. It seemed to me at the time that "Islamophobia" was being used to describe negative attitudes toward Islam, attitudes that were not necessarily irrational or rooted in fear. My expression of such thoughts on this blog was unpopular to say the least.

As it turned out, there was a different problem with Islamophobia than there had been with homophobia. It would take me awhile to discover it. The problem was that those who sought to silence any legitimate criticism of Islam began to rally around the term, using it to accuse anyone who dared to speak ill of Islam of bigotry. While atheists were free to criticize Christianity, criticism of Islam was considered "gross" and "racist." Essentially, Islam was declared off limits to the same sort of scrutiny we had been directing at Christianity for years.

While I came to accept the utility of "homophobia," at least to some degree, I would not do the same for "Islamophobia." As long as this label is being used to silence reasoned criticism of Islam, I will not support its use. While I do regard anti-Muslim bigotry as a problem, I believe that Islam warrants the same sort of scrutiny and criticism that we have directed at Christianity. Since "Islamophobia" seems to be a significant obstacle to such criticism, I reject its use.


This is a term that has never really caught on outside of a handful of fundamentalist Christians pushing it. Evidence that Christians are subjected to widespread bigotry or persecuted for their beliefs in Western democracies is hard to come by. Relatively few Christians seem to be inclined to make such a claim, and when they do, it appears as if they are equating others being upset by their bigotry against LGBT persons with persecution. That ends up being a tough sell. There is too much evidence of Christian privilege for many to take it seriously, and few of us are persuaded by the claim that being prohibited from discriminating against others amounts to persecution.

Unless evangelical fundamentalist Christians finally start coming to terms with the notion that LGBT persons are worthy of the same dignity and respect as heterosexual persons, we may yet see this term catch on. Recent manufactured controversies like the gay wedding cake scenario and various anti-trans restroom laws make me think that the primary strategy for fundamentalist Christians hoping to roll back the rights of those they regard as inferior is going to involve claims of religious persecution. Just because "Christophobia" hasn't caught on yet does not mean that it might not do so.


You have probably encountered this term even less frequently than "Christophobia." It is out there but on a very limited basis. I think it is fair to say that it has gained even less traction than "Christophobia" has. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should this be a term receiving wider use or not?

It seems to me that this particular term might have some merit, at least as much merit as "homophobia" has. First, there is evidence that atheists are subjected to bigotry, discrimination, and far worse throughout much of the world. The expression of anti-atheist bigotry is still widely perceived as being acceptable, even by political candidates running for office. In some respects, "coming out" as an atheist to one's family may be as difficult or more so than doing the same as an LGBT person. Second, while I would not suggest that irrational fear drives all bigotry toward atheists, it does seem to be one fairly important factor. I don't think anti-atheist bigotry is necessarily any more fear-based than anti-LGBT bigotry, and this still makes the term less than ideal; however, it may have the same sort of utility that "homophobia" does. Third, given that people are already accustomed to using "homophobia" (and "Islamophobia") they may already be primed for "atheistophobia" in a way that might not be the case for more preferable alternatives.

Whatever metit such a term might have, I'm not crazy about using "atheistophobia" and would prefer to use "anti-atheist bigotry." Even though it is a bit more wordy, I feel the same way about "homophobia." And yet, I recognize that this seems to be a very unpopular opinion. And so, I am at least willing to consider the possibility that atheistophobia is a term we should embrace. What do you think?
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