Tag Archives: atheism

Apparently, this photo went viral a couple of years ago. I didn’t see it at the time. I came across it because I’ve been reading older posts the blog Infidels Are Us. I used her blog as a source for some information a couple of days ago. I hadn’t realized at the time that her own family members have been attacked for leaving Islam. As it happens, they converted to Christianity.

She put up a link to a video that appeared on the website Vice, “Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam.” The video starts with a shocking, dreadful attack captured on closed circuit video. It wasn’t until after I watched it I that I realized that the opening footage was of an attack on the father of the young woman who writes Infidels Are Us. I went back and read some other posts on her blog, including a post in which she describes her own experience of that night. It adds to the immediacy to hear about it in her voice. We see these things on the news and we learn, after a time, to disassociate them from real people who lead lives not unlike our own. Reading her version really broke down that self-defense for me.

The Vice video contained footage about about a Saudi ex-Muslim who fled Saudi Arabia. A couple of years ago, her parents made her go to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. There, she took the following photo:

A hand holding a piece of paper reading "Atheist Republic" inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca

Source: Atheist Republic

At the end of the video, the young woman who took the photo is in Cologne, Germany.

I didn’t finish a longer post, so I thought I’d post a sketch I did earlier today. Noel, who, coincidentally, just returned home from Somalia a few days ago, put up a post, alerting atheists who are Considering Visiting Muslim Majority Countries.  He gave a link to the Godless Spellchecker’s blog in which GS posted translations of what people are saying in Arabic about atheists on Twitter. Back on Noel’s blog, the very funny (and occasionally offensive – you’ve been warned. Don’t blame me if you click the link.) Armchair Pontificator made a quip and I drew a quick cartoon. Being caught postless, I decided I might as well post my cartoon here.

Beheading Hurt

It has often occurred to me that there is no way to know how many people are really Muslim in countries where there are severe punishments for atheism. The thirteen countries that execute atheists are Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen. Another four, Bahrain, Gambia, Jordan and Kuwait, imprison atheists. In Nigeria, it should be noted, the constitution protects freedom of thought, but rights are often violated by local governments and non-state militias and Islamist groups. Hence, I put different words on the picture.


This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.

I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.

    Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.

This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.

I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:

This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.


People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.


Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.

You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.


Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.


AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.

Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.

I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

Well, I just had a thought and I’d like to run it by everyone. This isn’t a well-developed idea, just something that was running through my mind as I was making that second cup of coffee.

Now, if anyone is actually happy with the Sunday Assemblies and similar concepts, keep on going to them. I know I’ve mocked them, but at some level I just have to admit they are simply not to my taste. Enough people have made similar gripes, so I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. It occurred to me that maybe we should take a page out of the practices of a different religious group.

Christian Scientists make skeptics more than a bit irate due to their position on medicine, and I’m sure that the fact that I’ve borrowed the idea from Christian Scientists will not thrill anyone. First, I would like to mention that I have a few close personal friends who are Christian Scientists and, except for their position on medicine, they’re not any crazier than any other believers. It might also be worth adding here that they don’t actually believe in faith healing. Christian Science was related to the Transcendental Movement. For those of you who are not from the U.S., Transcendentalism was a religious movement that arose in the United States in the nineteenth century. You can see its very American nature in its emphasis on individualism and self-reliance. Originally it grew out of Unitarianism and incorporated elements of Idealism, Romanticism, Swedenborgianism and Hinduism. A variety of American religious and philosophical movements grew out of Transcendentalism.

The aspect of Christian Science that I think could be very useful for atheists, agnostics, skeptics and related groups is the Christian Science Reading Room. If you live in the U.S., you’ve almost certainly walked by one. It is seen as a public service and is both a library and a bookstore.

They were created to provide both a quiet place for reading, study and prayer and a means for the public to come into contact with Christian Science.

I think this idea would be especially amenable for atheism. Were it ever created, I would hope that we could follow our own principles about “free-thought” and not be too terribly narrow in what we included.

Any thoughts on this?

