April 17, 2019

Atheists Have Been Omitted from History

Chattanooga art

When I was a young child sitting in what was called Social Studies in those days, I never questioned whether what I was being taught about history was true. I naively assumed that anything we were taught in school was true. Otherwise, what was the point of it all? The first small crack in this trust came in the form of state history. Every public school in the state taught state history. Not surprisingly, other states taught their own history and not the history of the state in which I resided. While talking to a friend in a neighboring state, I learned that what I had been taught differed from what he had been taught in some interesting ways. It didn't mean much to me at the time, but I think it might have planted a tiny seed of doubt.

The first major crack had to do with Civil War history. While I had never had any reason to question this either, I would soon discover during a trip across the country to a Southern state that Civil War history was taught very differently there. Both accounts of the war could not be true. I had been taught that slavery was one of the most important reasons, if not the most important reason, for the war. This was not even close to what children in this other state were learning. I had been taught all about the Jim Crow era following the war; they were barely aware of it.

It would have been easy to conclude that everything I was taught was correct and they were the ones who had it wrong. In fact, I did initially try to convince myself of that. It gradually dawned on me that history is not usually written by the losing side or the minority. Writing history is one of the many aspects of the "spoils" we hear about the winner receiving.

I flirted briefly with nihilism, wondering if it was impossible to have confidence in anything I had been taught. This seemed like a dead end, though. In some cases, what I had learned was probably close to the truth. In other cases, the truth might lie somewhere between what I had been told and another perspective. And part of the struggle seemed to be figuring out how to make sure that minority perspectives were given a voice. As just one example, the Black experience before, during, and shortly following the Civil War seems far more important than my teachers recognized.

When it comes to history, atheists living in the United States have had almost no voice. Our perspectives were completely absent from everything I was taught in school. The religious majority enjoyed the privilege of writing history, and they utilized it well. We were rarely mentioned apart from the occasional disparaging comments about "godless Communists." If there was one thing I was told about atheists, it was that we were the enemy. We were a threat to America and nothing more.

I sometimes wonder whether this is any different today. What, if anything, are children learning in public school today about atheists, skeptics, humanists, and freethinkers? My guess is not much. There are still too few of us, and there is still far too much bigotry aimed our way. Maybe this is another reason some atheists seem angry.