Discrimination Against Atheists:

I've often argued that it's improper for the government to discriminate against religious people and institutions because of their religiosity (see, for instance, my Equal Treatment Is Not Establishment article). But it's equally improper for the government to discriminate against irreligious people and institutions because of their lack of religiosity.

Fortunately, such discrimination is, I think, rarer now than it once was -- recall that until 1961, some states officially excluded atheists from certain jobs, such as notaries public. Yet it persists in some contexts, even overtly, and it's important to condemn this. For instance, though it's an open question to what extent it's constitutional for the government to discriminatorily give religious exemptions from generally applicable laws to religious objectors but not conscientious objectors, I think that the government should treat religious and conscientious objectors evenhandedly even if it isn't constitutionally obligated to. (I set aside here the question of government speech; I think the case for a government power to express itself religiously, at least in some contexts, is much stronger than the case for a government power to discriminate among citizens based on religion, but that's a story for another day.)

Here's an example that I think is particular egregious: The discrimination in favor of religious parents and against irreligious ones, or in favor of more religious parents and against less religious ones, in child custody cases, on the theory that it's in the child's "best interests" (that's the relevant legal test) to be raised with a religious education.

Mississippi is the most serious offender, though I've seen cases since 1990 in Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas; there are similar cases in 1970s Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and New York. (I give cites below.) In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better "future religious example." In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a Mississippi court ordered in 2000, reasoning that "it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training."

This violates the Free Speech Clause: Just as government discrimination against religious viewpoints is unconstitutional, see, e.g., Rosenberger v. Rector, so government discrimination against nonreligious viewpoints is unconstitutional. It violates the Establishment Clause: It coerces religious practice, either directly by ordering a parent to take the child to church, or indirectly by threatening the parent with a diminution in legal rights if he doesn't practice religion; the Court has rightly and unanimously taken the view that legal coercion of religious practice is unconstitutional (see both the majority and the dissent in Lee v. Weisman). It endorses religion (though the prohibition on endorsement is more controversial than the prohibition on coercion). And it discriminates based on religiosity. It may also violate the Free Exercise Clause, if (as I think is the case) the "free exercise of religion" includes the freedom not to have one's rights reduced because one exercises religion solitarily rather than in church, exercises religion less actively and passionately than some others, or has no religion at all. (The freedom of speech has been understood as including the freedom to choose what not to say as well as what to say; it seems to me the same applies to free exercise of religion.)

Finally, I realize that some people think it's in a child's best interests to be raised in a religion, perhaps because it will be more likely to make the child feel deeply about the need to follow some moral code. For all I know, this might be true. But other people equally think it's in a child's best interests to be raised skeptical of all religions, because it will be more likely to make the child into a rational thinker who doesn't take factual assertions on faith, and refuses to believe such assertions (whether about the Virgin Birth or the parting of the Red Sea or the creation of the world by an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God) unless he's given solid evidence that they're true. Freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, means that the government shouldn't make custody decisions based on such assumptions -- and of course if it can make custody decisions based on anti-atheist assumptions, it can also make them (and has made them) based on antireligious assumptions.

* * *

Citations for discrimination against the irreligious or less religious: Blevins v. Bardwell, 784 So. 2d 166, 175 (Miss. 2001); Staggs v. Staggs, 2005 WL 1384525 (Miss. App.); Brekeen v. Brekeen, 880 So. 2d 280, 282 (Miss. 2004); Turner v. Turner, 824 So. 2d 652, 655-56 (Miss. App. 2002); Pacheco v. Pacheco, 770 So. 2d 1007, 1011 (Miss. App. 2000); Weigand v. Houghton, 730 So.2d 581 (Miss. 1999); Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1014-15 (Miss. 2003); McLemore v. McLemore, 762 So. 2d 316 (Miss. 2000); Hodge v. Hodge, 188 So. 2d 240 (Miss. 1966); Johns v. Johns, 918 S.W.2d 728 (Ark. App. 1996); Ark. Sup. Ct. admin. order no. 15 (enacted 1999); Peacock v. Peacock, 903 So.2d 506, 513-14 (La. App. 2005); Pahal v. Pahal, 606 So. 2d 1359, 1362 (La. App. 1992); Ulvund v. Ulvund, 2000 WL 33407372 (Mich. App.); Mackenzie v. Cram, 1998 WL 1991050 (Mich. App.); Jimenez v. Jimenez, 1996 WL 33347958 (Mich. App.); Jonhston v. Plessel, 2004 WL 384143 (Minn. Ct. App.); In re Storlein, 386 N.W.2d 812 (Minn. Ct. App. 1986); McAlister v. McAlister, 747 A.2d 390, 393 (Pa. Super. 2000); Thomas v. Thomas, 739 A.2d 206, 213 (Pa. Super. 1999); Gancas v. Schultz, 683 A.2d 1207 (Pa. Super. 1996); Scheeler v. Rudy, 2 Pa. D. & C. 3d 772, 780 (Com. Pl. 1977); Shainwald v. Shainwald, 395 S.E.2d 441, 446 (S.C. App. 1990); Hulm v. Hulm, 484 N.W.2d 303, 305 & n.* (S.D. 1992); In re Davis, 30 S.W.3d 609 (Tex. Ct. App. 2000); Snider v. Grey, 688 S.W.2d 602, 611 (Tex. Ct. App. 1985); In re F.J.K., 608 S.W.2d 301 (Tex. Ct. App. 1980); In re Marriage of Moorhead, 224 N.W.2d 242, 244 (Iowa 1974); Ahlman v. Ahlman, 267 N.W.2d 521, 523 (Neb. 1978); Dean v. Dean, 232 S.E.2d 470, 471-72 (N.C. App. 1977); Robert O. v. Judy E., 90 Misc.2d 439, 442 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 1977).

