[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 3, 2006 at 8:58pm] Trackbacks
Hostility to Atheists III - Why Does it Matter?

Although I am an atheist myself, I have never, until this series of posts, commented on atheist issues publicly. I didn't do so because I thought that, ultimately, hostility towards atheists was a relatively unimportant issue. After all, American atheists are, by and large, an affluent, successful group that has not in recent decades suffered much from systematic discrimination. Although I oppose government endorsement of religion and think many instances of it are unconstitutional, ultimately I don't believe that "In God We Trust" on coins and the like are major issues worth going to the barricades over.

I do not believe that atheists in this country are an "oppressed" group, and I would not support affirmative action for atheists or reparations for atheists. And I certainly don't want people to feel sorry for us and commiserate with our status as "victims." However, there are several ways in which widespread anti-atheist prejudice causes real harm.

I. Discrimination in Child Custody Cases.

In a recent article, co-blogger Eugene Volokh has documented numerous instances where atheist and agnostic parents lose out in child custody disputes because of judicial bias against their religious views. The cases Eugene cites are not situations where there is a "disparate impact" against atheists or cases where some atheist had a subjective feeling that the judge was biased against him. These are cases where the judges themselves state in published opinions that a principal reason for awarding custody to one parent is the atheism of the other. Obviously, for every case where a judge was willing state such a thing in public, it is likely that there are other cases where such considerations influenced judicial decisionmaking without being documented. Many of the cases cited in Eugene's paper are recent, and they are by no means confined to the Bible Belt.

II. Exclusion From Public Office.

As I noted in my previous post, open atheists are almost completely excluded from the highest elected and appointed positions, and there are extremely few even in low-level ones. To be sure, this does not mean that atheists are wholly without political influence. They can still use their votes and campaign contributions to try to influence theist politicians. Nevertheless, there is at least some benefit to having members of one's own group in positions of political power. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain why virtually all other groups - from evangelical Christians to homosexuals - consider it important to have at least some such representation. Moreover, symbolism matters too, even if its importance is often overstated. Most would agree that there is something wrong with a political system if no Jew or black or Catholic were ever able to attain high public office - even if Jewish, black, and Catholic voters were effectively represented by political leaders from other groups.

Nor should we completely discount the harm to those atheists would like to pursue careers in public service. By writing this series of posts, I have probably signed away whatever chance I might have had of becoming a federal judge. While this has never been an important objective for me, it certainly could be for other ambitious atheist lawyers.

III. Social Exclusion.

While the extent to which this is a problem varies greatly from place to place and is very difficult to measure, it probably is a significant issue in some areas. As some of the atheist commenters to my first post noted, atheists often have to hide their views in order to avoid opprobrium in situations where believers feel perfectly free to express theirs. For many, this is a minor problem that rarely occurs, but for others it can be a more serious one. I am willing to bet that there is a considerable number of "closet atheists" out there, though of course there are no firm statistics. While closeted atheists probably don't suffer as much as closeted gays do (because atheism is, for most, a less fundamental element of identity than sexual orientation), neither is the suffering completely trivial. Certainly, few theists would be willing to tolerate a situation where they had to keep their own religious beliefs secret.

Except for the first, none of the above problems can or should be remedied through government coercion. But that does not mean that we should just ignore them.

UPDATE: Many of the child custody cases cited in Eugene's article deal not with disputes between atheists and theists but disputes where one parent was more observant than the other and/or provided more religious training (often in the form of church attendance) to the child. See footnote 4 of Eugene's paper (linked above). In some ways, this actually makes things even worse for atheists, since a judge who favors a more-observant theist over a less-observant one is likely to disfavor atheists even more than less-observant theists. As Eugene observes (pp. 1-2), "presumably an outright atheist would be at even more of a disadvantage" in such a jurisdiction than the less observant of two theist parents. Theoretically, instruction in atheistic thought could also perhaps be considered "religious" teaching, but the decisions cited by Eugene make it clear that they have in mind theistic training and/or church attendance only. Nonetheless, I regret my failure to make this distinction in the original post, and I hope this update remedies the mistake.