(Note: Guest post by Megan Kennedy. Megan is a writer, historian, and religious studies scholar. She runs the Religious Education Series, sponsored by The Satanic Temple. She can be found on Twitter at @sixmoments)
Discriminatory language is among the first of many steps that can be taken to consolidate power over a minority group. Even people who don’t empathize with the damage caused by a racial slur understand its power.
A disturbing pattern exists that suggests we haven’t come to terms with the verbal damage done to certain groups—in some cases, it is even championed.
A recent national conversation about the possibility of media mogul Oprah Winfrey running for president churned up many opposing views. Among the dialogue, a 2013 interview between Winfrey and atheist swimmer Diane Nyad resurfaced in which Winfrey seems surprised that Nyad’s atheism doesn’t prevent her from accessing the beauty of human experience. She goes on to challenge Nyad’s self-identified atheism, claiming that Nyad doesn’t understand her own beliefs, and that if Nyad can feel awe, she must not be an atheist.
It was troubling, but not surprising, to hear Winfrey’s feelings about atheism in her referencing of that old hat argument suggesting atheists are incapable of awe and wonder. It brings out an old tiredness that sits deep inside an atheist’s bones.
This isn’t really about Winfrey as an individual. To call out any single figure for this perspective is to only scratch the surface, and perhaps disingenuously. The deeper, harder truth to face is that bias against atheism is ingrained in our society.
Most believers have never been deliberately violent to an atheist based on their beliefs, but many have still participated in discrimination against them. One of those forms occurs at the voting booth— both for policy and politician choices alike—when believers opt to erode the separations of church and state, or protections for particular groups, in favor of their own personal belief structure influencing the law of the land.
Another form of discrimination is through language. Too many believers are comfortable repeating “soft” bigoted language against atheists. Like other forms of language-based microaggressions, these phrases are repeated by believers with seemingly no critical or contextual assessment, and often couched in a tone of paternalistic concern:
“I just don’t understand how a person could see the beauty in the world and not believe in god.”
“What happened to you to make you this way? Did you have a bad experience with religion?”
“Morality comes from religion.”
“You never really know what an atheist is capable of.”
“Atheists can’t really understand joy or awe.”
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
“You’ll change your mind once [specific life event] happens to you.”
“If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from doing bad things?”
Despite the numerous methods of approach, and despite the intent of the speaker, this type of language serves to remind atheists that not only is their lifestyle looked down upon, but their very existence as nonbelievers is going to be challenged every day by people with power (in this case, believers in god). Use of a paternalistic tone means any pushback an atheist might rightly make against such language can be met with bitterness and frustration—after all, the believer is “only trying to help”.
Further damaging is the implication that atheists cannot access things like concepts of morality and ethics, or feelings of awe and wonder. These are base experiences of the human condition. They are not exclusive to believers in any god or philosophy, or to any singular culture, race, or gender. To suggest otherwise is to plant the seed that atheists are exempt from the human condition, and are therefore not human. It doesn’t take a degreed historian to understand the endless horror that humans have brought once they decide to revoke another group’s humanity.
This treatment of atheists by believers is symptomatic of an overall lack of empathy, including a base assumption that life experience differing from one’s own renders either perspective less authentically human.
The use of discriminatory language against atheists is a symptom of larger social ills. People will readily admit that they don’t believe atheists are capable of ethical or moral decisions; that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate for president (and in fact, seven American state constitutions still have religious tests that can be used to prevent an atheist holding office at all). They incorrectly assume atheists are more likely to be serial killers, and distrust us more than rapists. Some feel comfortable telling us to our faces that they don’t believe we have souls, or that it is impossible for a “good atheist” to exist. Our own former president is fine telling us we can be “neither citizens, nor patriots”. Depending on the country we exist in, being openly atheist can still get us killed. And no matter how hard it is to accept, these dangerous and discriminatory positions are aided by the “pass” we give to believers who want to openly denigrate atheists through language.
Atheists must exist everyday inside societies that continually devalue their perspectives, limit their rights, and threaten violence against us. Believers in god hold most of the power in the world, thanks to a status quo that maintains its hold in the same way that white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and other discriminatory ideologies do. There are many ways to defend that status quo: language, laws, social norms, economic conditions, ostracization, and outright violence, to name a few. Most people never commit physical violence against an atheist for their beliefs. But a shocking number of god-believers feel perfectly comfortable suggesting that atheists might not be, deep down, entirely human.
There is no limit to the harm that can be justified once a group or individual’s humanity has been revoked. We see this reality play out not just historically, but in present day struggles against minority groups. It unfolds before us in real time; there is no excuse for ignorance that isn’t disingenuous at best, and actively malicious at worst.
Atheists have always existed. There is nothing novel about our appearance in society, the questions we ask, or the conclusions we draw. We live across all cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and political views. Atheists are as representative of the spectrum of human experience as any believer in god.
It is long past time that believers come to terms with our existence and face their own discomfort about non-believers. It is past time that believers analyze their own behavior when interacting with or discussing atheism and make sure they are not contributing to an environment that would support discrimination or violence against us.
Questions about god and existence are not easy for anyone to cope with. Discomfort with other people’s belief structures is a price we pay for living in a pluralistic society—and violence in reaction to that discomfort is a betrayal of those pluralistic goals.
Confronting the reality of atheism is an uncomfortable prospect to many believers. Yet, the dismantling of that discomfort belongs to believers alone. It is not the job of the atheist community—already overburdened and discriminated against—to comfort our oppressors or excuse their violence against us.
If believers really want to “help” atheists, they can stop trying to police us, and start contributing to a pluralistic society where we all have room to breathe, access to rights, and a life free of harassment.
Anything else is merely service to the status quo disguised as revolution.