Citations for discrimination against people who are seen as too religiously fundamentalist: Collier v. Collier, 14 Phila. 129 (Pa. Ct. Common Pleas 1985); Waites v. Waites, 567 S.W.2d 326 (Mo. 1978); Stolarick v. Novak, 584 A.2d 1034 (Pa. Super. 1991); In re Marriage of Epperson, 107 P.3d 1268 (Mont. 2005).

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Leading Atheist Legal Activist and Candidate for Alabama Attorney General

Has Some Rather Interesting Views About Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust: Larry Darby is apparently a pretty prominent atheist legal activist. He was the president of the Atheist Law Center (though he has since stepped down to run for public office); filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Court's Ten Commandments cases on behalf of various atheist groups and also on behalf of Scouting for All; ran the Alabama chapter of American Atheists; got the Atheist of the Year award from American Atheists; has been quoted in various newspapers, mostly in Alabama but also elsewhere; and has appeared on various television programs in connection with his opposition to Judge Roy Moore's actions related to the Ten Commandments. Darby is now running in the June 2006 Democratic primary for Alabama Attorney General — I suspect that he has little chance of winning, but I take it that he'll want to use the race as a platform for expressing his various views, which include juvenile law reform and decriminalization of marijuana.

Mr. Darby also (1) apparently wrote that "David Duke is right on with the problem of Zionism and the Zionist-Occupied Government we live under," (2) seems quite interested in whether media representatives who contact him about such matters are Jewish, and (3) was substantially involved in organizing a speech by noted Holocaust denier David Irving.

I first heard about this when an acquaintance of mine e-mailed me an exchange that included Mr. Darby's "Zionist-Occupied Government" quote. I then e-mailed Mr. Darby to verify the quote. (I had and still have no reason to question my correspondent's veracity, but I thought that checking would be a good idea.) The closest Mr. Darby came to denying the accuracy of the quote is when he eventually said — after an exchange of several e-mails — "Know that what you sent to me as represented by [my correspondent] is not authentic," which seemed to me like a somewhat coy way of addressing whether Mr. Darby indeed said the "Zionist-Occupied Government" item.

I then followed up by asking "My question was simply whether you did or did not e-mail the text I asked you about. Did you or didn't you?" He didn't respond to that question, but instead insisted that I tell him whether I was a Zionist and a Trotskyite. Mr. Darby's e-mails to me also included the following, which further leads me to think that my correspondent indeed accurately quoted the "Zionist-Occupied Government" line:

[F]or the record, Dr. David Duke does offer insight into the neoconservative or Trotskyist government in Washington, DC. Some of what he has been saying for years is bearing out in the news today. Have you ever read anything of Duke's your self? I'm sure he'd talk to you. Write him at www.davidduke.com and find out for yourself. And read what he really says for yourself, without relying on what Jewish Supremacists say about him.

Have you been keeping up with all the Zionists (Jews and Jewish-Christians) being arrested by the FBI? I know it hasn't made mainstream media, but it is happening and expectations are that when Kidan turns evidence against Uber-Zionist Abramoff, some other members of Congress might be indicted. Those are only two of several people arrested.

If you aren't keeping up with those issues, then likely you won't be able to understand that Dr. Duke knows what he's talking about when it comes to Jewish Supremacism and Zionism. . . .

Earlier in the exchange, Mr. Darby had also asked me whether I was a "MOT," which he later elaborated to "MOT refers to Member of Tribe. In other words, are you a Jew?" A quick Internet search revealed to me Mr. Darby's invitation of David Irving.

