Many groups are victims of prejudice in America. Women earn less for the same job as their male counterparts, African Americans still face disgusting hostility, and gay people are denied the right to marry those they love. Yet, a different group consistently scores worse than all others in polls gauging discrimination: the nonreligious. The nonreligious may face less severe prejudice than others, but the bias comes from far more people.
This may surprise you, but I can tell you, as an openly secular person, I have experienced it firsthand. On several occasions, my donations to charities were rejected because, amazingly, groups would rather avoid being associated with me than receive badly needed funding. My wife, Diana, has been told by friends that mutual acquaintances have said, “Diana is really nice, but her husband is an atheist.” I have been told point-blank I will be unable to teach my children values, simply because I answered, “I am not religious” to the ubiquitous Southern question, “Where do you go to church?” I have been flipped off and insulted, but at least I have not received the death threats that are common among my friends in the secular movement.
Here are five things you should know about discrimination against the nonreligious, particularly against atheists and agnostics.
1. We are assumed to be immoral.
The worst thing someone can consider you to be is evil. Judgments based on poor appearance, athleticism, or intellect all hurt. But nothing pains like the completely dehumanizing assumption that someone is ignoble and despicable. Having that opinion of someone is to believe that the person’s very character is corrupt to its core. Unfortunately, that is the belief nearly half of American’s have regarding atheists and agnostics.
In a recent Pew Research, 45 percent of people said a belief in God is necessary to be moral. Those who disbelieve or are unsure of the existence of God are simply presumed to be unethical. This is the real root cause of the discrimination faced by the nonreligious. If you are assumed to be a bad person, it is not surprising you will be treated differently.
Therefore, it is not shocking that, according to Pew, 49 percent of Americans would be unhappy if an atheist married into their immediate family. More than 40 years after All in the Family went on the air, Archie’s friendly atheist son-in-law still would not be welcomed in American households.
2. The nonreligious are common.
The nonreligious are a huge minority. According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 20 percent of American adults do not identify with any religion. Of people between the ages of 18 and 29, that number jumps to an amazing 32 percent.
Many who are atheistic do not openly identify as such, for fear of consequences. To truly understand who the “Nones” are, you must dig into questions of belief as opposed to identity. The best way I have seen this analyzed was in the 2008 ARIS survey. Of the Nones who answered their belief question, 45 percent were atheist or agnostic, 29 percent believed in a personal God, and 26 percent were deistic, believing in an impersonal creator god.
So, while the nonreligious are not all atheists and agnostics, nearly half are. At roughly 10 percent of the population, they represent a huge demographic. By comparison, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and all other non-Christian religions combined represent less than 6 percent of the population.
3. We are the third rail of politics.
I attended the Religions Newswriters Association Conference in 2012, just before the presidential election. During a panel on religion and politics, one of the journalists asked what demographic Obama needed to win in order to capture the White House. Without hesitation, one of the experts answered, “the Nones, but he cannot let anyone realize he is trying to win their votes, or he will lose the election. The Nones are the third rail of politics.”
That summarizes the attitude toward the nonreligious electorate. Politicians ignore us or pretend to ignore us for fear of losing other voters. Unless, of course, they are using atheism as a slander to discredit their opponents, as Elizabeth Doles’ failed U.S. Senate campaign attempted in 2008.
If secular people get little respect as voters, they are utterly rejected as candidates. Despite constituting about 10 percent of the population, there are no openly atheist or agnostic members of the U.S. Congress, except perhaps Rep. Jared Huffman. This is no surprise when you consider a 2014 Pew poll showing 53 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for someone if that candidate is an atheist. Atheism was the worst attribute a politician could have according to the survey, with adulterers and drug users scoring far better.
This data mirrors a 2012 Gallup survey that found that over 91 percent of the population would vote for a woman, African American, or Hispanic person if they were well-qualified and from their own political party. But, only 54 percent would vote for an atheist with the same attributes. This was below all others, including gay and Muslim candidates.
4. People do not recognize the discrimination.
A new Pew poll from September found only 27 percent of people in the U.S. feel there is a lot of discrimination against atheists. By comparison, 31 percent of people perceive that evangelical Christians suffer a great deal of discrimination.
The perception is at odds with the reality. As noted earlier, 53 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist, but only 17 percent are less likely to vote for an evangelical Christian. Further, 49 percent of people would be unhappy if an atheist married into their family; yet, merely 9 percent would be unhappy if a born-again Christian did so. These numbers are too high for both evangelicals and atheists, but there is clearly far more bias against atheists.
5. Secular people are doing something about it.
Nonreligious people are doing many things to cope with and eliminate the discrimination they face. One of the largest efforts is Openly Secular, a new coalition of over 20 organizations from the secular movement. Its mission is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people to be open about their beliefs.
Openly Secular has created resources for nonreligious people that never existed before. Online toolkits and brochures have been built that encourage more people to be open, and make people more effective at becoming open. Leave-behind brochures have been written for secular people to give to religious friends and family to show that their values are still more aligned than not. The coalition has launched an online video campaign to show the pain of discrimination, the relief of discovering you are not alone, and the joy of finding acceptance in secular communities. Openly Secular has produced over 150 videos and hopes people will help make the video campaign go viral by sharing their own videos online.
When secular people are demonized, they build awareness of the problem on platforms like blogs, reddit, and articles on mainstream media sites, such as TIME.com. This happened recently in response to a call for federal employment discrimination from former Arkansas governor and potential presidential aspirant, Mike Huckabee. At the 2014 Values Voter Summit Huckabee said he endorses firing all nonreligious people working for the U.S. government.
Communities for secular people are sprouting around the country. Thousands of local groups are thriving, including specialty ones for parents, students, and African Americans. A notable example is the recent rapid growth of Sunday Assembly; dubbed “atheist church,” their congregations aim to “live better, help often, wonder more.” Many secular groups are active in their local communities, breaking down stereotypes as they perform community service.
These efforts are critical to eliminating a prevalent and often unrecognized form of discrimination. Whether you are religious or not, we hope you will join us in showing that religious differences are less important than loving one another.
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