Atheism Is a Civil Rights Issue

Back in April, I noted with dismay when science writer Chris Mooney urged atheists to be silent and not voice their views, lest they provoke negative reactions from religious people. Now his partner in that effort, Matthew Nisbet, has written a far worse post along the same lines which has stirred up a hornet’s nest among some prominent atheist bloggers.

Nisbet seems to bear some irrational personal animus against Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens which has colored all his views on atheism. For someone who claims to be an expert in “framing” – that is, in presenting one’s message in a way that appeals to its target audience – he shows a stunningly poor grasp of the technique here. His post is one long string of condescending, hostile rhetoric directed at atheists (“false spin”, “sophomoric and polarizing attacks”, “the feeding frenzy of complaints and insults that typify the echo chamber of the Atheist Net Roots”). If he wanted atheists to listen to him and take him seriously, he could not have done much worse.

Numerous commenters on Nisbet’s post have pointed out the many ways in which atheism is a civil rights issue. There are the atheist parents who are denied custody of their children because of their atheism; state constitutions that officially deny atheists the right to hold public office (now unenforceable, but the discriminatory language has never been removed); religious language in official affirmations like the Pledge of Allegiance that infringes on atheist parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit; government programs that take atheists’ tax dollars and use them to pay for programs of religious indoctrination; and more. And then there are the significant pluralities, if not majorities in some cases, who consider atheists to be the least trustworthy group in America and would not vote for atheists for public office. These examples show Nisbet’s claims to be unfounded in reality, and he has chosen to ignore them rather than make any effort to address them.

[UPDATE: Since I first wrote this, some additional examples have come to mind: the VA's integrating treatment for "spiritual injury" into their care, and "prescribing" church attendance; coercive proselytization at "faith-based prisons", often with no secular alternative available; and pervasive, extreme religious discrimination in the military.]

Granted, there is no organized, society-wide campaign whose explicit goal is to deny atheists their rights. Nor have atheists suffered discrimination equal to that experienced by African-Americans or women, and no atheist that I know has claimed otherwise. But it makes no difference. Discrimination is discrimination, whether it is de jure or de facto and whether it comes from scattered incidents or from a systematic campaign. And discrimination against atheists should still be opposed and ended, even if other groups have been through worse.

I do agree that positive portrayals of atheism are important. I am, after all, the founder of the Humanist Symposium whose entire purpose is to do exactly that. But that does not mean we cannot also criticize religion – this is not an either-or proposition. We can present a positive view of ourselves and our movement while also pointing out the many ways in which religious belief is false and harmful.

Will criticism upset many religious people? Certainly. But it’s hardly as if atheists were universally beloved and respected until nasty, mean people like Richard Dawkins showed up and ruined our good name. There has always been prejudice against us, and it’s about time we fought back and showed religious people that they cannot claim sole possession of the moral high ground. When false religious beliefs are doing harm, as many of them are, they need to be criticized. In any case, strong, passionate advocacy – whatever the position being defended – will always win more respect than weak, watered-down accommodationism that fears to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It is now obvious that what Nisbet is demanding is that atheists be silent and not speak our minds. That isn’t going to happen. I’m happy to see a vigorous, thriving atheist community take shape, and we will continue to say exactly what we think. Nisbet can sputter and complain about this to his heart’s content, but it will not silence us; it will only show that his position is without worth or value and deserves no further consideration. Meanwhile, we who are genuinely concerned with both the civil rights and the public image of nonbelievers can and will press ahead in the vital effort to defend both.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Well said. It alarms me to see such ignorance as Nisbet displayed in that post, on a science blog no less! It is surpassed only by the ignorance of DJ Grothe in the article from Free Enquiry magazine which Nisbet linked to.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Well said. It alarms me to see such ignorance as Nisbet displayed in that post, on a science blog no less! It is surpassed only by the ignorance of DJ Grothe in the article from Free Enquiry magazine which Nisbet linked to.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse and tobe, hear, hear! I always thought DJ Grothe was playing devil’s advocate on Point of Inquiry to be a better interviewer. No more. Now I understand his true colors.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse and tobe, hear, hear! I always thought DJ Grothe was playing devil’s advocate on Point of Inquiry to be a better interviewer. No more. Now I understand his true colors.

  • James Bradbury

    I think many theists are offended by the mere existence of atheists. Especially reasonable, happy and moral atheists. If their beliefs say you need god(s) to be moral and happy, then no wonder. That’s the kind of offence I don’t mind causing.

