Atheists are perhaps the most unjustly reviled minority in the United States. Often criticized as being nihilists, anti-American, or even devil worshippers, atheists are one of the few remaining minority groups that it is not considered politically incorrect to publically criticize.
In Austin, Texas, I attended the National Convention and 50th Anniversary Celebration of the American Atheists, the most outspoken organization representing atheists in America. I had never attended any atheist event or gathering before, and didn’t know much about the American Atheists before arriving. When I heard the opening remarks of David Silverman, President of American Atheists, and noticed that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, I wondered if perhaps I was in the wrong place.
Founded 50 years ago by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, once branded the ‘most hated woman in America’ because of her successful supreme court challenge against compulsory prayer in schools, American Atheists is a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the separation of church/mosque/temple and state. They promote freedom of thought and religious beliefs, secular education, and humanist ethics and they defend the civil rights of Atheists and other nonbelievers. They are a provocative, grumpy organization known for in-your-face atheism, running billboard campaigns and launching legal challenges regarding state and church separation. Some of their recent court challenges include the erection of a cross at Ground Zero, site of the former world trade center towers in New York, and displays of the 10 commandments on public property. In the style of many religious proponents, they practice firebrand atheism, leading the fight against the privilege of religion in America. David Silverman argues that his organization’s aggressiveness is critical to advancing the broader acceptance of atheism in the U.S. by shifting the debate and creating space for less strident organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.
The number of Americans who say they are religious has been steadily dropping in America, down from 73% to 60% between 2005 and 2012 according to WIN-Gallop’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism. According to this poll, the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1% to 5% over this same period and the number of Americans who identified as atheists or ‘not a religious person’ was 35% (Canada was 49%). The Pew Forum October 2012 Poll found that 20% of Americans are not religiously affiliated. This unaffiliated group has grown more than any other particular religion and more than religiosity overall. This trend is likely to continue as young adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than those aged 70 and older to not be religiously affiliated (25% vs. 8%) and are more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%).
Despite these trends, American atheists still face widespread discrimination. Although Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, no avowed atheist has ever been elected to either of the U.S. Houses of Congress (only Congressman Pete Stark, who came out while in office, has been re-elected). Although there are many suspected atheists in the over 500 members of the current 112th Congress, all profess to be members of an organized religion except one (an openly bisexual U.S. Representative from Arizona who won’t call herself an atheist). Two Muslims were elected at a time when America is at war with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but not a single atheist. This stands in stark contrast to Australia where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is openly atheist. Nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the American military except Christians, yet have no secular chaplains to provide ethical and family counseling geared to their own non beliefs. Atheists cannot be Boy Scouts of America nor members of its leadership.
In some parts of the country, to identify oneself as an atheist results in blackballing by the community, including the loss of one’s livelihood and friends. In many religious groups, apostates are denounced and ostracized, eliminating their only support network. In some families, coming out as an atheist results in rejection by one’s parents, siblings, and perhaps even one’s spouse. Clergy who lose their faith often keep it a secret and continue to preach rather than lose their only profession, their livelihood, and perhaps their only means of funding after retirement.
I support freedom of religion. Religious people have a right to worship, to organize, and of course to free speech, which includes the right to proselytize to consenting adults. When I am in the home of a religious person, I follow their traditions, and I am courteous in houses of worship. I am also a secularist and believe in an absolute separation of church and state. The government should never promote not impose any aspect of any religion on others, nor allow this behaviour by its representatives or on its properties. Will those promoting a Protestant Christian America, who are currently barely a majority (51%), be as supportive of public prayer and religious education when the Muslims or Catholics have the numbers to impose their will?