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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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