Asheville Atheism Attacked Anew

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

I woke up this morning fairly convinced I was living in the 21st century. But I began doubting my conclusion, and perhaps my sanity, when I read in the Washington Post that the election of Councilman Cecil Bothwell in Asheville, North Carolina, was being contested because he does not believe in god. No, your morning coffee is not laced with LSD; you read that correctly.

In other news, two witches were convicted in Salem yesterday. More at eleven.

Elected officials in North Carolina are constitutionally disqualified from office if they "deny the being of Almighty God." But let us not pick on the ignorant bias of the Tar Heel state, for they are not alone in primitive thinking appropriate to the 1600s. Many in Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas all deny atheists the right to hold public office. Never mind that the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1961 that the U.S. Constitution trumps such outrageous religious discrimination through the supremacy of federal law. That particular invocation of the supremacy clause from our Supremes came about when some poor guy by the name of Herb Silverman in Maryland could not be appointed as a notary for his crime of not believing in god. Herb spent eight years claiming a right that any other American would take for granted without a second thought. In other news, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Catholics can run for public office. Don't touch that dial!

State sanctions applied against one belief system in favor of another are an abomination, a stain on our society, and in direct contradiction to everything our Founding Fathers wished for our great country. Consider the deep irony of a conservative group of people who claim a unique fidelity to the Constitution while they actively undermine the document's most important principles. To understand how outrageous these prohibitions against atheism really are, just substitute "Christian" everywhere atheism is mentioned in the offending state constitutions. Let's prohibit Christians from becoming notaries or holding public office. Absurd? Why is that not acceptable but somehow discrimination against atheism is so mainstream as to be codified in state law?

"Atheist" is derived from the ancient Greek adjective atheos, which means "without gods." Defining anybody or any movement as the negative of another is a bad start. I refuse to be defined as an absence of what somebody else supposedly has; I simply cannot be without something that does not exist. The idea is ridiculous. Calling me an atheist is like defining me as a man without a dragon tail, and then denying me my rights because I do not have a dragon tail! I cannot be absent something that is nothing but another's myth. I am a rationalist, and if others wish to believe in an invisible man in the sky with magical powers, we can label them arationalists. Denying my right to hold office because I refuse to acknowledge dragon tails has no place in modern American society.

The problem partly lies in the power of words to impact our perception. Atheism is a pejorative term, and with that inherent negativity comes implied permission to discriminate blatantly and openly. We can trash that which we do not respect. During the Second World War we called our enemies Japs and Krauts among other degrading epithets in order to diminish them as humans, making them easier to hate, fight and kill. Our cause was just enough without the name calling. Many Christians use "atheists" in a similarly derogative vein. The solution is to abandon completely the use of the term atheist, just as polite society no longer uses the "N" word to describe African-Americans, "Rag Heads" for Arabs or "Wet Backs" for those south of the border. Offensive? Yes, just as is the use of the word atheist.

Atheism is pejorative because of an inherent assumption embedded in the word. African-Americans were once called "Colored" when civil rights were a distant dream. That word is offensive because of the implication that all others must be compared to the pure "standard" of White. If black skin was considered the standard, all Caucasians would be properly called "a-pigmented" or "uncolored." Likewise, the word atheist implies a standard of religiosity in which belief in god is somehow the measure by which all others must be judged. Religion is no more legitimate as a standard than is white skin.

Discrimination against atheism makes no sense on multiple levels. First, rationalism is a worldview not a religion, and therefore an odd victim of institutionalized bias. The absence of dogma is not another form of dogma; the commitment to rational thought is not another form of belief along the spectrum of religious doctrine. My worldview is available for disproof; religion is not. Second, the establishment clause in the First Amendment is unambiguous of intent. Third, the label of atheism is itself invalid, and therefore an invalid subject of discrimination; atheist is an idea that allows others to conveniently confuse rationalism with religion, and confounds the baseline from which people's views can be measured.

The latest dust up in Asheville reveals an ugly truth in modern America: our commitment to the founding principles embedded in our Constitution is in jeopardy. Paradoxically, efforts to undermine our most cherished ideas are couched in terms of patriotism and respect for the rule of law. From the Post article we learn the following about the challenge in North Carolina:

H.K. Edgerton is threatening to file a lawsuit in state court against the city to challenge Bothwell's appointment because, "My father was a Baptist minister. I'm a Christian man. I have problems with people who don't believe in God," said Edgerton, a former local NAACP president and founder of Southern Heritage 411, an organization that promotes the interests of black southerners.

Am I the only one to see the problem here? Discriminating against blacks is bad, but perfectly OK when directed against people with a different world view?

We also learn that the head of a conservative weekly newspaper says city officials "shirked their duty to uphold the state's laws" by swearing in Bothwell and his evil atheism. David Morgan, editor of the Asheville Tribune, said he's tired of seeing his state Constitution "trashed." Again we encounter a deep irony. Mr. Morgan is offended because his state constitution is being "trashed" because the state is upholding the U.S. Constitution! You could not make this stuff up. But imagine how far we must come if upholding our founding document against blatant religious discrimination engenders outrage in the very elements of society that so piously claim patriotic fervor and so loudly proclaim the right to practice their religion unhindered.

Fellow rationalists, we have our work cut out for us. We live in a secular country in which the vast majority of citizens incorrectly believe the United States is a Christian nation. We live in society in which a Christian majority exceeding 70% claims to be a victim of discrimination. We are singled out in state constitutions as particularly unworthy of holding public office. We witness a Supreme Court Justice that believes surrealistically that the Christian cross is representative of all religions - and rationalists.

Let us start fighting back by forever abandoning the oppressive label of atheist; let us fight anachronistic and reactionary attempts to exclude rationalism from public discourse. Let us, finally, reject the false inevitability of creeping religiosity in American politics. We are a small minority but have on our side facts in place of fiction. The atrocity of stupidity in North Carolina is a call to political arms.

As we approach the year 2010, the United States owns the dubious distinction of being the only western country in which a candidate's qualifications can be challenged because he does not believe in god. Do we really want to emulate the theocracies of the Middle East? The citizens of North Carolina who support Morgan, Edgerton and their ilk are more like the radical Muslims they apparently have such disdain for than they could ever possibly imagine. I hope we can do better in the next decade.