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Atheism is Indeed A Civil Rights Issue

by Eddie Tabash


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 4.


In “Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue” (FI, February-March), DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey deny that atheism is a civil rights issue. They reject the idea that nonbelievers should focus on electing other nonbelievers to political office. I disagree on both counts.

Is Atheism a Civil Rights Issue?

One test of whether a minority group’s struggle for equality is a civil rights issue is whether majority attitudes toward that minority reflect unreasonable prejudice or a desire to deny full legal rights to its members. By this standard, atheists’ efforts to achieve legal and social equality indeed constitute a civil rights movement. Consider that, in 1958, a Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of American citizens would vote against a Black candidate for president on grounds of race alone. In a 1999 Gallup poll, that figure had declined to 4 percent.1 That same 1999 Gallup poll revealed that a larger percentage of American citizens, 49 percent, would vote against an atheist on grounds of atheism alone than would vote against someone for any other reason.2 Even though this is the lowest comparative percentage of people who said they would vote against someone just for being a nonbeliever, in absolute numbers, it is still a higher percentage than is applicable to any other historically disfavored group.

Given current attitudes, new laws that overtly discriminate against atheists would pass easily, and any such existing laws would eagerly be enforced—save only for the United States Supreme Court, which has held consistently since 1947 that no branch of government can favor believers over nonbelievers.3 Enlightened as this position may be, it has never enjoyed majority support. Quite to the contrary, each time the Supreme Court, indeed any court, has struck down government preference for religion over nonbelief, an overwhelming majority of the public has opposed the decision in question.

Ever since the famous Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and 1963 that ended teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in public schools, in poll after poll Americans have favored returning government sponsored prayer to public schools by a minimum margin of 69 percent to 27 percent.4 In many surveys, the percentage favoring restoration of school prayer exceeds 75 percent.5

In other words, an overwhelming majority of Americans rejects the offer of fairness that atheists and secular humanists have always proposed. We don’t want government to favor us over others; we just want government to be neutral, so that both believers and nonbelievers will be equal before the law. We want government to stay out of the God controversy, so that the official structure of society equally embraces both believers and nonbelievers. We want government to be silent on the question of God’s existence and on matters of worship. Even a moderate conservative like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has endorsed this position, asserting that the First Amendment prohibits all branches of government from treating people differently based upon “the God or gods they worship or don’t worship.”6

In contrast, most Americans yearn for government to take sides in the dispute over whether God exists. And so, we atheists and humanists find ourselves dependent on a constitutional mandate of equality before the law, the immediate survival of which depends upon a dangerously narrow margin of just two votes on the Supreme Court. A shift of these two votes would establish a five-vote majority on the Court sufficient to abolish the present requirement of government neutrality between religion and nonbelief. So far, President Bush has succeeded in appointing judges to the lower federal courts who openly favor a Christian theological basis for our legal system. These judges, unfortunately reflecting attitudes held by most Americans, maintain that the Supreme Court has been wrong in its unbroken line of decisions that require government to treat belief and nonbelief equally.

Since the majority in our nation regards nonbelievers with disdain and craves an end to government neutrality between religion and nonbelief, the struggle of atheists in the United States is indeed a civil rights issue. But that’s not the worst of it.

Mainstream Americans don’t simply reject atheism. Far too many of them also revile atheists, secular humanists, and other unbelievers as persons. In reflecting upon my own narrow loss in my 2000 bid for a seat in the California legislature, I have written that nonbelievers are the most unjustly despised minority in the United States today..7

History and current events confirm how sharply nonbelievers are loathed. Consider the torrent of hatred today directed toward Michael Newdow, the courageous plaintiff in the effort to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance that public school children are expected to recite. Far from being unusual, the negative public response toward Newdow typifies the rage with which most Americans respond when anyone from our community demands that official government pronouncements be as equally inclusive of us as they are of everyone else.