* * *

It seems to me very important that irreligious people participate in public debate, to defend the legitimacy of their views, and to protect themselves against religious discrimination and hostility. I don't agree with everything that all atheist activists urge; for instance, I don't think that the Establishment Clause is properly interpreted as banning religious speech by the government. Nonetheless, there are indeed some egregious forms of discrimination against the irreligious (or the less religious), for instance in child custody cases — these should be assiduously fought.

Moreover, there seems to be a great deal of hostility to atheists among the public: A July 7, 2005 Pew Research Center poll, for instance, asked people about their views of various religious and political grounds, and whether "your overall opinion of [the group] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" For Catholics, the total unfavorable percentage was 14%; for Jews, 7%; for "Evangelical Christians," 19%; for "Muslim Americans," 25%; for "Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God," it was 50%, including 28% "very unfavorable" (only 35% said they had either a "very favorable" or "mostly favorable" view of atheists). Such religious hostility, it seems to me, should also be fought (though of course through argument rather than litigation). Anti-atheist bias is no more justifiable than anti-Jewish bias.

I therefore have nothing at all against atheist political movements in general, nor do I have any reason to believe that atheists generally have any hostility towards Jews, or affection for David Duke. Yet this makes it all the more important, it seems to me, for atheists who are deciding whom to ally themselves with — or for that matter, for members of other groups, such as Scouting for All or any marijuana decriminalization groups — to know Mr. Darby's views that I describe above, views with which I hope most atheists much disagree. Likewise, Alabama Democrats should know who's running in their primary, and should keep in mind the views I note above, even if some of them are tempted to agree with him on marijuana decriminalization, juvenile justice, or even religion in public life. (I doubt there are that many Alabama Democrats who do agree with him on those latter issues, but I imagine there are some.)

And it's also important for Jews — even in America, the place in the world in which it is probably safest to be a Jew — to be reminded that these sorts of views do exist in America, and in what might to many seem like quite unlikely circles.

UPDATE: Corrected "Atheist Legal Center" to "Atheist Law Center"; sorry for the error.

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Hostility to Atheists:

As I noted below, the hostility to atheism in America seems remarkable, and quite troubling. A July 7, 2005 Pew Research Center poll, for instance, asked people several questions about their views of various religious and political grounds, and whether "your overall opinion of [the group] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" Here are the numbers for various groups:

Group

Very favorable (%)

Mostly favorable

Mostly unfavorable

Very unfavorable

"Catholics"

24

49

10

4

"Jews"

23

54

5

2

"Evangelical Christians"

17

40

14

5

"Muslim Americans"

9

46

16

9

"Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God"

7

28

22

28

This strikes me as quite troubling — 50% of Americans have an unfavorable view of people whose great sin, as best I can tell, is that they refuse to take on faith what others are willing to take on faith. I'm pleased that hostility to Jews and Catholics seems to be much less than what it used to be in the past. I hope the same will soon happen as to Muslim Americans and Evangelical Christians; that one may disagree with some Evangelical Christians' political agenda, for instance, is surely no reason to view them unfavorably as people (just as one's disagreement with most American Jews' liberalism is no reason for viewing them unfavorably). Yet the high level of disapproval of atheists should make us worry about American religious harmony and tolerance more broadly.

UPDATE: For more information, which may more precisely reflect willingness to discriminate against individuals (at least in voting) and not just unfavorable viewpoint of a group, and which involves a poll that didn't use the possibly negatively laden term "atheism," see the post above.

UPDATE: One of the commenters thought these were all options in answering one question; I've tried to clarify above that there were separate questions for each group.

FURTHER UPDATE: Another commenter wrote, "I dont know about this poll. How much of this might be blowback from the lawsuits about the pledge of [allegiance], the 'holiday' season, the cross in the city seal of LA, etc etc etc?" Well, I can't speak to all these lawsuits, but we can probably control for the Newdow pledge of allegiance lawsuit; that lawsuit really hit the news, to my knowledge, in June 2002, when the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiff. A Pew Research Center poll in Feb. 2002 asked "Now thinking about some specific religious groups, is your overall opinion of...Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" 5% said "very favorable," 29% "mostly favorable," 23% "mostly unfavorable," and 31% "very unfavorable" — results quite similar to those found by the 2005 poll.

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More Hostility to Atheists:

Some commenters to the post below suggested that unfavorable views of atheists may not indicate any desire to discriminate against individuals because they're atheists, but just annoyance at the views of prominent atheists (especially those who label themselves "atheist" rather than "agnostic" or "irreligious"). That's possible, and I don't know how to test this directly using existing polls, but here's the closest I could come up with.

A June 23, 1999 Fox News poll asked, "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%.

