Psychologists have long known that people tend to favor their own group over others, a social phenomenon known as ingroup bias. But new research provides evidence that atheists are motivated to buck this trend in an attempt to override the stereotype that they are immoral.
Psychology researchers from Ohio University found that Christians demonstrated an ingroup bias towards other Christians in an economic game but atheists did not have an ingroup bias towards other atheists. The study was published online July 10 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“The rise of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ about a decade ago coupled with the ongoing ‘culture wars’ between religious and secular groups in the United States has led atheists as a population to gain an unprecedented level of visibility in this country in recent years, even as their prevalence has only incrementally increased. This has sparked a particular interest in anti-atheist prejudice research in social psychology,” explained study author Colleen Cowgill, a PhD student.
“From this previous research, we know that the general population in America tends to stereotype atheists as being immoral and untrustworthy – a reputation that many atheists understandably find distressing. My primary interest was in how atheists themselves respond to these negative stereotypes.”
“Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that individuals facing negative stereotypes are not passive observers of this social landscape, but rather are impacted and react in a dynamic way to negative group-level judgments important to their identities,” Cowgill told PsyPost. “One example of this is stereotype threat, or the phenomenon wherein negative stereotypes about a group’s performance on a particular task can lead to decreased performance for individuals who belong to that group, regardless of their actual ability.
“The psychological stress of fearing that your performance may confirm a negative stereotype about your group serves to limit the cognitive resources you have available for performing well on the task. Another example of this is people’s response to what is termed ‘identity threat,’ or the threat of being disparaged or discriminated against due to one’s group membership. We often see that negative stereotypes about a group can lead members of that group to behave in compensatory ways that ostensibly seek to disconfirm that stereotype, such as when American immigrants strive to emphasize their American identity when it is threatened.”
“This was the rationale behind my hypotheses stating that atheists’ behavior toward Christians in economic games might be different from Christians’ behavior toward atheists in economic games,” Cowgill said. “In the same way that many White Americans are often stereotyped as racist and have consequently been shown by research to be particularly motivated to be liked by Black Americans during interracial interactions, I thought that atheists would be uniquely motivated to disconfirm negative stereotypes about their amorality or untrustworthy nature during interactions with Christians.”
“I chose to operationalize this through an economic game because I thought it would be an ideal paradigm to capture constructs like ‘generosity’ and ‘fairness,’ which can directly relate to ideas of morality and trustworthiness. Indeed, we found in multiple studies that our atheist participants behaved more fairly towards partners they believed were Christians than our Christians participants behaved towards partners they believed were atheists, which are results that appear to support the original hypotheses.”
“These effects disappeared when the participant’s own religious identity was concealed. Under those conditions, atheists and Christians demonstrated the same typically observed in-group bias, which rules out the possibility that the results could be entirely explained due to discrimination on the part of the Christians.”
The economic game was a modified version of the Dictator Game, in which one person (the dictator) is asked to share a monetary reward with another person who can only passively accept what is offered.
A pilot study with 205 participants revealed that people believed atheists would treat Christians unfairly. But three experiments, which included nearly 1,200 U.S. residents, found almost the opposite was true.
“I think that the average person should understand how the stereotypes saturating our society can create a variety of underlying subtexts during interactions between individuals, often leading people to maintain differential goals when they communicate and cooperate,” Cowgill remarked.
“Oftentimes, we’re not even directly aware of these dynamics. We absorb what our society reflects to us about how to perceive groups of people, how to perceive ourselves, and how others view us, then we carry these expectations with us into our everyday interactions, leading to myriad unexpected outcomes both positive and negative.”
When everyone’s religious affiliation was disclosed, Christian participants offered more money to fellow Christians than to atheists. However, this ingroup bias was not observed among atheist participants, who gave equally to atheists and Christians.
When their own religious identity was concealed from the other participants, however, atheists gave more money to their fellow atheists than to Christians. Presumably, they were less motivated to counter the stereotype that they were immoral. The behavior of Christians was unchanged.
“In this case, atheists appear to have been motivated by negative stereotypes to behave more prosocially. Although that may seem like a net positive, the mechanisms at work here may carry some more troublesome implications,” Cowgill told PsyPost.
