A plea for gay, er, atheist rights

Those poor atheists. They have to keep their heads down in repressive American society. They have to watch their words, hide their feelings, guard their secret. Very much like gays, that other major repressed American group.

This is the setup in a feature story in The Telegraph about the state of unbelief in the U.S. The story even starts with a heavy-handed scene-setter of a furtive club meeting:

Going around the circle, each member shares their story and says whether or not they are “out” of the closet.

But while they use the lexicon of the gay and lesbian movement they are not speaking of their sexuality: they are not gay or lesbian, but atheist and agnostic.

It should be noted that the article is based on interviews with secularist students at Virginia Tech, in a conservative area of the state — a “fiercely Bible-minded corner,” in the reporter’s colorful phrase — that’s also home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. So the writer, Peter Foster, has easy access to those at both poles. And like most who approach the topic, he doesn’t bother with shades of gray.

We get anecdotes of youths who feel they can’t reveal their beliefs for fear of ostracism, by friends, families and possible employers. The reporter even uses the device of “Caroline — not her real name…”

“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.

“If the person hiring is a person of faith — which is more likely than not around here — that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”

She is not alone in her fears. Another student who is applying for graduate school told how his father recommended he delete any references to atheism from his Facebook page in case it spoiled his chances. He rejected the advice on principle, but remains unsure what the consequences will be.

You can probably already see the weak spot in this story: actual instances of discrimination. Yes, the unbelievers fear rejection by parents and employers. Yes, they worry they might be kicked out of clubs and other organizations. How often does it happen? About all we get is a graduate student who says, “I’ve lost a lot of friends.”

Without concrete examples, this is all worse than anecdotal: It’s pure speculation. But Foster does attempt some contexting, though clumsily.

“As a sign of how strong religion remains, polls show that a third of Americans still believe in the most literal form of ‘young earth’ Creationism,” he says, blithely forgetting the millions of Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants who accept evolution.

He also quotes Dan Linford, the president of the Virginia Tech freethinkers. Linford says many youths shun “institutional” religion because they identify it with the religious right. Kinda like Foster himself.

He finally gets around to some opposition time via Johnnie Moore, an officer at Liberty University, who says says Liberty has a record 13,000 students. Moore argues that atheists aren’t more numerous, just louder.

“From our perspective, we don’t feel like we’re a dying breed, we feel like we’re on a crest of a wave,” Moore tells Foster.

The reporter tries to blunt this by tapping that Pew Forum study that showed a third of young Americans claim no religious affiliation. Then he tries another spurious connection with gay advocacy:

While America still remains outwardly far more religious than Europe, the sudden rise of the “nones,” as they were dubbed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has raised the question of whether the US is on the cusp of a dramatic sea-change in attitude towards religion in public life.

The recent shift in the gay marriage debate is evidence, say secularists, of how fast entrenched public attitudes can change: a decade ago just 30 per cent of Americans supported gay marriage, today the figure is consistently over 55 per cent. A decade from now, will attitudes to religion have followed suit?

We will now pause for a mass eye roll.

The story gets even shakier in conceding that the Pew study also found most “nones” are not atheist:

While two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated say they are “religious or spiritual in some way,” some 88 per cent of that group say they are not looking for an organised religion.

The lack of clarity about what the “nones” really believe allows both groups — religious and the secularists — to claim them for their own, when in reality many simply sit in between. Undefined, and happily so.

Give a point to Foster’s honesty for adding this fact. But up till now, he has apparently been trying to equate belief with organized religion in order to show that atheism, or at least secularism, is growing. With this fact, his story has fought itself to a standstill.

His sources add an argument from silence, saying that “the social shackles that prevent them going public with their atheism could mean that atheism and agnosticism is actually far more prevalent than the polls suggest.”

Sure. It could also mean that Christians in more liberal regions, like New England or the Pacific Northwest, are more numerous because they’re silenced by their social shackles. But that possibility was clearly outside the interest of this article.

Where is all this going? Even Dan Linford, the freethinker leader at Virginia Tech couldn’t say definitely, except that atheists and agnostics will “increasingly enter politics” and maybe even lead to election of an atheist president.