One interesting thing about writing down my memories slowly and online, is that I am confronted by the assumptions people make based on their own experiences and some of the assumptions I make based on mine. For instance, I didn’t realize how “white bread” many people assume the United States to be. Meanwhile, I assume it is a “nation of immigrants” and that, if I say that I grew up in an ordinary suburban town in New Jersey, everyone will assume that there was an ethnic and religious mix. To me, that is ordinary.

However, the towns around New York are occasionally associated with one group or another. This doesn’t negate what I said about pluralism. For instance, Bergenfield, New Jersey, is sometimes known as “Little Manila” due to the concentration of Filipinos. According to Wikipedia, about seventeen percent of the population is of Filipino descent. So, in this area, a concentration doesn’t mean any sort of exclusivity. The town where I lived when I was in grammar school and junior high school was known for having a concentration of Jews. This means that many of my childhood friends were Jewish, including my best friend, the first boy I kissed, and so on. It’s hard to describe without making it sound more interesting to me than it was. When you’re a child, you just accept things as a matter of course. This, to me, is just the way the world is. There are people of different backgrounds in it, and they’re your neighbors. So, when I was in seventh grade and the local synagogue was vandalized, it wasn’t just an attack on Jews, but an attack on my friends and an attack on our town. It drove home the point, in a profound, emotional way, that antisemitism exists and is real.

When you grow up in a pluralistic town, accommodating other people becomes second nature. My mother would get two sets of cards, one that said “Merry Christmas” and another that said “Happy Holidays.” Our school would have a “seasonal” music recital around mid-December. Typically, we’d have one obviously Christian song, one obviously Jewish song, and the rest would be songs about winter or “holidays.” Going easy on the obviously Christian iconography in public places like the school was not meant to accommodate atheists, but to be inclusive to Jews. This also helped relations among Protestants, Catholics, other Christian sects, as well as the small number of Buddhists and Taoists. I’m tempted to say that we had no Muslims or Hindus in our town, but part of the point of having a secular society that downplays religion in the public sphere is that I can’t even tell you for certain. Again, it’s hard to communicate how uninteresting this was to me. There was no sense of making an effort to do this. You had friends who were different religions and you wouldn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, just like you wouldn’t say rude things on other topics that might make them uncomfortable. I wouldn’t think it was even worth mentioning, except it seems that other people didn’t grow up this way.

When I first heard about Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas,” I actually was shocked that someone on television would be promoting something so obviously antisemitic. You see, I didn’t hear this as an attack on “secularists,” and I still think it’s mainly antisemitic. Greedy merchants who want to take your money but won’t say “Merry Christmas,” what is that if it’s not a nasty stereotype of Jews?

Many atheists who come from Christian families still celebrate some version of Christmas. After all, my mother was a non-believer sending cards that said “Merry Christmas” to her friends. She wouldn’t send any of the deeply religious one with bible verses, but a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, even an angel were all fine with her. We put up a tree. We exchange presents. We used to eat a big ham until my sister and mother became vegetarians. (Yes, yes, Sis. I know. You’re not really a vegetarian; you just don’t eat meat.) We don’t have a problem with Christmas; it’s people from ethnic groups that were never Christian to begin with that have a problem with Christmas.

A while back, Hemant Mehta put up a post about a woman getting an anonymous note telling her that her Christmas display was tacky. Mehta wrote:

We don’t know if the letter-writer (and I’m assuming there really was a letter-writer here) was an atheist, but it looks that way.

However, the incident reminded me of something that happened to my sister. Shortly after she moved into her current home, one of her neighbors stopped by. Now, my sister is frequently taken for Jewish. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the New Jersey accent. Her neighbor said to her, “Whenever someone new moves in and they put up Christmas lights, we say, ‘There goes the neighborhood.'” Although it was unspoken, in the context it was obvious that she was referring to the Jewish character of the neighborhood and has mistaken my sister for Jewish.*

I guess I’m a goy who’s a bit too steeped in Jewish subculture, because when I read Mehta’s post, some things stuck out to me that Mehta seemed to miss. First of all, the tenor of the criticism, “cheap”, “tacky”, “bad taste,” said to me that there was a cultural aspect beyond religion to this. The other thing that leaped out at me was the location, Newton, Massachusetts. Upper West Side, Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Englewood, the aforementioned Bergenfield, Short Hills, Pikesville, Brookline, and, you guessed it, Newton, Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia:

Newton, along with neighboring Brookline, is known for its considerable Jewish and Asian populations. The Jewish population is estimated at roughly 28,000, about one-third of the total population.