“For instance, on a more speculative note, I think it is quite telling that atheists are perhaps so acutely aware of negative stereotypes about themselves that there are observable differences in their behavior as compared with Christians in even this small, low-stakes type of interaction. Arguably, they are on some level aware of a pretty serious stigma about their identity.”
“Might that stigma consciousness create obstacles for a talented atheist interested in doing something like running for political office or spearheading a charitable organization — endeavors that could be said to require a trustworthy reputation?” Cowgill wondered. “It’s hard to say, but I think research like this in the aggregate begins to build a case that there may be these kinds of hidden costs to the prevalent, unchallenged negative stereotyping in our society.”
Like all research, the current study has some limitations.
“It’s always worthwhile to keep in mind that the differences in behavior observed here between Christians and atheists, while unlikely due to chance given the number of participants and replications, may be explained by some alternative narrative the researchers have overlooked,” Cowgill said. “We did our best to rule out alternative explanations, such as that atheists were simply being discriminated against by Christians, but of course complete certainty can never be achieved.”
Some have also raised questions about whether atheists really consider themselves as part of a cohesive group.
“I think future work should continue to explore how atheists, agnostics, or religious minorities, such as Muslims, are impacted and respond to negative stereotypes or even outright discrimination towards their groups,” Cowgill said. “It seems likely that these findings would extend to other groups stereotyped as untrustworthy such that those groups would be motivated to ‘advertise’ their altruism, fairness, compassion, or overall level of morality.”
“Future work should also look at the some of the downsides to awareness of these negative stereotypes about one’s group. Do atheists demonstrate stereotype threat effects in tasks described as being related to moral competence? Does stigma consciousness limit atheists or religious minorities in a significant way or lead to negative health outcomes? All of these questions remain largely unexplored or in need of more in-depth research.”
If you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:
1: The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100% in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of Constitutional law.
2: As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized, and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called “evil” in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape, and death.
Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here?
Let’s get #1 out of the way first. This court decision — that as a public school in the United States, Cranston High School West cannot promote religion, either any particular religion or the idea of religion in general — is, in any legal sense, entirely non-controversial. In court ruling after court ruling after court ruling, for decades now, this principle has been made eminently clear. There have, of course, been some genuinely controversial court cases recently about separation of church and state, which examined previously untested questions and established new legal precedent. But Jessica Ahlquist’s was not one of them. Not even in the slightest. This was a no-brainer. If the school district’s lawyers didn’t uncategorically advise the district that they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, and fervently plead with them to concede the case before trial, they should be disbarred. (A PDF of the full court ruling, including extensive citation of clear precedent, can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog.)
For anyone who doesn’t understand this ruling or agree with it, let me take a moment to explain. First of all: No, the majority does not always rule. In a Constitutional democracy, people with minority, dissenting, or unpopular opinions and identities have some basic rights, which the majority cannot take away. If the majority thought that everyone had to dye their hair brown, or that all witches should be burned at the stake, the majority would not rule. Redheads have the right to not dye their hair brown; witches have the right to not be burned at the stake. No matter how much in the minority they are.
And the right to not have your government impose a religious belief on you is one of these basic rights. The right to make your own private decisions about religion or the lack thereof, without your government enforcing or promoting a particular view on religion that may or may not be your own, is one of the most central rights that this country was founded on. In fact, it’s the very first right established in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said in his ruling, “When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”
Oh, and no, this case was not about “history” or “tradition.” Many people opposed to this ruling are making a very disingenuous argument: saying that the prayer in question wasn’t really a prayer, that the religious content wasn’t really religious but was simply “history” and “tradition,” and that it therefore shouldn’t be a problem. Bull. When a public school has a banner in its auditorium beginning “OUR HEAVENLY FATHER” and ending “AMEN”… that’s a prayer. The religious fervor with which the banner was defended attests to that. As Judge Lagueux pointed out in his ruling, “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” Furthermore:
The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.
And — very crucially:
The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.
