Open-Thread: Are You an Atheist Facing Discrimination and Bullying in a Secular Country?

Open-Thread: Are You an Atheist Facing Discrimination and Bullying in a Secular Country? April 28, 2015


I’m an atheist who lives in Iran, a theocracy. And when I speak of atheists as a marginalized group, I’m often told that this is true only about Iran, and how atheists are not a marginalized group inside democratic secular countries. This is one of the foundations of opposing anti-theists – that atheists are not an oppressed group of people speaking up about their oppressors, but equal partners engaged in an intellectually detached conversation about abstract issues, and those pesky angry anti-theists are ruining the fun.

But I think it’s time, wherever we stand on the accomodationalist/anti-theist debate, that the suggestion that atheists are only oppressed in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh is simply untrue. This is why I asked my friends a version of the following question on Facebook, and now I invite you, the reader of this blog, to answer it as well:

If you’re an atheist who has faced discrimination and/or bullying in a non-theocratic country for your atheism, please tell me, and if you want, leave a paragraph or a link to your writing below. I’m getting tired of atheists minimizing the experiences of other atheists, who tell me when I claim atheists are marginalized it’s only true about countries like Iran.

If you want to use a pseudonym, PM me instead in the Facebook page of this blog and tell me how you would like to be quoted.

Please note the comment policy at the end of this post before posting your comments.

Thanks in advance.

I hope that this page will turn into a large collection of personal stories which show that atheists are marginalized, and if there are atheists who don’t feel particularly marginalized, they should invalidate others’ experience.

Not all these experiences are awful. But all of them reveal problems, and prejudices, and that atheists face many problems around the globe simply for being an atheist.

These are examples of what I have so far:

Alex Gabriel talks about 99 ways he’s personally been victimised by religion. This is a vast and varied collection, and include small things to great things. I quote a selection of his own (in a Facebook discussion):

14. Being told my non-religious relatives were now in Hell.
17. Being told aged eight or nine that Satan had possessed me.
18. Thinking sincerely at that age that my father was a demon.
33. Forgiving the bullies who hit me, spat on me, destroyed the things I owned and harassed me in the street, rather than standing up to them, because loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors was the Christ-like thing to do.
34. Wanting to die anyway, making more than one attempt, after years of doing the Christ-like thing.
35. Fearing suicide would land me in Hell during my first attempt, as I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers.
50. Getting looks of disgust and hostility from strangers when I helped staff a humanist table in the street.
52. Getting threatened with a literal, fiery Hell by strangers who spoke to us.
62. Receiving death threats as a student – graphic, detailed ones – when I wrote in support of . . . [Muhammad] cartoons.
70. Being glared at by the priest as I left my friend’s freshly-filled grave for sitting silently through the hymns.
78. Hearing my brother call queer sexuality ‘an offence against nature and God’ from the next room, at Christmas.
80. Having preachers in my own town’s marketplace call me an abomination.

Mike Mei informs that this happened when he attended Skepticon many years ago.

Skepticon, the fourth annual skeptic convention took place Nov. 18-20 at the Gillioz Theatre. Many attendees of the convention stopped at Gelato Mio for ice cream. Later, the manager of the store, Andy Drennen, went to the conference to see what was going on and found himself offended by the performance of Brother Sam Singleton.

Drennen put up a sign stating “Skepticon is not welcomed to my Christian Business.” Drennen said in his apology letter that the sign was only up for 10 minutes. Chaos ensued after the photo of the sign went viral and was posted to the Internet. Many question whether the sign violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Daniel J. Rudolph:

An ex girlfriend of mine died in a car accident. Her parents organized her funeral in the conservative Christian church they attended instead of the UU church she attended and the sermon during the funeral was full of implying, though not outright saying she was in hell. (Lots of warning about hell.) Also, her mom logged into her Facebook to change her to straight after she died.”

Another ex girlfriend died and also was given a Christian funeral against her wishes, but this preacher was at least non denominational and not a jerk. I think her parents just couldn’t conceive of a funeral without a preacher.

I was forced to go to church camp for several years after I stopped believing. I felt incredibly isolated there and found it very emotionally difficult to fake it all week so I wouldn’t get corned by multiple people trying to re-convert me.

Francesca Di Poppa:

Grew up in Italy in a non churchgoing family. My mother remembers me coming home in tears because my loving classmates had to remind me that me and my family would burn in hell. Crucifixes in public schools, and religion classes with teachers paid by the state but vetted, hired, and fired at the pleasure of the Catholic Church. It is possible to get exemptions. My mother chose not to, in the (vain) attempt to avoid ostracism. Attempts at getting crucifixes removed meet with the outcry “But TRADITION!” and mostly zero sympathy from judges when teachers or administrators try to address sanctions.