There’s one prediction Linford wouldn’t make: “whether attitudes to secularism will follow the same trajectory as those towards gay marriage.” You know, the original idea of this story.

Print Friendly

About Jim Davis
  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

    The worst part of stories like this is that they tend to turn a blind eye to the most visible and public atheist leaders, who tend to be – shall we say – not exactly ‘respectful’ towards people who disagree with their religious beliefs. You’d think that would play a role in the story.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      Does “respect” mean no vehemently disagreeing?

      Last night, at work (a medical clinic) a new employee shocked everyone as she told us about how her family was into researching the paranormal and how her father regularly hunts for big foot and can even do great imitations of big foot screams. We all laughed. Maybe that wasn’t respectful. We should just have smiled and talked behind her back.

      Respectful Christians, smile and are polite to Atheists and then tell their children we are going to hell, or “don’t hang out with them”. Those private hateful conversations resurface of playgrounds.

      • Eric

        “Respectful Christians, smile and are polite to Atheists and then tell
        their children we are going to hell, or “don’t hang out with them”

        You hit the nail on the head. I’ve spent hours explaining to my two girls (6 and 10) to avoid the heathen atheists or they’ll drag you to hell with them. Give me a break. Do you actually believe this? While I can appreciate you laughing at the new girl at work, the fact that you are using that as an example shows your contempt and dismissal for anyone adhering to any sort of faith.

        I’d say this puts you at an immediate disadvantage when discussing “respect”. It seems you don’t even have to go into the reasons why you “vehemently disagree”. You can just laugh, point, belittle, and walk away feeling justified. Even worse, you can walk away feeling you weren’t being disrespectful. Which, in my opinion, is much worse than the “Respectful Christians” you describe.

        • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

          @ Eric,

          You are not doubting that this happens, are you?

          I think this is mainly a Catholic blog, and my experience has not been that way with Catholics at all. My negative family experiences has been only with Protestants. Oh yes, my wife was raised Catholic, and me Lutheran.

          Remember, your anecdotal story does not negate my experience.

          As for the last half of your comment — I could not follow you.

          • Eric

            So, was I supposed to gather from your initial comment that “Respectful Christians” excluded Catholics? If you’re experience with Catholics has been a positive one, perhaps you should include it in your definition of a respectful Christian.

            Instead, you wrote…..

            “Respectful Christians, smile and are polite to Atheists and then tell
            their children we are going to hell, or “don’t hang out with them”.
            Those private hateful conversations resurface of playgrounds.”

            So, are Catholics respectful, but not Christians? Are they Christians but not respectful? Are they respectful Christians? If you chose option number 3 then your experience with them should be how you define respectful Christians. Problem is, if you do that, then you lose the emotional appeal of your initial generalization.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            unproductive conversation — no time for this. Bye

      • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

        Here’s Richard Dawkins on one way he endorses interacting with religious believers:

        I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

        Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

        You know what? If you follow Dawkins’ advice – or the general advice of the New Atheists – don’t be surprised if people, frankly, don’t like you very much. And don’t be surprised if you -don’t- follow that advice, because again, the most prominent New Atheists behave in a fashion similar to this.

        Take a good look at how you interacted with the new employee in your own words. She told you something she believed in, and ‘we all laughed’. And then you say that, if you didn’t laugh, maybe talking about her being her back should have sufficed. The very idea that maybe you shouldn’t have laughed at her, but calmly explained why you disagreed and thought she was wrong, seems alien to you.

        But gosh – why in the world do so many people have a negative view of atheists?

        • The Deuce

          No, no, the only possible explanation for why atheists aren’t liked is bigotry, no matter how unlikeable they are. They all say so.

          • wlinden

            “And everybody says they’re such a disagreeable gang,
            “And they can’t think why! (They can’t think why!)”

          • linford86

            Who said it was the only possible explanation? There is bigotry. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t also ass hole atheists.

            There is sexism in the US. But I don’t think anyone would deny that there are also some women who are not nice people.

