[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 3, 2006 at 8:05pm] Trackbacks
Hostility to Atheism II - Are Atheists Themselves Responsible for the Prejudice Against Them?:

In my previous post on hostility to atheism, I did not address the causes of anti-atheist prejudice. Here, I consider the common claim that the hostility is really the fault of atheists themselves.

I. Atheist "Attacks" on Religion.

Backlash against "atheist attacks on religion is perhaps the most common explanation for hostility to atheists offered by many social conservatives. They claim that public hostility to atheists is the product of such atheist actions against religion as lawsuits against religious displays on public property and the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The first major problem with this theory is that widespread hostility to atheism long predates these types of lawsuits. Indeed, surveys show that the public has actually gotten somewhat less hostile to atheists in recent years, even as these types of lawsuits have become more common (see,e.g., here).

A second shortcoming of the argument is that the lawsuits in question are mostly generated not by atheists but by organizations such as the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, both of which are predominantly run by liberal religious believers (the latter is actually headed by Barry Lynn, a Protestant minister). True, many conservative pundits portray these groups as "atheist" and no doubt much of the public believes them. However, the deliberately inaccurate portrayal of these organizations is itself driven by a political calculation to the effect that portraying an adversary as atheist is likely to arouse public hostility against it. Social conservatives would get far less traction by trumpeting a liberal Protestant or Jewish "War on Christmas" than they do by pinning it all on the atheists.

Much more fundamentally, however, there is an anti-atheist double standard built into the claim that these lawsuits are "attacks on religion" in the first place. Whatever their legal merits (in my view some are defensible, while others are not), the cases in question target not religion, but merely government endorsement thereof.

Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. How would religious believers react if local governments routinely displayed atheist parapharnelia on public property, if our coins had inscriptions proclaiming "In Atheism we Trust," and if every Congressional session began with a paean to atheism by a "secular humanist" leader? Surely, believers would not take this lying down. They would use every legal and political lever they could to put an end to it. And they would be right to do so! Atheists cannot be accused of "attacking" religion merely because some of us try to curtail governmental behavior that believers would never tolerate if the same thing was done to them. But if atheists are nonetheless hated by many for doing so, that is more a consequence of anti-atheist bias than a cause.

This is not to deny that there are some atheists who make unjustified or even bigoted criticisms of religion. However, such people are no more common in the atheist community than are religious leaders who make equally or more bigoted statements about atheism. And the latter often have considerably higher public profiles than the former. I highly doubt that very many religious believers have ever so much as seen an atheist spokesman on TV (I don't think I ever have myself!). By contrast, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others appear in the media all the time and what they have to say about atheists is far from complimentary.

II. Communism.

There is no doubt that Communist regimes were atheistic and that they committed horrendous crimes. However, it is difficult to show that reaction to communism accounts for any significant part of the hostility to atheism observed in the US today. As in the case of the ACLU lawsuits, hostility to atheists long predated the rise of communism and has outlasted its fall. Moreover, surveys show that hostility to atheists in the US actually declined somewhat during the years of the Cold War.

Finally, many religious regimes have also been severely oppressive, in some cases almost as much so as communist governments were. Some religious groups, such as the "liberation theologians" actually endorsed communism itself. Yet few claim that liberation theology, the Taliban, Iran, and the Inquisition prove that all religion is by nature oppressive, and those who do are rejected by the vast majority of Americans. Mainstream public opinion readily recognizes that these regimes do not represent religion in general but only a subset thereof. Similarly, communism is just one of many political ideologies compatible with denial of the existence of God. Indeed, atheism is not intrinsically connected to any particular views on moral and political issues other than, perhaps, the separation of church and state.

The double standard in judging oppressive religious regimes as compared to oppressive atheistic ones is - like that regarding atheist "attacks" on religion - is more likely to be a consequence of anti-atheist prejudice than a cause.

NOTE: Some cite Nazi Germany as an atheistic regime (and therefore a possible cause of hostility to atheists). But although Hitler did show contempt for Christianity, he also repeatedly reiterated his belief in God and claimed to be doing His work. The Nazis were anti-Christian and certainly anti-Semitic, but they were not atheists.

UPDATE: A slight variation on the argument that the Establishment Clause cases caused hostility to atheists is the claim that the anger is due to the fact that atheists are supposedly using judicial power to overrule the will of the majority. However, this claim ignores the fact that nearly all the major Establishment and Free Exercise Clause cases were brought not by atheist litigants but by liberal Protestants, Jews, or members of small Christian denominations such as the Amish and the Jehovah's Witnesses. This was true of the school prayer cases, most of the display cases, and others. Moreover, conservative Christians have been no slouches in the field of using religion clause litigation to overturn the policies of elected officials. For example, conservative Christian litigants brought the recent Good News Club (conservative Christian student seeking to overturn a ban on religious meetings on school property), and Locke v. Davey (Christian student studying to be a minister seeking to force the state to let him be eligible for a scholarship competition) Supreme Court cases. I happen to think that the conservative Christian litigants were right both times. But if believers can use judicial review to their advantage without attracting hostility, the same should go for atheists.