Minorities tend to be misunderstood by majorities.
Whites don't really know what it is like to be African American. Heterosexuals don't really know what it is like to be homosexual, or more broadly, LGBTQ. And religious believers don't know what it is like to be atheist.
(Note: I was a religious believer for 35 years, Eastern mysticism variety, so I'm very familiar with both religious belief and atheism -- having deconverted from my previous belief about 14 years ago.)
So as an atheist, I haven't been surprised by the response of many to my also-atheist wife, Laurel, using the public comment period at a Salem (Oregon) City Council meeting to complain about the Mayor's 2019 State of the City address being preceded by a Christian pastor calling upon God/Jesus to bless the Mayor, and for everyone in attendance to pray.
I wrote about this a few days ago in "Praying shouldn't be part of public meetings." That blog post attracted the attention of KATU news in Portland, which interviewed my wife and Mayor Chuck Bennett as described in this KATU story and accompanying video.
On Facebook I've seen numerous comments along the lines of, If you object to praying, just don't do it and You should leave religions alone to do their own thing.
While these sorts of attitudes roughly reflect how my wife and I also feel, they miss a crucial point: Atheists in the United States aren't only bothered by religious beliefs that are unscientific, non-factual, and often appallingly political. We also object to a long history in this country of atheists being discriminated against, a prejudice that continues to this day.
Though I don't believe in heaven or hell, I do think this familiar movie phrase applies to me, my wife, and many fellow atheists: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Meaning, since the founding of the United States atheists have been wrongly put down as immoral, un-American, and elitist. A book by two emeritus Cornell professors, R. Laurence Moore (history and American studies) and Issac Kramnick (government) explains this in great detail.
From the pages of state constitutions to the seats of Congress, Moore and Kramnick (The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness) search for places for the godless in American politics and find few.
Beginning with the country’s roots in England, with its official state church, the United States’ protection of religious liberties excludes one group: nontheists and their nonbelief in a religion or deity. The authors explain that 18th- and 19th-century Americans associated morality with religion, so eschewing one was considered a rejection of the other.
The tensions of the Cold War reinforced this historical bias, with rhetoric tying communism to atheism and implying a corresponding relationship between belief and patriotism. The concept of the dangerous, un-American—or worse, anti-American—atheist paved the way for the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and “In God We Trust” to America’s currency in 1957, and constrained nontheists’ chances at public office and judicial seats.
Synopses of pivotal Supreme Court cases demonstrate how atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and nontheists are frequently cast as an amoral minority. Through cautious and sensitive comparisons between nontheists and other marginalized groups, the authors present the marginalization of nontheists as an equal rights issue.
This accessible and sincere book usefully makes explicit often-unspoken currents in American political life.
The Pew Research Center says that 31% of people in Oregon, where I live, are unaffiliated religious "None's" -- 5% atheist, 8% agnostic, and 18% nothing in particular. However, that last category is made up of 12% for whom religion is unimportant and 6% for whom religion is important.
Thus let's subtract those "nothing in particular" people who don't consider religion important.
That still leaves 25% of Oregon's population as decidedly non-religious. Is it possible that a quarter of the citizenry deserve these sorts of discriminatory attitudes, as described in the Godly Citizens in a Godly Republic book? (Boldfacing added for emphasis.)
-- "Of the respondents to a Pew Research Center survey question on attitudes to specified religious groups in 2009, 49 percent scored atheists negatively, while the unfavorable response to other groups was dramatically lower: Muslims, 32%; Mormons, 26%; Hindus, 21%; Buddhists, 20%; Evangelical Christians, 17%; Jews, 11%; Catholics, 11%.
-- "A 2011 Gallup poll that asked, 'If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be atheist would you vote for that person?' found that only 49% of Americans said yes. Responses for other similarly well-qualified nominees: black, 94%; women, 93%; Catholic, 92%; Jewish, 89%; and Mormon, 76%."
-- "An earlier iteration of the 'willingness to vote for your party's nominee' in 1999, which included homosexuals among the choices, ranked them at 59%, higher than atheists at 49%."
-- "When asked into what group they would least like their children to marry, nearly half of Americans list atheists first, significantly higher than Muslims, African Americans, and Jews."
-- "So too, when asked to name 'the group that does not at all agree with my vision of American society,' 40% of Americans put atheists on top, followed by Muslims, 26%; homosexuals, 22%; conservative Christians, 13%; recent immigrants, 12%; Jews, 7%; African Americans, 5%."
The book's authors ascribe this distaste toward atheists as reflecting three foundational features of American sociocultural belief: (1) A conviction that one can't be a good person if one is not a believer; (2) one can't be a good American if one is not a believer; (3) American anti-intellectualism, since many see atheists as cultural elitists -- philosophers, scientists, and artists who threaten the beliefs of ordinary people.
Thus there's a lot going on beneath the surface of my wife's complaint about a Christian prayer being offered at a public meeting here in Salem.
Us atheists, along with the broader category of "None's," are tired of being viewed as second-class citizens. We're fed up with being put down and marginalized just because we don't believe in unbelievable supernaturalism. We no longer find it acceptable to stay silent while religious speech (mostly Christian) fills the airwaves.
Nationally 23% of Americans are religious None's. That's about four times more than the 6% of Americans who hold to non-Christian faiths. Here in Oregon, the ratio is even higher: 31% None's and 7% non-Christian.
Yet I'm willing to bet that an atheist, agnostic, or other non-believer has never been invited to give the invocation at the State of the City address in Salem, even though non-Christians such as Jews have.
This points to the disturbing falsehood that the authors of Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic emphasize: atheists are viewed by religious people as less moral and trustworthy, even though there is no evidence of this being true. It's just a discriminatory attitude that would be viewed as abhorrent if a racial or ethnic minority was being typecast in this fashion.