We need to stop giving into the framing of the Christianists. We all know that there’s no “War on Christmas.” There’s a war on pluralism that was started by the Christianists. Let’s call it what it is.

This long rant was originally meant to be a short introduction to the following video. Since many of my internet friends acquaintances are non-believers, I thought you’d all get a kick out of this. If you like it, stop by the original post and give Michael Luciano some love. (Warning: The Daily Banter is now metered, so if you go to that page you won’t be able to look at anything else on that site until tomorrow.)

Another code for “Jewish”: Hollywood.

* I’m always a bit hesitant to repeat this incident. As I said before, I’m very aware of real antisemitism and I’d hate to write anything that feeds into it, even unintentionally. Therefore, I’d like to add that this incident, like that anonymous letter in Newton, is rare.

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up right now, the title borders on trolling, however there is a point to it right now. If you got your nose too out of joint before reading further, the eleventy-one should have been a big tip-off that it was tongue in cheek.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about whether or not atheists are oppressed and, while researching the question, I realized a great deal of what we categorize as oppression today centers around group identity. I spent a fair amount of time reading Cressida Heyes’ article on the subject on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. It’s an interesting article and I highly recommend it.

When I read the statement, “Oppression… is the systematic limiting of opportunity”, I decided to do a bit more research to see if there was much information on the matter of discrimination against atheists. I tried searching using the terms “fired from job for being an atheist.” This led me to a post on Reddit, written by someone from Toronto. The writer worked as a waitress. A customer asked what church she went to and she answered that she didn’t go to church. When asked why, she said that she didn’t believe in God. Shortly afterward, she was fired.

That left a lasting impact on me. For many years I hid the fact I was atheist, not knowing exactly how people would react. It took me till my early 40’s until I was more comfortable admitting my views. It was a shame I let people effect me that way all those years.

What bothers me most is that now, when I get into discussions with theists, they don’t believe my story. They’re in denial about the discrimination atheists face. Does anyone else have a similar story of being fired or being discriminated against?

I continued reading the thread and in it was a link to an article in Scientific American, “In Atheists We Distrust,” that I’ve read before and I’ve seen quoted widely.

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.

Having seen this study referenced again and again, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and read the actual study by Gervai, Shariff and Norenzayan, “Do You Believe in Atheists.

Since this article was published, I’ve seen this statement many times, “Americans trust atheists less than rapists,” in comment threads. Although mainstream news sources reporting on this study have been slightly less distorted, the impression is definitely left that it was about the extent of discrimination against atheists in the U.S. population. In fact, the study was intended to not to survey the extent but to explore the psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. According to the authors:

Although prejudice has been a central topic of social psychology for decades, most of this research has been along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Despite its prevalence and peculiarity, little is known about the social psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. The present article offers the first known systematic exploration of the social psychological processes underlying anti-atheist prejudice and contributes to the scientific understanding of both the psychology of prejudices and the cultural evolutionary landscape of religion.

It’s a shame that this study has been reduced to a click-bait headline because we can use exactly this sort of information. Regarding my own troll-like title, the study had six parts, five of which were done in Canada. In fact, the least interesting part of the study, which is significantly different from the others, is the first part, which was done in the U.S. So, technically, it’s Canadians that trust atheists less than rapists. 😉 Okay, maybe it’s a handful of Canadians.

Another thing that’s inaccurate in the Scientific American report is that the participants were not asked to choose if a person was a Muslim, Christian or Atheist. It utilized a concept known as “conjunction fallacy.” Since the probability that two things are true is less likely than that one thing is true, it is always less likely that the person under consideration is two things rather than one thing. In the study under discussion, they described to the participants someone who commits a variety of selfish and illegal acts. Then they asked if they thought

it more probable that the man was a teacher or a teacher and (a) a Christian, (b) a Muslim, (c) a rapist, and (d) an atheist.