Alerik Hoeh:

I worked at a small company where I was the only non-Muslim. I was often offered Muslim oriented reading materials (which was fine; I’m always up for free literature for something I don’t know as much about), but also proselytizing comments and frequent jokes about how stupid atheists were. Admittedly they thought I was a Christian at the time and after I outed myself at work the jokes decreased, though the proselytizing discussions continued.

Some family members have gotten involved with churches that tend to control their lives a bit. One member of my aunt’s church would barge into conversations where I criticized certain of her statements will all sorts of messages telling me “how dare an unbeliever waste a Christian’s time” etc. Beyond that it’s just occasional snide comments by people who don’t know I’m an atheist.

Pyra Barnes:

When it was discovered I was not a part of the church that the vast majority of people in my hometown went to (A large Methodist church,) and in fact had labeled myself an atheist, at 13 or 14, the kids ganged up on me and accused me of being a Satanist. They were ruthless with tripping me in the halls and making me sit alone at lunch. At a vital time in growing up, this ostracisation was painfully isolating. The accusations of Satanism never fully stopped, and even my first boyfriend (upon breaking up with me) fueled the fears of me being a spell casting Satanic witch, in my senior year of high school. There were several years where I was terrified to go to school and I believe very strongly that this led to many of the problems I had in actually participating in school. My education suffered a lot simply because I didn’t conform to the majority’s religious affiliation.

Dylan J. Walker:

Where to start, My parents treatment of me would be the most obvious discrimination I’ve faced. When I told my parents I was an atheist for a time they wouldn’t let me be alone with my younger sisters for fear I would corrupt them. I dealt with little with those kinds of passive aggressive jabs at my character for years. The last straw last year when they “warned” my fiance, (now wife) a week before the wedding that I was an emotionally abusive liar, then claimed that my avoidance of them at the wedding as more proof of how horrible I was. After that, I cut them off and don’t plan on having anything more to do with them.

Blake Seidler has blogged one experience with theist friends who cut ties due to her vocal atheism. She’s in Canada.

The falling-out with my friend that I keep referring to was over precisely this issue, and that’s why I think it was unavoidable. My friend made the mistake of following me on twitter. I long ago stopped posting overtly anti-religious stuff to my Facebook because I think it’s understandable that the people close to me (whether they are religious or not) don’t all share my preoccupation with religion, and seeing someone constantly being provocative about any issue can quickly become tiresome. I understand that. So I opened a twitter account specifically as an outlet for skeptical networking and discussion.

Eileen Hoyt:

As a high school boarding school student, we were all required to attend mass every Sunday, and on particular special days. It didn’t matter what your faith was (or wasn’t) it was mandatory attendance. I resented the hell out of it.

Dan Fincke posted this on Facebook before and he gave me permission to use it here:

I had an infuriating Christmas, ruined by a blowhard Christian missionary who commandeered the entire Christmas dinner to “prophecy” and “claim” everything in sight for Jesus, randomly start praying over people, and drone on and on about her appalling faith “healing” work in Africa, and then (after dinner) with me just ten feet away while she continued to dominate the whole table with supreme arrogance as she continued to speak for God, she had the amazing audacity to “counsel” my family on the magic prayers they needed to do to save me, while they just politely went along with it. It was all enraging.

I just bit my tongue and bit my tongue because if I opened my mouth it was going to get really ugly, really fast. I didn’t have any kind of wits about me to figure out how to do this diplomatically or dialectically well enough. I expressed some displeasure in my face but tried to tune her out and just focus on the television and my nephews and nieces. Then there were plans made to go to the movies, so I hung in until we were ready to leave. But then because she wasn’t budging they were starting to back out of the plan to leave, so I went over to my mom who was now cleaning up and quietly but sternly as I could communicated my need to leave. As mom dilly dallied people could see how agitated I was. Then the prophet started to say something to me and in so many words I told her I didn’t want to hear a word out of her mouth. Then she was like, “oh I was just offering you to take home some lasagna” and I was like, No, I don’t want any of your food. And my brother and his wife were by now as calmly as possible saying to my mom, “it’s time to go”, and we went. And in the car I explained how offensive all of that was and my mom just heard me out til I calmed down and didn’t fight back much. And that was all. We went to the movies.

OH and the things she was saying. So obnoxious. This poor old man with a breathing mask at the table and she’s berating him for “not feeling worthy” of god’s healing (though he said no such thing) and then my brother telling him it was his depression’s fault his prognosis was bad and my brother talking about how the old man lost his son 11 years ago and how what she was saying was relating to that in all these (clearly imagined) ways. I felt so bad for the old man that he’s got these sorts of people advising him when he’s in serious medical and emotional trouble. 

And her stories of “healing” people with extraordinary illnesses in Africa. I was so so fucking angry.

Neil Carter directed me towards the transcript of the CBS story about atheists he appeared in.

But Carter says he never mentioned his atheism to his middle school history students.

Rocca asked, “How did the kids find out that you’re an atheist?”

