Throughout history, atheists have been faced with discrimination. This discrimination has taken many forms, ranging from the less severe forms of discrimination such as receiving dirty looks, to the most severe form of discrimination, persecution. This paper will investigate the beginnings of discrimination against atheists and its impact on atheism. It will then explore some of the most famous accounts of persecutions against atheists. Next, it will discuss blasphemy laws. In addition, this paper will show how discrimination against atheists continues today.
"What is an atheist? An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of a god, i.e., in the existence of a supernatural being. Why doesn't the atheist believe in a god? Quite simply, because belief in a god is unreasonable. Can the atheist prove that a god does not exist? The atheist need not "prove" the nonexistence of a god, just as one who does not believe in magic elves, fairies, and gremlins does not have to prove their nonexistence. A person who asserts the existence of something assumes the burden of proof. The theist, or god-believer, asserts the existence of a god and must prove the claim. If the theist fails in this task, reasonable people will reject the belief as groundless. Atheists do not believe in a god because there is no reason they should" (Smith 62-3).
Throughout history, atheists have been faced with discrim-ination. This discrimination has taken many forms, ranging from the less severe forms of discrimination such as receiving dirty looks, to the most severe form of discrimination, persecution. Today, atheists may not have to deal with persecution, but they do have to worry about being discriminated against on a variety of levels. But first, let us travel back in time to the beginning of all this discrimination against atheists.
Although the belief in a god dates back many thousands of years, the unbelief in god or atheism didn't come about until shortly after the birth of Christianity. One of the main reasons for this is the New Testament: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no god.' they are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good." This famous biblical passage captures the essence of how the average religious person views atheism. Atheism is probably the least popular, and least understood, philosophical position in America today. The very word 'atheist' often conjures up the image of an immoral, dangerous cynic - an apostle of destructive negativism. (Smith 61)
According to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, "The sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals," and that heretics "be exterminated from the world by death (Quote in Smith 62). This ideology was later taken more seriously when the Inquisition started in Spain in 1478 and continued in various forms until 1833. The height of the Inquisition took place in 1538 ("Spanish Lit., Unbelief in" 643). During the Inquisition, "Books were burned and thousands of accused persons were tried and put to death for heresy and various kinds of witchcraft" ("Spanish Lit., Unbelief in" 643). Atheists, Jews, and anyone who was not Christian were persecuted. Those who were not persecuted either pretended to be Christian or left the country in fear of their life
This however was not the end of discrimination and persecution of atheists. In 19th century Britain, there had been a law against blasphemy. Blasphemy was considered a serious crime with 88 people prosecuted and 61 of those people convicted ("Freedom of The Press and Unbelief" 241):
George William Foote and W.J. Ramsey, editors of the Freethinker, an atheist journal that mixed satire and comic cartoons with more serious attacks on Judeo-Christianthought and the Bible, were brought to trial in 1883 under the common law of blasphemous libel. ("Freedom of The Press and Unbelief" 241) They were later found guilty and jailed for one year. Other cases of discrimination of atheists were "Two cases of famous persons in England whose children were taken away from them merely because they were atheists" ("Law and Unbelief" 398).
Blasphemy laws didn't only exist in Europe, Charles B. Reynolds was arrested and convicted of blasphemy in New Jersey in 1887. And in 1894, the editor of the freethought paper Blue Grass Blade was also put on trial. He was jailed once before on blasphemy charges ("Freedom of The Press and Unbelief" 243). And who could forget what happened in Salem Massachusetts? Salem was the center of the trials over witchcraft and heresy. Between 1692 and 1693, hundreds of people were arrested and tried as being witches and heretics, 19 were hanged, and one was pressed to death for not entering a plea ("Salem" Vol.19 872). In Salem, you had to watch what you said because if someone were to deny the existence of a god he/she would be hanged. Shortly before the Salem witch trials, in 1649, the first freedom of religion law was passed in Maryland. This was also the first law granting the freedom of religion in the colonies, with one catch. The "Toleration Act" granted religious freedom to all Christians. "Death was the punishment for blasphemy and denying the Trinity" ("Law and Unbelief" 395). Is this truly religious freedom?