  • James Bradbury

    I think many theists are offended by the mere existence of atheists. Especially reasonable, happy and moral atheists. If their beliefs say you need god(s) to be moral and happy, then no wonder. That’s the kind of offence I don’t mind causing.

  • http://www.davidkoepsell.com David Koepsell

    Thanks for this, you echo my sentiments exactly. Many of us are not proud of this particular moment in humanist debate.

  • http://www.davidkoepsell.com David Koepsell

    Thanks for this, you echo my sentiments exactly. Many of us are not proud of this particular moment in humanist debate.

  • Mobius 118

    It’s unfortuneate, though, that atheists like myself are still too brazen. Andy knows of my actions, somewhat.

    One thing, though, is that I learned humility a long time ago, and I’ve made very good arguements, to which I’ve yet to get an honest answer for. My saving grace is that I can adapt to the problem. They have yet to give me honest answers to honest questions.

    Unfortunatly, I might’ve led them here. So, if any crazies leap on, you know who brought them, and who to drop-kick in the face.

  • Dave

    I think people are arguing terminology here. I agree with Adam’s post and I agree with DJ’s post. DJ isn’t saying we should be silent, he’s saying we shouldn’t use the loaded term “civil rights” as it only (at the current time) invites comparison with much more oppressed groups’ situations from our country’s past. I also agree with Adam that the few remaining institutional cases of discrimination should be dealt with. It’s important to discriminate between the “image problem” (public perception, reflected in things such as unwillingness to elect an atheist, which the government has no role in changing) and public policy, reflected in things such as Christianity-favoring currency, initiatives, public monuments, etc. Those are things to rail against, but I wouldn’t term the battle for a secular government a “civil rights” issue.

  • Dave

    I think people are arguing terminology here. I agree with Adam’s post and I agree with DJ’s post. DJ isn’t saying we should be silent, he’s saying we shouldn’t use the loaded term “civil rights” as it only (at the current time) invites comparison with much more oppressed groups’ situations from our country’s past. I also agree with Adam that the few remaining institutional cases of discrimination should be dealt with. It’s important to discriminate between the “image problem” (public perception, reflected in things such as unwillingness to elect an atheist, which the government has no role in changing) and public policy, reflected in things such as Christianity-favoring currency, initiatives, public monuments, etc. Those are things to rail against, but I wouldn’t term the battle for a secular government a “civil rights” issue.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    While I don’t think D.J. Grothe’s anti-atheist views are anywhere near as extreme as Nisbet’s, I’m surprised and disappointed that he would so blithely claim that “to our knowledge, there is no such thing as ‘atheist bashing.’” Even worse, he asserts that “On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.” If that’s truly the case, he either didn’t ask very many people, or he didn’t look very hard. I’d like to contact him and see if he stands by this statement.

    He does admit that it would be virtually impossible for an atheist to be elected in the current climate, but I don’t know why he doesn’t consider that a civil rights issue. De facto discrimination is just as bad as de jure discrimination. Imagine that we were transported back to the time when some businesses refused to serve African-Americans. Would Grothe also say that this wasn’t a civil rights issue, since that isn’t a “public accommodation” to which everyone has a right?

  • http://www.davidkoepsell.com David Koepsell

    Yes, indeed, there were institutional, de facto denials of atheists’ all the way up into the 1960s when the Supreme Court finally held them to be unconstitutional. Until then, various states denied atheists the right to vote, hold office, and testify in court, among other things. One court noted that the legal presumtion against an atheist’s “dying declaration,” as opposed to those of theists, basically invited assaults on atheists, calling it more or less “open season.” The underlying point, that we must also work on the public image problem is lost because of the basic lack of research behind the blithe statement that atheism is not a civil rights issue (it is) and that there is no atheist-bashing (there is.)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’ve updated the post with some more examples of anti-atheist discrimination I’ve since remembered.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Just thought of another instance of discrimination: Mandatory attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous. Have you read through their twelve steps? It’s ridiculously religious:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    How is this not a civil rights issue? An atheist alcoholic who gets in trouble is forced to convert or go to jail. (Forcing this has fortunately been struck down in a few Appeals courts, but their rulings don’t apply everywhere.)

  • OMGF

    Ebonmuse,
    On your last post on this, I stuck up for Mooney, because I know that he does not advocate atheists silencing their views (or at least he didn’t at the time; I don’t know if his views have altered, but being an atheist himself I doubt it.) I still think that we could use some better framing in keeping the issues of atheism separate from the issues of abuse of science when applicable as well.

