Saturday, June 18, 2011

Who's Really Being Persecuted?

Christians in America often talk about how they're being persecuted, how they're under attack from our culture on all sides. It's a bit hard for me to sympathize with them, given that the proportion of Americans who are Christian is 78%.

Generally when U.S. Christians say they're being "persecuted," they mean that someone disagrees with them, or that they're being portrayed in anything less than a positive light. But there's no indication that such opinions are widespread, or that they often lead to negative actions against Christians. So what group is most hated and distrusted? It's not Jews, Muslims, or even homosexuals.

It's atheists.

And unlike Christians, we have the data to back up this fact. Here are a few statistics that provide just a glimpse into the prejudice nonbelievers face:
  • 39.6% of Americans say that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of American society." The second highest group was Muslims, with 26.3%.
  • 61% of Americans say they'd be less likely to vote for an atheist presidential candidate, and 53% would refuse outright even if they were well-qualified. In this regard, being an atheist is significantly worse than having an affair, being gay, or having never held elected office.
  • 47.6% of Americans say they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. The rate for marrying a Muslim was 33.6%; for marrying a conservative Christian it was 6.9%.
  • 58% of Americans don't believe it's possible to be a moral person without believing in God.
  • 61% of Americans say atheists have a negative impact on American culture. Coming in at a distant second with 39% were... Scientologists. Yes, atheists scored far worse than a litigious, psychiatry-hating, power-mad, space operatic cult.
  • 52% of Americans have a "mostly" or "very unfavorable" view of atheists. The figure for evangelical Christians: 18%.
Clearly American sentiment toward atheists is overwhelmingly negative, but we can also look specifically at how they're treated. For instance, the Boy Scouts accept members from all religions, but don't allow atheists or even agnostics as scouts or group leaders. Religious people often make the baseless claim that "there are no atheists in foxholes"—and people don't take too kindly when atheist veterans make themselves known. Former President George H.W. Bush allegedly said he didn't think atheists should be considered American citizens. This article includes plenty of other injustices against nonbelievers, some of them downright astonishing.

The most notable and recent example of an atheist being persecuted is the case of Damon Fowler. He's a former public high school student who objected to having a school-sanctioned Christian prayer at his graduation ceremony. He was threatened, his parents kicked him out of his home, and the school decided to give the middle finger to church-state separation and go right on ahead with that prayer. In response, atheists online raised over $30,000 dollars to help pay his college tuition.

Often times even government institutions assume a belief in God. In some areas, only religious clergy are allowed to perform marriages. Religion is sometimes given special treatment in the military. In courtrooms, people are asked to swear on a Bible to tell the truth "so help you God." According to the Pledge of Allegiance (since 1954), we're "one nation under God." And "In God We Trust" is printed on our very currency. Who is this "one nation," and who is this "we"? These terms ought to refer to every American citizen. Why don't they include atheists?

Despite the fact that atheists are the most widely disliked major group in America, there is a silver lining. First, the percentage of people claiming no religion jumped from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. (This admittedly includes non-religious theists, but the percentage of self-identified atheists has similarly increased.) And second, research has shown that as the number of atheists in an area increases, religious prejudices against them in that area are reduced—and it's not just a correlation, but a causal link. As atheists slowly become more prominent, they will eventually be more accepted as well. It's only a matter of time.

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