Where the real persecution is

Christians in America have this habit of pretending that they are some persecuted minority: Our Muslim, socialist, communist, Nazi, white-hating, Kenyan, Marxist president has a war on religion; every December the nation’s retailers wage a war on Christmas; atheists want to ban Christian children from praying to themselves in school. And around and around it goes, Christians pretending that everyone is out to get them, that they have no power, and if we don’t all act fast, religious persecutions and moral decay are on their way. It is all a bald lie. Christians have nothing but power. They hold almost every political seat in the nation, whether on the state or federal level. They dominate the positions of authority in our legal system. Do you need to get time taken off your prison sentence? Don’t say you’ve found deep thinking in moral philosophers. Say you’ve found God and maybe you’ll get to see your family sooner than your atheist cellmate (presuming you are one of the rare people to experience such a person in an American prison).

The real belief-based persecution of people in America happens to two main groups: Muslims and atheists. The former is a relatively new, reactionary persecution related to September 11, but the latter has been happening since the inception of the nation. Look at any time period in the nation’s history to see who is being persecuted and I guarantee atheists will be mentioned every single time. Somewhere there is always someone seething over the idea that a person might not only reject the idea of a god in all its forms, but might also be a good person while doing it. Such an audacious lifestyle has had a strong history of garnering more than its fair share of emotion-based vitriol.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all history. Currently there is one openly atheist member of Congress. Compare that to at least 6 open gays. Or look at the fact that 9% of Americans would never vote for a Jew, yet 49% refuse to ever vote for an atheist. And then there are the actual lives of declared atheists:

[Take the story] of Harry Purdy, born in Manchester, the son of an American GI father he did not know. A year after the US government opened up its records, the then 46-year-old stepped off the plane at Louisville Airport, Kentucky in May 1991 and became the first of the lost GI babies to be reunited with his father. Purdy eventually took up American citizenship and moved over to live in 1993.

“It was a good thing I met him for the first time,” he told me when we met at a roadside restaurant near his home, “but this is Kentucky, this is the Bible Belt. I’m an atheist.” One by one, members of his new family turned against him because of his lack of belief. Harry doesn’t see any of his American family any more. “The last one I saw was my cousin, Ronnie. Every time he invites me over to dinner, he turns to religion. Last time I saw him, I didn’t back out, I took him full on.

“I’ve been told things like ‘I hope you have an accident, die and go to hell.’ So that’s what I’ve been up against.”

Friends have rejected him. “I used to be a good running friend with somebody who doesn’t live far from here. I mentioned on one occasion that I was an atheist and I’ve never seen him again … I came here knowing this was the Bible Belt, but I didn’t realise it was a more like a totalitarian Christian society: you’re either one of them or you’re not and there’s no in between. So I’ve learnt this lesson, to keep it to myself as much as possible.”

It might be suggested that one “solution” is to hide one’s lack of belief. This isn’t going to solve any problems, and even if it did, it isn’t going to solve the right ones. It’s telling people to lie about what they believe because the majority doesn’t want to hear certain voices.

From the outside, keeping your views to yourself may not seem such a problem. But this is only if you think that it’s easy to live hiding who you really are from almost everyone around you, even close family. Take Matt Elder, who lives in Festus, Missouri (pop. 11,602). When I met him in a downtown St Louis diner, he came across as a cheerful, friendly guy, not someone living under a kind of persecution. “They’re not going to cut me off or throw me to the wolves,” he says of his Christian family and in-laws. But if Elder is typical of the trying-to-keep-their-heads-down atheists scattered around the Bible Belt, then his story shows that none of them has it easy.

Elder says with a smile that when he goes out wearing his black T-shirt with its large scarlet A – the symbol of the atheist Out Campaign inspired by Richard Dawkins – “you’ll see mothers bring their children a little closer and step a little quickly away”. Elder is not militant and tries to be as accommodating as he can without being a hypocrite. “I would go to church with my wife about every week, just for community. But now, I don’t go because there’s really weird conflicts.” Weirdest of all is his regular appearance on the weekly prayer list. “There are times when people stand up and say stuff out loud to every­one else, and my wife did that while I was there.” I asked him what she said, and his paraphrase was: “My husband no longer believes in God and I’m scared for him and my family.” No wonder Elder feels that now at the church “there’s a target on my back”.

The statistics aren’t any better:

A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. Nearly 48 per cent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent).

I can say I’ve personally experienced someone turning me down for the explicit reason that I’m an atheist. I’m not so arrogant as to pretend there couldn’t be other factors, but it isn’t like people are in the habit of letting others down easy by going straight to religious (and non-religious) beliefs. Of course, it is understandable that a person would want to date a like-minded person, but that isn’t what the above poll was about. People were asked how they would feel about their child dating an atheist. The fact that there is a nearly 50% chance my would-be date’s parents were happy with her decision without knowing a thing about me is distressing. It betrays the prejudice which underlies so many of the misconceptions religious folks have about atheists.

A real solution to all these problems is for atheists to make their presence known. That means, when asked or relevant, to proudly state “I am an atheist” in front of absolutely anyone. No quibbling with “non-believer” or other terms of avoidance. Those phrases should be reserved for specific instances and linguistic purposes. If we can’t get rid of the stigma around the word “atheist”, then how can meaningful progress be had?

Some people will disagree with that strategy (such as Sam Harris, as quoted in the article), but for people to know they know atheists is the first step. This isn’t about trumpeting atheism around the public square or getting in anyone’s face; this strategy is not exclusive to Gnu atheists. Anyone who believes there is insufficient evidence for God in the same way there is insufficient evidence for celestial teapots ought to don a scarlet A, whether literally or figuratively. Letting people know we exist is the best way to combat the systematic scorn and persecution so many atheists face in America.

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