Earlier this year, the Financial Times put together a sob story about the ruthless persecution of atheists in the United States. The writer collects a number of anecdotes of discomfort at family gatherings, difficulty rising through the ranks of the Boy Scouts, and worst of all, lost baby-sitting opportunities. Of course, I doubt that any of these brave atheists would be inclined to trade places with the 100,000 Christians who are murdered for the faith every year. What is most striking about the piece, however, is not the triviality of the “persecution”; it is the complete obliviousness to exactly why atheists rank lower on America’s social totem pole than gays, lesbians, Jews, Muslims, and so forth.
The author inadvertently provides the quintessential example at the end of the piece with a woman living in Alabama. Though this poor, persecuted young lady admittedly has the love and pride of her family, one thing is still missing: she’s not allowed to babysit. This might just seem like another trivial discomfort brought on by her beliefs, except for the fact that she goes on to explain exactly why she’s not allowed to babysit: “I have all these cousins who need babysitters but they’re afraid I’ll teach them about evolution, and I probably would.” So… she’s not allowed to babysit because she has every intention of undermining parents on a subject they obviously find to be important. How she can complain about not being trusted when she is admittedly untrustworthy is a mystery. It’s not just her, though–the only thing the author finds “extraordinary” about the situation is that the parents would hold such a view.
The ongoing misunderstanding in this article and society at large is that discomfort at atheists fulfilling certain societal roles is some kind of a religious test. As the article notes, “Americans” tend to be more ok with minorities such as Jews and Muslims despite their different religions. For that matter, a polytheist will probably receive the Republican nomination for president. In light of such facts, the better explanation is that the test is ethical rather than religious. Yes, I know; atheists can be just as moral as Christians. This is true to a point, but there is still the matter of the first table of the Law–the one with commandments necessarily excluded by atheism. As many scholars have noted, the common ethical beliefs across cultures nearly universally mirror a generic reading of the Ten Commandments. This includes the commandments about respecting the supreme benevolent being or beings and refraining from blasphemy. Why then should we expect people to not look in askance on those who intentionally flout these universal ethics? Mormons and Muslims may be blatantly wrong in their beliefs, but they do respect a higher power–they’d fail a religious test, but pass a generic ethical one. On the other hand, go right back to the example of the baby-sitter girl to see what happens when one sees herself as the highest possible authority by default. Even those atheists who do embrace a “higher power” tend to embrace the constantly shifting and politicized winds of scientific consensus. Even if it were reliable, however, the fact that it’s methodologically blind to things like goodness and beauty make it a poor higher power indeed with respect to ethics and how we ought to live amongst each other.
When religious people see the most popular atheists openly compare religious upbringing to child-abuse & write books about ending religious faith and then look at the track record of 20th century atheist political leaders who have actually had the power to do something about it, we get understandably nervous. After all, a substantial part of those ongoing 100,000 annual martyrdoms are still at the hands of atheists in countries like North Korea, Vietnam, China, etc. We aren’t oblivious to people condemning us as hopelessly ignorant and then desperately trying to make sure our children and our society are “safe” from us.