Discrimination against Atheists: The Facts

By Downey, Margaret | Free Inquiry, June-July 2004 | Go to article overview

Discrimination against Atheists: The Facts


Downey, Margaret, Free Inquiry


Civil Rights n pl : the nonpolitical rights of a citizen; esp: the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U. S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress. (1)

In "Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue" (FREE INQUIRY, February/March 2004), DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey wrote:

   To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing."
   If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear
   about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common
   knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On
   many occasions we have put this question to leader's in the
   nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single
   compelling example.

I greatly respect Grothe and Dacey, but in light of my own research I believe that they provided a misleading perception of the nonreligious community and its predicament. For almost a decade, I have been documenting acts of discrimination against the nonreligious through the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN), a committee of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia.

In 1995, the United Nations Non-Governmental Organization Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief invited me to submit information on discrimination against atheists by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The committee's mission was to record and monitor incidents of intolerance around the world. I was told that my findings would be published in the committee's final report only if the cases I documented were grievous by its standards. The committee quickly recognized that Scouting's discrimination against atheists was no less severe than its far more widely reported discrimination against gays. A synopsis of my findings was included in the committee's published report. (2)

Shortly afterward, the same UN committee asked me to assess other incidents of discrimination--in particular, what forms of discrimination were of greatest concern within the U.S. atheist community. During the following year, I conducted numerous interviews and discovered multiple instances of discrimination. In 1998, I delivered a personal report to the committee, noting that bigotry against atheists was relatively common, much of it based in popular misunderstandings of the U.S. Constitution's secular character and its intent to protect minorities against majority rule. I reported that, with respect to the atheist community, the United States was not in compliance with the 1981 United Nations "Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief." (3)

During 1998, Dr. Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, toured the United States and visited some of the families mentioned in my report. In his findings he noted atheism's "non-acceptance by the society in which religion remains a very strong point of reference in social, cultural and identity terms." Nonetheless, he suggested that the situation faced by atheists in American society was "satisfactory." (4) Compared to the deadly violence that threatens some oppressed minorities in other countries, this may be true; still, discrimination against unbelievers falls far short of the American ideal. I resolved to strengthen my efforts to document discrimination against atheists, which had never before been attempted in a formal manner.

In 1999, I developed the Discrimination Narrative Collection Form (DNCF), an easy-to-complete incident description form which I released to every national humanist, freethought, and atheist organization. The Council for Secular Humanism was first to publish the DNCF, in its newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin. (5) In 2000, I mass-mailed the form to atheist, humanist, and freethought groups nationwide. In addition, I circulated it at every movement conference I have attended since 2000. …

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