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"Persecuted" Atheists in America Need a New Perspective

The Financial Times reported last week that "Godlessness is the last big taboo in the U.S., where non-believers face discrimination and isolation." It's a serious charge, and at first glance there seems to be some truth to it. Numerous polls have revealed that Americans wouldn't elect an atheist president, while other surveys suggest that non-believers are viewed as the "least favorable" group by a majority of Americans.

Such statistics make for good human interest stories, but their significance is exaggerated. Keeping this issue in its proper perspective, there's no reason to feel sorry for the irreligious in this country.

Each year, around the start of Christmas season, Christians all over the country get themselves riled up over the so-called "War on Christmas." Each year, I respond the same way, and I now direct the same comments at atheists: Get over yourselves. Christians around the world are murdered every year because of their beliefs. A recent Pew Forum Study put the number as high as 100,000 annually. Just consider the contrast for a moment. When Americans feel discriminated against, they give sappy interviews to sympathetic journalists. In other parts of the world (say, Yemen or North Korea), people know they face discrimination because they might take a bullet for their convictions. Like I said, perspective. 

So we may be relatively comfortable in America, but why are atheists looked down upon? The Financial Times suggests that it's because Christians are ignorant or judgmental, but considering how atheists portray themselves, it's difficult to think of them as a victimized minority. The famous biologist and author Richard Dawkins called religious belief "... one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." About.com's "Best Atheist Book of the Year" in 2010, as chosen by readers, was innocently titled The Christian Delusion

Similarly, bestselling author Christopher Hitchens often compared belief in God to blind faith in a totalitarian political leader and called religion "... violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry ..." In light of those comments, it shouldn't surprise atheists that the religious majority remains skeptical of them. Calling people you disagree delusional isn't a good way to build rapport or generate sympathy. 

The same is true of winning elections, too. People who openly bash voters generally don't make much headway in politics. That's why politicians do everything they can to identify with the people they want to govern. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama emphasized his desire to change the way Washington operates, appealing to the populist sensibilities of many progressive voters. This election cycle, Mitt Romney has very carefully spun his history as an investor, highlighting how his hard work and independence led to success. Such PR is a means to earn votes, but I don't think it's available to people who base their views on the idea that they're smarter than everyone else.

Furthermore, it's not wrong to consider a candidate's religious views when voting. In fact, we already do. Rick Santorum, for example, is very vocal about his beliefs, and his faith is probably the primary reason he will receive and lose a lot of votes. The Christian right loves him and almost everybody else, myself included, can't stand his policies. But nobody sheds a tear for the former Pennsylvania Senator because his beliefs receive a lot of scrutiny. And nobody should get upset for atheists because they feel the same pressure. It's just one of the trade offs that go with voicing your opinion.

Beliefs about God lay the groundwork for people's views on a whole host social and political issues, and I doubt many atheists would disagree with me on that point. They've used it themselves for political purposes. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for instance, argues that "The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion." Frankly, it would be stupid for voters to ignore such an outlook when considering who they'll vote for and what role religion should play in public life. 

The reality is that in a country where religious liberty is enshrined in our founding documents, we don't know what it means to be persecuted for our religious beliefs, or lack thereof. To be sure, there are anecdotes about individuals of many different religious persuasions facing discrimination to some degree. Generally speaking, however, we have it well in America. Indeed, that's why we argue about mundane issues like prayer in school, or what our holidays are called, and don't kill each other.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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