How widespread is discrimination against atheists in America
Atheists are oppressed in America
I was little surprised by the troll comments from Christians who ranted that they were the most oppressed group in the States, but more so from a number of atheists who believed they were not oppressed. Because there are so many different definitions of “oppression” floating around, and because some of the arguments seem a bit confused, the course of the discussion challenged us to approach the question systematically. So here is an attempt to justify the claim that there is a structure of oppression in the United States that targets and harms atheists.
What is oppression
As always, dictionary definitions are almost useless in complex discussions where the common meaning of a term differs from the academic one. You are too thin; they only capture how words are used in everyday life, not the whole concept as understood by those who have immersed themselves in them. So let's turn to academia, where the most useful definitions are those that recognize that society is pervaded by a matrix of power relationships that favor some identities and discriminate against others, leading to hierarchies of good and bad, powerful and powerless based on belonging to various categories of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on.
Consider this definition from Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, a collection by Adams, Bell, and Griffin:
„oppression: The systematic and ubiquitous quality of social inequality that runs through social institutions and is embedded in individual consciousness. Oppression brings together institutional and systematic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of structures and relationships that permeate most aspects of life in our society.
- Oppression refers to structural and material restrictions that significantly shape a person's life chances and their perception of possibilities. "
- Oppression continues to characterize a hierarchical relationship in which dominant or privileged groups often unconsciously benefit from the disempowerment of subordinate or targeted groups.
Oppression lives not only in external social institutions, but also in the human psyche.
- The eradication of oppression ultimately requires a struggle against all of its manifestations; Coalitions between different people are the most promising strategy to systematically question oppression. "
That's a broad definition, but a good one because it's powerful. It provides a frame of reference for understanding key features of the social world that affect how we can live. She shows how power works through institutional and personal mechanisms, emphasizes the hierarchical nature of oppressive structures, and suggests how we can overcome oppression.
What does it mean and what not to say that atheists are oppressed in the US?
To say that atheists are an oppressed group in the United States does not mean they are the most oppressed or disadvantaged group, nor that the oppression they encounter is comparable to that of any other group. Pointing to another oppressed group and saying “they are worse off” leads the conversation astray, but does nothing. Rather, the statement that atheists are oppressed means that they are systematically disadvantaged by structural and material restrictions that significantly shape their chances in life and their perception of possibilities and that they, as a group, are placed low in the hierarchy of religious identities in a way that represents a serious power difference through systematic marginalization.
What evidence shows that atheists are oppressed in the US?
1. Dislike and distrust of atheists as a group are common, well-documented, and persistent, with unfavorable consequences. Evidence is provided by this article on the work of sociologists at the University of Minnesota who found strong and persistent anti-atheist sentiment.
2. Atheism is linked to moral outsider status and a lack of common values; a hierarchical relationship that places believers above those who do not believe in God. Further from the University of Minnesota article: “Atheists are consistently cultural outsiders in the United States. They are perceived as rejecting cultural values and customs that are seen as essential to personal morality, civic righteousness and national identity. "
3. External social institutions, especially those related to the US political system and civil life, continually affirm that belief in God is good and desirable, but unbelief is not. Let us consider specific symbols such as the "Pledge of Allegiance" ("One nation under God"), the phrase "In God We Trust" on coins and bills, "God Bless America" as the standard farewell formula for speeches by the president, and so on. They may be small symbols, but what do they stand for? They are symbols of a hierarchical structure that places belief in God above atheism and people who believe in God above those who do not. To get a feel for how powerful this notion is, imagine tomorrow the people of the United States would wake up and find the phrase “There is no God” on coins and bills; the outrage would be amazing. Why? Because a cultural power structure would have been undermined. This is how oppression works: It presents certain identities as good and worthy of public recognition, others as shameful and subversive.
4. For atheists, these cultural barriers significantly shape their chances in life and their perception of possibilities. Obviously, being an atheist is a burden in the political sphere; Studies have repeatedly shown that professing to atheism dramatically reduces the chances of winning an election. Pew reports that "two-thirds of adults (67%) say it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs," and observes, "Being an atheist remains one of the greatest burdens a candidate has for president." may have; half of American adults say they are less likely to vote for a hypothetical candidate who doesn't believe in God. ”That's a fat thing, and the answer of some, most people didn't want to get into politics anyway, is completely irrelevant and absurd. Political participation is an integral part of civil life in America, and the evidence suggests that atheists' life chances are being seriously curtailed. That is oppression, as it is when people lose their jobs because they are atheists; if after a divorce they lose their children to more religious but less reliable parents; or when religious people receive mitigation after presenting themselves as believers in court proceedings (like here).
5. Furthermore, prejudices against atheists take their toll in the personal sphere; Families break up, friendships get mixed up, children are thrown out of the house, people have to go undetected at atheist events, and so on. (I've experienced or been told of all of this. A few years ago atheist conferences it was not uncommon to establish a system whereby people could avoid being photographed so that family and colleagues would not know they were there. ) It is difficult to document the extent of these problems, but they are the inevitable result of the hierarchical structures outlined above and in nature, if not severity, comparable to the difficulties encountered by many other minority groups. In view of the existence of a life-restricting, hierarchical structure, one should expect such prejudices “in the human psyche” as mentioned in the above-cited collection. And given the widespread reports of such problems and the fact that they are predictable results of an oppressive structure whose existence has been proven, it is up to those who say atheists are not oppressed to find other causes for these expressions of interpersonal prejudice that they explain better. I do not believe that is possible.