“One of them had been stalking me on Facebook and saw that I had ‘liked’ a page about atheism,” Carter said. “And then she came to school the next day and started asking me in front of the students if I was an atheist, and I refused to answer the question, which to them was enough of an answer.”

“The principal soon instructed him never to discuss anything to do with religion in class. And shortly after, he was transferred. “First, they moved me out of my classroom to a math class,” he said. “And then after that, they just told me they wouldn’t bring me back the next school year. They didn’t really give me any reasons, but obviously I knew what the reason was.”

Some anonymous accounts:

Anonymous #1:

When we were kids, my older brother made no effort to hide his atheism. He was picked on mercilessly for it by Christian kids. I remember a couple of Christian boys tried several times to provoke him to a physical fight, but he is also a pacifist and refused to engage. Seeing how he was treated, I kept quiet. My friend knew about my brother, though, and asked me what was wrong with him that he didn’t believe in her god. Some told me he was going to hell. My 4th grade teacher also went around the room asking each student to name which church they attended, which she made note of. I was the only student whose family did not attend church. I had to lie or face the scrutiny and ostracism of all of my peers. That’s all in the distant past, though — not sure if it will fit your purpose. For a more recent example, look to the Boy Scouts of America. They make adult members sign their Declaration of Religious Principle, which reads in part: “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing an obligation to God.” In other words, you may not join unless you believe in a god or gods, and if you are found out to be atheist, you can be kicked out. Whether you are booted depends largely on the attitude of the people in your local unit, however — if they are more open and liberal, it’s no big deal. If they are more conservative, your membership may be revoked.

 Anonymous #2:

I suspect that I have experienced discrimination but I have no proof. Last fall when I applied for a job as a daycare teacher I was offered the job and turned in all the paperwork and everything. They then cancelled the job offer. They claim that it was because one of my references said negative things about me, but I wonder if it’s because they saw my car or social media. I have a really hard time believing that any of the people I put on my resume as references would have said something that stopped me from getting that job, so the reasons that I have left to turn to are my LGBTQ and atheist statements in bumper stickers and social media.

Anonymous #3:

You asked about discrimination against atheists. You may not use my name, but I will be happy to tell you about my experiences. I am a teacher in Texas.

As a teacher in a federally funded U.S. Head Start program in Plainview, Texas, I was told that teachers lead prayer before mealtimes. I asked to not participate in leading prayer, after which my supervisor made fun of my appearance in a staff meeting, called me a troublemaker, and my contributions were ignored. I was reported constantly and bullied until I quit.

As a substitute teacher, I observed crosses, Bible verses, and posters advertising Christianity in principals’ offices, classrooms, hallways, and gyms in public schools. I was approached by a group of students engaged in bullying another student. They reported to me that the bullied student was an atheist and expected me to scold the student. As a classroom teacher in Odessa, Texas, I was reprimanded for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance and viciously attacked in staff meetings for my numerous shortcomings as a person, throughout the school year 2013-14. Although I did not announce my atheism, I expressed concern that all classrooms were required to host Christmas parties and suggested a more culturally responsive winter celebration. I overheard another teacher saying she hates Jehovah’s Witness students bc they mess up her Christmas lessons and she wished they would just stay home. I was given a negative evaluation by my principal despite being previously and since evaluated as an excellent teacher. The principal put me on an improvement plan and held nonrenewal over my head for months while he said he was praying about it. The assistant principal told me that my career and life would improve if I got right with God. Prayer requests were part of newsletter updates to staff and the principal led prayer at a staff meeting.

I left the district and took a similar position in another district for the 2014-15 school year. New employees were taken by bus during orientation to a church for “training” where we were advised to join and given school supplies with the church’s name all over them. Prayer was led in staff meetings and at football games, and all staff, students and parents were contacted and encouraged by the district to attend the showing of the movie Son of God Easter weekend.

When I recently interviewed for another position in Lubbock, Texas, the principal told me in the interview that she believes in Jesus and if I had a problem with that, the school wouldn’t be the place for me, although I had not said a word about religion.

Outside of work, I chose to join 2 organizations in Texas, the Lions Club and the IOOF. Both are very influential in small towns in Texas, but the IOOF makes you sign a document professing belief in God to join and the Lions club opens meetings with prayer and the pledge. Both are community organizations, not churches.

Now, it’s your turn.

Comment policy for this thread:

(1) This is not a debate thread. Please let only those who want to share stories post here. Any comment saying atheists are not marginalized or more importantly saying “that’s not marginalization” about what someone else said will be deleted. 

(2) If you have never faced discrimination, there’s no need to mention that here. This is for people who have. Such comments will be deleted too.

(3) If you’re sharing stories of people other than yourself, please anonymize.

(4) If you have links to good relevant blog posts, whether your own or others’, please share.

Image credit: The Remains of the Roman Forum by David Roberts, 1861 In the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art

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