Oppression or Suppression

When atheists claim to be oppressed, many people, including some atheists, roll their eyes. Are atheists oppressed? (I’m not going to definitively answer this question, so don’t get out your knives yet.)

First of all, what does it mean to be oppressed? On a hot muggy day, the weather can b e oppressive, but that is hardly what we mean when we say a group is oppressed. Rather, oppression as it is meant in this case is a political concept.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen introduced as one of the rights the right to resist oppression. The concept was derived from Locke and his right to revolution as a safe-guard against tyranny and the group oppressed would have been the citizens generally. With the rise of identity politics in the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of oppression shifted slightly to being one that was closely tied to certain identified groups. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Identity Politics, a social group is

a collective whose members have relatively little mobility into or out of the collective, who usually experience their membership as involuntary, who are generally identified as members by others, and whose opportunities are deeply shaped by the relation of their group to corollary groups through privilege and oppression (Cudd 2006).

According to this definition, atheists may not be a social group. Certainly, we inhabit something of a borderline in the definition. I have had a friend who doesn’t believe in the existence of God tell me that I am anti-social for calling myself an atheist. We see the importance of being born into a given group as part of the implied definition of a social group when we toss around the question of whether or not being gay is inherent or if it is a choice. Many atheists were born parents who practice a religion and they were raised in the culture surrounding that religion. Coming out atheist, is perceived by the dominant group as a choice. We have “mobility”, as long as you define mobility as the opportunity to pretend you believe something you don’t. When my friend tells me that I am anti-social, he is seeing me less like a homosexual for whom his sexual orientation is considered an innate trait, than like a bisexual who says that he wants to have a relationship with someone of the same-sex.

The article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy continues:

Oppression, then, is the systematic limiting of opportunity or constraints on self-determination because of such membership: for example, Frantz Fanon eloquently describes the experience of being always constrained by the white gaze as a Black man: “I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity… I was responsible at the same time for my body, my race, for my ancestors” (Fanon 1968, 112).

If one defines oppression as the “systematic limiting of opportunity or constraints on self-determination” it becomes very hard to argue that atheists are oppressed in most western societies. Although the Religious Right in the U.S. occasionally speaks as if it would like to oppress us in this manner, there is comparatively little limiting of opportunities for atheists. However, that may be because we are not easily identifiable. There is some evidence that people are less inclined to hire atheists. We do know that people would least like for their child to marry an atheist.

As far as the second part of statement, the quote by Franz Fanon, the atheist has been constrained by the theist, and in the western world primarily the Christian, gaze. In fact, one could say that the “New Atheism” is in large part an attempt on the part of atheists to define themselves rather than to allow themselves to be defined by others.

Conversely, members of dominant groups are privileged—systematically advantaged by the deprivations imposed on the oppressed.

Interestingly, while it is difficult to categorize atheists as “oppressed”, it is surprisingly easy to consider Christians as privileged according to Peggy Mackintosh’s check list. However, since it can be hard to make white people who do not want to see white privilege see it, I hardly expect to be able to make unwilling Christians see the far less obvious Christian privilege.

Still, it begs the question, is there such a thing as an atheist identity?

I would posit that oppression of atheists is more the outgrowth of the suppression atheism. While most of us feel that we simply can’t believe and that atheism is therefore an inherent, authentic part of our identity, it should also be recognized that believers do not see us this way. We are not, in their minds, a group that needs to be put down, but are individuals expressing an idea they do not want to hear.

As much as “identity politics” has a negative connotation, it is worth recognizing that it is one of the primary lenses through which we see politics today, a lens that may not always apply.

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3 comments
  1. These last few years I find myself telling people I am an atheist as much as possible – and nobody seems surprised or challenges me (much to my disappointment at times!) Maybe it would be a different attitude if I was living in America…?

    • fojap said:

      I think it would really depend on what sort of sub-group you found yourself in. Personally, I have almost no problems with it. My one friend is probably a little weird. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering if his comment didn’t betray the subconscious thoughts of people who belong to a church but are not really devout. It seemed interesting that he has no problem with the fact that I don’t believe in God, he just has a problem with the fact that I don’t belong to a church. Not having been born into one, I don’t really know how I could without telling really, really big lies – or becoming a Unitarian. 🙂

      It may very well be chance, because now that I’m trying to remember other people who have bothered me about being an atheist, the next most recent person was an Englishman. It really bugged him that I didn’t believe in miracles and everytime he heard of someone making a remarkable recovery from an illness he’d say, “What do you think of that?!?” It got tedious, but the relationship ended when I found out he was married. O_o

      As I’ve said before, but no one seems to believe me, I had far more problems in Canada. Again, it wasn’t the fact that I didn’t believe in God, but everyone thought that I should just pretend like they did. I had to tell them that I wasn’t raised Catholic and then they would get all confused.

      The Bible Belt they tell me is totally different.

      Basically, if you’re in the Northeast and you work in the sciences or academia, being an atheist would probably be the norm or at least unsurprising. In most businesses, most people would think it was offensive to discuss religion. It’s probably a little bit worse here, but at the same time when I read atheists from the U.S. complaining on the internet, I often think they’re overstating the case. I’ve read the the government in the UK funds religious schools. Americans would be tearing their hair out over that. I think atheists here over-estimate just how secular Europe is. On the other hand, our traditionally secular government is under a very concerted attack.

      I’ll just add that I’ve never been in an environment where being a evangelical Christian was the norm. When evangelical Christians feel that they are put down in American culture, I have to agree with them. In the sort of subgroups in which I’ve spent most of my life, being an evangelical would be seen as far, far worse than being an atheist.

      I know, that’s a messy, unsatisfactory answer. Maybe – maybe not – it depends.

      • fojap said:

        I should probably clarify, I don’t think Evangelical Christians are put down in American culture generally, but in some sub-cultures here, like academia, they are.

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