By Austin Cline
March 28, 2012
The strength of
anti-atheist bigotry in America is undeniable. Surveys regularly show that
atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in the nation. But how
exactly does this anti-atheist bigotry manifest? How do religious theists — Christians,
primarily — express or act on their bigotry towards atheists? What does
anti-atheist bigotry in America look like?
The most fundamental
and serious expression of anti-atheist bigotry in America is to deny atheists'
very humanity on some level. The worst form is to deny that atheists have any
reason to be moral because morality requires gods and/or morality proves the
existence of gods. This sort of hate-mongering feeds the perception that
atheist can't be trusted, a frequently cited reason for discrimination against
Something very similar
is expressed by saying that atheists have no reason to care about other people
or can't teach their children the difference between right and wrong. These
false claims feed the perception that atheists don't have the same values as
normal human beings, thus causing people to conclude that atheists are at least
untrustworthy if not somehow inhuman.
The most extreme
expression of this is the one that is also the most literal: the idea that
atheists are tools of Satan, are satanic, and/or are demonic. It's a literal
form of demonization that encourages people to regard atheists as completely
unworthy of all the same rights, consideration, and dignity normally according
other human beings. It also helps encourage people to not give any thought or
attention to anything atheists might say.
Denying that atheists
are even "real" is a popular way of denying that atheists should be
treated as equals. You don't have to give any consideration to people who don't
really exist or who are lying about who they really are.
Some Christians will
claim that atheists can't exist because atheism requires something like knowing
everything. Others will insist that atheists can't exist in difficult situations
like foxholes. Whatever the specifics, the purpose is to portray atheists as
unreal in some fashion — and unreal people aren't really people.
Refuse to Take
expression of bigotry is probably the refusal to give any consideration to what
atheists have to say. Not taking someone seriously isn't inherently bigoted,
obviously, but it can become bigotry when you dismiss an entire class of people
for no other reason than that they belong to that class. Not taking someone
seriously merely because they are black or female is obviously bigoted and the
same is true if it's merely because they are atheists.
When this happens,
it's usually in the context of dismissing atheism as a mere fad, as something
pursued simply because it's "cool," and similar rationalizations. In
every case, the purpose is to cast atheists generally in a negative light and
discourage others from paying attention to anything atheists have to say — not
because of the quality of their arguments, but merely because they happen to be
inequality of atheists in America is undeniable. More people admit that they
would refuse to vote for a political candidate solely because they are an
atheist than any other minority. Only one politician at the federal level has
admitted to being a "nontheist" and none will use the
The distrust and
dislike of atheists is simply too extreme and just about all of that can be
laid at the feet of preachers and pastors who keep pushing their anti-atheist
messages. Keeping atheists in a position of political inequality is important
if they want to preserve all of the unjust privileges Christians have managed
to acquire over the decades.
Distrust and dislike
of atheists extends to the personal and social realms as well. Just as more
people would refuse to vote for atheists than any other minority, more people
would object to their child marrying an atheist than any other minority. People
who are atheists are frequently afraid to reveal their atheism to coworkers,
friends, neighbors, and even families.
stigmas on atheism encourages atheists to remain silent and invisible. That
invisibility encourages others to assume that atheists are few in number and
that there is something shameful about atheism. And that, of course, reinforces
the social stigmas on atheism. It's a vicious cycle which serves no purpose
outside of fear-mongering and hate-mongering.
Superiority Through Privilege
The most insidious
expression of bigotry is the assertion of religious privilege or Christian
privilege. It's insidious because it's not directly about atheists; instead
it's about religious believers generally and Christians in particular being
treated as if they were special and thus deserve privileges unavailable to
anyone else. Sometimes this comes in the form of small benefits and sometimes
it comes in the form of outright supremacism.
Either way, though,
it's a form of bigotry because it's based on the idea that membership in a
particular class (religious, Christian, evangelical) confers a superior social,
cultural, and political status over other classes. It's obvious bigotry to say
or believe that whites should hold exclusive power or be treated as if their
expectations should be catered to. Why isn't it as obviously bigoted to say or
believe that Christians should hold exclusive power or be treated as if their
expectations should be catered to?
The most extreme forms
of this are known as Dominion Theology and Christian Reconstructionism.
Dominionism is the Christian doctrine that Christians have a divine mandate to
rule over all humanity, or at least over America. Christian Reconstructionism
is a movement dedicated to "reconstructing" American law, government,
and culture along Old Testament lines — with particular emphasis on the ancient
laws found in the Pentateuch.
Reconstructionists are relatively few in number, but they have had a lot of
influence on the Christian Right and many aspects of Dominion Theology have
become important for the Christian Right.