And no, this court ruling didn’t take away anyone’s right to practice their own religion, or to express their religious views, or to pray at their school, or even to organize religious student clubs on their school campus. People in Cranston, Rhode Island are still entirely free to do all these things. The ruling simply said that, as a government institution, Cranston High School West is not allowed to endorse any one of those religious views and practices. It said — as has been said again and again and again by the courts in the United States — that the government, including the public schools, should stay the hell out of the question of religion.
Very importantly, this is a principle that doesn’t just protect atheists. It protects everyone’s right to practice their own religion, or lack thereof, as they choose — regardless of whether that religion is the majority or the minority. As someone in a discussion about this case so eloquently pointed out to Christians screaming “Majority rules!”: If you lived in a small town, and dozens of Muslim families quickly moved in and became the majority, should they have the right to post a prayer to Allah in the public school?
So yeah. To anyone with even the most basic understanding of civics and the Constitution, the court decision in favor of Jessica Ahlquist, ruling that her public high school could not have a banner in the school auditorium offering a prayer to the Christian god, was about as surprising as the fact that millions of people enjoy chocolate and think kittens are cute.
So why are so many people so enraged about it?
Have no doubt — people are enraged. Not just disappointed; not just upset. Enraged. Even before the judge’s decision, Jessica Ahlquist had been ostracized, bullied, and even occasionally threatened over her lawsuit. But when the court ruling came down last week, the climate of harassment and hostility against her escalated out of control, into widespread vilification, venomous bile, and explicit, widespread threats of violence, rape, and death. Including the following:
“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #fuckthatho”
“I want to punch the girl in the face that made west take down the school prayer… #Honestly”
“hail Mary full of grace @jessicaahlquist is gonna get punched in the face”
“Fuck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”
“lol I wanna stick that bitch lol”
“We can make so many jokes about this dumb bitch, but who cares #thatbitchisgointohell and Satan is gonna rape her.”
“Brb ima go drown that atheist in holy water”
“”But for real somebody should jump this girl” lmao let’s do it!”
“shes not human shes garbage”
“wen the atheist dies, they believe they will become a tree, so we shld chop her down, turn her into paper then PRINT THE BIBLE ON HER.”
“May that little, evil athiest teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL!”
“definetly laying it down on this athiest tommorow anyone else?”
“yeah, well i want the immediate removal of all atheists from the school, how about that?”
“If this banner comes down, hell i hope the school burns down with it!”
“U little brainless idiot, hope u will be punished, you have not win sh..t! Stupid little brainless skunk!”
“Nothing bad better happen tomorrow #justsaying #fridaythe13th”
“How does it feel to be the most hated person in RI right now? Your a puke and a disgrace to the human race.”
“I think everyone should just fight this girl”
“I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck #TeamJesus”
“literally that bitch is insane. and the best part is she already transferred schools because shes knows someone will jump her #ahaha”
“Hmm jess is in my bio class, she’s gonna get some shit thrown at her”
“gods going to fuck your ass with that banner you scumbag”
“I found it, what a little bitch lol I wanna snuff her”
“if I wasn’t 18 and wouldn’t go to jail I’d beat the shit out of her idk how she got away with not getting beat up yet”
“nail her to a cross”
“When I take over the world I’m going to do a holocaust to all the atheists”
Even her state representative, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, has gotten into the act. He went onto WPRO talk radio to excoriate the ruling (saying, among other things, “we’re crucifying Jesus again”), and to mock and vilify Ahlquist, calling her a “pawn star” (that’s a 16-year-old girl we’re talking about), a “clapping seal,” and an “evil little thing” (later modified to “coerced by evil people”). (Slight tangent: It’s bad enough when ordinary citizens don’t understand enough Civics 101 to know that this ruling was not only correct but entirely uncontroversial. It’s much worse when this isn’t understood by a State Representative, whose job it is to understand the law, and who took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Palumbo’s phone number, by the way, is (401) 785-2882, and his email is email@example.com .)
What the hell is going on here?
Why has an entirely unsurprising court ruling — on a well-established point of law, based on one of the most fundamental rights established by our country’s Constitution, protecting everyone’s right to practice their religion without government pressure or interference — resulted in such grotesque, hateful, violently threatening rage aimed at a 16-year-old girl, simply for having the temerity to ask her public school to obey the law?
