Thursday, March 13, 2008

Atheism as a Civil Rights Issue

In response to a comment I left about Mississippi Atheists in the Hattiesburg American online forums, I received a sarcastic reply asking why anyone would want to meet to discuss things they do not believe exist. This is a common reaction from believers first hearing about local atheist groups. What's the point, they figure, in assembling to talk about beliefs they do not share? In a nutshell, my response is that atheism is a civil rights issue. Let me explain.

In a strict philosophical sense, atheism is nothing more than the lack of theistic belief. A theist is one who asserts that some sort of god or gods exist. An atheist is simply one who does not accept this assertion as fact.

Granted, most people use atheist in a broader way to refer to a wide range of beliefs that are not synonymous with atheism (e.g., naturalism, ontological materialism, empiricism, etc.) but which are widely associated with it. Still others use atheism as a shorthand way of referring to the atheist movement, a broad activist coalition of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers, working to preserve the separation of church and state. Although this notion of an atheist as one who belongs to this sort of atheist movement is both inaccurate and misleading, it will help the reader understand what I mean by saying that atheism in a civil rights issue.

Atheists living in the more culturally oppressive regions of the United States, of which Mississippi is certainly one, experience tremendous social pressure to conform to the dominant norm (i.e., Christianity). We live in an environment where everyone is assumed to be Christian and those who are not are viewed with suspicion, mistrust, and even hatred. It is this demonization of atheists, combined with Christian privilege, which helps drive discrimination and bigotry toward atheists.

The persecution of atheists simply for being atheists opens the door to civil rights violations. Examples include employment discrimination, legal tests for political suitability, and physical assault on the basis of one's atheism. Thus, it is no surprise that America's oldest and most respected civil rights organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) moved to include the Secular Coalition for America last December (see press release).

I can't speak for other atheists, but one of the primary reasons I am interested in atheist activism is because I want to protect the civil rights of all atheists. We are tired of being viewed as second class citizens (or worse) simply because we refuse to entertain religious notions for which no evidence exists.

For more information on this important topic, the interested reader is referred to the following sources:

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Butch said...

Heh, for what’s it worth, that particular person on those forums is notorious for inane and ignorant comments. Even the other Christians get embarrassed by her.

vjack said...

I had that feeling, so it is good to get some confirmation.