Are American atheists really a persecuted minority?

Are American atheists really a persecuted minority?

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Atheism in America, photo by ruSSeLL hiGGs via creative commons

OCALA, Fla., May 8, 2014 — Let’s face it: Atheists have a hard time getting by in our society.

Quite often, when we hear about the “angry atheist” stereotype, and there is some truth to it. What we should ask ourselves, though, is just where this anger comes from. Is it simply blind hatred of theists, the majority of which, in the United States, at least, are Christian?

Perhaps in some cases, but probably not most. Instead, no small number of atheists are surely acting on deep-seated feelings which stem from their traditional marginalization.

Why do scores of self-proclaimed Christians and others dislike atheists? Taking the matter up a few levels, why do they also have negative sentiments about non-theistic Americans generally?

Whatever the answer to this might be, does this dislike cause the rights of secular Americans to be infringed upon?

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“Every church-state dispute….is a matter that directly or indirectly involves the rights of seculars,” American Humanist Association President David Niose told me in 2012. “Seculars are an invisible minority in America, so much so that the government and media rarely think about them or consider their interests when discussing policy.

“About one-quarter of the House of Representatives belongs to the Congressional Prayer Caucus, an entity that is ardently discriminatory toward secular individuals, constantly proposing ways to exalt religion – usually a thinly guised Christianity – in public life. CPC members have proposed declaring a ‘Year of the Bible,’ for example, and they have proposed – in the midst of tight budgets – erecting ‘In God We Trust’ signs in all public buildings, including classrooms.

“Little thought is given to what the taxpaying atheist or agnostic family might think of sending their child to school each day to face such overt religiosity. It is no secret that many fundamentalists feel that church-state separation is a myth, and if this view ever prevails it will be America’s seculars who will be most under threat. And even beyond church-state separation, we see governmental privileging of religion in many areas, from ‘conscience clause’ exemptions for health care providers to the rewriting of history and science text books.

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“Many fundamentalists see public education as an evil that must be dismantled, so it’s clear that the rights of seculars, as well as other rational Americans, are under attack. We could go further and look at religious favoritism in the military, exclusion of atheists from the Boy Scouts, and the general tendency to see believers as more patriotic. Unfair prejudice against nonbelievers is far too common.”

To illustrate the power behind being accused of atheism, one need look no further than the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The ever-controversial group supports the interests of U.S. Armed Forces members who face religious discrimination; usually at the hands of fundamentalist Christians. The MRFF’s detractors have smeared it as an atheistic propaganda outlet led by, of course, someone who does not believe in God.

Both claims are demonstrably false, which led the MRFF’s leader, Ronald Reagan Administration veteran and former Air Force Judge Advocate General Mikey Weinstein, to issue a legal warning. This was sent to a television host, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, and Christian conservative stalwart Dr. James Dobson.

“We are very militant and aggressive, but our militancy and aggression is in support of the Constitution,” Weinstein tells me. “That’s why they devoted six minutes plus a few seconds [of] prime time Fox to me and my foundation, because we are so effective and they know that they can throw red meat to the not-terribly-well-educated, overtly uber-conservative people that watch their station and that are starving and salivating for this stuff.

“You throw the word ‘atheist’ out — that’s one of the worst things you can possibly be in the world of Fox, so that stirs up and gets people to watch, but of course it also stirs up people to make threats against us, and it also….creates this perception that unless you are an atheist, you can’t come to our foundation, which Fox has clearly — in many respects it’s a homage — they realize how effective we are, because if you’ll notice, they weren’t spending that much time castigating any other civil rights organization but ours, so I understand that, but we’re not going to take it anymore.”

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