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Atheists: The Last Minority to Get Civil Rights?

Should America's atheists come out of the closet?

In America, freedom of religion does not yet include freedom from religion. If you doubt that try spending time in a very religious state such as Alabama. Here is what you can expect:

· On his first day in office, the state governor might say that anyone who does not believe in God is not his brother. That would be discrimination against atheists from the top.

· Your weather man might helpfully inform you that you will “need a jacket tomorrow on your way to church.” Religious indoctrination by meteorologists!

· If you tell someone you have no religion, they might say: “I would keep that to myself, if I were you.”

· Instead of saying “have a good day” your waiter or waitress might say “have a blessed day.” That might be tough for an atheist. Imagine telling an African American to “have a white day,” or vice versa. You would have to be Eddie Murphy to get away with that.

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Yet, it is not just an Alabama problem. The entire country ignores the civil and political rights of atheists:

· The U.S. President mentions his religion in every speech. If you are going to be praying for people or saying “God bless America” it seems pointless to include the disclaimer “people of all religions, or no religion” as Obama has begun to do.

· Despite the legal separation between church and state, the U.S. Congress actually has a chaplain who begins legislative sessions with prayer.

· Even National Public Radio gets in on the act by playing religious music on Sundays and so forth. One helpful segment informed listeners about how they could find a new church when they moved.

Why do all sorts of people feel so free to trample over the rights of people who have no religion? The answer, I believe is twofold. First, atheists are not politically organized after the manner of ethnic minorities or GLBTs. Second, there is a powerful negative stereotype about atheists in America.

The negative stereotype was described in an interesting article by religion scholars Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman one year ago. They wrote:

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance, and new rights, there is still a group lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

They go on to show that the negative stereotype about atheists – that has a scriptural basis – has no objective basis and arises purely from bigotry.

Paul and Zuckerman estimate the number of atheists in America as one in five and atheists worldwide are likely to become the majority. It is disappointing that the talents of so many Americans are kept out of public office.

This is a Catch 22 because until they are politically represented, atheists cannot receive their full political rights. In one way or another, every discriminated-against minority managed to cross this hurdle. For many atheists, though, it has been easier to keep a low profile just as homosexuals did. Perhaps the time is ripe for American atheists to come out of the closet.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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