"Are atheists discriminated against in America?" That’s the question a CNN journalist recently asked me during an interview for the Paula Zahn NOW show. I must confess that, at first, I wasn’t sure how to answer, never having considered the question.
In my twelve years at a Quaker school in Baltimore (staffed and attended by non-Quakers), my six years at an Ivy League university, and this year in Manhattan, all I have ever witnessed has been atheists’ discrimination against Christians. At Princeton, there’s certainly no anti-atheism going around. If anything, there’s a steady supply of anti-Christianity. My friends working on Wall Street and attending the best medical, business, and law schools all report the same phenomenon: Among the professional and intellectual elite, it’s assumed that educated people are nonreligious. Intelligent religion is considered oxymoronic.
The eminent English professor John Fleming, writing in the Daily Princetonian just two years ago, noted this same basic fact : "I cannot remember ever hearing an actual anti-Semitic comment uttered by a student or colleague on this campus . . . . On the other hand I have heard hundreds of anti-Christian slurs." Fleming went on to recount the reaction one year when Princeton’s top academic prize went to two active Christians: "’How,’ asked one interlocutor with a knowing grin, ‘how can such smart people be so Christian?’ Now this person never would have dreamed of wondering aloud how smart people could be so black, so gay or even so Pink Floyd . . . . Though rarely so explicit, ignorant and/or hostile remarks about historical or contemporary Christianity are common coin on this campus."
While the question seemed backward to me at first, there is something to it. The interviewer told me about the experiences of the atheist families she had interviewed. They were evicted from apartments, rejected by friends and neighbors, forced to stand by as the football team prayed before games. She recounted the statistic that "atheists are the least trusted minority group in the United States and are less accepted than other marginalized groups, including Muslims and homosexuals," and felt they could never be elected to a prominent public office. In sum, they seemed to face discrimination on a number of fronts.
Then again, it all depends on what one means by discrimination. If we mean unwarranted hostility, persecution, and prejudice, then, as far as I can tell, most Americans do not actively discriminate against atheists. Or at least they shouldn’t. Religious believers, especially Christian believers, should will atheists’ good in every way. If the evictions really occurred solely because of religious belief (or the lack thereof), then they are morally repulsive.
On the other hand, if by discrimination we mean drawing distinctions at all, then I think most Americans do "discriminate," and rightly so. Religious belief and practice aren’t like being born black or white or brown or yellow, or male or female. They’re not biological realities beyond the reach of choice. How one views the nature of the universe, humanity, and man’s place in the cosmos—the biggest of life’s big questions—should, like any major choice, have enormous implications for all aspects of life.
None of this is to say that atheists can’t be morally upright, caring roommates, devoted teammates, or conscientious colleagues¯I know firsthand that they can be, and often are, all of these things. Nor would I suggest that there isn’t the occasional loon (landlord or neighbor) who really does harbor prejudices against atheists. I mean simply that it would be odd for an atheist to claim that his understanding of all of reality should have no bearing on how other people treat him. Whether we believe man to be the judge of all things and answerable to truths and laws that transcend his own existence has significant impact on how we think about the world. And ideas have practical consequences. See, for instance, Richard John Neuhaus’ article "Can Atheists Be Good Citizens" ( First Things , August/September 1991).
Yet all of this is fairly cerebral. Most Americans probably don’t articulate things along these lines, but judge atheism on its public expressions. If atheists feel discriminated against in America, it may be because the public image of atheism these days seems to be an outright attack on faith, particularly Christian faith. Just look at the recent slew of books attacking religious believers¯there’s Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation ; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion ; Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great ; and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon . Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has even argued that raising children to believe in God is a form of "mental child abuse." I don’t know of anyone of his stature who’s made a similar claim about raising children to be atheists.
So long as the unofficial spokespeople for atheism file lawsuits to remove God from the Pledge, advocate infanticide and bestiality, and write books arguing that religious believers are deluded, atheists are going to have a hard time fitting in. This is especially true in small-town America, in areas where your two options for worship are the First Baptist Church and the First Southern Baptist Church. If you’ve never known an atheist personally (and, lest we forget, the urban Northeast is not the norm, as only 1 to 3 percent of Americans are atheists), then when a new neighbor announces his atheism, your imagination naturally runs wild: Does he, too, want to remove God from the Pledge or kill "deficient" babies? A softer public image would go a long way.
The continued push for a naked public square is another contributing factor. That disagreement exists over many aspects of religious life is no reason to demand the God-free public society (or locker room) many atheists unfairly advocate. In this respect, atheists (and others) aren’t seeking a fair, neutral environment where all views can be expressed and all voices heard; they’re asking for an explicitly atheistic public square. But on many counts, there is broad agreement among citizens of diverse faith traditions about the central issues of civic life. There is no reason why this broad agreement should be trumped by a relatively small, if vocal and elite, minority. And so long as atheists and other secularists seek to impose a religion-free public square, most Americans will react negatively.
Still, all of this likely misses the main point. I have no doubt that many atheists feel discrimination. They’re excluded from some of our most cherished social practices, unable to fully share in many people’s deepest joys and sorrows. The reason is simple: Even today, more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Many of us shape our lives around a belief that atheists don’t share. And this has practical consequences¯for how else is community forged except on common thought and experience?
If community life is centered on the Sunday worship service, the weeknight Bible study, the monthly church picnic, and the vacation Bible camp, then of course atheists will feel excluded. They can’t participate in many of the traditional and natural aspects of human life: communal prayer, worship and fellowship¯and not because they’re discriminated against but because they choose not to. This isn’t the fault of religious believers (though we would do well to think of ways to welcome nonbelievers more fully into some aspects of our religious lives). It all depends on what forms the foundation of community life, and historically, it’s been religion. In many places in America today it still is. While it’s not particularly true of Princeton, New Jersey, or the Chelsea district of Manhattan, it still applies to most places throughout America.
Atheist discontent still bears a seed of redemption, though, as it points to the fundamental human longing for community, shared values, and shared lives. That they feel this need goes unfulfilled isn’t surprising, since it’s a large element of what religion is all about. Far from unjustly discriminating, then, believers ought to water that seed by charity and prayers so that its seedling might one day be grafted onto the one true Vine.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things .