            It seems to be a general feature of human beings that anyone can be an ass hole. But it takes an especially large amount of bigotry to generalize from a few examples and declare that every member of a group is an ass hole in virtue of their membership in that group.

        • RayIngles

          And, of course, non-aggressive representatives of minorities are always accorded as much media attention as the more vociferous ones.

          But the only atheists are aggressive ones. So when non-famous atheists are judged by those examples, you know it’s just.

          • The Deuce

            Yes, everyone but atheists is to blame for the negative public perception of atheists. No matter how atrocious and obnoxious their behavior compared to other groups, it’s everyone else’s fault for finding them highly unpleasant compared to other groups.

            When a universally-loved state memorial is torn down because a handful of human toothaches react like vampires to a cross, or when a horde of spittle-flecked barbarians descends on Podunkville, Nowhere just to force them to remove an obscure non-sectarian half-century-old prayer mural from a gym wall without even a court case because the town can’t afford it, the first thought of the people being attacked and all onlookers should be, “Gosh, I bet most atheists are much nicer people!” rather than “Geez, these guys are authoritarian assholes and I wish they’d go away.” And if it isn’t, that just proves how unfair life is to the poor, put-upon atheists.

            Seriously, at least the sodomites were able to put up a *pretense* of being cute, cuddly, and agreeable good citizens for a while to get what they wanted.

          • Donalbain

            Ahem. If a memorial was universally loved, who was it who wanted it taken down?

            Universal does not mean what you seem to think it means.

          • The Deuce

            I think I made it clear enough. It was loved by nearly everyone but a handful of authoritarian atheist human toothaches your yourself, explaining why everyone else justifiably hates you.

          • Donalbain

            It was loved by nearly everyone

            Two points:

            1) Thank you for showing that you do not know what “universally” means

            2) Unsupported claim

          • RayIngles

            The Deuce, I didn’t say that “everyone but atheists is to blame for the negative public perception of atheists”. I don’t think that commonly-quoted verses like Psalm 14:1-7 help (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”) but some atheists can be obnoxious. And the more notable ones are going to get coverage. Have you noticed that Westboro “Baptist” gets coverage well beyond what their numbers would justify?

            BTW, calling people “human toothaches” is somewhat less than civil anyway. But let’s at least be fair and point out that (some) atheists react to things like crosses and prayers on public land. The distinction is important. Let’s quote Terry Mattingly, an editor for this very blog: I have no idea why so many religious people want to put plastic versions of the symbols of their faith on the lawns of the secular sanctuaries where you have to go to fight about traffic tickets, to have a secular marriage rite, etc., etc. If creches are all that important, why not have every single church in town put one up, along with waves of public symbolism on patches of private property, and save all of the lawyer fees for charitable use?

            Puts a slightly different light on it, doesn’t it? Tmatt complains there that editors don’t do a good job of pointing out those legal issues in the coverage, so I suppose your attitude is understandable, if misguided.

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

            But the only atheists are aggressive ones. So when non-famous atheists are judged by those examples, you know it’s just.

            You know what, Ray? If the atheist community disagrees with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists in terms of tone, they sure have a funny way of showing it. I can roll out one example after another of Christians dissenting from and condemning the Westboro Baptist sorts, I can point the media at sizable examples of groups that reject the WBC while nevertheless agreeing that, say… same-sex sexual acts are wrong.

            Dawkins and the New Atheists are the equivalent of the WBC, with one key difference: the atheist organizations of note hail them as heroes, give them awards, NAME awards after them, and generally celebrate them. And given that impact – and the impact of the ever soft-spoken and gentle-hearted Madelyn Murray O’Hair – to omit those details in the talk of ‘Why do people dislike atheists?’ is just silly.

            You don’t like the reputation atheists are getting because of atheists like Dawkins? Try speaking out more. But that doesn’t seem like a very popular option. It’s as if many atheists want to be the good cop to Dawkins’ and company’s bad cop: tolerating, even encouraging, but publicly distancing themselves. Don’t be surprised if that doesn’t work.

          • RayIngles

            Yes, Dawkins has only ever said that one thing you quoted, and that’s why he gets the awards. Silly of me to have missed it. And it’s “the atheist community” – singular – so all atheists are responsible for what any atheists does or says. Got it.

