Atheists – America’s soft target?

The salient facts of the matter are that in many areas of American society and institutions today, atheists face discrimination at, or even beyond, the level of many other groups who’s plights have immeasurably greater recognition. This is to take nothing away from the sufferings of other minorities or groups in America; many face disgraceful discrimination in the country priding itself as the ‘Land of the Free’. This article however, will focus on the issues faced by many non-believers for just that; their beliefs (or lack thereof). The LGBT movement, Feminist movement, Movement for Racial Equality; among others these are all well established and relatively well publicised phenomenon across America. What is far less well recognised, and yet equally noteworthy, is the movement for equality and end to discrimination for non-believers, agnostics, anti-theists and atheists. Making up an estimated 15% of the population (and growing), many of these citizens encounter struggles in everyday American life that many have no idea exist.

In American Society and institutions

Fred Edwards of the American Humanist Association claims that, “Americans still feel it’s acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups.” Consider the case of the US Military for example; a cornerstone of American life, society and institutions. A required section of the US army GAT (Global Assessment Tool) Test is entitled ‘Spiritual Fitness’, “a program that puts spiritual fitness on par with physical and mental fitness.” Failure to pass this section has seen troops forced to receive ‘training’ from a chaplain to ensure their spiritual fitness. Despite criticism the army retains and defends this section of it’s assessment, despite blatantly placing those of non-religious background at a disadvantage.

Even worse practice is to be found in another famed institution; the Boy Scouts of America. This organisation, which claims to produce America’s best citizens, has a blanket policy of non-admittance for non-believing or atheist children. From a young and malleable age, America’s boys are being taught intolerance which contradicts directly with the US Constitution outlining freedom of religion. The Boy Scouts of America National Council website states, “Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognising an obligation to God.” This flagrant statement of discrimination has now gone on for generations without change.

Yet another American institution where this worrying trend can be observed is in the complex, personal and emotional arena of domestic family legal cases. UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh writes in the introduction to his paper ‘Parent-child speech and child custody speech restrictions’, “The “best interests of the child” test – the normal rule applied in custody disputes between two parents – leaves family court judges ample room to consider a parent’s ideology. Parents have had their rights limited or denied partly based on their advocacy of atheism, racism, homosexuality, adultery, nonmarital sex, Communism, Nazism.” Two major issues arise from this quote; that atheism is considered a legitimate reason for denial of child custody, and that atheism is grouped together directly alongside the likes of Nazism, racism and adultery in this US institution.

While this institutionalised discrimination based on archaic rules and beliefs is deeply disturbing, what is equally worrying is how this anti-atheist sentiment has permeated everyday citizens of the United States. A 1996 study found that in general people gave lower priority to non-religious patients when asked to rank them for an organ transplant list. Furthermore a 2006 study revealed that 39.6% of those asked did ‘not agree at all’ that atheists were a part of their vision for American society. Imagine for a moment if this question had been regarding blacks or Jews and the response had been the same… the outcry would have been monumental, but atheists are afforded no such concern.

In American Politics

The US political sphere is the most observed, commented and powerful of any in the world. The position of president is widely acknowledged to be the seat of power on the global stage. You might imagine therefore that this greatest of global authorities would be above such base issues as discrimination, after all there is a black president now, right? Wrong. This article is not suggesting that discrimination of religious belief is the largest or most heinous of injustices in US politics, it merely seeks to highlight it as one of the least documented and discussed.

The issues are found from the highest levels, down to the very grassroots levels of US political society. Take Sacramento based atheist Michael Newdow, who has faced institutional discrimination, nationally publicised disgrace, and even death threats for his position on religion in America. Back in 2002, Mr Newdow challenged the fact that his daughter was forced to include the phrase ‘Under God’ in the national Pledge of Allegiance, claiming it discriminated against her beliefs as an atheist and her constitutional rights. Initially his case was upheld, however when the case was taken to the Supreme Court it was dismissed citing no legitimate legal standing, despite the blatant contradiction with the rule and the US constitution.

Moving further up the US political ladder, to this day there are six states that require all those who run for public office to pass a religious ‘test’, and seven states who’s constitutions explicitly ban atheists from holding office under any circumstance. The reality is that due to the direct constitutional violation of these laws, they are almost impossible to legally enforce. Despite this, in 2009 a North Carolina City Councilman was deemed ‘unworthy’ of his seat because of his openly atheist views. While these laws may not be enforceable (despite many who would like them to be so), just the fact that they remain as official, archaic and openly discriminatory laws today in the 21st Century is a disgrace and a serious blemish on the reputation of the world’s most advanced nation.

President George H. Bush once said, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God”. Despite many attempts, even by his son, to backtrack on this, there is very little one can say to reconcile a statement so blunt. While many have tried to claim these were simply the views of one man and not of America at large, they are the views of a man America voted into power. To give someone with opinions so overtly discriminatory, bigoted and twisted the opportunity to rule is to admit that at least part of what he said is accepted and shared by many others. Yes, that was many years ago. Yes, America has changed since then. No, the problem has not gone away.