The closest comparable poll that I could find related to other religious groups was a Jan. 14, 2003 Fox News poll that asked, as to various groups, "Over the years there has been debate over whether a presidential candidate's religion is an obstacle or an advantage to getting elected. I'm going to read you some religious affiliations and I'd like you to tell me whether you think that affiliation is a positive thing that might make you more likely to vote for the candidate or a negative thing that might make you less likely to vote for the candidate...." Here are the results:

Candidate's affiliation

Positive, More likely to vote [for the candidate]

Negative, Less likely to vote [for the candidate]

Doesn't matter [volunteered]

"Jewish"

14%

12%

70%

"Roman Catholic"

19%

11%

67%

"Christian Coalition"

21%

24%

46%

"Muslim"

3%

49%

44%

"Protestant"

25%

5%

67%

So in 2003, 47% of respondents said they'd ignore a candidate's being a Muslim, or see it as a plus. 49% said the candidate's being a Muslim would make it less likely that they'd vote for him, though presumably for some respondents, there would remain some possibility that they'd vote for the Muslim candidate.

Yet in 1999, only 26% of respondents said they'd consider voting "for a political candidate who doesn't believe in God" (even without any reference to the possibly emotionally laden term "atheist"), and 69% apparently wouldn't even consider such a possibility.

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Still More on Hostility to Atheists:

Quite a few of the comments to my earlier posts suggested that there isn't that much wrong with people saying that they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists, or that they wouldn't consider voting for an atheist candidate. Let's say that the posts were instead about Jews, not about atheists, and the data was:

  1. A poll question asked "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who [was religiously Jewish]?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%. (The real question asked was "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?")

  2. A poll question asked whether "your overall opinion of [people who are Jewish by religion] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" The answer was 7% very favorable, 28% mostly favorable, 22% mostly unfavorable, and 28% very unfavorable. (The real question asked about "your overall opinion of Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God.")

Would people be troubled by such results, results that show that 69% of the public wouldn't even consider voting for a religiously Jewish political candidate, and that 50% of the public had an unfavorable view of people who are Jewish by religion (22% mostly unfavorable, 28% very unfavorable)? If you are, then is there any reason to be less troubled by the same results as to atheists?

UPDATE: I meant to focus this on attitudes towards people who are Jewish by religion, rather than by ethnicity, and made that clear in item 1, but I neglected to make it clear in item 2. I just corrected that, and also for clarity noted that in the paragraph following the list.

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Hostility to Atheists in the 1991 GSS.--

Eugene is correct about public hostility to atheists and the willingness to admit discriminatory feelings against them. In 1991, the General Social Survey asked 1244 respondents this question (variable POLSGOD):

How much do you agree or disagree with each of the following?: Politicians who do not believe in God are unfit for public office.

RESULTS:

15% Strongly Agree
15% Agree
27% Neither Agree Nor Disagree
31% Disagree
11% Strongly Disagree

Note that 30% think that atheists are “unfit for public office,” and only 42% actively disagree with the statement that they are unfit.

By comparison, in the 1991 GSS, 90.5% of Americans said that they would vote for a qualified black for President if nominated by their party. Similarly, 91.4% of Americans said that they would vote for a qualified woman for President if nominated by their party. The difference for atheists is stark.

In looking at some demographic breakdowns, there is no difference in tolerance of atheists between Republicans and Democrats, but there is between conservatives and liberals, with liberals being significantly more tolerant. Also, whites are significantly more tolerant of atheists than African Americans.

All this emphasizes for me how different the law teaching world is, where atheists (such as myself) are strongly over-represented and Christians, particularly fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, are strongly under-represented.

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Follow-Up on Larry Darby, Formerly of the Atheist Law Center:

Let's just say there's little doubt about where he stands -- for some comments of his about "Zionist-Occupied Government" on a discussion list that I run, see, e.g., here, here, and here.

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Atheist Law Center Seemingly Continues to Support Larry Darby:

Darby is the ALC's cofounder and former president; he's now running for Alabama Attorney General. Last month, I noted on this blog that Darby had complained about America's "Zionist-Occupied Government," helped organize a talk by denier David Irving, and seemed oddly interested in whether his questioner on this (me) was Jewish. Here's a message from Carol Moore, the Center's new president, which was sent in response to my blog post (which I had cross-posted to a discussion list):

[Quoting me:] "On the other hand, his having been involved in the group, and the Center's having hosted David Irving while Mr. Darby was president, makes me concerned about the group more broadly. It seems to me very important that irreligious people participate in public debate, to defend the legitimacy of their views, and to protect themselves against religious discrimination and hostility. I don't agree with everything that all atheist activists urge; for instance, I don't think that the Establishment Clause is properly interpreted as banning religious speech by the government. Nonetheless, there are indeed some egregious forms of discrimination against the irreligious (or the less religious), for instance in child custody cases - these should be assiduously fought. I therefore have nothing at all against atheist political movements in general, nor do I have any reason to believe that atheists generally have any hostility towards Jews, or affection for David Duke. Yet this makes it all the more important, it seems to me, for atheists who are deciding whom to ally themselves with - or for that matter, for members of other groups, such as Scouting for All or any marijuana decriminalization groups - to know Mr. Darby's views that I describe above, views with which I hope most atheists much disagree."