            You know what? Dawkins is not “the equivalent of the WBC”. If you really want to claim that, first you have to produce a case of Dawkins disrupting a funeral specifically to offend people, rather than write a book and give interviews. Go ahead, let’s see a link or something.

            What I find fascinating is that, even though he’s supposed to be one of the “Four Horsemen”, nobody ever talks about Daniel Dennett when they want to claim that atheists are universally obnoxious.

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

            Yes, Dawkins has only ever said that one thing you quoted, and that’s why he gets the awards. Silly of me to have missed it.

            What’s silly of you is to pretend that Dawkins – or for that matter, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, Madelyn Murray O’Hair, and others – have not been openly mocking, even hateful, of Christians, religious people, and theists in general. What’s likewise silly of you is to act as if the habitual stone silence of atheist organizations with regards to this behavior – even the endorsement and tolerance of it – is A) hidden, and B) doesn’t reasonably impact people’s views of atheists.

            Even you, Ray, are hesitant to denounce Dawkins for that quote, that mindset. You just want to change the subject. Let me guess: trying to be the good cop?

            And it’s “the atheist community” – singular – so all atheists are responsible for what any atheists does or says. Got it.

            Nowhere did I say or imply as much. In fact, I stressed that it’s entirely possible atheist organizations can speak up and denounce Dawkins for those words, for the ‘faith-head’ lines, etc. The fact that they don’t is a problem, especially when it comes to the OP topic of perceptions of atheists.

            Like I said: don’t like it? Engage in some self-policing. But that’s going to mean denouncing Dawkins for language like that. Do you have it in your heart to do it, Ray?

            You know what? Dawkins is not “the equivalent of the WBC”. If you really want to claim that, first you have to produce a case of Dawkins disrupting a funeral specifically to offend people, rather than write a book and give interviews.

            I said Dawkins and the New Atheists, and yes, they are. You think the only disreputable trait of the WBC is specifically ‘interrupting a funeral’? Please. We’re talking about hatemongers who endorse trying to belittle, mock and shame people into silence expressly to advance their views – no similarity to the WBC there, eh? No slurs or namecalling for people who just plain disagree with them?

            And the New Atheists are just following in the footsteps of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who had this great quote when her son converted to Christianity: One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times… he is beyond human forgiveness.

            What I find fascinating is that, even though he’s supposed to be one of the “Four Horsemen”, nobody ever talks about Daniel Dennett when they want to claim that atheists are universally obnoxious.

            No one talks about Dennett because he hardly speaks up ever since doing poorly in a public debate against Dinesh D’Souza, the Scrappy Doo of Christian Apologists. Oh, but don’t worry – Jerry Coyne is talking about Dennett lately. Sayeth Coyne regarding Dennett saying that Dawkins sometimes doesn’t think clearly when considering philosophy:

            “When he’s not thinking carefully”? Really, Dan? Richard is a longtime friend of yours, and why would you insult him in a way that’s completely unnecessary?

            As Sam noted, the whole thing could have been hashed out in a give-and-take using repeated back and forth mini-essays—and without the rancor. And it would have been far more enlightening than this pair of dueling essays. Of course we won’t all agree on things, even the three remaining “Horsemen,” but there was no need for snideness and authority-pulling.

            I could go on about Dennett’s obnoxiousness, but the humor of Jerry Coyne, within the past couple weeks, complaining bitterly about Dennett’s snideness and authority-pulling – with an atheist, no less – is a nice bit of serendipity.

          • RayIngles

            Actually, yeah, I will deny that most of the atheists you list are “openly mocking, even hateful, of Christians, religious people, and theists in general”. Christian and theist ideas, sure. The people themselves, not so much.

            And when you yourself point out an example of an atheist calling out another on tone, it’s impressive that you then turn around and try to claim that atheists never call each other out on tone. (Of course, as you should know, I’ve called out Dawkins when I thought he was wrong before, and other atheists have done the same. More than once.)

            What’s truly puzzling is that you are complaining about tone – that’s rather like the event horizon calling the kettle black.

