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Damned if we do, damned if we don't:
the atheist dilemma


By MarieAlena Castle
Communications Director, Atheists For Human Rights

... I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
-- The elder George Bush, Campaign stop, Chicago IL, 27 Aug 1987

Surveys consistently show nonbelievers to be the least popular demographic group (with the possible exception of neoNazis and the Ku Klux Klan). About 49% of Americans would not vote for an atheist for President even if the candidate was of their own party. This is lower than the support Muslims got in the emotional aftermath of 9/11. All atheists ever do is occasionally object to state-church violations — and then all hell breaks loose.

It's not enough that religionists criticize us. Every so often some fellow nonbeliever attacks us publicly, saying we wouldn't be so disdained if we were just more tactful. Examples of tactlessness are complaints about discrimination, objections to state-church violations and filing lawsuits such as Michael Newdow's "under God" case.

The argument is that these actions only fuel the hatred against us and create a backlash where we will find ourselves worse off. In the "under God" case, it is said a win would surely trigger an amendment to the Constitution protecting religious proselytizing by government.

True enough. Atheists really do invite a backlash of hatred whenever we object to state-church violations. But being polite won't help. The most tactful letters to the editor or public statements supporting state-church separation often generate extremely vicious responses, some of them actual death threats.

Doing nothing won't help either, because the fact is we are hated simply for being what we are, nonbelievers in a country so steeped in religiosity that even most atheists are not aware of the many ways we are controlled by religion.

Consider why "under God" was inserted in the Pledge. It was 1954. Nonbelievers were politely being ordinary citizens, not complaining about state-church violations, not filing lawsuits, doing nothing to cause a backlash. But the Cold War was on. That the Soviet Union was a dictatorship with territorial ambitions always seemed less important than that it had a communistic economic system and was officially (gasp!) atheistic. We heard a lot about "Godless" communism, although, significantly, during the Nazi period we never heard about "Christian" fascism.

So "under God" went into the Pledge to hammer home the difference between our cultures. (Of course, a better way would have been to eliminate the Pledge entirely, since only dictatorships have them.) But why "under God" when "under free enterprise" would have been more to the point? Because it was atheism that was most hated, and "under God" let this nation's atheist citizens know where we stood, and it wasn't under the protection of the Constitution.

The chances of atheists achieving acceptance in this country are slim, for a definite reason: We really take state-church separation seriously and the religious institutions know it. They know that if we had the power we would ensure that religious institutions received the same fair and equitable treatment as all other institutions, with the same rights and responsibilities, no more, no less. (Can anyone see also fair and equitable taxation here?) For those who understand and value state-church separation, the best people to elect to public office are atheists.

And that's why we are hated or, more accurately, feared. Religious institutions (primarily those that are politically and socially power-seeking) do not want state-church separation, They do not want equal treatment. They want the preferential treatment to which they have become accustomed and then some. They want our tax money and control of our lives (see the faith-based initiatives; restrictions on abortion rights, gay rights and medical research; politicized science; sabotaged public schools).

The Soviet Union adopted atheism only to end the autocratic political power of the Russian Orthodox Church. To prevent it from regaining that power, religious persons were kept out of government. Similarly, atheists cannot be elected to public office in America to ensure that the de facto union of religion and government remains intact. To perpetuate our social-pariah status, religionists are taught to hate us, to believe we lack a moral compass, and to think we should not be considered as citizens or patriots because this is one nation under "God."

What are we atheists to do about this? We will keep trying to make this a country where we are free to be religion free, or not, as we choose.

Pres. Harry Truman, infuriated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy's attacks on civil liberties in the name of anti-communism, told the American Legion:

Slander, lies, character assassination--these things are a threat to every single citizen everywhere in this country. When even one American — who has done nothing wrong — is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril. It is the job of all of us — of every American who loves his country and his freedom — to rise up and put a stop to this terrible business.

We atheists could just give up, shut our minds and close our mouths, but some of us like the idea of a fair, equitable and rational society too much to quit. We think there's still hope, but not much.

We're outnumbered and religious institutions love their socio-political power and the carefully cultivated perception of them as guardians of morality to allow us to question that. So the slander, lies and demonizing of us will keep going. But so will we, backlash scars and all.