6. Finally, there is a long history of explicit denigration, especially of atheists, in the US that has contributed to their political and social marginalization. Over the past few decades, the religious right has specifically targeted atheists as “suppliers” of anti-American values, as representatives of moral decay and civic disintegration. The marginalization of atheists serves a specific political purpose: right-wing Christianity is to be preserved as the “good, true and patriotic” value system so that politicians who extol such values are more likely to be elected and to exercise more power (see for example Matthew Lyons essay in "We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America").
Consideration of the counter arguments
Some are tempted to say, "Atheists are largely rejected, but it is their own fault for treating religion so harshly and encouraging their spokesmen to be so uncomfortable." This is bullshit that blames the victims [ "victim blaming bullshit"]. Put any other religious minority in the sentence and it becomes obvious how unacceptable this reasoning is (and, yes, atheists are a religious minority if the category is defined from a religious perspective). Neither accept we hold widespread prejudice against any religious group as legitimate because of their relationship to the doctrines of other religions, nor do we find it acceptable to hold entire groups accountable for the bad behavior of well-known individuals who represent them. The argument, “Of course, Muslims are unpopular with all the Muslim terrorists! It's their own fault! " reinforcing oppression of Muslims). The same goes for those who point to Sam Harris and say "Atheists deserve what they get". Furthermore, this argument is based on a factual inaccuracy. If the idea is that the uncomfortable right-wing views of Sam Harris in the eyes of the American people condemn all atheists (a stupid argument because most Americans have no idea who Sam Harris is), then the uncomfortable fact remains that Non-denominational groups are one of the most progressive groups in American society, and have been for a while. Anyone who brings such arguments should kindly say goodbye.
Some of my critics use variations of the following: "Sure, there is widespread aversion to atheists in the US, but that doesn't mean they are oppressed." This misunderstanding follows from too narrow a definition of "oppression" which does not recognize that widespread dislike and distrust of a religious minority seriously impair life chances and deny members of that minority opportunities. Once the implications of suspicion and aversion are included as factors in the equation, the statement becomes meaningless: “Sure, there is widespread aversion to atheists in the US that leads to limited opportunities in the political sphere; the need to lie to friends, family and colleagues in some places; civil exclusion and so on, but that doesn't mean they are suppressed. ”Yes, it does; it's exactly how suppression works on a regular basis.
Others may think that it would be more precise to call Christians "privileged" and all non-Christians "underprivileged", rather than calling atheists generally oppressed, and seeing oppression of atheists merely as an expression of the oppression of non-Christians. Obviously, Christians are a privileged religious group in the United States. Christianity is the majority religion in the country, it enjoys recognition and is celebrated in almost all areas of life, unlike other religions. There is certainly an oppressive structure in US culture that privileges Christians over non-Christians. But, as mentioned above, there is also a specific marginalization of atheists that has existed for some time and that is being fueled in order to achieve certain goals of hegemony. Just as there is specific oppression of Muslims (Islamophobia is not just the flip side of Christian privileges, but its own structure of oppression with recognizable features that distinguish it from the mere absence of Christian privileges), there is also specific oppression of atheists: a structure of oppression targeting those who do not believe in God and subjecting them to specific social exclusion.
Finally, some critics (including some atheists) point to the fact that professing atheists tend to be privileged in many dimensions. Predominantly white, young, highly educated, economically well-off men (see here for example). There is understandable concern among some activists that if such a group were to urge their "oppression," it could lead to disdain for the oppression of other groups that suffer far more, or to the erosion of the very concept of oppression: "Well, if atheists oppress then everyone is oppressed! ”These concerns are tragically misplaced. It is precisely for the benefit of even more marginalized groups to recognize the oppression of atheists in the US. On the one hand, because it is a simple social fact and an understanding of the power dynamics in society is essential to fight for the liberation of all. Second, it is crucial that the religious disadvantage be taken seriously as part of the oppression when someone is a member of another marginalized group and an atheist. Queer and atheist; Person of color and atheist; ex-Muslim and atheist, these are the very types of overlapping repressed identities for which the theory of intersectionality was developed, and we would be neglecting something important about how these individuals are marginalized. if we ignore the oppression of atheists as such, just because many atheists are privileged in other areas of life.
The whole purpose of power analysis as practiced by today's activists is to see how people's diverse identities privilege and marginalize them in complex and interacting ways. We don't just add up all the ways in which a person's identity privileges and marginalizes them and "average them out" to see how privileged they are "on the whole". Instead, we untangle the many strands by which power acts upon individuals and groups, limiting or expanding their options in life. Recognizing that atheists as a group are subject to a repressive cultural system does not deprive us of the strength to tackle other, often more deadly systems of exclusion. Rather, it helps us understand the outlines of the social world in order to be better able to cope with and reshape it.
Why is that important?
Atheists are oppressed in America. There is a hierarchical social structure that systematically privileges belief in God over the absence of that belief, and this structure limits ways of possible life and influences interpersonal relationships. This structure is not currently as deadly or as vicious as those dehumanizing LGBTQ people, people of color, or poor people, but it still exists, does harm, is eerily linked to other types of oppression. Understanding that atheist oppression exists and how it works can help us make society more equitable and free.
Translation: Harald Grundner, Jörg Elbe
Dr. James Croft is the public relations director for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, one of the largest humanist communities in the world. He is a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard Universities and holds a PhD in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a sought-after public speaker, committed teacher, and passionate human rights activist.Growing up with Shakespeare, Sagan, and Star Trek, James is a proud gay humanist. His upcoming book, The Godless Congregation, co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
Blog: Temple of Future
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