I was deeply disturbed by the news that the House had passed a measure to bar the Defense Department from appointing atheist military chaplains, but I was not surprised.
I am an atheist. I do not believe in any god nor I do not believe in the supernatural; I have faith in human potential to discover and understand. The unfortunate reality is, I do need to qualify these beliefs.
Even though I am a white, straight, middle class, college-educated male, I am still an 'other.' Depending on who I talk to, I am either a poster child for immorality and sexual promiscuity -- jaded, in open rebellion of my creator -- or young and naïve, going through a phase, and somehow insincere. I can't begin to count how many times I heard "there are no atheists in foxholes" growing up, even in the liberal northeast (I cannot imagine what it would have been like in a religious region of the country). That's because not many people actually want to accept that you're an atheist. To do so is seen as a challenge to deeply held societal values; as if your beliefs are meant to be confrontational. When one admits to them, they become a pariah.
It is no surprise, atheists find themselves the victims of violence and discrimination. The founder of the American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, was murdered in 1995. We are also the least trusted minority in the U.S., and the minority parents least want their children to marry. Only 54 percent of Americans think we share their vision of society.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in electoral politics. The first atheist Congressman, Pete Stark D-CA, was elected just 20 years ago (though he was classified as Unitarian while in office), and since then, the number has not increased. The 113th Congress contains just one religiously unaffiliated member, Kyrsten Sinema D-AZ, and no atheists. According to the Pew Research Center's Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 113th Congress, the unaffiliated, a category which includes us non-believers, are the most underrepresented demographic in the country.
As a percentage of the U.S. population, atheists have increased steadily every year from 1.6 percent in 2007 to 2.8 percent in 2012. The unaffiliated have seen their numbers swell even more rapidly. In the last five years they have gone from roughly 15 percent to about 20 percent of the total population. One fifth of the U.S. public, and one third of adults under 30, now describe themselves as unaffiliated.
And yet, you'd never know it. Besides Christians, who make up the majority of both houses of the legislature, the House of Representatives contains 22 Jews, two Buddhists, two Muslims, one Unitarian Universalist, and even one Hindu; the Senate contains 11 Jews and seven Mormons. To put these numbers in perspective, every one of these faiths represents less than even the 2.8 percent of the population atheists make up let alone the 16 percent unaffiliated.
For these reasons, we must overlook many of our grievances, like when we hear the President say "God bless America" in a vain effort to prove to his critics that he's patriotic enough, or I should say Christian enough. We can't admit to being annoyed by the "In God we trust" on our currency, courtesy of the Cold War Era, because if we do, our complaints will be spun as an attack on America and the fabric of society. We must pick our battles carefully, only focusing on egregious attacks on free exercise like new laws to bring prayer back to public schools, or to limit abortion rights or stop marriage equality.
I remember growing up, learning of the Constitution in school and of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." There's a succinct logic to what Jefferson coined the "Wall of Separation," the principle that in order to protect freedom of religion, there needs to be freedom from religion. This is one of many protections for minority groups the Framers built in the Constitution, fearing a tyranny of the majority. As a kid, these larger-than-life figures who we refer to as our Founding Fathers seemed to me to have created a perfect system of government. However as I grew up, and continued my education, I learned that America has not always lived up to the lofty ideals she was founded on.