    That said, WTF is Nisbet talking about? I wholeheartedly agree that atheism is a civil rights issue, and you bring up enough points to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. If this is his idea of how to “frame” arguments, then count me out as well. He seems to have moved from talking about science to indeed telling atheists not to fight for their rights. I can not support that stance.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Ebonmuse

    He does admit that it would be virtually impossible for an atheist to be elected in the current climate, but I don’t know why he doesn’t consider that a civil rights issue.

    I also found this very strange. He seems to make concessions and then try to rationalise them. For example:

    And being barred from the Boy Scouts hardly affects one’s basic life prospects. Besides, most experts agree that Scouting is not a “public accommodation” in which everyone has a right to be included.

    It’s not about ‘basic life prospects’, it’s about a principle, one of standing up against discrimination. I found his views on this bemusing, to say the least.

    I think you hit nail on the head when you pointed out that just because our struggle is not as gruelling as that of the blacks or women, doesn’t mean it isn’t a civil rights issue. It’s a variable scale, not an absolute.

  • mithraman

    OK, Let’s try to figure this out calmly and logically. What are civil rights anyway? Well, Wikipedia should tell us. And it says there: “Civil rights are the protections and privileges of personal power given to all citizens by law. Civil rights are distinguished from human rights and natural rights, also called our God-given rights.” OK, so now we just… hey wait a minute! “God-given rights”?? Arrrrgg!

  • http://emersonavenger.blogspot.com The Emerson Avenger

    You just can`t win can you mithraman? ;-)

    OTOH I don`t recall God ever giving man any particular rights.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t mean to be slow, but I’ve only just realized that David Koepsell, who’s commented in this thread, is an executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which publishes Free Inquiry. Welcome, sir! Clearly, Grothe’s views are not universally held there, which is good to know. I look forward to seeing what further debate will come of this.

    Incidentally, I e-mailed Grothe today and received a reply from him shortly thereafter. I want to write him one further response, and I’ll post an update shortly.

  • Vicki Baker

    On the one hand, I can see that some of the things you are talking about fall into a civil rights paradigm. As far as the opinion polls about atheists getting elected, I can see why that is disturbing, but is there any specific atheist political agenda?
    To put it another way, is there any government program or legislation that atheists would specifically advocate for as atheists, that is not in the interests of the country as a whole? Good science education, promoting critical thinking, and separation of church and state seem to be core issues that unite atheists. In what way do these not are issues that benefit everyone and which are in keeping with the traditions on which this country was founded?
    I guess what I’m trying to say is rather than have the new political energy among atheists go into an us vs.them, identity politics mode, I’d rather see it channelled into an effort to turn our country around before we go over the cliff.

  • Vicki Baker

    Regarding the issue of discrimmination against atheists, isn’t the underlying principle one of freedom of conscience? That’s the idea that decisions about religious faith should be made out of personal conviction, without fear of punishment.
    On the 4th of July let’s remember that the principle of freedom of conscience was shared equally by Founding Fathers that fit more easily into the modern secularist way of thinking, and those who were deeply religious but who belonged to non-established churches, such as Quakers and Baptists.
    The question then becomes, not why atheists are suddenly demanding “special rights”, but why the religious right has strayed so far from the principles on which our country was founded.

  • http://www.davidkoepsell.com David Koepsell

    Thanks, Ebonmuse. Yes, we do not all agree here (it is Free Inquiry, afterall). I look forward to an update about the exchange.

    best,
    David

  • http://www.davidkoepsell.com David Koepsell

    Thanks, Ebonmuse. Yes, we do not all agree here (it is Free Inquiry, afterall). I look forward to an update about the exchange.

    best,
    David

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I could understand Nisbet and Mooney’s thesis when they were talking about the evolution debate. In the short term, emphasising that it’s possible to be theistic and still believe in evolution is vital to public acceptance of the theory, and Dawkins’ comments definitely help to cement the conflation of evolution and atheism among some, and would do so even if he didn’t state overtly that evolution does indeed lead to atheism. But the idea that atheists aren’t helping their own cause by speaking up strikes me as ridiculous. Even when we disagree with each other, just the fact that an atheist is getting a voice can mean something. Nisbet is overtly buying into anti-atheist rhetoric with his comments in that post. I can’t believe he thinks he’s on our side.