[Moore:] I simply do not understand "concerns" about the ALC simply because of Larry Darby and David Irving. It is important that citizens participate in the public debate, but it is even more important that ALL citizens receive as much information as possible so they can make up their own minds. Both Darby and Irving provided such information from different perspectives. Listening to all sides of issues does not mean that atheists "ally" themselves with those who disseminate such information. It means we embrace free inquiry and discussion first, and then chose our own level of acceptance of that information. For the record, Irving's presentation in Alabama last summer was a discussion of the English legal system as it related to his case. Would you have us ignore this first hand account simply because of other's opinions? It that were true, how on earth would anyone get through law school?

[Quoting me:] "Likewise, Alabama Democrats should know who's running in their primary, and should keep in mind the views I note above, even if some of them are tempted to agree with him on marijuana decriminalization, juvenile justice, or even religion in public life. (I doubt there are that many Alabama Democrats who do agree with him on those latter issues, but I imagine there are some.)"

[Moore:] Yes, there are enough Alabama citizens who agree with Darby's views to make Darby a viable candidate for AG. We "know" about Darby...he's been a reputable, consistent representative of our frustration with our current state government. We are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents. We can see through the smoke screen of the current status quo, listen to all sides of the issues, and make up our own minds. Doubts do not deter us — they challenge us.

[Quoting me:] "And it's also important for Jews — even in America, the place in the world in which it is probably safest to be a Jew — to be reminded that these sorts of views do exist in America, and in what might to many seem like quite unlikely circles."

[Moore:] This comment perpetuates the myth that Atheists are the enemy. America doesn't promise safety, equality, or fairness. America doesn't promise that you won't be personally demonized for your opinions — as some on this service seem to relish. America does, however, promise via the First Amendment the opportunity and the potential for a rational life, by stating explicity that the Government will stay out of religion. There is no quote on the Statue of Liberty that says "I lift up my lamp for the religious only." America promises a forum for all ideas, even those we may personally abhor. We are all enriched and enlightened by the forum and the participants.

I think this should give people a pretty good sense of where the Atheist Law Center stands on Larry Darby and his views.

As I said in my original post, "It seems to me very important that irreligious people participate in public debate, to defend the legitimacy of their views, and to protect themselves against religious discrimination and hostility. . . . I . . . have nothing at all against atheist political movements in general, nor do I have any reason to believe that atheists generally have any hostility towards Jews, or affection for David Duke. Yet this makes it all the more important, it seems to me, for atheists who are deciding whom to ally themselves with — or for that matter, for members of other groups, such as Scouting for All or any marijuana decriminalization groups — to know Mr. Darby's views that I describe above, views with which I hope most atheists much disagree. . . ."

So, no, I don't think that atheists are the enemy of Jews (whether ethnic Jews, against whom atheists need have no animosity, or religious Jews, with whom atheists may simply have a disagreement). But it certainly seems to me that Jews, both ethnic and religious, should be pretty troubled by the Atheist Law Center.

UPDATE: Whoops -- originally wrote Larry Irving instead of David Irving (and not for the first time, sad to say). Larry Darby + David Irving somehow end up melding in my mind into Larry Irving, who as best I can tell is a perfectly fine fellow; my apologies to him. Thanks to commenter MM for the correction.

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Murders of Atheists Because of Their Beliefs About Religion:

Last week brought two stories about such incidents, though the killings themselves were a year apart. Here's one from Michigan:

It was one of the five "most heinous" crimes Wayne County Circuit Judge Gregory Bill has ever seen.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Christina Guirguis called it the "most gruesome" crime she's ever prosecuted.

On Dec. 20, Bill sentenced Arthur Eugene Shelton, 51, of Taylor to 25 to 45 years in prison for the Oct. 18, 2004, shotgun and revolver killing of Shelton's friend, Larry Hooper.

"He blew the guy's head off," said Shelton's attorney, Seymour Schwartz.

Following a three-day bench trial, Bill found Shelton guilty Nov. 30 of second-degree murder for killing Hooper in the living room of his Taylor home, where Hooper was staying. . . .

Shelton [had] called Taylor police and told a dispatcher that he'd just blasted a man with a revolver and a shotgun because the man said he didn't believe in God.

The dead man was "the devil himself," Shelton told the dispatcher. . . .

Before the shooting, Hooper had told Shelton that Shelton couldn't say anything to convince him to believe in God, according to police[.]

