Free Expression is For Atheists Too And Should Not Be Limited By Religious Privilege

mic on a stand

One of the many important things about the right to free expression is that it is supposed to apply to all of us and not just to some people. That is part of what it means when we refer to it as "a right." It is supposed to apply to atheists as well as religious believers, for example. It is also worth noting that just because we have the right to free expression does not mean that anyone must listen to us. The evangelical Christian standing on the busy street corner aggressively proelytizing at passersby may have the right to do so. This does not mean you must listen. You can opt to ignore him and go on your way. It also doesn't mean that you could not instead decide to stand your ground and engage in some free speech of your own.

When one of the many evangelical fundamentalist Christians living in Mississippi bangs on my front door and tries to talk to me about Jesus, I am under no obligation to listen. I can shake my head in disgust and shut the door if I want to. Alternatively, I can speak my mind. After all, this person has just interrupted me for an extremely stupid reason and is currently standing on my property. I can point and laugh if the mood strikes me. Or if I would prefer, I can explain that I do not believe in gods and that I find the notion of someone peddling this sort of nonsense to be objectionable.

I can be polite about how I react if I want to, but I don't have to. As long as I don't assault or threaten the Christian, it should be okay for me to express myself. That said, there are plenty of things I would not say in such a situation. This is Mississippi, and I'd prefer not to have to explain to the evangelical fundamentalist Christian sheriff's deputy why I told the pushy Christian at my doorstep what I really think of her religion. It is not that I necessarily think I would be arrested for something like this, but I'm not nearly as confident that I wouldn't be as I would like.

And there's the rub. Are atheists living in predominately religious areas equally free to express themselves as members of the religious majority? It certainly doesn't feel that way. Not even close. In Mississippi, the evangelical fundamentalist Christian can say nearly anything and count on having overwhelming support when doing so. As an atheist, I can count on no such thing. It seems difficult to argue that I have a similar right to free expression in practice.

"But free expression doesn't mean freedom from consequences for what you say!" You are right. That isn't what it means. But if something as small as identifying myself as an atheist can result in losing all my friends, my job, having my property vandalized, and being targeted for even more Christian proselytizing than is already happening, can anyone really claim that my ability to express myself is no different from that of the evangelical fundamentalist Christian?

If free expression is a right, it needs to be a right for atheists too. And yet, we don't have to look very hard to find examples where atheists have to think twice about what we say in ways that don't apply to religious believers. In other contexts, you've probably heard people say things like, "We're not asking for special treatment; we're asking for equal treatment." I believe that this could easily be applied to atheists who are interested in expressing themselves no matter where they might live. I'd like to be able to express myself as freely as my evangelical fundamentalist Christian neighbor can. I'd like the same for you, no matter where you live.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2018. It was revised and expanded in 2021.