Obstacles Atheists Face in Gaining Acceptance

Aspergeversperring Muiden
By MartinD (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
In honor of the recent Openly Secular Day, Tom Krattenmaker wrote an article for USA Today in which he discussed five challenges atheists in the U.S. face as we work to improve the manner in which we are treated by the religious majority. Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) subsequently shared his thoughts on Krattenmaker's article. Now that I've had a few days to think about it, I'd like to do the same here.

I'd like to start by saying that whatever criticisms I have of Krattenmaker's article, I am pleased to see that articles like this are being written and picked up by the mainstream news media. The topic it addresses (i.e., barriers atheists face in our efforts to improve our place in society) is an important one that has been discussed on countless atheist blogs. I expect that it will inspire additional discussions, and that is a good thing.

1. Who Has It Worse?

Krattenmaker begins by acknowledging that atheists do face discrimination...sort of. The only example he provides is the fact that a few states (including the one where I live) have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office. By not mentioning any of the other far more common and serious examples of the sort of discrimination many atheists face, Krattenmaker is able to suggest that we have it far better than LGBT persons.
While it's true that non-believers face discrimination — as testified by the fact that several states forbid atheists from holding public office — seculars have not faced the severity of demonization, bullying and violence that gays and lesbians endure.
Seriously? I'm really not interested in getting into a "who has it worse" debate because the answer to that question depends heavily on where one lives. Come to Mississippi, meet with teenagers and young adults who have expressed doubts about the Christian faith in which they were raised, and tell me about how they have not faced anything like the "demonization, bullying, and violence" experienced by LGBT youth.

From my experience here in Mississippi, there is greater public acceptance today of LGBT persons than there is of atheists. Granted, that is not saying much because both need massive improvement. There is no denying that. Still, I feel like Krattenmaker's claims gloss over the fact that too many evangelical fundamentalist Christian parents throw their children out of the home for being atheists just as they do for being LGBT. Far too many children are raised from birth to believe that people who do not believe in gods are thoroughly evil and deserving of whatever mistreatment one can comprehend. After listening to countless stories from young Mississippians who identify as atheists as well as those who are religious but LGBT, I do not see much of a difference in the sort of torment and pain they have experienced.

Where I do see a difference is in the availability of support at the local level for kids who are dealing with this sort of thing. There is not enough of it for the LGBT kids, but it is present. There is a community providing resources, and some schools have recognized the need to look out for these kids. I do not see anything like this for the atheist kids. At least, not yet.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Krattenmaker is necessarily wrong here. What I am saying is that the sort of experience atheists have is widely variable based on where they live. Some atheists undoubtedly have it far better than some LGBT persons; others do not. Failing to recognize this does those atheists who are really struggling in oppressive religious environments a disservice.

Krattenmaker is right to suggest that public perception that atheism is a choice we make contributes to negative perceptions.
This makes non-believers a less sympathetic group, as does the perception that non-belief, unlike sexual orientation and racial identity, is a choice, not something intrinsic with which one is born.
My complaint here is that he does not bother to shoot down this unfortunate myth even after acknowledging the damage it does. Expressing one's atheism to others certainly is a choice; I'm not so sure that being an atheist is a choice. I certainly never made the decision to be an atheist. In fact, I struggled for years to come to terms with the fact that I was one. This seems like a missed opportunity.

2. Atheist Identity

I agree completely with Krattenmaker when he notes that we atheists are known more for what we reject than what we stand for. He's right that this is the case because this is what atheism means. And yet, I'm uncomfortable with what I perceive as the implication that this somehow makes us responsible for the bigotry we face. I don't see this line of thought being applied to other groups facing discrimination.

Some atheists have decided to embrace humanism and identify themselves as humanists instead of atheists. In part, they seem to see this as a better public relations strategy. As long as we remember that atheism and humanism are not synonymous and that some atheists reject at least some forms of humanism, I do not have any major objection to this. At the same time, I do object to efforts aimed at redefining atheism to make it into something it is not. We have all seen the damage such efforts have done.

3. God Belief and Morality

Krattenmaker is correct to note that much of the U.S. population continues to equate belief in gods with morality in spite of data to the contrary. Here he suggests we have "a long way to go in convincing the rest of the culture." I suppose so. But why does this responsibility rest with us? Why are we put in the role of having to teach the bigot not to be a bigot? Does the bigot have no responsibility here?

Maybe I'm being unfair here, but I cannot help wondering why it is okay to place this responsibility on the shoulders of atheists when most of us would never dream of doing so with other groups facing discrimination.

4. Hostility to the Religious

According to Krattenmaker, we atheists frequently make the mistake of dismissing religious persons who might make useful allies. I agree. When it comes to something like the separation of church and state, there are religious believers out there who would make excellent allies. They understand that secularism is good for them too and share the value many atheists place on maintaining strict church-state separation.

Many atheists are hostile toward religion for a variety of good reasons. This does not necessarily mean that we must be hostile toward most individual religious believers. I see far too much of this (especially on social media), and I agree with Krattenmaker that it can be detrimental to much of what we say we want to accomplish. If we want to improve our world, we should welcome allies who would like to do the same. Going out of our way to alienate every religious believer one encounters on Twitter is counterproductive.

5. The Strangeness of Atheism

Last and least surprising given that Openly Secular Day was the impetus for his article, Krattenmaker identifies the lack of familiarity many have with atheists as an important obstacle. Many people do not know anyone who openly identifies as an atheist, and this make it easier for them to maintain bigoted attitudes. For those who can openly identify themselves as atheists, more power to them. I expect that greater familiarity with atheists will make a positive difference over time. As people come to know more atheists, it may be harder to cling to bigoted attitudes against us.

Still, I cannot in good conscience advise anyone to openly identify as an atheist without knowing more about his or her life circumstances and the sort of consequences he or she might face. This is going to be different for everyone, and I cannot presume to know what someone else may face. Coming out of the atheist closet remains a risky proposition for many, and this must be an informed decision one makes with one's eyes open.