Should Atheists Be Exempted from Airport Security Checks?

Zoltan Iztvan is running for U.S. president as the candidate for the Transhumanist party, working to “put science, health, and technology at the forefront of American politics.” One of his proposals is to exempt atheists from security screening at airports. He explains as follows:

As an aspiring politician, I strive to improve society by applying statistical analysis to decision making. I look at numbers and facts, and try to logically create policy that achieves the greater good for society, especially in a scientific transhuman way… Millions of productive hours (the equivalent of at least hundreds of millions of dollars) are being spent needlessly by atheists in security check lines every year — all because a number of religious people may use planes as terror weapons.

I envision a fast track line for atheists at all commercial airports, with only visual screening from a distance by TSA personnel. To use such a line, a traveler would simply have to publicly check that they’re an atheist when getting ticketed, and then off they’d go through security with no wait.

Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist offered this response:

Terrorists will just lie and say they’re atheists.

But honestly, that’s not even my biggest concern here. My biggest concern is the false assumption that all (or even most) terrorist attacks are religiously motivated.

It’s simply not true.

Less Than 2 Percent Of Terrorist Attacks In The E.U. Are Religiously Motivated

The murdering spree by two gunmen on the offices of a French satirical magazine have incited horror across the world. That’s completely justified. But what’s been lost in the mass outpourings of solidarity and condemnations of barbarity is the fact that so few of the terrorist attacks carried out in European Union countries are related to Islamist militancy. In fact, in the last five year, less than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks in the E.U. have been “religiously motivated.”

In 2013, there were 152 terrorist attacks in the EU. Two of them were “religiously motivated.” In 2012, there were 219 terrorist attacks in EU countries, six of them were “religiously motivated.”

In 2011, not one of the 174 terrorist attacks in EU countries in 2011 were “affiliated or inspired” by terrorist organizations. 2010, 249 terrorist attacks, three of them were considered by Europol to be “Islamist.” In 2009, of 294 terrorist attacks, only one was related to Islamist militancy – though Europol added the caveat, “Islamist terrorists still aim to cause mass casualties.”

Here’s what these numbers look like:

The vast majority of terrorist attacks in E.U. countries have for years been perpetrated by separatist organizations.

Of 152 terrorist attacks in 2013, 84 of were motivated by ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs. That’s more than 55 percent. That’s down from 76 percent the year before. While the report notes this decline, it also states that a number of separatist groups are showing “greater sophistication, incremental learning and lethal intent.”

Religious motivations makes up just a slightly larger portion of terrorist attacks in the U.S.

The vast, vast majority of terrorist attacks are politically motivated, not religiously motivated—and yes, nonreligious people participate in politically motivated terrorism. Click here to read an FBI list of terrorist attacks. You may be surprised at the diversity of nonreligious motivations. For all of Zoltan’s claims that he’s making his suggestions based on “statistical analysis,” he’s not doing anything of the sort.

Of course, he’s making a claim that I’ve often seen made in atheist circles—that atheists are more moral, etc., than are those who are religious.

Yes, it is true that only a very small percentage of those in prison in the U.S. identify as atheists. However, it is also the case that atheists in the U.S. tend to have higher education levels, and better educated people are less likely to go to prison (for a variety of reasons). Similarly, African Americans, who are significantly less likely than other groups to identify as atheist, are significantly overrepresented in the prison population, largely as a result of racism in our criminal justice system.

The low rate of self-identifying atheists in prison in the U.S. is not evidence that atheists are more moral than other populations. It’s more complicated than that.

I grew up in an evangelical home. I was taught that evangelicals were more moral, more kind, less violent, etc., than those in other groups. I see a similar tendency in the atheist movement today (or, to be specific, in the atheist movement that organizes online and through conferences and atheist organizations). This is concerning.

Atheism does not make one more moral than others. Atheism is not an ethical system. Indeed, atheists adhere to a wide variety of ethical systems that are sometimes at odds with each other. Stalin was an atheist, and yet he did things that I, as an atheist myself, find reprehensible. This is because he adhered to a different ethical system than I do, even though we share our lack of belief in a God or gods.

Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for being better than everyone else and start spurring each other to be the best we can be. Oh, and Zoltan? Please educate yourself about terrorism, because you’re getting it wrong.

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