Or consider a historical example. In February 1964, when the landmark Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress, the House of Representatives passed a measure by a vote of 137 to 98 that explicitly excluded atheists from protection under the new law that would otherwise abolish employment discrimination.#8 Fortunately, the measure failed in the Senate. Still, just forty years ago, the same House of Representatives that declared it illegal to engage in employment discrimination against African Americans was willing to give employers free rein to go on discriminating against people who didn’t believe in God.

I submit that bigotry against a person just because that individual rejects unproven supernatural claims is every bit as destructive of the quest for a just and enlightened society as is bigotry against someone on grounds of race or ethnicity.

To the extent that a clear majority of Americans, let alone an overwhelming majority, wants government at all levels to officially favor religion over nonbelief—to the extent that more Americans still view atheism as a disqualifying characteristic in a political candidate than they do any other factor—I submit that we nonbelievers are in just as much danger of suffering open discrimination as is the gay community. Even though there have not yet been any notable physical attacks on atheists—just for being atheists—discrimination does not have to be accompanied by overt violence in order to pose a grave threat to a minority group’s struggle for full equality. Further, if President Bush succeeds in restructuring the Supreme Court so as to create a majority willing to nullify church/state separation, open discrimination against atheists and secular humanists may become the active and enforceable law of the land.

Accordingly, the efforts of atheists, secular humanists, and other nonbelievers to secure and preserve their equality before the law is every bit as much a civil rights struggle as is that of the gay rights movement.

Should Atheists Elect Their Own?

One of the most important advances members of any unjustly despised minority can make is to begin electing members of their own community to political office. Consider how pathetically contemporary politicians pander to religion—for example, when every United States senator gathered on the Capitol steps to support “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance after the initial Ninth Circuit finding favorable to Newdow was announced. Clearly our best protection against legislation hostile to nonbelievers would be to get some atheists elected to Congress and state legislatures.

In their article, Grothe and Dacey reproach what they portray as my stance that atheists should vote for an atheist candidate solely because of his or her atheism. My actual position is that, given the dearth of nonbelievers currently holding significant political office in the United States, when one of our colleagues in freethought makes a bid for office and has a significant chance of winning, we should try to give that candidate our support even if we do not agree with him or her on every issue. We nonbelievers can be a contentious lot, often withholding our backing from anyone with whom we disagree on even just one issue. As a practical matter, we will never find a candidate with whom we agree on everything. My suggestion, then, is for atheists and secular humanists to try to give a viable candidate from our own community greater leeway on topics not directly germane to the equal rights of nonbelievers and church-state separation. Each of us should try to support that candidate, unless he or she holds a position on some issue that violates one of our core individual beliefs.

The gay community, women, African Americans, and other minority groups have learned the importance of civil rights activism, and of electing their own to political office. Since the mood of the country is so antagonistic toward atheists, our own quest to secure and preserve equality before the law is clearly a civil rights issue. As such, just like any other unjustly despised minority, we must learn how to elect a number of our own to the halls of power.

 

Notes

1. Laurie Goodstein, “And Now for Something Completely Different,” New York Times, August 12, 2000, sec. 4, p. 1.

2. Ibid.

3. Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947).

4. “Bush, Lieberman Religion Has Little Influence, Americans Tell Quinnipiac University National Poll; Large Majorities Favor School Prayer, God In Pledge,” press release, June 12, 2003, available online at http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x6355.xml

5. Michelle Marie Southers, “School Prayer,” National Parliamentary Debate Workshop background briefing, online at http://www.willamette.edu/cla/rhetoric/workshop/DebateResearch/michellesouthers.doc

6. Board of Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 714 (1994) (O’Connor, J., concurring).

7. Edward Tabash, “Electing Atheists to Political Office,” The Secular Web Kiosk,  August 2001.  http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=122

8. 110 Congressional Record 2607–11, February 8, 1964; Brian F. Le Beau, The Atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (New York: New York University Press, 2003), pp. 105–08.


Edward Tabash is a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Secular Humanism and is a constitutional lawyer in Beverly Hills, California. In 2000, he was the only known secular humanist/atheist to have been a viable candidate for a seat in a state legislature.


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