Shelton left the room, took off his shirt, shaved his face and tried again to convince Hooper there is a God. But at that point, Shelton had a 12-gauge shotgun.

"How long would it take you to believe in God?" Shelton said he asked Hooper.

"Not until I hear Gabriel blow his horn," replied Hooper.

Hooper tipped his hat and Shelton fired the shotgun at Hooper's head.

"I did it because he is evil; he was not a believer," Shelton said.

Later, Shelton told cops he might have second thoughts about the existence of God. "Maybe there's not" a God, he said. . . .

Bill found him guilty of second-degree murder but mentally ill, Guirguis said. . . .

Here's the second, from Kentucky; I quote the Paducah Sun, Dec. 28, 2005:

[Mike] Doublin, 53, has been charged with the murder of [his longtime friend Gale] Yarbrough. . . .

Yarbrough, Doublin and [witness Paul] Powell — who had all been drinking — were the only people inside the shop building at the time of the shooting, Cooper said. Powell said Yarbrough and Doublin had been drinking whiskey there for several hours, Cooper said. . . .

Powell said the two men started fighting after Yarbrough said he didn't believe in God, the Masons or church and then wouldn't leave Doublin's residence, Cooper said. . . .

Doublin had [an] . . . estimated his blood alcohol reading was about .20 at the time of the shooting. . . . .

I'm always hesitant to infer much from isolated incidents such as these ones. I didn't think, for instance, that the apparently gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the racist murder of James Byrd were particularly telling about the amount or intensity of anti-gay hatred or racist hatred in America. What we know about such hatred we know from other sources, not these particular incidents. (Aside: I don't want to get into the controversy which later surfaced about whether the murder was in fact motivated by Shepard's homosexuality; I haven't followed the matter that closely, and it's not particularly relevant to my basic point here.)

Nonetheless, such incidents are concrete reminders of the hostility that we know is present; and to the extent that they are covered because of this, it seems to me that these murders of those who don't believe in God should be covered as well. The levels of hostility to atheists cited in earlier posts on this blog here, here, and here provide abstract statistics (not of murderous hatred, of course, but of hostility nonetheless, just as surveys that show that many people view Jews unfavorably or would refuse to vote for Jewish candidates are evidence of hostility towards Jews). The two murders here provide the concrete examples. A quick search, incidentally, suggests that the cases received no coverage outside their local newspapers.

Finally, I agree that these cases are somewhat different than the Shepard and Byrd killings — they involve friends, and killers who were either mentally ill or drunk. But if one friend murdered another when drunk because the other was gay, or because the other was a Jew who refused to accept Jesus Christ, I think we'd still think that this is indicative of bigotry: The drunkenness, we'd suspect, likely didn't create the hostility, but rather removed the inhibitions against acting on that was already there.

Thanks to Neil Reinhardt for the pointer to the first of these incidents.

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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 3, 2006 at 10:42am] Trackbacks
Hostility to Atheism - The Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice?

A new study by University of Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann confirms the longstanding research finding that public hostility towards atheists is considerably more widespread than that towards any other ethnic or religious minority group. Edgell, et al. conducted a survey of American public opinion on attitudes towards different groups and found that prejudice against atheists topped the scale. For example, almost 40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society." Note that the question did not ask whether the respondent disagrees with atheists on some issues (which would be a perfectly understandable and noninvidious view), but asks if they are a group that does not at all share his views.

The figures for other groups on this question (with rounding to whole numbers):

Muslims: 26%

Homosexuals: 23

Conservative Christians: 14

Recent immigrants: 13

Jews: 8

Scholars have long recognized that a key indication of tolerance for a group is willingness to accept intermarriage with its members. Here too, intolerance for atheists leads the pack. Below are the percentages of respondents stating, with respect to particular groups, that "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group" (rounded to whole numbers):

Atheists: 48

Muslims: 34

African-Americans: 27

Asian-Americans: 19

Hispanic-Americans: 19

Jews: 12

Conservative Christians: 7

Obviously, some people simply oppose intermarriage with any religious group other than their own. However, this cannot explain the high opposition to intermarriage with atheists, as it is clear from the results that numerous non-Jewish and non-Muslim respondents are willing to accept intermarriage with Jews and in some cases with Muslims, but unwilling to do so in the case of atheists. A particularly interesting point is that hostility towards Muslims on both this question and the previous one lags well behind hostility to atheists - even despite 9/11.

The Minnesota results are consistent with other survey evidence going back for years. For example, atheists consistently score at the bottom when respondents are asked whether they would be willing support a "qualified" presidential candidate nominated by their party who was a member of a particular group (even homosexual candidates, the next most unpopular, are less widely rejected).

