Nontheist Americans Finally Speaking Up

Religion questionnaire with pencil.
Religion questionnaire with pencil.

For all the complaints by the religious right about atheists pushing their disbelief, you would think that the nontheist community was some massive monolithic force that acts as the sole shaper of culture. Until recently the truth was quite the opposite. Those who don't believe in a traditional god were distrusted by the majority Christian public and regularly marginalized by the government and mainstream media. The history of open nonbelievers in America is one of prejudice and discrimination, where those who don't believe in a god are generally unable or unwilling to even stand-up against acts of bias.

No longer. The rapidly growing nontheist community, which includes people who identify as atheists, agnostics, humanists, nonbelievers, ethical culturists and freethinkers, has taken it upon itself in the past few months to stand up to religious bullies in politics and journalism, and the impact is truly something to behold.

Take for example the case involving Margaret Doughty, who recently applied for U.S. citizenship after legally residing in this country for over 30 years. In addition to being an atheist, Doughty is also a conscientious objector, which means that she objects to military service and participation in any and all wars. During the citizenship process, when Doughty expressed her objections to the pledge that would obligate her to bear arms in defense of the country, she was told by the immigration officials that she needed a religious basis for her conscientious objector status and that they required a letter from her church to prove that she objected on religious grounds.

What happened next was an indicator of just how vocal the nontheist community can be when discrimination against atheists occurs. Immigration officials received letters from various nontheist advocacy groups, including one from the American Humanist Association, all of which demanded that they follow the law of the land and allow Doughty to base her conscientious objector status on secular grounds. After this massive outpouring of support, immigration officials reversed their position and approved her application for naturalization.

Just as Doughty was showing us all how nontheist Americans (or soon-to-be Americans) can stand up against religious discrimination perpetrated by the government, Joe Klein of Time magazine was putting on a clinic on how journalists can bash the nontheist community without evidence.

Klein recently wrote a cover story for Time that described how community service can benefit all within American society, which is something that everyone can appreciate. But during this helpful commentary on the value of community service, Klein denigrated the nontheist community for not being visible participants in community service initiatives. Popular atheist blogger Hemant Mehta penned a strong rebuttal showing just how wrong Klein was by highlighting the numerous ways nontheist groups help out before, during, and after disasters, and how nontheists often experience discrimination from religious aid groups while volunteering to help their neighbors. Klein has also faced a backlash from writers at The Huffington Post, Wonkette, and Daily Kos just to name a few.

But Klein's article isn't the only example of how the traditional media discriminates against the nontheist community. CNN's Wolf Blitzer's recent assumptions that all of Americans are religious and that non-belief is abnormal also got some well-deserved pushback.

Blitzer was in Oklahoma after a tornado destroyed parts of the state in early May of this year. While talking to survivors, Blitzer came across Rebecca Vitsmun holding her child in her arms and explaining how she decided to leave her house just before it collapsed. In a now infamous video, Blitzer said to Vitsmun, "You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?" Vitsmun informed Blitzer that she is an atheist in a graceful way that plainly revealed Blitzer's prejudice. Thankfully, the nontheist community united around Vitsmun, and in direct contradiction to Klein's Time article, organized a community initiative to raise tens of thousands of dollars so Vitsmun could recover from the disaster.

These cases of bias against nontheists are just a few examples of the ongoing discrimination that open atheists and humanists face. It hasn't disappeared, and if anything, it is likely to be more frequent as the numbers of out-of-the-closet nontheists of all stripes continues to climb. What's new is this trend of standing up against the prejudice that gives rise to such discrimination. If we nontheist Americans want respect and equal treatment, coming out and speaking up will make a difference. Eventually, it will be the Joe Kleins and Wolf Blitzers that are looked upon with distrust, not because they believe in a god, but because they find it acceptable to be intolerant of those who don't.