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The Persecuted Atheist?

Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion .

I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve finally gotten a chance to begin reading Dawkins’ celebrated best-seller, The God Delusion. It’s been a very engaging read so far and I’m hoping to post a number of reflections here as I stumble across provocative passages. In the first chapter, Dawkins aims to embolden beleaguered atheists who have been cowed into silence by societal and familial pressures. I second his call to transparency, to being our authentic selves in the public square. However, along the way, he paints a picture of the plight of atheists in the Western world, and in America in particular, that to me seems off. He suggests that, “the status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago.” And, it is only “slightly exaggerating” to say that “making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion Hall”. Dawkins makes some good observations about the very real prejudices that atheists do face, but this second claim is absurd. I know Dawkins is a Brit, looking in from afar, but has he ever: 1) Watched The Simpsons, The Family Guy, or The Daily Show; 2) Read The Onion, a college newspaper, or a big city’s “independent” paper; 3) Hung out in the Humanities department of any major American university; 4) Opened a Bible in West Hollywood or Manhattan?1 Ironically, many Christians also complain that it is they who are persecuted and prevailed upon to keep their beliefs in the closet. And the truth is, they’re both right.

In our diverse, multi-cultural society, virtually every ideology or way of life finds itself slighted by others whose views of the world are fundamentally different. We’re all victims these days, judging by the complaints of such from all quarters. While an outspoken atheist might feel unwelcome in Birmingham, so would an outspoken Christian in Berkeley. Religious types might have sway in your suburban Homeowners Assocation, but Naturalists and Postmodernists rule the roost at your state university. Biases shift from blue state to red state, from county to county. Each of the competing ideologies of our day have their realms of influence, and unfortunately, within those realms, those who hold minority viewpoints are often not treated with the respect they should be. Nonetheless, in my estimation, the freedom in the U.S. to express whatever one believes is profound, evidenced by the existence of every conceivable point of view boasting a think tank, a publication, and its own little corner of the Web. So, if you’re looking to be criticized, offended, and persecuted, there’s grounds somewhere for your grievances.

I was living in Europe when all the hullabaloo erupted over the Dixie Chicks’ critical remarks about George Bush and the War in Iraq. My European friends insisted that “America” was “censoring” them. Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks were making the rounds on all the morning talk shows to tell their story about some radio stations in the South who were refusing to play their music. This episode is instructive. It reveals what I take to be an understandable European naiveté about the American cultural landscape. And, it underscores the reality that articulating a particular viewpoint will garner criticism from some quarters and praise from others. But criticism is not censorship, nor is it persecution. As my friend Karl Simmons says, “One’s right to free speech automatically carries with it everyone else’s right to free criticism.”

And yet…

All of this being said, I agree with Dawkins that there is a curious, widespread antipathy toward atheists.2 The report linked above, “Views of Atheists and Moral Boundaries in America” is stunning. The authors note:

In the Public Agenda report cited above, 54% of respondents said they would be unlikely to vote for a political candidate who is “open about not believing in God.” In a 1999 Gallup poll, only 49% of Americans say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is an atheist — compared to 59% willing to vote for a homosexual candidate and over 90% professing willingness to vote for a female, Jewish, or Black candidate. Farkas et al. conclude that atheists and others who profess no religion provide a “glaring exception” to the general rule of increasing social tolerance over the last thirty years of the 20th century, and that they remain the one minority group about which Americans will still openly express negative attitudes.

I don’t really understand this prejudice. In postmodern, relativistic times such as these, where just about anything “may be ‘true’ for you”, there remains a surprising suspicion of atheists even from those who have thoroughly rejected “organized religion”. That being the case, Dawkins advice to atheists that they come out of the closet, that they allow themselves to be known and thereby disabuse others of unwarranted fears, is important and timely. I sympathize with those who, in so doing, will experience the disappointment or even rejection of their parents as they feel compelled to “leave the faith”. This difficult experience, of course, is not unique to atheists, but common to most who discard their families’ traditions, whether they be political, cultural, or religious. Though in my opinion freedom of conscience in America is almost entirely unconstrained, that is not to say that there will not be social consequences amongst family, friends, and associates.

Be of good courage.


1 Alvin Plantinga notes: “Dawkins has written his book, he says, partly to encourage timorous atheists to come out of the closet. He and Dennett both appear to think it requires considerable courage to attack religion these days; says Dennett, ‘I risk a fist to the face or worse. Yet I persist.’ Apparently atheism has its own heroes of the faith — at any rate its own self-styled heroes. Here it’s not easy to take them seriously; religion-bashing in the current Western academy is about as dangerous as endorsing the party’s candidate at a Republican rally.” “The Dawkins Confusion” at (March 1, 2007).

2 After a 1993 debate between William Lane Craig and Frank Zindler, Rob Sherman of American Atheists addressed a couple questions to the mostly Christian audience at Willow Creek church. He prefaced his question with the observation that “discrimination against atheists is pervasive in our nation”, evidenced by civic organizations that prohibit felons and atheists from membership. Even worse, “in state after state in this country atheists are specifically prohibited by law from holding any government job, testifying in court, serving as a juror, or even serving as a notary public.” In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such laws requiring belief in God in Torcaso v. Watkins, so it’s unclear to me to what extent this problem persists. Still, Sherman asks: 1) “Would you support congress adopting civil rights legislation that would guarantee that atheists are treated the same as any other citizen?” 2) “Would you reelect a legislator who supported civil rights legislation for atheists?” To the first question, roughly equal murmurs of both “yes” and “no” were audible. To the second question, the verbal nays are noticeably louder. I am astonished that Americans, that Christians, could object in principle to equal rights irrespective of ideology, but their indefensible reaction is in accord with the Public Agenda report. I am hopeful that with some clarification, most Christians would accede, and if not, Christian leaders and thinkers have an urgent task at hand. And, indeed, in Mark Mittelberg’s response to Sherman, he makes this point. “If we’re talking about fair treatment of atheists, I think we as a church would agree with some of the points he’s making. In fact this church has as part of its credo that all people matter, regardless of gender, race, or belief system. I could even show you some bible verses along those lines.”

3 Also see Bo Scoffield’s “Atheists are Beautiful: A Religious Person Defends Atheism” (June 13th, 2010).