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Austin Cline

Is Atheism a Civil Rights Issue?

By April 29, 2006

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Atheists need a public awareness campaign, not a liberation movement. Women, people of color, and GLBTs have consistently faced discrimination that substantially diminishes their basic life prospects-access to housing, health care, education, political participation, employment, and family benefits. Additionally, they have suffered violence and intimidation. For minorities defined by race, sex, and sexual orientation, civil rights movements were necessary to correct such grievous ill-treatment.

DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey wrote the above for Free Inquiry, arguing that there's no sense to a "civil rights movement" on behalf of nonbelievers. They continue:

But do unbelievers really suffer comparable harm? Atheists are not denied equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don't earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they prevented from voting. To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing."
By their nature, minority viewpoints are unpopular and held in suspicion by the general public: just ask a Wiccan or deep ecologist. Are atheists misrepresented? Misunderstood? Often. Oppressed? Hardly. The proper remedy is to educate the public about secularism and scientific naturalism. We do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity.

Eddie Tabash, writing in another issue of Free Inquiry, disagrees:

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 minority members. By this standard, atheists’ efforts to achieve legal and social equality indeed constitute a civil rights movement. ... 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. Enlightened as this position may be, it has never enjoyed majority support.
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.

To me, this disagreement is reminiscent of debates over what qualifies as a religion. Some people will say that "X" is a religion because it fulfills certain criteria - i.e., "X" involves certain beliefs (like the existence of supernatural powers) which automatically qualify something to be a religion. Others, however, will argue that it isn't a religion because it fails other criteria - for example, it fails to fulfill certain psychological or social functions which typically distinguish religions from other sorts of ideologies.

Eddie Tabash is using one set of criteria, Grothe and Dacey another. For Tabash, the fact that a group is generally distrusted (if not hated) is sufficient to say that groups needs a civil rights movement (if it doesn't have one already). For Grothe and Dacey, the possibility of future discrimination isn't enough - they require actual and active discrimination occurring on an institutional level (discrimination that is part of rules, regulations, laws, and standards rather than simply individual discrimination here and there) before a group can be said to have or need a civil rights movement.

Who is correct? They both are, given the criteria they use. But which set of criteria makes the most sense? I'd like to side with Grothe and Dacey. If "civil rights movement" is to mean anything, then ideally it should be a movement to achieve and establish the "civil rights" of some group that generally doesn't get the same basic civil rights as everyone else. In other words, it must be a fight for rights not currently recognized rather than for rights that are recognized, but not very happily and willingly.

However, while atheists' civil rights might be technically recognized on the books, this doesn't mean that they are grudgingly recognized in practice all the time. In an effort to make their case against atheists needing any sort of civil rights movement, Grothe and Dacey are unreasonably overzealous in overstating their case. They correctly state that atheists don't suffer from the same degree of discrimination as other groups, but then they undermine their own good argument by stating:

To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing." If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.

It wouldn't have been difficult even at the time to find such examples, and today that numbers of examples just keep mounting. How does Grothe react when example after example is presented to him of exactly that which he categorically denied existing? Ebon Muse exchanged some emails with him and while he backs down slightly from the original claim, he doesn't go so far as to acknowledge he's doing so.

That's disappointing. Grothe and Dacey made a claim in their original article which was wrong — it should have been recognized as wrong then and certainly should be recognized as wrong now. The only proper follow-up now is to admit this. I can't understand the reluctance, given the fact that their argument isn't even based on this particular assertion.

The statement "Atheists need a public awareness campaign, not a liberation movement" seems fair - Grothe and Dacey don't deny that atheists aren't regarded very highly, but their argument seems to me to be that a public awareness campaign would help alleviate misunderstandings and, as a consequence, help to ensure that the rights we currently have are preserved.

On the other hand, a public awareness campaign is only helpful if atheists' problems are due to honest misunderstandings. If instead atheists' problems are due to outright bigotry, then public awareness just isn't enough. This is where Tabash's argument proves to be stronger. Atheists' civil rights are protected more because people don't have choice and as a side-effect of general religious liberty protections, not because enough people actually and sincerely believe that atheists deserve to be treated as fully equal. Public awareness campaigns may be less confrontational and easier for people who just want to "get along," but they won't do much to improve atheists' situation overall.

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