Other, more qualitative, indicators of prejudice also point to widespread hostility towards atheists, even as compared to other relatively unpopular groups. For example, despite considerable antagonism towards homosexuals in many quarters, there have been quite a few openly gay members of Congress, including even some conservative Republican ones such as Rep. Jim Kolbe and Rep. Steve Gunderson. By contrast, there has never been, to my knowledge, even one openly unbelieving congressman or senator, despite the fact that atheists and agnostics are roughly 3% of the population (about the same as the percentage of gays, and a bit larger than the percentage of Jews). Nor has there ever been an openly atheist president, vice-president, governor, Supreme Court Justice, or member of the Cabinet. While I certainly would not argue that justice requires proportional representation of atheists in these bodies, the absence of even one open atheist in high political office is still striking.

Similarly, organizations such as the Boy Scouts have taken considerable flak for their refusal to accept gays. But the Scouts have gotten far less criticism for their equally categorical rejection of atheists. As in the case of intermarriage, I have no principled objection to groups limited to people who share their particular religion (e.g. - an all-Catholic or all-Jewish group). The Scouts however, accept members of any and all religions - no matter how odious their beliefs on various issues may be - but reject all avowed atheists and agnostics. I am not arguing that the government should force the Boy Scouts and other similar groups to accept atheists. In my view, it shouldn't. However, that should not stop us from criticizing their bigotry.

A common argument for various forms of discrimination against atheists is the claim that atheism is a belief system, not an involuntary identity like race or homosexuality. It is indeed sometimes appropriate to show hostility towards people because of their reprehensible beliefs (e.g. - in the case of KKK members). But we generally reject such categorical hostility towards members of most religious groups such as Jews or Catholics. The same principle should apply to atheists - especially since atheism, unlike some religions, is actually compatible with a very wide range of views on moral and political issues. For example, there have been prominent socialist atheists (e.g. - Marx), prominent libertarian ones (e.g. - Ayn Rand), and even notable conservative atheists such as Whittaker Chambers. The only common belief that all atheists share is denial of the existence of God, and that should not be a sufficient reason to hate them or discriminate against them as a group.

To avoid misunderstanding, I am NOT suggesting that the position of atheists in the United States is worse than that of homosexuals or African-Americans. In fact, I believe the opposite is actually closer to the truth. However, the data do strongly suggest that hostility towards atheists is more widespread (even if perhaps less intensely felt) and considered more socially acceptable than racism and homophobia. Even if the survey results are biased by the unwillingness of some respondents to admit racist views, it is still noteworthy that fewer people seem to have such inhibitions about admitting hostility towards atheists.

NOTE: the link to the Minnesota data above is to a summary on an atheist website because this is the most thorough description I was able to find on the internet. However, the study itself was not conducted or funded by any atheist organization.

CORRECTION: After checking, it turns out that I was wrong to say that Whittaker Chambers was an atheist even after becoming a conservative. However, I stand by the broader point that atheism is compatible with a wide range of moral and political views, including conservatism. Thus, hostility towards atheism on the grounds of its alleged political and/or moral implications is unjustified.

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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.

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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.

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Larry Darby, Holocaust-Denying Atheist Alabama Attorney General Candidate,

is in the news again (thanks to InstaPundit for the pointer); for more on this fellow and his remarkable views about the Holocaust, our "Zionist-Occupied Government," and more, see here.

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Holocaust-Denying Atheist Candidate for Alabama Attorney General Gets 43.5% of the Primary Vote:

That's the remarkable Larry Darby, who was seeking the Democratic nomination; the election results are here. I don't know whether I should (1) be sad that 160,000+ voters were willing to vote for a Holocaust denier, (2) be happy that they were willing to set aside the candidate's atheism (I doubt that many voted for him precisely because he's an atheist), (3) assume that few voters were paying much attention to more than a tiny handful of issues in the race, or (4) just be glad that he didn't win.

UPDATE: An interesting analysis of the race based on county-by-county results, in a comment to a Concurring Opinions post.

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Mixing Politics and Atheism:

I blogged recently about Larry Darby, the Alabaman atheist Attorney General candidate with strange views about Jews (not to be confused with the Malibu Catholic with strange views about Jews), and one of the commenters wrote:

It certainly seems that, whenever we mix politics and atheism, we get a lot of crazies, whether they're Americans or Communists. This candidacy might provide another excellent argument for the separation of atheism and state.

Oh, wait, that's not exactly what happened. Rather, I wrote that the "Official Presbyterian Publisher Issues 9/11 Conspiracy Book," a book written by a theology professor; and the ocmmenter wrote:

It certainly seems that, whenever we mix politics and religion, we get a lot of crazies, whether they're Christian or Muslim. This book might provide another excellent argument for the separation of church and state.

