Bigotry Against Atheists is Still Socially Acceptable

Touro Synagogue, built in 1759 in Newport, Rho...
Touro Synagogue, built in 1759 in Newport, Rhode Island, is America's oldest surviving synagogue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Labor Day in the United States. I do have the day off, but I'll be working from home in the hope that I can get somewhat caught up. I seem to be behind no matter how many hours I put in.

Instead of writing some diatribe about how those of you who have the day off should be thanking liberals and labor unions, I thought I'd touch on something only peripherally related to Labor Day but sadly relevant to most working atheists: bigotry in the workplace.

Imagine a conversation occurring in one's place of employment in which one party identifies himself or herself as Jewish and the other party, an evangelical Christian, responds with something like the following:

Oh, I didn't know you were Jewish. You always seemed like such a nice person!

I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that most employed adults in the U.S. today would recognize the bigotry reflected in this response and would not expect to hear it in their workplace. They would perceive the statement as inappropriate. I realize that there will be exceptions to this, particularly in regions dominated by evangelical fundamentalist Christianity like the South. This is important to acknowledge because I have actually heard this statement from Christians on multiple occasions here in Mississippi. So no, not everyone is going to recognize it as inappropriate. But on balance, I have to imagine that most people outside such regions would experience the sort of involuntary cringe we tend to have when someone says something offensive after hearing this statement.

And yet, if we replace "Jewish" with "atheist," something striking happens. The statement is no longer widely recognized as inappropriate. Many people can now hear it without the cringe reaction. They might not agree with the sentiment being expressed, but they are much less shocked to hear it. Many do not even perceive it as bigoted.

Why is there such a difference? Why are most of us quicker to recognize the first statement as inappropriate? Why is the expression of bigotry against atheists so much more socially acceptable today than bigotry against Jewish persons? And the question really isn't about Jewish persons at all; it could be asked of bigotry directed at almost any other group. For some reason, it is okay when atheists are the target in a way we don't see for most other groups.

Statements such as "Jews are stingy," "Blacks are lazy," or "women are too damn emotional to be counted on" are widely recognized as bigoted in a way that "atheists are immoral" is not. Using "gay" or "lame" as universal pejorative terms is something most mature adults avoid these days, but there appears to be little reluctance around using "godless" or "heathen" to mean bad or immoral. I've been on the receiving end of "Well, you're just the office heathen" in groups of people who would have been on the phone to human resources in a second if the statement had been "Well, you're just the office Asian" or "Well, you're just the office gay."

Social norms evolve over time and sometimes require legislation to speed them along. During my lifetime, I have witnessed the slow change from where one could expect to regularly hear sexist, racist, or anti-LGBT comments in the workplace to where most people understand that this stuff is inappropriate and can get them in significant trouble. I'm not sure much progress has been made when it comes to expressions of bigotry against atheists. This particular sort of bigotry still seems socially acceptable in a way that the others are not.

It seems to me that working toward making bigotry aimed at atheists less socially acceptable is something we could work toward that would have the effect of making life just a bit better for all atheists. That strikes me as a reasonable goal even though it certainly won't be an easy one.

For additional thoughts on this topic, see The Social Acceptability of Anti-Atheist Bigotry.