What this demonstrates is a “representative heuristic.” Let’s remember that the researchers are not trying to find out the extent of anti-atheist prejudice but what might lie behind it. They note:

To understand a given form of prejudice, researchers must first understand the threat that the target of prejudice is seen to pose. Only then can they formulate precise hypotheses about the possible reactions that characterize any specific prejudice.

They go on to note that the evolutionary psychologists have been puzzled by large-scale cooperation in human societies. Gervais, et al. cite Frans L. Roes and Michel Raymond. In their paper, “Belief in Moralizing Gods,” they state:

Moral rules imposed by humans invite the suspicion that some members of the group will profit more from these rules than others, but such concerns are alleviated if the rules are convincingly portrayed as having been imposed by impartial gods without material or reproductive interests. If obedience to a certain religious moral rule indeed serves the interests of certain people, they may be expected to deny selfishness and to maintain that the rule reflects the will of the moralizing god. Finally, gods are often considered immortal, so their rules may last for many generations. We therefore suggest that an effective way to impose moral rules on society members is to have these rules prescribed by gods. Belief in these gods signals acceptance of the rules and, for the reasons stated above, we expect more support for the rules (and thus more belief in moralizing gods) in larger societies.

Roes and Raymond did indeed find a “modest but highly significant” correlation between the size of a society and the belief in supernatural beings that can enforce morality.

The particular hypothesis Gervais, et al. set out to test is whether or not anti-atheist prejudice is based on distrust. The use of “rapist”, besides making great click bait, was intended as an example of someone who would not be trusted. They establish that distrust is a feature of anti-atheist prejudice.

There are very few studies about atheists. It’s even difficult to make seemingly simple statements about how many of us there are and what our demographics might be. If we want to combat anti-atheist prejudice, it would behoove us to take a look at the few studies we have a note what they actually say. To this end it would be worth taking a look at some of the conclusions of this article.

Different prejudices have different characteristics. Anti-gay prejudice is often characterized by feelings of disgust. In contrast, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by feelings of distrust. It appears to have little to nothing to do with unpleasantness. Someone might like an atheist but not trust him or her. (So don’t bother about being a “nice” atheist, maybe?) People who are religiously unaffiliated also distrust atheists. However, people who reported a stronger belief in a god or gods are more likely to distrust atheists.

Supporting another key prediction derived from our framework, belief in God proved to be a potent predictor of atheist distrust (Studies 1, 3–6). Importantly, this relationship was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior (Study 4).

The authors note that they chose a framework that would enable them to make generalizations about anti-atheist prejudice around the world, not simply in North America. Because strongly religious people were more distrustful of atheists, the researches expect that more religious regions will have more anti-atheist prejudice. They also note the context-sensitivity of anti-atheist prejudice. People who are in a mating market they perceive as competitive report increased religious belief.

The authors further note that religion helps to explain cooperative human behavior in the absence of large-scale institutions. Furthermore, “societal-level existential security (as guaranteed by many modern social institutions) is a persistent predictor of reduced religious belief.” That government institutions guaranteeing some security reduce anti-atheist prejudice is a possibility that our libertarian and anarchist friends might like to mull over.

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.

George Jacob Holyoake, a British writer and newspaper editor, coined the term “secularism” in 1851. In his book, English Secularism, he quotes Harriet Martineau, the British sociologist and Unitarian,

The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism.

Although this statement sets up a contrast that distinguishes Secularism from Atheism, in the rest Holyoake’s book the line is blurred. For instance, he contrasts “Secular education” and “Secularism”:

Secular education is by some confounded with Secularism, whereas the distinction between them is very wide. Secular education simply means imparting Secular knowledge separately—by itself, without admixture of Theology with it. The advocate of Secular education may be, and generally is, also an advocate of religion; but he would teach religion at another time and treat it as a distinct subject, too sacred for coercive admixture into the hard and vexatious routine of a school. He would confine the inculcation of religion to fitting seasons and chosen instruments. He holds also that one subject at a time is mental economy in learning. Secular education is the policy of a school—Secularism is the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology.

