Monday, March 7, 2011

Causes of Persecution against Atheists

Turning on the news I find yet another story about a secular billboard sparking anger in a religious group. The billboard, which stated “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we,” insulted a group of theists. I gave up trying to understand how the message can insult anyone; instead I started thinking why religious billboards do not receive the same heavy retaliation. A sign no more than 2 blocks away from my home depicts a famished, tortured, bloody man, being crucified. Ironically, this sign is passively acceptable, while an advertisement for an online secular community is audacious.

This double standard for theists and atheists is one of many cases exemplifying persecution of secularists in the United States. Once a proud secular nation, now idly content with watching a platform of American culture wither away. This cultural shift from novus ordo seclorum (a new order) to an ancient religious ideology began in the 1950s when “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God we trust," appeared on American currency. Today the discrimination of atheists is facilitated by poor education, limited and negative media representation, and a religious supermajority.

First, let us examine what happened in the 1950s that caused the United States government to ignore the constitution and relate American culture to religion. In 1947 conflicts arose between the officially atheist Soviet Union and the United States, escalating to what became known as the Cold War. Our government at the time attempted to build solidarity against the anti-religious communists by breaking down the church and state barriers.

The first step in building solidarity was to achieve main-stream support for the combination of religion and politics. With no disagreements from the Christian super-majority, President Eisenhower enacted the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954. Widely used in schools and in political events, The Pledge gradually led to the incorporation of religion into popular culture indefinitely. Over half a century later, it seems as though the term American has become synonymous with Christian.

To further incorporate religious ideology into public works, President Eisenhower allowed “In God we trust” to be printed on money On July 11, 1955- just one year after his first violation of the first amendment. This, along with adding “under God” in the pledge, gave way to countless opportunities for atheist persecution. In addition, “In God we trust” is the national motto. God references tend to show up commonly in the United States, everywhere from billboards to rallies.

Because of this national attention to God it becomes easy to understand why being an American is paralleled with being a Christian. In fact, many politicians of today go so far as to equate non-religious to non-American. George Bush was quoted saying “I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” What better example of persecution than denial of citizenship! To think that after massive civil-rights movements, groups are still being discriminated against in the United States. Atheists are made to feel unequal and unwelcome to their religious counterparts.

This inequality is more than just opinion. In Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Maryland it is put into practice. It is illegal, in these states, to run for office if you are an atheist. Blatantly unconstitutional and overlooked, these states refuse to give an equal voice to atheists- thus rendering our voice politically useless. It causes atheists to feel severely unwanted in their own states and hometowns.

Furthermore, feeling unwanted goes far beyond politics. The religious supermajority in the United States seeks to drive out atheists on a community level, too. Famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a political activist responsible for ending government sponsored prayer in public schools, was exiled by members of her own community for being an atheist. “Even before my legal activity,” says O’Hair, “My neighbors showed passive signs of dislike.”

Madalyn’s persecution is not an isolated incident. Many atheists are driven out of their communities and families for what they believe (or lack thereof.) I have personally seen tension within my own family when I exposed myself as an atheist. Religion was very important to my family and I was educated through catholic schools my whole life. I am frequently called “stupid,” “evil,” “not knowing enough to denounce God.” Statements like that are belittling, hurtful, and far too familiar to atheists. My mother once told me that the United States would be a better place if all the ignorant atheists left, and I should educate myself further on religion.

What would happen if my mom’s dream of an atheist-free America were to come true? Hypothetically, if all of us were to disappear, the US would lose 10% of its fastest growing population, but only 0.25% of its prison population, the vast majority of our Nobel Prize winners, the majority of university professors and scientists, and the owner of the largest charity in the world (Bill Gates). Additionally, poverty rates would increase, the average IQ would drop, divorce rates would rise per-capita, teenage pregnancy rates would increase per-capita, and the United States would be grouped with other non-atheist population countries: Somalia, Tanzania, Yemen, Romania, Pakistan, and Iran: hardly an exemplary group of societies.

Not doubting my mom’s education, as she holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology, I find her misinformed. The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world, but also among the most religiously illiterate. The population of the United States seems to be oblivious to what the religion of their neighbor says. Ironically, atheists know the most about religions on average. Accordingly, atheists are neither stupid nor do we not know enough to denounce God. In fact, we tend to be best versed in religion (which is probably why we reject it.)

Ignorance of other belief systems is one of the current driving forces in discrimination of today. Many children who grow up in religious families will attend some sort of religious education classes or programs, especially since many rituals require a study program. These classes instruct the children only on what their own religion says, rarely mentioning others.

Poor religious education and misinformation through popular media leads many to believe to wild claims including atheists as being sad, miserable, confused, Satanists. Many were never exposed to the idea that other belief systems provide the same satisfaction and peace-of-mind that their religion does.

The religious will argue atheists are evil and have no moral code to live by, mostly due to not believing in a reward or punishment after death. The exact opposite is true. As mentioned earlier, only 0.25% of the prison population are atheists. I would argue that because we have nothing to die for, we go out of our way to live the best and most fulfilled lives we can because there is nothing more for us.

Media is somewhat responsible for this negative view of atheists. News coverage commonly highlights controversial issues and the different views on it. Among the most debated issues of today is embryonic stem cell research. Statistically, atheists tend to liberal, which leads many conservative-bias news networks to attack us directly. Fox News, a prime example of a conservative news network, commonly negatively portrays an atheist’s view as being a heartless baby killer. Using such false and strong language, with its large viewer base, creates hostility toward atheists, resulting in widespread persecution and discrimination. Especially since we’re not trying to harm anyone. Our intent is but to improve the value of life by eradicating diseases that hinder our wellbeing.

The news is not the only media outlet providing a negative view of atheists. Popular television show House, depicts an arrogant, risk taking doctor, who commonly demeans and pranks coworkers. We wouldn’t consider connecting his beliefs to his personality- but those who are intolerant of atheists would. Media is a powerful force in our culture. Everyone watches TV, reads magazines, and browses the internet. A negative representation of the secular community spreads quickly.

Persecution against atheists is an ongoing problem that the United States is faced with. Despite being the fastest growing belief system, with the highest standard of living per capita, Atheists continue to be seen as a threat to society. The public interest in atheist persecution began in the 1950s to combat anti-religion communist upraises. Poor education, negative representation in the media, political injustice, and living in a country with a religious majority are the factors that allow for the continuation of this discrimination.


  1. Hello! This is extremely timely for me, as I'm writing a paper for a class about this exact thing at the moment. Could you please tell me where you found the statistics for the religions of prisoners? Thanks!