Today, many of us readily recognize bigotry and discrimination when it occurs on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, age and disability. Those of us in the ever evolving movements against prejudice also tend to believe that we've at least identified the groups that require attention. But have we? Are there remaining identity-based prejudices still operating beneath our radar? If you took time to name a group that is still stigmatized but overlooked in the movement for mutual respect, are there any you would choose?
One that comes to mind is the non-religious, a group often referred to as atheists.
To be clear, the term "atheist" is not synonymous with the terms "non-believer" or "none" (a catch-all category used by many researchers). A non-religious person and an atheist can have belief systems as different as a pagan and a Protestant. Individuals in the non-religious category include atheists (i.e., believing that there is no higher being), agnostics (believing there is a lack of sufficient information to be certain), secular humanists (embracing reason and humanity, rejecting dogma), those who are spiritual, but do not participate in organized religion, and others. Each is a distinct and internally diverse belief system, but together the "none" group is rather large. According to a 2008 ARIS report, 15 percent of people in the U.S. claim no religion.
Despite the group's hefty representation, it has rarely been included in anti-prejudice efforts -- even in the face of mounting evidence that atheists and other "nones" are frequently ostracized.
A recent series of surveys makes the point. Atheists are perceived negatively; in fact, more negatively than a long list of other ethnic, religious and other identity groups. In a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review, respondents were asked questions about their attitudes toward a list of different groups. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents stated that atheists do not at all agree with their vision of American society, and 47.6 percent said that they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. For these same questions, the group with the next highest negative ratings was Muslims at 26.3 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively. Another study, published last month by Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of Oregon and Azim Sharaff of the University of British Columbia, found that people widely distrust anyone they believe to be an atheist. In fact, their respondents reported comparably high levels of distrust for only two groups -- atheists and rapists.
Elsewhere, there is evidence that publicly coming out as an atheist can result in outright exclusion. At religious colleges like the University of Dayton, non-theistic student groups, such as the Society of Freethinkers, have been denied participation in the college community. These students are meeting off campus, but feel the sting of being barred access to the funding and institutional support that fellow student groups enjoy. At the University of Dayton, permission to officially operate within the college was reportedly refused because the Freethinkers conflicted with the institution's Christian mission, even as Muslim and Jewish student clubs have been allowed. In another incident, a local business put up a sign that it would not serve non-believers attending a Skepticon convention in Springfield, Mo. The shop's owner prominently (and briefly) displayed the sign so that attendees would know that they would not be welcomed at his Christian business. He has since apologized for his actions.
All this raises an uncomfortable question. How would news stories and the general discourse change if the group being targeted was black? Jewish? Female? Or the wheelchair bound? Would we be outraged? If so, why aren't we outraged when the targeted group is the "nones"?
Of course, this is just the surface. These are the stories the media finds newsworthy. In day-to-day living, rejection experienced by non-believers is an ongoing series of personal slights rather than a newsworthy event. We don't hear about the taxi driver who took me to a convention center where I was making a presentation. When he heard about my work on religious respect, he opened up about his non-belief. He had recently gathered the courage to tell his family that he is an atheist, "And now, half of them don't talk to me." Unfortunately, his is not an uncommon experience, as non-believers from a variety of backgrounds are discovering.
Long a group that was quiet, increasing numbers of non-believers are going public and spreading their message. Ads on buses and billboards promote the inherent good in people and challenge religious believers with text such as: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake" and "The United States is not founded on the Christian religion." Articles are appearing in major media and broaching topics such as the potential morality in atheism, the nativity scene's place in public display and how the non-believing community can contribute to the interfaith movement.
So, when we look back on the beginning of the 21st century, what will we remember about movements against prejudice? Almost certainly, we will remember that divisions based on our different identities still raged, with persistent anti-Muslim sentiment, bias against immigrants, anti-Semitism, racism, gender bias, outright homophobia and prejudice against people with disabilities. But I think there is something else. I predict that we will also say that the anti-prejudice movements continued to evolve and adopt an ever more expansive view, one that recognizes how atheists and other "nones" are also targets of bias. And with that view, I hope, we will be able to report that we saw a reinvigorated and expanded commitment to combating all religious prejudice, whether it is based on a person's belief system or non-belief system.