Some of it, of course, is Internet culture, and the anonymity that makes people feel comfortable saying horrible, cruel, threatening things they would probably never say in person. Some of it seems to stem from a grossly underfunded public education system, and the widespread piss-poor understanding of Civics 101 that apparently goes along with it. And some of it, of course, is just generic enforcement of conformity, and generic hostility aimed at anyone who steps outside social norms. (A tendency that’s especially prevalent in high school.)
But some of it seems to have to do with the unique nature of religion.
Religion, unlike any other belief system or social structure, is based on a belief in that which cannot be seen, felt, heard, touched, or otherwise detected by any normal or reliable means. It is based on ideas that have no good evidence to support them, and that by definition can’t have good evidence to support them.
And in a frustrating and exasperating paradox, when people hold beliefs we don’t have good evidence for, we have a strong tendency to defend them more vigorously, more vehemently, and in many cases more violently.
This is something Daniel Dennett pointed out in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you see that the sky is blue, and someone else says that it’s orange, you don’t feel a particularly passionate need to defend your position… because it’s freaking obvious that you’re right. You have an easy way of resolving the dispute, and the facts are clearly in your favor. But if you think that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that your faith in his divinity is required for you to get into Heaven — and someone else insists that no, Jesus Christ is not the son of God, there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet — you don’t have any way of resolving that dispute. Neither of you can point to any good evidence showing that one of you is probably right. All you have is your personal feelings and beliefs and wishful thinking, and the teachings of authorities who don’t have anything better to back up their ideas than you do.
So — paradoxically — the less good evidence we have for a belief, and the less defensible it is, the more vigorously we defend it.
And if that indefensible belief is important to us — if it’s a central part of our philosophy, our community’s culture, our consolation in the face of hardship, our deepest personal identity — our defense of it is likely to become even more vigorous. And our need to shut down any contradictory ideas becomes even more vehement. In some cases, to the point of ostracism, bullying, and outright threats of violence.
So when religion is questioned, and the privilege it enjoys is challenged, all too often the answer is, “Shut up.”
That is exactly what the bile and vilification and threats against Ahlquist are. They are not a serious attempt to engage with her on the question of separation of church and state, or even on the question of atheism and religion. They are an attempt to shut her up. They are an attempt to terrify her into silence. And they are an attempt to terrify anyone else into silence who dares to ask questions about religion, to challenge unjust religious privilege, and to insist that the government stay the hell out of their personal religious convictions.
So those of us who care about religious freedom — including the well-established freedom to not have our government impose religious views on us — need to speak out about it. Believers, atheists… everyone. We need to speak out about it. We need to act on it. And we need to support the organizations and the people who are defending it on the front lines, in the face of willfully ignorant and hideously cruel opposition.
“You atheists are just taking on the mantle of victimhood. There are laws protecting you — especially the First Amendment. Therefore, you’re not really discriminated against. And it’s ridiculous for you to claim that you are.”
Atheist activists get this one a lot. When we speak out about ways that anti-atheist bigotry plays out, we’re told that we’re not really oppressed. We’re told that, because we have legal protection, because anti-atheist discrimination is illegal, therefore we don’t really have any problems, and we’re just trying to gain unearned sympathy and win the victim Olympics. (I’d love to hear Bob Costas do the commentary for that!) It’s a classic Catch-22: If we speak out about oppression and point to examples of it, we’re accused of “playing the victim card,” and the oppression becomes invisible. And if we don’t speak out about oppression … then the oppression once again becomes invisible.
If you’ve ever made this “discrimination against atheists is against the law” argument, I have some really bad news for you. You may want to sit down for this, it may come as a shock:
People sometimes break the law.
Theft is against the law — but people sometimes steal. Bribery is against the law — but people sometimes bribe other people. Arson is against the law — but people sometimes set buildings on fire.
Anti-atheist discrimination is against the law; in the United States, anyway. But people still sometimes discriminate against atheists.
It’s illegal for public schools to prevent students from viewing atheist Web sites, while allowing them to look at religious ones. But the San Antonio Independent School District did it anyway.