Both arguments, though, make about the same (low) amount of sense. There's little reason, to my knowledge, to think that the view that we're living under a "Zionist-Occupied Government" is distinctively or even disproportionately held by atheists; that one atheist holds it is hardly an argument against "mixing politics and atheism," however you define "mixing." Likewise, there's little reason to think that a conspiracy theory about the Bush Administration planning the 9/11 attacks is distinctively or even disproportionately held by religious people; that one theology professor holds it is hardly an argument against "mixing politics and religion."

I realize that one can come up with theories about why religiosity would correlate with various weaknesses of character or judgment. One can likewise come up with similar theories about atheism. Or one can suspect, as I do, that these theories, while not implausible, do not seem correct in practice.

But one way or another, "X is [religious/an atheist] who believes stupid thing Y or does bad thing Z, therefore that's a black mark against [religious people/atheists]" -- with zero explanation for why you think the religious or atheists are especially likely to do Y or Z (except that this one particular religious person or atheist happened to do it) -- is an argument that reveals more about the speaker than it does about the religious or atheists.

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Appeals to Religious Hostility from the Texas Republican Party:

Here's an item from the Texas Republican Party's Web site:

Candidate for the Sixth Court of Appeals, Ben Franks, is reported to be a professed atheist and apparently believes the Bible is a "collection of myths."

During debate over a plank in the State Democrat Platform, members of the Platform Committee debated dropping "God" from a sentence on the first page of the document. The plank stated: "we want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential."

According to an article published in the El Paso Times, Ben Franks states: "I’m an atheist..." [For Franks' response to this, see here.]

All elected or appointed officials in Texas must take the oath prescribed by Art. XVI, Section 1(a) of the Texas Constitution:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of _____ of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God."

Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch "atheist" belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas. Mr. Franks is a personal injury trial lawyer practicing in Texarkana, Texas and is the Democrat nominee for the 6th Court of Appeals.

As I've argued before, the theoretical case for ignoring candidates' religious beliefs when deciding whom to vote for is not open-and-shut: Religious beliefs (whether atheist, fundamentalist Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever else) are at least in theory pointers to how a person is likely to act, and the similarity between your beliefs and a candidate's might in theory be a good predictor of the similarity in your moral values and your views on what the government ought to do. But in practice, it seems to me that the correlation is low enough, and appeals to such a correlation are dangerous enough in a religiously pluralistic country that they ought to be eschewed and condemned.

But for now, let me just stress how, if such criticism of atheists is accepted, similar calls to vote against candidates with other beliefs about religion would become legitimized as well. After all, it's not just atheists who believe that the Bible is myth (I take it that the belief is about the Bible's claims of miracles, not about all of the Bible's historical assertions, some of which may be accurate, or about the Bible's moral teachings, to which the label "myth" can't be applied). Most Buddhists, Hindus, and other non-Christians/Jews/Muslims likely believe the same. Jews believe that the New Testament's claims of Jesus's miracles and his resurrection are myths (that's why they're not Christians). Many denominations of Christians believe that many of the claims of miracles in the Bible are myth (for instance, Methuselah didn't actually live to 969, the world wasn't actually covered in water during the Flood, Noah didn't actually fit two of each animal on his ark, and so on) or at least metaphor.

More broadly, if the Texas Republican Party can properly say "don't vote for the atheist, because he believes the Bible is myth and is therefore out of touch with the majority," then a party can equally legitimately say "don't vote for the fundamentalist Christian, because he believes the Bible is literally true and is therefore out of touch with the majority that don't believe such things," or "don't vote for the Catholic, because he recognizes the spiritual authority of a foreign leader, and is therefore out of touch with true blue Americans who bow their heads to no foreign potentate." Do we really want that sort of political argument to resurface?

Just to mention what should be obvious, I think the Texas Republican Party has a perfect First Amendment right to put out such arguments; I'm also not persuaded that the Religious Test Clause actually prohibits (even in an unenforceable way) voters from voting based on a candidate's religiosity. But I think arguments like the Texas Republican Party's are corrosive to American religious tolerance, and to American democracy more broadly, and we should exercise our First Amendment rights to condemn them.

Incidentally, the "so help me God" argument doesn't work: The laws of the state of Texas are subject to the U.S. Constitution, which bars the disqualification of officeholders who don't believe in God (or who refuse to engage in religious oaths, as quite devout Quakers and others do). See, e.g., Torcaso v. Watkins (1961); Lee v. Weisman (1992). In light of these federal precedents, the Texas Constitution has to be read as providing people who don't want to swear, but who instead want to affirm without reference to God, the right to do that. It's the Texas Republican Party's legal analysis that's ignoring the constitution of the United States, which is the fundamental law of Texas as well as of all other states.

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