Atheism and Civil Rights: A Reply to Tabash and Downey

By Grothe, D. J.; Dacey, Austin | Free Inquiry, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Atheism and Civil Rights: A Reply to Tabash and Downey


Grothe, D. J., Dacey, Austin, Free Inquiry


We would like to thank Edward Tabash and Margaret Downey for their thoughtful comments on our article "Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue." (1) We are gratified that our article has stimulated such interest. Tabash objects to our characterization of atheism as a matter of public awareness and education rather than of civil rights, and he defends his proposal to support candidates for public office based on theft" unbelief. Downey attacks our claim that in America today there is no "atheist-bashing" comparable to gay-bashing. She cites the findings of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network, a nonprofit organization she founded to collect accounts of discrimination against the nonreligious.

We reply to these objections in turn and then develop our suggestion that the social standing of nontheists is best addressed through public awareness and education. In place of the gay rights, feminist, and civil-rights models, we suggest an alternative model, drawing on the experience of a quite different group that has achieved remarkable recognition in the last four decades.

TABASH

Tabash begins with the claim that atheists are unelectable to public office:

   One test of whether a minority group's
   struggle for equality is a civil rights
   issue is whether majority altitudes
   toward that minority reflect unreasonable
   prejudice or a desire to deny full
   legal rights to minority members. By
   this standard, atheists' efforts to
   achieve legal and social equality
   indeed constitute a civil rights movement
   ... a larger percentage of
   American citizens, 49 percent, would
   vote against an atheist on grounds of
   atheism alone than would vote against
   someone for any other reason. (2)

We grant this (rather disheartening) demographic fact. What can one reasonably conclude from it? Consider the fop lowing questions:

Would you vote against an atheist on grounds of atheism alone?

Should atheists be prohibited from running for public office?

If 49 percent of Americans answered Yes to question two, then Tabash might have a case that atheists' civil rights are at risk. But by answering yes to question one, Americans are not expressing a desire to deny full legal rights to atheists. Every natural born citizen over thirty-five has a right to run for president, but no one has a right to the presidency.

Tabash claims that "[s]ince the majority in our nation regards nonbelievers with disdain and craves an end to government neutrality between religion and nonbelief, the struggle of atheists in the United States is indeed a civil rights issue." He is mistaken for two reasons. First, in recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of the government's stance of strict neutrality towards religion. Tabash acknowledges this. His claim is that neutrality would be (does he mean "might be"?) eroded if the composition of the Supreme Court changed and it started to rule differently. This is like observing that people with disabilities would be vulnerable to employment discrimination if the legislation protecting them were not in place--it is, so they aren't. Similarly, Tabash points out that in 1964 the Congress could have excluded atheists from the Civil Rights Act but didn't. Given all this counterfactual discrimination, it was no surprise to see a million atheists not marching on Washington recently.

Tabash seems to be saying that atheists should mobilize a preemptive movement to protect the rights they now do have. Granted, in some cases it makes sense to rouse a constituency to counter or even preempt attacks on rights that they still enjoy: consider the pro-choice movement. Perhaps Tabash could hold up this movement, rather than the gay rights and civil-rights movements, as the model for atheists. The trouble with this suggestion is that there just is no threat to atheists' rights that is as imminent and serious as the threats to women's rights regarding their fetuses. …

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