Today, The National Secular Society in the UK defines secularism in the following way:

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

They go on to specify:

Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

This more closely resembles the concept of the separation of church and state rather than Secularism as it is used by Holyoake. Citizens of the United States may have taken notice that the coinage of the word “secularism” post-dates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The word secularism may have two possible meanings, but there is no other single word which is used to describe the concept that the state should be neutral in matters pertaining to religion.

Although the word secularism was not coined until 1851, its root, secular, has been around since the fourteenth century, and means earthly, worldly, temporal or profane, as opposed to spiritual, or sacred. We find it being used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to joine
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promisd alike and giv’n
To all Beleevers; and from that pretense,
Spiritual Lawes by carnal power shall force
On every conscience; Laws which none shall finde
Left them inrould, or what the Spirit within
Shall on the heart engrave.

This appears in the last book when the angel Michael tells Adam what lies in store for humanity. This summary is inflected with Milton’s own ideas regarding liberty. He describes corruption in the Church. The representatives of the Church seek worldly, or secular power while pretending to still be spiritual. With this power they shall force their law on every conscience. This passage is not surprising since Milton argued for a separation of church and state and religious toleration, as least as far as Christian sects were concerned.

Although the notion that the state should refrain from involvement in religious affairs has antecedents stretching back to at least the Ancient Greeks, much of our contemporary understanding of the concept comes from the Enlightenment. We owe a tremendous debt to John Locke for many of the concepts the make the modern world modern and the concept of the separation of church and state is not least among them.

The American and French Revolutions would give a chance for many of these ideas, including the idea of secularism, or laïcité in French, to be put into practice. However, many Western countries would not follow for a long time. England, with a monarch who is also the head of the Church of England, is a particularly difficult case. Until 1778 Catholics were unable to own land or to keep a school. In 1791 further restrictions were removed from Catholics and 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, allowing Catholics to serve in Parliament, although a few restrictions remained in place. Although nonconforming Protestants were not persecuted as severely, they were not allowed to hold civil or military office. To matriculate from Oxford or to graduate from Cambridge it was necessary to be taking communion in the established Anglican Church. The Anglican Church today is still the official state religion of England, although not of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As in England in the nineteenth century, in the United States during a comparable period the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state were religious minorities like the Baptists. The separation of church and state protect religious minorities even more than it does non-believers, as atheists have no religious practice to be restricted.

Support for a separation of church and state is an essential protection of the liberty of all individuals. It is distinct, and entirely so, from atheism. It is a position about the best way to order the temporal authority of the state regarding spiritual matters. Secularism, has often been the word used to describe this political viewpoint.

2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition


1. (Philosophy) philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics
2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged


2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary


1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

-Ologies & -Isms.

It is essential in our current political climate that we have a word for this. I grew up believing that word was “secularism.” Apparently Jaques Berlinerblau did so as well. He calls the association of secularism with atheism “groundless.” Until I started researching for this post I thought so too. However he does note, and I believe rightly, that the religious right has profited from this confusion.

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

He also points out:

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Which brings me to why I wrote this post.

I see that there is a new action afoot called “Openly Secular.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the “Out Campaign.” Perhaps that one had simply stopped receiving enough attention. To say that one is “secular”, well, what the heck does that even mean. I am secular, earthly, temporal… okay, but I thought that goes without saying. Even people who call themselves spiritual would probably say that they are also of this earth.

This muddies the water very badly, and I think for no other reason than people think there is some advantage to be had to avoiding the word “atheist.” To see the danger that Berlinerblau is warning us about we need look no further than Rick Santorum’s recent comments.

I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.

I’m afraid my voice in this movement is very small, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you to not use secularism when you mean atheism. Like all people who do not belong to the majority religion, atheists do have a self-interest in this. I hope everyone keeps Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” in mind and advocates for the freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all.

If, some months from now, Openly Secular continues to draw attention, perhaps we will need to take a page from Holyoake’s book and coin a new word.

For several months now, I’ve had a series of posts kicking around in my head that seem to me to be related in so far as they are questions that tend to pop up in almost any atheist forum given enough time. They are atheism and agnosticism, atheism and anti-theism, atheism and secularism, and atheism and skepticism. I actually didn’t think that I’d be starting with secularism, but now that some people have started an “Open Secular” campaign, I am going to tackle that one first.