          • RayIngles

            Ah, one more thing –

            We’re talking about hatemongers who endorse trying to belittle, mock and shame people into silence expressly to advance their views – no similarity to the WBC there, eh?

            There are plenty of “hatemongers” on the religious side, who are willing to blame atheists for natural disasters and more. WBC is special for actually seeking out people who aren’t related to their issue of choice, in one of their most vulnerable situations, and disturbing them purely for publicity. If you honestly can’t see the difference between that and writing books and giving interviews, then I am genuinely saddened, and you have my pity.

          • The Deuce

            Ray goes from pissing and moaning about how unfair it is that everyone doesn’t notice all the nice atheists he assures us are out there instead of the jerks who take the limelight, then moves on to running interference for the jerks who take the limelight and trying to explain away their jerkiness.

            Yes, it is a flippin’ wonder that the poor, abused atheists aren’t more liked.

          • RayIngles

            Wait, I can’t claim both? That (a) the media tends to focus on the atheists that stand out the most, and (b) that they often misrepresent and exaggerate what they say when they do? Where’s the logical contradiction there?

          • linford86

            I’m the Dan Linford from the article. I’ve criticized Dawkins numerous times.

        • linford86

          As if Richard Dawkins at all represents the people in this article. As one of the people quoted, I can tell you that he does not.

    • linford86

      Except that this story wasn’t about atheist leaders.

      And atheism is not monolithic.

  • Darren Blair

    About the person who was afraid that they would not get hired –

    Under US law, “religion” is a protected class in regards to hiring and firing; if they can prove that this is the reason why they were refused a job, then the person who refused them is in trouble with the government unless they’ve got a darn good reason for doing so.

    • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

      Under US law, “religion” is a protected class in regards to hiring and firing;

      That would require believing that atheism is either a religion or a religious belief, which many atheists bend over backwards to deny.

      • Darren Blair

        Still counts under the law.

        Despite being an MBA instead of a lawyer, I had “equal rights employment law” ad nauseum during my time at college.

        • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

          I don’t doubt it. I’m just saying why many would be reluctant to push that particular line. I’m sure the legal situation is pretty well what you say it is.

  • jenny

    ..pray to God and see what you get…..

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I am an ex-Christian and now classified by theists as an “Atheist”.
    My children have been hassled in school. I was essentially fired twice because of Christian bosses against my beliefs. We have broke up with family friends when they find out we are atheists — they don’t want their kids with ours.

    This is not an Atheist-Theist issue, of course. Exclusivists abound in all circles. When they are in a majority or hold privilege, they are a problem and a challenge.

    I’d hate to be a Christian in Pakistan or …. for instance.

  • fredx2

    I read the story – for about ten paragraphs or so. Then I realized it had absolutely no relationship to reality. I was, in effect, reading a UFO or Bigfoot story. I promptly ceased reading, and made a mental note not to read stories in the Telegraph again

    • linford86

      What, exactly, was it that differed from reality?

      I’m Dan Linford, the guy quoted in the article.

  • RayIngles

    The reporter even uses the device of “Caroline — not her real name…”

    How should a reporter identify words from someone who doesn’t want their name used?

  • Randy Wanat

    Jobs aren’t at risk if you’re an atheist? http://www.sullivan-county.com/news/pat_quotes/atheist_fired.htm

    • Donalbain

      Yes, the fact that it is illegal does not mean that it never happens.

  • RayIngles

    BTW, Jim Davis, why didn’t you suggest that the reporter could have mentioned cases like this which Getreligion has noted?

  • RayIngles

    Jim Davis, why didn’t you point out things that Get Religion has covered which would make good examples, like, say, ?

  • linford86

    Jim — Thank you for noting that I would not equate LGBTQ issues to atheist issues. There are some similarities, but enough differences that I don’t think it’s a parallel situation.

  • Brandon Roberts

    this was disgusting comparing atheists to gays in being held down what about scientists and teachers being fired for believing god is possible but no not as great as the precious minority now i feel sorry for atheists actually being persecuted but atheists use your minority status or are you above that


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X