It’s illegal to make atheists swear religious oaths when they testify in court. But the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers did it anyway.
It’s illegal for businesses to give church-goers discounts they don’t give to non-believers. But the Fisherman’s Quarters II restaurant in Asheville, N.C. did it anyway.
It’s illegal to deny atheist organizations the right to advertise in venues where religious groups advertise regularly. But when American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society tried to place a bus ad in Pennsylvania that simply had the word, “atheists,” with the names and URLs of the organizations in smaller type, the transit system rejected the ad because it was “too controversial.”
And then tell me — or any other atheist — that we don’t experience discrimination.
Getting anti-discrimination laws and court rulings is hugely important for any marginalized group. But it’s only a first step. After that, you typically have to play a decades-long game of Whack-A-Mole, in which violations of the law pop up in local venues all over the country, and have to be smacked down again, and again, and again. That’s true of sex discrimination, racial discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination in states where that’s illegal. To give just one example among zillions: It’s illegal for banks to discriminate in lending practices on the basis of race… and yet Wells Fargo just settled a $175 million lawsuit over charging higher fees and rates on housing loans to racial minorities. Not in 1946, not in 1969 — in the last decade, in the years 2004 to 2009. It’s illegal to do that. It’s been illegal to do that for decades. They did it anyway. The mere existence of anti-discrimination laws is no guarantee that those laws will be obeyed.
So yes. Anti-atheist discrimination is illegal in the United States — and it happens anyway. I know. I haz a sad. And I’m going to have to hit you with even more bad news:
Standing up for your legal rights sometimes has ugly consequences.
Ask Jessica Ahlquist. High school student and atheist Jessica Ahlquist fought a legal battle she never should have had to fight: the battle to get her public, taxpayer-paid high school to take down a prayer banner from the auditorium. From a purely legal perspective, this was an utterly non-controversial issue: decades of legal precedent clearly supported her position, and to anyone familiar with the law, the ruling in her favor was almost entirely unsurprising.
But as a result of filing this lawsuit, Ahlquist was bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence. She was called “evil” in public by her state representative, and was targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape and death. And this wasn’t just from hateful strangers trolling on the Internet — it came from her own schoolmates and her own community. This wasn’t in the Bible Belt — it was in Rhode Island.
And Ahlquist is hardly alone. When atheist student Damon Fowler tried to stop his public high school from having an illegal prayer at his graduation, he was physically threatened, publicly demeaned by one of his teachers, pilloried and ostracized by his community, and kicked out of his home by his parents. When atheist student Skyler Curtis tried to publicize his group at his high school, his posters were torn down, the local newspaper ran a letter from a parent calling his atheism an “atrocity,” and he received threats of violence. When atheist John Kieffer protested prayers at his local school board meeting, he was arrested.
Not everyone is able to fight these fights. Not everyone is able to risk hateful ostracism and violent threats from their community. It’s hard enough for a 16-year-old high school student like Jessica Ahlquist to face down this kind of venomous hostility. It’s even harder when you’re trying to hold down a job and support your family, and you literally can’t afford to alienate your bosses and co-workers and customers. Yes, the law is mostly on our side, and atheists and church-state separation advocates generally win these lawsuits. (Although not always — more on that in a tic.) But it doesn’t do much good to have the law on your side if fighting a legal battle is going to destroy your life.
And I have yet another piece of shocking news for you. I know, the terrible news just keeps on coming:
Sometimes laws aren’t enforced.
To give just one appalling example: It is — or it should be — illegal to deny custody to atheist parents, purely and explicitly on the basis of their atheism. And yet this happens, again and again and again. It has happened in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. According to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.’”
Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to parents, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because she’s an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens.
It is illegal. Or it should be. But custody laws vary greatly from state to state — and family court is something of a special case, where judges have far more leeway than they do in other courts. So this is a very, very difficult legal battle to fight. The laws against it exist — but they are very difficult to enforce.
And finally, I have one last piece of earth-shattering news that will almost certainly shake your worldview to its foundations:
Not all bigotry is illegal.
