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:

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LATimes sees the layers of threats against Copts in Egypt

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The dominant story coming out of Egypt right now continues, and with good cause, to be the growing conflict between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called “secular” coalition that is backing the nation’s military elites, a coalition that includes many mainstream Muslims, liberal secularists, Coptic Christians and members of other religious minorities.

For the most part, this hellish conflict — which could grow into full civil war — is being portrayed as a fight between Islamism and secularism. However, the ongoing persecution of the ancient Coptic Christian minority, a persecution that has taken place to varying degrees over the decades and centuries, shows that the reality is more complex and confusing than a mere two-sided standoff.

I have been quite critical, at times, of The Los Angeles Times coverage in Egypt. However, it’s team on the ground in Egypt has now produced a story on the recent Coptic church burnings that does a pretty good job of showing just how confusing the current realities on the ground are for religious minority groups — the degree to which they are caught in a lesser-of-two-evils endgame. Here is a crucial slice of the report:

“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burn down the country,” said Nagy Shokrallah, a fidgety man thumbing through photos of church damage on his BlackBerry. “When we take our children to visit the monasteries in the south, we tell them they were burned twice in history: the first time under Roman occupation and the second time by the Muslim Brotherhood” as Morsi and its other leaders were pushed from power.

Two Christians have reportedly been killed in recent days. Churches, schools, convents and at least one Christian orphanage have been attacked, torched or robbed, many of them in the southern deserts. Vestments have been scorched, statues shattered. Police have often provided little protection; parishioners said security forces didn’t arrive at St. George’s until three hours after the gunmen had fled.

“The military and police secured nothing at all,” said Tony Sabry, a member of a Coptic youth union, who criticized Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, for instigating a purge against the Brotherhood that left Copts exposed. “Sisi has said he will restore the churches … but he should have protected them before their sanctity was violated.”

It’s crucial to note that the Copts do not believe they can trust the police and military to protect them. Why? Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of Egyptians want some kind of Islamic state and the role of the nation’s religious minorities in that future state is problematic, to say the least. At the same time, there are many Egyptian Muslims who see the ancient Copts — to one degree or another — as part of the nation’s past and its future.

Thus, some Muslims have helped protect the churches and monasteries, while others have attacked them. That’s the reality: This conflict INSIDE ISLAM can be seen throughout Egyptian life. If the military elites win, that reality will remain — only at less urgent threat level.

More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, what happens to the Copts? What role will American and other nations in the West play in helping protect Jews, minority Muslims, Copts and others in this very threatening drama?

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