  • http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Mokurai Edward Mokurai Cherlin

    Simplicio: Of course science education, critical thinking, and separation of church and state are un-American, and will lead us straight to Hell. Science education includes Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and teaching children to have sex, and murdering babies for research. “Critical thinking” is just weasel-wording for anti-religious propaganda. Separation of Church and State is a violation of the God-given right (and duty) of those who believe every word of the Bible to be literally true to seek Dominion. (References available)

    Sagredo: Evolution is a fact, not a theory. Billions of facts, actually. Darwin’s theory is about how evolution occurs. Nobody believes every word of the Bible, even if they think they do. The Bible says the sky is a solid “firmament” with doors, and that Cain’s descendants were living thousands of years after the Flood wiped out everybody but Noah’s family. Findamentalists have a number of tortured explanations of these absurdities, but these explanations themselves make it clear that belief cannot be “literal”. The other topics are left as exercises for the reader.

    Mokurai: I am a Buddhist. We are sometimes accused of being an atheistic religion, which is incorrect. We allow our members to believe in any gods they like, or none. It simply isn’t relevant to the problem of Suffering. Although the God who supposedly commanded the genocide of the Canaanites, men, women, and children, in Exodus is more a part of the problem than the solution.

    The problem is the same as at the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement, when whites and blacks told Vernon Johns (Martin Luther King’s predecessor) not to rock the boat, and similarly with MLK, SNCC, the Panthers, the Black Muslims, and everybody else. And some got killed for it.

    Those who put safety above truth and justice are summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, as that “Commie” “atheist” Thomas Paine put it long before. “He that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of men and women.”

    You have my love and my thanks.

  • http://bpabbott.blogspot.com Ben Abbott

    Respecting atheism and civil rights, I came across this on video on YouTube.

    As an atheist, I don’t find my life significantly impacted by the religious beliefs of others. However, it is clear that some are.

    Religion is a polarizing subject, and when polarized people discriminate against those they believe to be their polar opposites.

    At least that’s my opinion … and I’m sticking to it ;-)

  • http://bpabbott.blogspot.com Ben Abbott

    Respecting atheism and civil rights, I came across this on video on YouTube.

    As an atheist, I don’t find my life significantly impacted by the religious beliefs of others. However, it is clear that some are.

    Religion is a polarizing subject, and when polarized people discriminate against those they believe to be their polar opposites.

    At least that’s my opinion … and I’m sticking to it ;-)

  • http://www.djgrothe.com D.J Grothe

    Ebon: The rhetoric about this issue on your blog, and especially on some others, seems over-the-top to me, which is unfortunate because the issue, while complex, is one that the “atheist movement” should really explore more, in a spirit of open-mindedness and in an attempt to increase its impact in society. Nonetheless, I’m gratified that the little articles we wrote three or four years ago are causing the some atheists to talk more about the effectiveness of their strategies. I wrote the original essays about atheism and civil rights, which appear to be unread by many of the most heated interlocutors, with Austin Dacey back in 2004. I still hold the views and make the proposals I made then:

    1. That to equate the plight of atheism with the plight of racial or sexual minorities is not only a strained analogy, but is unstrategic. It appears that most everyone now agrees with this, despite the fact that certain atheist leaders have repeatedly equated the atheist cause with blacks, gays or women. (I have quoted such leaders of the atheist movement many times during this kerfuffle online. Again, it is good that most everyone now disagrees with such strong comparisons).

    2. That certain atheists calling on members of the atheist movement to be “single issue voters” and elect atheists for no other reason than their atheism is absurd (one atheist lobby in D.C., and a number of influential atheists call for such electoral political mobilization).

    3. The fact that it is difficult for atheists to be elected, while horrible, is not in itself a civil rights issue nor a civil rights violation. As we said in 2004: “Every natural born citizen over thirty- five has a right to run for president, but no one has a right to the presidency.” It would be nearly impossible for a Buddhist, a Satanist or a deep ecologist to be elected to higher office, but no one honestly argues that their civil rights are therefore being systematically violated. No one has a civil right to have their unpopular beliefs and worldviews be more accepted either in electoral politics or in public opinion.

    4. Many of the problems atheists face (and as something of a professional atheist, problems that I have worked for years to change) are not civil rights violations. As we said in one of the original articles: “Consider the Pledge of Allegiance. The legal issue is whether the “under God” clause lacks a secular purpose, not whether plaintiff Michael Newdow has a civil right to send his daughter to a school in which she never hears his worldview contradicted. Or consider the public funding of private religious schools. Nonbelievers may object to their money being used in this way. But that’s not discrimination; its taxation. Nonbelievers oppose the encroachment of church on state because they (like many liberal religionists) want a secular government. That explains why secularism is an atheist issue; it does not show that atheism is a civil rights issue.”