Fortunately, today people aren't persecuted for their non-belief. But they are being discriminated against for not believing in a god. An example of this is the following: "My son Mark and I sued the Boy Scouts of America. We didn't sue for damages; we sued because BSA discriminated against us on the basis of our religious belief -- or in this case, lack of belief" (Welsh 484). Mark received a flyer that advertised for the Boy Scouts at school. The Flyer stated that "Any boy who is in the first grade (or is 7 years old) may join Tiger Cubs, BSA, with his adult partner" (Welsh 484). Mark refused to swear to the love of a god, and was then excluded from the scouting pack. The Boy Scouts of America won the case in a lower-court in Illinois on the basis that it is not a "place of public accommodation". The court claimed that BSA has the "freedom of association, carrying with it the right to form private groups of like-minded members" ("Exclusionary Boy Scouts" 14). The Welshes tried to take the case to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court declined to review the case ("Exclusionary Boy Scouts" 14).
In recent years, a number of atheist organizations have been trying to fight against a more subtle form of discrimination. They have been trying to convince the government to change the Pledge of Allegiance back to its original form which reads, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". During President Eisenhower's administration, the words "under god" were added to the pledge. This was done in an attempt to Christianize the nation. Atheists have claimed for a long time that the addition of these words is in violation of the Constitution under the separation of church and state.
Another change that many atheist organizations are trying to make is the inscription on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The inscription currently reads, "Here lies in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." Many Atheists believe that the last part of the inscription should read, "known but to history." Many atheists claim that because the soldier is unknown, there is no way of knowing his religion. For all we know, he may have been an atheist. Many atheists believe that like the pledge, this is another instance of subtle discrimination.
Fortunately, The court of law in this country isn't as desciminatory. Many atheists think that because almost everyone swears in on the Bible, that it is law to do so. This is not the case. Atheists and other non-theists do not have to swear an oath on the Bible, they can affirm. This is equal to being under oath. So if an atheist lies, the crime of perjury still applies. But this was not always the case. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which guaranties equal protection to all citizens, came about after the Civil War. Before that, atheists were not permitted to give testimony in court ("Law and Unbelief" 395).
Today, many atheists are afraid of the discrimination that theists inflict. Many atheists hide their true religious or to be more accurate, unreligious beliefs, to avoid discrimination. For example, this author has a friend who is an active member of Hillel. In addition, he sings at a church on the weekends. However, he confidentially revealed his unbelief in a god and stated that one of the reasons he hides his unbelief is that he is afraid of what his parents, who are Jewish, would think. Many of his friends are also Jewish, and might not accept his true belief. One of the most important reasons he keeps his beliefs hidden is that he lives near many born-again Christians, who may start to harass him for his unbelief in a god. He was also afraid that he might lose his job as a singer at the local church.
This young man is not alone in his fear of discrimination on the basis of his unbelief. Many people in this country share his fear and hide their atheism. Although the Constitution gives us the freedom of religion, there are still many people who don't acknowledge that freedom. Right now, there are politicians who are trying to make this country a Christian country. These politicians have forgotten, that this country was literally founded on the principle of freedom of religion. The main reason that the Mayflower set sail for the New World was to escape religious persecution.
In a world where there is racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, and heterosexism there is no word for the discrimination of atheists. Even though religious tolerance has improved considerably in the last hundred years, there is still room for even more improvement. When most people talk about religion, they are usually only referring to theist religions such as Judaism and Christianity. This in itself is discriminatory. This kind of discrimination occurs almost everyday. When someone sneezes, someone almost always says "god bless you." This also occurs quite often. Why is it that people in this country seem to think that everyone believes in a god? How can people be so intolerant of other religious ideas? Now that we are getting ready to enter the twenty-first century, we must not forget what happened before this time. Let us not forget that there was a time when people were killed merely because they had different beliefs than theists did. Let us not forget that children were taken away from their parents simply because of their parents' beliefs. Let us not forget that people were thrown in jail because they dared to believe something different from what theists believed. And let us not forget that people are still being discriminated against because they believe something other than the majority. So, with this in mind, let us remember to respect other people's beliefs or unbeliefs.
"The Exclusionary Boy Scouts" Editorial. New York Times 12 December 1993: section 4 page 14 "Freedom of The Press and Unbelief." Encyclopedia of Unbelief. 1st ed. 1985. "Law and Unbelief." Encyclopedia of Unbelief. 1st ed. 1985. "Salem." Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 19. 1947. Smith, George H. Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. New York: Prometheus Books, 1991. "Spanish Literature, Unbelief in." Encyclopedia of Unbelief. 1st ed. 1985. Welsh, Elliott. "Why I Am Suing The Boy Scouts." The Christian Century May 1990: 484-6.
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