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Letting Atheists Come Out of the Closet

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 3.

As the last repressed minority in America, religious dissenters need to stand up and be counted. We need to wage a campaign to defend our rights. And we need to persuade our fellow citizens that equal protection of the laws should apply to all citizens, believers and unbelievers alike.

There are millions of Americans who do not profess a belief in God. We are a significant minority. Yet our voice is all too rarely heard in the public square. Intolerant attitudes and prejudice against us continue to fester. Heretics and iconoclasts are often considered the pariahs of society.

Who are we? We are your children and your parents, your sisters and your brothers, your friends and your relatives. We are your students and your teachers, your artists and your scientists, your politicians and corporate leaders, your workers and your homemakers, your computer experts and your neighbors. We represent all walks of life. We are everywhere. We are an integral part of society. We only ask that we be allowed to proclaim and practice our convictions openly, without fear or recrimination. The ultimate test of a democratic society is that it will respect and honor honest dissent.

According to various polls, some 8 to 11% of the American population do not believe in God. Moreover, 39% are not members of any church, synagogue, or mosque, and many who belong to religious denominations do so only nominally. Unbelievers exist throughout the world. A recent poll indicates that 14% of the Canadian population does not believe in God. In Norway, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, France, and other Western European countries, the percentages of nonbelief are significantly higher. Indeed, in many European countries the state provides funding for both religious and nonreligious organizations alike. Billions of people on the planet do not profess Christian, Jewish, or Muslim belief systems-yet they have created enduring civilizations and high moral principles, such as Confucianism in China, Buddhism in Asia, and humanism in the democratic world. This is surprising to many religious dogmatists who are convinced that unless you believe in a monotheistic religion you cannot be moral.

Fortunately, the American Constitution includes the First Amendment, which defends the separation of church and state, prohibits the establishment of a religion, and guarantees freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religious beliefs or none. Though often quoted in principle the First Amendment is often violated in practice. For example, the Constitution explicitly prohibits any religious test for public office. Yet few candidates are courageous enough to admit that they are religious nonconformists. A quasi-official doctrine of religious piety pervades public life; and most candidates feel it necessary to profess a religious creed and to "God bless" America repeatedly.

Secular humanists-atheists and agnostics-have deep conviction; yet they are often afraid to express them publicly. They are good citizens, many lead exemplary moral lives, and many have contributed significantly to society. Many famous men and women-philosophers and poets, scientists and artists-were freethinkers: Socrates, Epicurus, Hypatia, Spinoza, Voltaire, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Hume, Kant, Shakespeare, Shelly, Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, John Dewey, and others. And many ordinary men and women have shared their convictions.

In the major institutions of American society-the corporations and unions, the universities and foundations-few leaders will admit to their religious skepticism. In organizations as diverse as the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts atheists are explicitly denied membership; they are not considered of sufficient "moral fiber." High school atheist groups need to fight for the right to exist, though there are thousands of Bible clubs. Public meetings, high school and college graduation ceremonies, official breakfast meetings, quasi-public gatherings, and sports contests begin and end with prayers and invocations-without any hesitation of offending nonbelievers in their midst. This occurs, even though we are a secular republic and the government is supposed to be neutral about religion, neither favoring nor disfavoring one or another. Moreover, the laws often discriminate against secular humanists. For example, in most of the states of the Union, humanist leaders are not allowed to officiate at marriage ceremonies; whereas religious clergy have the unquestioned right to do so. The media very rarely if ever will portrays secular humanists or atheists in positive terms; yet religious leaders from John Paul to Billy Graham are lionized, with nary a word of criticism.

The democratic movement for equal rights has made enormous progress in recent years. It has been made more and more inclusive, applying to racial and religious minorities, feminists, the handicapped, the aged, abused children, and gay people. Is it not time that the rights of religious dissenters also be appreciated? If society deplores anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or anti-gay talk, why should it not also deplore anti-atheist vilification? Is it not time that we fight back? Let us declare: "We are secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics and proud of it! We demand equal access and equal rights."

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