    5. Regarding so-called “atheist bashing.” To quote from the original articles (which, again, appear to not have been read by many posters): “When we said we know of no compelling example of “atheist-bashing,” we did not mean to deny the existence of such incidents. Indeed, in our work with the Center for Inquiry [and the Council for Secular Humanism] over the years, both of us have heard countless firsthand accounts from rationalists in communities across the nation. What we deny is that these incidents rise to a level of severity, frequency, and scope that is comparable to gay-bashing, to say nothing of racially motivated attacks. Gay rights groups documented over 2,445 incidents resulting in bodily injury or death in 1997 alone. Victims were severely beaten, pushed down flights of stairs, or shot. A gay nightclub in Atlanta was bombed, wounding several with shrapnel. By contrast, the only physical incidents highlighted by Margaret Downey involved children bullying children. Further, because homophobic, racist, and misogynist violence are relatively frequent and widespread, they create climates of fear and intimidation that the rationalist community simply has never experienced. If you doubt this, just show up at any meeting of atheists, thousands of which are held peacefully in public libraries, on college campuses, and in restaurants each year from Boston to Baton Rogue.”

    6. That a better approach is needed — rather than to frame the situation of atheists in America as one of “a struggle to attain our civil rights,” atheists should work to change public opinion and increase their mind-share (as Dawkins attempts to do with his work to “raise consciousness” on our issues of concern.)

    From the original article:

    “Beginning in the 1950s and increasing in the 1960s and 1970s, cultural conservatives founded think tanks and educational organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Concerned Women for America, and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, among many others. At that time, in the heyday of the sexual revolution and civil rights movements, their point of view had virtually no visibility or respectability in public discourse. To the utter astonishment of the liberal political establishment, these organizations have come to exert overwhelming influence in American public policy, media, and in education. A generation of their cultural warriors has successfully entered and transformed the establishment. Consider that alumni of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a young William F. Buckley was ISI’s first president) filled several key positions in the Reagan administration, including National Security Adviser. Its fiftieth anniversary gala featured addresses by George Bush, Antonin Scalia, Rick Santorum, and Mitch McConnell, who credited ISI in part for the Reagan revolution.

    The strategists behind these organizations did not set out to win the civil rights of cultural conservatives. They already had them, just as atheists do. Rather, the goal was to popularize the culturally conservative point of view and to bring it to bear on public policy. In a similar way, the Center for Inquiry has succeeded by positioning itself to be the authoritative voice and advocate for the secular, scientific outlook in our society. As a think tank rather than as a civil-rights pressure group, CFI is sought by national news media and opinion makers for expert commentary. As a publisher of popular magazines and a sponsor of educational and campus programs, the Center for Inquiry reaches hundreds of thousands of people each year. By focusing on educating the public about scientific naturalism, rather than on emancipating atheists, CFI hopes to improve the social standing and influence of all those who dissent from the orthodoxies of the day.”

    7. As I have said in print and publicly many times, the fact that atheists do have their civil rights in America doesnt mean that we shouldnt continue defending our civil rights, just as all Americans should: the challenges we face because of this Supreme Court are major. Again, just because we atheists currently do have our civil rights, it doesnt follow that with this Supreme Court that we will always have them. We do need to defend the civil rights we currently have. Should we atheist activists primarily rally our atheist base around the notion that they need to wage an all-out civil rights struggle, or instead around notions regarding how to best increase mind-share. The gay rights movement is a good example in this regard: They have spent much time and capital working to change public perceptions, even while they work to attain the civil rights that atheists already have in America.

    I believe the question of atheism and civil rights is an important discussion worth atheists’ attention. I hope that such discussion can take place without the vituperation and personal attacks so prevalent among our cultural competitors. The blogosphere tends to heighten rhetoric, which can obfiscate important discussion.

    Atheists do have a tough time in America and we have much to learn from the struggles of women, blacks, and GLBTs. But rather than all the arguing that atheists are as oppressed as racial and sexual minorities (as certain atheist leaders have said, and to which we originally responded with these articles years ago), I think a much more strategic, honest and ethical route is what we proposed in the original op-ed, and along the lines of what Dawkins and others say now—working to “raise consciousness,” to raise awareness and increase mind-share. What Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens are doing is raising consciousness, not liberating an oppressed people.

    As I have said for years, this should be our focus rather than strained comparisons with the oppressed.

    The original articles:

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/grothe-dacey_24_2.htm

    http://www.djgrothe.com/Response_to_Tabash_and_Downey.pdf

  • Jim Baerg

    A comment to this post seems as good a place as any to point out this interesting commentary on how atheists are portrayed in various media.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodAtheist

  • Jim Baerg

    A comment to this post seems as good a place as any to point out this interesting commentary on how atheists are portrayed in various media.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodAtheist


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X