American Blood: Why the Atheist Fight is Everybody’s Fight

The story is a month old, so I’m sure you’ve caught the controversy over the mangled-beam cross at the 9/11 memorial site, and the fact that atheists oppose the thing.

You’ve probably also caught the blowback, which includes online death threats to atheists by nice Christians.

Responding to the subject on Facebook, a commenter named Janice D. blamed atheists for the whole thing:

“Yes, the Christians are feeling very threatened in today’s political climate [...] Their God IS being kicked out of everywhere in the name of political correctness.”

To which I say …

First, is somebody really defending the right of people to make death threats to those who disagree with them?

Second: IT’S NOT IN THE NAME OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.

It’s in the name of equal rights, and the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.

To the people being denied those equal rights, a response like Janice’s (definitely not hers alone, by the way) is as offensive and insensitive as all those white bystanders during the civil rights movement, who said stuff like “I just don’t get why these negroes are so angry. Why can’t they just get along?”

Yes, the Christians are feeling threatened. On the other hand, they STILL make up something like 85 percent of the people in the U.S. Every law passed in this country, every court judgment, goes through Christian hands. Every legislative body, from town councils up to Congress, is run almost 100 percent by professed Christians. You have to look VERY carefully at governmental bodies to find so much as a single Jew, much less a Shintoist, a Muslim, a Hindu … or an atheist.

Speaking of the civil rights movement, there’s something a lot of us probably never think of.

All that stuff the African-Americans did during the movement? You know, the marching, the demonstrating, the getting sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, the part where they suffered beatings and terror and murder?

THEY DIDN’T DO IT ONLY FOR THEMSELVES.

They did it for everybody. They did it so EVERYBODY could have civil rights. So EVERYBODY could be safer from beatings, and arrests, and lynchings, and being dragged out of their homes and burned to death by their neighbors just for being in some way different.

Black people paid that price so that every generation that came after could enjoy greater freedom and safety. But also, so that every generation could understand that being different – different from the majority – was okay.

In this sense, you can say that the civil rights movement was fought for the rights of black people AND for the rights of white people.

That’s the thing about equality: If you win it for yourself, you win it for everybody.

Civil rights was definitely about the RIGHT to be treated equally, but it was also about the RESPONSIBILITY of the people in power, the ones in the majority, to understand that nothing must get in they way of treating everyone equally.

Because, surprise, surprise, people aren’t “black” and “white,” or “them” and “us,” they’re just people. They’re the same.

Because of this second part, decades later, when the gay rights movement started, we saw the parallel to the civil rights movement and understood the point a lot faster: Gay people deserved equal rights.

Of course they did. Not because they were “gay.” Because they were PEOPLE.

The blood and determination of African-Americans had paid for that lesson.

In like fashion, the things the gay community did – in the face of the same death threats, the same beatings and arrests and blatant oppression (but nowhere near as purely evil as what happened to African-Americans, because things had changed) – they didn’t do it just for themselves. They did it for EVERYBODY.

They did it so that every future generation could be free to choose the nature of their personal relationships. They did it so that all the kids who would be born and, coming to discover that they were different, wouldn’t be thrown out of their homes and communities by the ignorance and hate of their parents and neighbors.

But again, they also did it so that all the others, all the non-gay people, could learn to understand this basic point of equality: When you’re defining humanity and apportioning rights, just as there is no dividing line between “black” and “white,” there is no dividing line between “gay” and “straight.”

Likewise, the women’s rights movement was and is about the rights of women … but it also was and is about the rights of men. What women did, they did for EVERYBODY.

Finally, in the matter of the current battle: Yes, the main point we atheists hope to impress upon people is that atheists deserve equal rights. Equal representation.

But the other point – again – is that EVERYBODY deserves equal rights, equal treatment. The powerful majority – whether it be white people, or straight people, or men, or Christians – does not have the right to treat others in a way that denies them life and liberty, equal access to the advantages and protections of citizenship.

So the things atheists are doing, they’re not doing it only for themselves.

We want EVERYBODY to have the right to think and live free. We want EVERYBODY to be able to use their own independent minds, and to speak their conclusions freely in public without death threats or social shunning. We want ALL children to have access to an education based on facts and reality, untainted by narrow sectarian views or mythology.

As we’ve seen in all these past battles – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights –  the thing about equality is that it’s not something you can enjoy in exclusivity.

If you win equality, you win it for everybody.

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It’s been pointed out to me that ALL of the battles I reference here — fights involving race, gender and orientation — are ongoing. And yes, I absolutely agree.

Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style
Goodness and Guilt on the Dark Edge of Life
A Dark Tide in Human Affairs
Reimagining the Conceptual Foundation of Atheism

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