Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue
by DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
the steps of City Hall, throngs of college students in bandannas and T-shirts
press against a tightening police cordon, chanting, "Hell? No, we won't go!
Hell? No, we won't go!" On the outskirts of the fray, a circle of retired ladies
raise their frail but insistent voices in a stirring song of protest: "Deep in
my heart / I still believe / We shall oversleep Sunday." A man being thrust
handcuffed into a paddy wagon turns and flashes them the Bright Power hand
signal, a variation on Mr. Spock's Vulcan salute.
While it might make for good television, you won't find this scene of social
unrest on the nightly news. It exists only in the imagination of some
self-identifying atheists and secular-humanist activists. Unbelievers, they
claim, are the last oppressed minority in America, and the time has come for a
civil-rights movement all their own. Atheists are told to "come out of the
closet." Some have even invented a new term for nonbelievers-Bright-drawing an
analogy with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) community's
alleged hijacking of the word gay in place of homosexual.
But is it really legitimate to compare the situation of nontheists in America
to the oppression of women, ethnic and racialized minorities, and the GLBT
community? Can their struggle for public respect be modeled on the civil rights
struggles of the last century? In fact, the analogy with gay rights is seriously
flawed. Atheists need a public awareness campaign, not a liberation movement.
Women, people of color, and GLBTs have consistently faced discrimination that
substantially diminishes their basic life prospects-access to housing, health
care, education, political participation, employment, and family benefits.
Additionally, they have suffered violence and intimidation. For minorities
defined by race, sex, and sexual orientation, civil rights movements were
necessary to correct such grievous ill-treatment.
But do unbelievers really suffer comparable harm? Atheists are not denied
equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing
their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don't
earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they
prevented from voting. To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist
bashing." If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them
in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers.
So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders
in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single
Sure, it would be hard to be elected to higher office in America as an avowed
unbeliever, but it would also be impossible for a socialist or a Mother Earth
spiritualist. And being barred from the Boy Scouts hardly affects one's basic
life prospects. Besides, most experts agree that Scouting is not a "public
accommodation" in which everyone has a right to be included.
Civil rights struggles are related to a more general approach to social
action known as "identity politics." In identity politics, people organize
around their shared identity rather than their party affiliation or political
ideology. This is quite appropriate for groups whose collective, historical
experience of oppression has forged some substantial unity in belief and social
agenda. Yet atheists have no beliefs in common but their disbelief. Imagine a
voting bloc that would back a candidate merely for lacking faith in a personal
No doubt, skeptics of religion risk alienation from family, friends, and
coworkers by revealing their heterodox views. One of us (DJ Grothe) had more of
a problem with his family when he "came out" as a nonbeliever than when he came
out as gay years previously. It is undeniable—and infuriating—that public
officials can still get away with slurring the nonreligious by suggesting they
aren't good people or good citizens, as George H. W. Bush once did. And the old
canard, "There are no atheists in foxholes," is an insult.
Atheists are a cognitive minority (or as Christopher Hitchens more proudly
put it in his keynote address at a Council for Secular Humanism conference on
April 12, 2003, a "cognitive elite"). By their nature, minority viewpoints are
unpopular and held in suspicion by the general public: just ask a Wiccan or deep
ecologist. Are atheists misrepresented? Misunderstood? Often. Oppressed? Hardly.
The proper remedy is to educate the public about secularism and scientific
naturalism. We do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for
our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity.
Incredible analogies with the plight of the truly repressed will further neither
1. Remarkably, one national atheist organization has actually launched a
political action committee whose primary purpose is just this. Also, West Coast
activist (and Council for Secular Humanism board member) Eddie Tabash has urged
atheists to become single-issue voters based on their unbelief. See "Thoughts on
December 31, 2001," online at