For some Americans, atheism is clearly an emotional issue. A HuffPost piece I wrote this week about so-called "New Atheists" who urge fellow God-deniers to "come out" provoked a slew of comments in public fora and in private e-mails. Many seem offended, irritated and outraged by my comments. Some accused me of being an "agent of religion."
In short, I argued that the idea that closet-atheists need to be coaxed out into the open and that they need to claim the right to rally together as proud non-believers comes across as a self-victimising project inspired by identity politics and therapeutic thinking more than secular principles. I questioned whether atheists really are an oppressed minority in America and concluded that the Reason Rally taking place in Washington, D.C. later this month is not worth coming out for.
Among the comments were some emotional reactions as well as interesting anecdotes that gave me a better understanding of why some atheists feel the need to identify as a minority and rally together on the National Mall. Many asked me to respond so here are my comments on the most repeated points made by my detractors.
Atheists are the most hated minority in America, didn't you know?
Several commentators pointed out that there is evidence that atheists are hated in the States. Indeed, a 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota showed that atheists are "the most distrusted" minority in America. Apparently, many of the study's more than 2,000 respondents associated atheism with cultural elitism, rampant materialism and criminal behaviour. There have been other surveys, too, that have shown suspicion toward atheism.
These surveys no doubt truthfully report respondents' sentiments, which in many cases seem based on prejudice. It is not altogether surprising that atheists are seen as elitist considering religion-bashing has become a favorite pastime among prominent writers, polemicists and TV show hosts. Nevertheless, the problem with these surveys is that they are based on a false premise because there is no such thing as an "atheist minority."
Atheism can broadly be defined as a theory that deities do not exist, but traditionally people who didn't believe in God(s) did not claim this non-belief as a basis for a common identity, as grounds for forming a group and claiming rights and recognition as a group. Instead, a belief in human agency -- in the ability and necessity for man to shape his own destiny -- generally goes hand-in-hand with an understanding that submitting ourselves to deities and their earthly representatives is not a good idea. That doesn't mean atheists have a common view of what humanity's purpose should be or how to achieve it.
At most, the "New Atheists" preparing to gather at the Reason Rally can be described as a disgruntled mass of people. Their motivation for forging a shared identity around non-religiosity cannot be fully grasped without considering the draw of identity politics, which is immense today. To identify as part of a minority gives people a sense of comfort. It is understandable. It's a good feeling to sense that you're part of a community, that you're forming a group on the basis of a shared outlook. But this modern form of identity politics is not empowering because it is based on self-victimisation and involves pleading for your victim status to be recognised.
The Reason Rally comes across as a therapeutic, feel-good gathering where New Atheists get to bash religious people in the company of fellow religious-bashers. It does not come across as a progressive initiative or an effort to convince Americans of the worth of secularist principles.
Just because atheists are marching into the National Mall to listen to famous people speak, that doesn't mean they're accepted or that they have equal rights. After all, black civil-rights activists gathered there, too, to listen to Martin Luther King.
When New Atheists compare themselves to black civil-rights activists and to gay-rights activists (that's what all the talk of "coming out" is about), this is a way of showing that they are oppressed and shunned and that their "struggle" is unquestionably a morally correct one.
Well, there are undoubtedly true and very unfortunate cases of atheist kids being bullied in school or adults being nervous of going against the grain of the religious communities they live in. Luckily, though, people who don't believe in God are not facing the repression and discrimination in America today that blacks once did.
Atheists are not denied the right to vote, receive education, work or use public transport. They are not subjected to state violence. The Reason Rally participants do not have to fear the police showing up with batons, attack dogs and water cannons, as did happen when black people gathered to demand their rights in the 1950s and '60s. In short, New Atheists are no heirs of Martin Luther King, and the Reason Rally bears no resemblance to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It seems pretty obvious.
Atheists are sick of hearing nasty statements about godless people. Have you seen those billboards about hellfire awaiting non-believers?
Living in a country like America where free speech is still relatively respected involves having to face messages and opinions you disagree with and find offensive. For instance, religious people probably don't enjoy hearing from the likes of Richard Dawkins that faith is a "virus of the mind," but he has the right to address the Reason Rally even if his ideas offend some Americans.
The good thing is you can answer back. The billboard wars in America between religious people and atheists seem pretty childish, but it also shows that if you disagree with a message, then there are avenues for you to oppose it and prove why your views are more valid.
People who come out as atheists risk being rejected by their communities.
Many people grow up in families and communities that they feel uncomfortable with. Many of us find later in life that our way of thinking and our interests clash with the societies we were born into. Of course nobody should be mistreated or discriminated against simply because they believe or do not believe in certain ideas -- whether those are religious, atheist or political ones. But if you can't identify with people around you, if they won't accept you for who you are, then ditch them. It's not always easy, but nobody is stopping you. That's what human agency is about: taking control of your own life. The great thing about the U.S. is that there is room for diverse lifestyles and beliefs -- and no institutional oppression of atheists.