The fact that atheists are the least-trusted group in America? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that atheists are the minority group Americans least want their children to marry? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans think atheists could share their vision of society? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president — a lower number than any other group? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. People have the legal right to not vote for an atheist… just like they have the legal right to not vote for a woman, or an African American, or a Muslim, or a Jew. It’s still discrimination. It’s still screwed-up.
And it’s still worth fighting.
Plus, of course, all of this is just in the United States, where we do have a Constitution that ostensibly gives us the legal right to not be religious. In much of the world, the situation for atheists is far worse. In much of the world, it is literally against the law to be an atheist, and to say so, and to say anything critical of religion. To give just one example of many: In Indonesia, atheist Alexander Aanwas beaten by a mob, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to over two years in prison — for stating his atheism on Facebook. (There is currently a petition to the White House, asking President Obama to speak out about the Alexander Aan case and call on the Indonesian government to correct this gross violation of human rights.)
Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No. Almost certainly not. Not in the U.S., anyway. It’s worse in some ways — we consistently show up in polls as the least trusted group in America, and the least likely to be voted for — but atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people, or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color.
That’s not the point. Here is the point.
If you were mugged, nobody would tell you, “Quit whining — there are laws against mugging, you have legal protection, you don’t have anything to complain about.” The fact that there are laws against mugging did not stop you from getting mugged. It is reasonable for you to say something about it, and to express distress that it happened. And if muggings are happening a lot in your town or your country, it is reasonable to ask your community to pay attention, and to do something about it.
Atheists are getting mugged. Atheists are experiencing real, law-breaking discrimination. The fact that it’s illegal does not always stop it from happening. It is reasonable for us to speak out about it. And it is reasonable for us to expect people to give a damn. It is reasonable to expect our friends, our families, our colleagues, our communities, our country, to pay attention — and to do something about it.
Writing sometime around the 10th century BC, the furious author of Psalm 14 thundered against those who say there is no God. “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” If the denunciations of wicked atheists coming from today’s apologists for religion are any guide, the spirit of Iron Age Israel is abroad in 21st-century Britain.
In advance of the pope’s visit, clergymen and commentators are deploying every variety of bogus argument against those who advocate the superiority of secularism. Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs for the Catholic diocese of Westminster, led the way when he denounced the “wasteland” secularism produced. If he had been condemning the atheist tyrannies of communism and fascism, I would have no complaint. However, Adamus was not objecting to Cuba, China or North Korea, but to the wasteland of secular, democratic Britain “with its ever-increasing commercialisation of sex, not to mention its permissive laws advancing the ‘gay’ agenda”.
Rightwing columnists and, depressingly but predictably in these appeasing times, leftwing journalists have joined the moaning chorus. The arguments of Geoffrey Robertson QC and Professor Richard Dawkins that the cops had grounds to ask the pope to account for his church’s failure to stop the rape of children in its care drove them wild. “The hysterical and abusive nature of some of the attacks on the pope will do nothing but discredit secularism,” said Andrew Brown in the Guardian. “I accept, of course, that lots of secular humanists are tolerant and reasonable people,” says the more restrained and judicious Stephen Glover of the Mail. “But there is a hard core which embraces and promotes atheism with the blind fervour of religious zealots.”
Not all of those who condemn atheism are pious themselves, as the presence of journalists among their number suggests. Rather, they believe in piety for the masses and fear that without religion the lower orders will lose their moral bearings. “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician and ridiculous to the philosopher,” said Lucretius. And behind many of the demands of today’s religious apologists that we “respect” Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and even the Scientology cult lies a desire to keep the plebs in their place by protecting their ridiculous but politically useful beliefs. Although I am proud to be on the board of the National Secular Society, Britain’s most urgently needed pressure group, I am not a militant atheist. I have seen too many vicars being moved by their Anglicanism to dedicate their lives to others to agree with Christopher Hitchens’s bald statement that “religion poisons everything”.
But the notion that in free countries atheism promotes intolerance and immorality is demonstrably false. Last year, Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman responded with facts rather than witless abuse to claims from Christian psychologists and theologians that atheists were “selfish and pusillanimous curmudgeons”, “unnatural” or “just damn angry”.
