Are Atheists An Oppressed Minority?

Are Atheists An Oppressed Minority? July 28, 2009

Having gone to high school as a devout Evangelical Christian in a public high school on Long Island, this video is somewhat surreal to me.  A world where everybody prays and atheists are shunned and harrassed?  I would never have believed it in high school.  But the truth is that both committed religious people and convinced atheists share something in common—the majority in the middle has little use or sympathy for (and not to mention a lot of suspicion of) such adamant thinking and has a tendency to alienate those of us on both extremes of the spectrum as much as we alienate each other.

So—I am eager to see more people accept their atheism as a good thing.  I want vigorously to challenge the stranglehold that deference to the supposedly unquestionable goodness of “faith” has on public discourse.  I am appalled by so many theocrats in our country trying to institutionalize Christianity wherever they can worm it in.  I am extremely worried about the growth of theocratic influence in Europe with the growth of non-secular Islam within its borders.   I completely support and hope for increased public (and private) secularization.  I am bitter about some of the deleterious effects on my life that came from irrational and manipulative religious influence during my first 21 years of life.  I am upset about the closing of kids’ minds through religious training.  And sometimes it gets lonely not knowing too many outright atheists.

But despite all of this, I simply cannot bemoan my “minority” status as a terrible burden.

In the final analysis, I’m passionate about advancing secularism in public (through public policy) and secularism in private (through private persuasion) but I don’t think that these goals require overblowing the real but relatively minor affronts to atheist freedoms in the country.

We may be marginalized and they may try to vilify us when we dissent to the general consensus that faith must be ever genuflected to as an inherently good thing (even as dogmatic religion is widely denounced)—but these are not the sorts of slights to try and claim oppressed minority status for. Not in a place as free as North America anyway, or at least in not in my own experience. But I live in the Northeast, so maybe I underestimate what harsher pressures may exist elsewhere.

Aside from the occasional jackass remark like George Bush claiming atheists can’t be real American citizens, I don’t feel terribly persecuted. I study and teach at a remarkable Jesuit university which not once in 9 years has made a single gesture, either through its administration or its faculty or student body to make me feel unwelcome to speak my mind freely.  Really, nowhere in my life have I been treated unnecessarily rudely for holding unpopular atheistic opinions.

I was teased pretty unsympathetically as an Evangelical in a secular high school on Long Island, but since then I have enjoyed the benefits of living in a free, Western secularized country and would feel like a thin-skinned ingrate to complain of mistreatment based on my particular experience.  That’s of course not to judge other people’s interpretations of their experiences, about which I know next to nothing.  I feel quite bad for the girl in this video because her sense of ostracization and rejection is palpably painful.  And maybe the midwest is as hard on atheists as Long Island was on an Evangelical.

What I think, in the final analysis, is that as Americans we are eclectic enough in ethnicity and philosophy that probably every one of us is only a 10-25% minority of the population in some way.  Maybe you’re a vegetarian or chronically ill or Jewish or black or gay or Mormon or old or autistic or atheistic or celibate or Islamic or a feminist activist or a socially maladroit genius or a pro-life activist or physically challenged or painfully shy or foreign born or a victim of sexual abuse or a convict or a devoted fundamentalist Evangelical Christian or a Vanilla Ice fan or maybe you’re the son of a Kenyon goat herder-cum-economist and a woman from Kansas and you are the first African American president in the history of the United States of America.

No matter who you are, my guess it that it’s more likely than not that there’s something about your life history, your identity, your life choices, your ethnicity,  or your beliefs that makes you feel acutely conscious that you’re not that Average American we hear so much about in the media and from politicians.  And that there are social assumptions and expectations that chafe at you and make you feel alienated, torn between who you are and what the society you belong to is.  This is the rub of multiculturalism.  It would theoretically be a whole lot easier, but far less rich, if we were all religiously, racially, morally and philosophically homogeneous.  Being fundamentally different in identity or life experience in any way can tear at your sense of belonging and make the 90% you share with your neighbor seem not as important as the 10% that separates you from her.

But as for me, despite being committed to the cause of secularism and of raising consciousness among atheists—when it comes to the larger society, I try to focus on the 90% I have in common and to remember how alienating it is to feel like  a 10% when it comes to relating to other people’s 10% experience rather than worry about complaining about my own.

Okay, having had my Kumbaya moment, here’s my favorite anti-religious screed propaganda from my favorite youtube vlogger 🙂

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