Discrimination against nonbelievers in America is so overt and widespread that most of us are completely desensitized to it.
If you’re a rational American – religious or nonreligious – you probably roll your eyes when you hear fundamentalist preachers and right-wing politicians rant in the name of God whenever a major tragedy occurs. But do you stop to consider that their comments directly disparage nonbelievers? If these preachers and politicians directly attacked Hindus, Jews, or Muslims the way they attack atheists-humanists, they would be quickly called out for their hateful prejudice. So why should their anti-secular venom be tolerated?
This phenomenon was highly visible this week. Within hours of the Connecticut school massacre, men of God were eager to explain the travesty, and those explanations consistently attributed the violence to American secularity. Former presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, for example, proclaimed that the shooting rampage was the natural result of our having “systematically removed God from our schools.”
Imagine if Huckabee had publicly suggested that the rejection of Jesus, rather than the more general God, was the reason for the Connecticut school violence. In little time, he would be sharply criticized for even indirectly suggesting that Hindus, Jews, and Muslims were somehow responsible for the rampage. Yet when the circle is drawn to exclude only atheists and humanists, the prejudice is seen as acceptable. (Huckabee was widely criticized for insensitivity, but not for prejudice toward nonbelievers.)
“Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant,” said fundamentalist leader James Dobson in response to the Connecticut attacks. For such transgressions, according to Dobson, “God has allowed judgment to fall upon us.” Thus, atheists-humanists are the villains once again, a theme echoed by Newt Gingrich, who blamed the tragedy on those who are “seeking to drive God out of public life.”
These statements outrage most rational Americans, both religious and nonreligious, but many still overlook the blatant prejudice. Many who disagree with Huckabee, Dobson, and Gingrich instead focus on theological arguments. God is good, says the religious liberal who rejects the fundamentalist view of God as a vengeful tyrant. God would never unleash his wrath on innocent children. Offended by the notion of a mean-spirited God, these liberals make theological rebuttals that portray God as kinder and gentler.
This warmhearted view of God is certainly more civil than the fundamentalist view, but by focusing on theology it completely overlooks the real-world discrimination against nonbelievers. Atheists and humanists find it frustrating that statements such as those of Huckabee, Dobson, and Gingrich are almost never criticized by religious liberals for promoting a hateful prejudice against nonbelievers (who are already the most disliked and distrusted minority in the country).
Let’s be clear about something: Huckabee and company, with very little ambiguity, are claiming that those who live without God-belief are directly or indirectly responsible for violence and moral decline. This is discriminatory, contrary to the pluralistic values of modern society, and provably false. Consider facts:
- The vast majority of developed counties have no state-sponsored school prayer, and none have problems of violent crime (and gun violence in particular) remotely akin to that of the US.
- Nonbelievers tend to be educated and productive members of society, not agents of evil as suggested by Huckabee and company. Over 90 percent of the National Academy of Sciences holds atheist or agnostic views.
It’s great that many Americans, even those who are religious, find the statements of Huckabee and company objectionable, but it’s unfortunate that the objections focus on the wrong issue. Rather than argue about whether God is jealous and vindictive or loving and compassionate (or at least in addition to that argument), Americans should be calling out fundamentalists for depicting nonbelievers as agents of evil.
David Niose's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is now available wherever books are sold.
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