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 and deserving of eternal torture, it is not surprising that they condemn us without experiencing much guilt for doing so. 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? Let's all pause at this point, take a deep breath, and repeat the following: "Just because I haven't personally experienced something does not mean others haven't experienced it or that it isn't a serious problem." The world is bigger and more diverse than reflected in our own life experience, and remembering this may help us avoid some common obstacles that limit our effectiveness.

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 consider 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). Thus, anti-discrimination law would appear to apply to atheists too.

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 examples which can be used to educate those arguing that 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 holding public office in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution (these laws are not enforced but are allowed to remain on the books).
  • The mainstream media in the U.S. regularly excludes atheists, even from stories about atheism, while giving voice to religious believers.
  • Elected officials face few, if any, consequences for publicly announcing that they consider (Christian) faith a prerequisite for anyone they might hire.

Why Don't We Know More About Discrimination Against Atheists?

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.

In 2021, American Atheists started calling attention to the need for better data on nonreligious Americans at the federal level after data from the 2019 U.S. Secular Survey showed that "nearly one third (29.4%) of survey participants experienced discrimination in education due to their nonreligious identity, and one in five (21.7%) experienced discrimination at work." Those numbers suggest that discrimination against atheists is a significant problem in the U.S., one which harms atheists.

As a result of this discrimination and stigma, nonreligious people experience heightened rates of loneliness and depression. American Atheists’ research shows that one in six (17.2%) of survey participants are likely to be depressed and about one quarter (25.6%) of participants often experience one or more indicators of loneliness and social isolation.

I believe that American Atheists are correct to highlight this problem and agree with their call for additional research.

For more on this important topic, see:

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2009. It was revised and expanded in 2021 to call attention to the problem of anti-atheist discrimination.