He pulled together the available evidence and found that the more atheists or agnostics a free society has the more moral it becomes.
Predictably, atheists were far more likely to be tolerant supporters of women’s rights and gay rights than believers. The pope, like militant Islamists, orthodox Jews and the ultras in every faith cannot see that struggles for female and homosexual emancipation are among the most moral causes of our age. But as believers in a sternly misogynist and homophobic god, they must want to be tough on crime.
If so, they should welcome the contribution that atheists make to promoting law and order.
A study in the 1990s found that a meagre 0.2% of the US prison population were atheists. In America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates are among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.
True, there is some evidence to suggest that atheists and agnostics are more likely to engage in underage drinking and illicit drug use. But the wider conclusion on the links between crime and religious belief holds good: if you want safe streets, move to a godless neighbourhood.
Atheism and secularism, Zuckerman continued, are also correlated with higher levels of education and lower levels of prejudice not only against women and gays, but people from other ethnicities as well. For good measure, atheists were less likely to beat their children and more likely to encourage them to think independently.
In many US courtrooms, judges restrict or deny child custody rights to atheist parents. If they want children to grow up to be law-abiding citizens, and not end up back in court as juvenile delinquents, they should stand that policy on its head.
What applies at city and state level applies internationally. Sweden, the most secular country in the world, gives the highest proportion of its gross domestic product in aid. Of the top 10 aid donors, only the United States is a strongly religious country. Needless to add, the oil-rich and religion-saturated Iran and Saudi Arabia are nowhere near making the premier league of charitable nations, which should not be a surprise because Iran concentrates its overseas efforts on exporting terrorism, while Saudi Arabia uses its petrodollars to promote its brutal Wahhabi theology.
An easy point to make is that secular democrats do not stone women to death for adultery or murder Afghan teachers for the crime of teaching girls to read and write. But it is not entirely irrelevant to the argument about the papal visit. Robertson’s and Dawkins’s enemies can accuse them of being “hysterical” and “abusive” and in the grip of the “blind fervour of religious zealots” while knowing that secularists will not respond by trying to kill them. Ever since the ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie they have not dared use the same language about real abusive and hysterical zealots, who just might.
Not that I agree with Robertson and Dawkins that the police should arrest the pope. The best way for anyone caught up in religious crimes to make amends is to convert to secularism. The odds are that they will be better people for it.
A 28-year-old atheist law student has been killed in Bangladesh. The attack follows a string of murders last year targeting outspoken advocates of secularism.
Nazimuddin Samad, a student at Jagannath University, was hacked and shot on Wednesday night while he was walking in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, The Associated Press reports. Multiple attackers, who were reportedly riding on a motorcycle, have not been identified. They escaped while praising Allah, according to the news service.
Samad was an outspoken atheist who criticized radical Islam and promoted secularism on his Facebook page, the AP writes. It adds:
“A supporter of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s secular Awami League party, Samad also took part in the movement that successfully pushed for prosecutors to have more scope for going after suspected war criminals.”
The Dhaka Tribune describes him as an activist with that movement, which is called Ganajagaran Mancha.
The perpetrators and the motive haven’t been identified by police, the BBC reports.
Last year, at least four secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh and a publisher who worked with one of those bloggers was stabbed to death.
After one of those murders, the editor of the Dhaka Tribune, Zafar Sobhan,spoke to NPR’s Robert Siegel about the rising tensions between secularists and Islamists in Bangladesh.
Zafar Sobhan on All Things Considered
“Recently, over the last couple of years, we have had war crimes trials in Bangladesh. This is to do with our War of Independence in 1971,” Sobhan said, referring to the trials that Ganajagaran Mancha had successfully advocated for.
“Most of the people who have been put on trial are Islamists … who were collaborating with the Pakistan occupation army back in 1971. Now, war crimes trials are very important. However, I think the downside is that they have been painted as a movement against religious people, against Islamists.
“So I think as a result, those who are of a religious bent feel targeted. I think they feel as though they are on the defensive. And so they have decided to step up their opposition and step up their campaign of terror and violence.”
Last May, Rafida Ahmed, the widow of one of the bloggers, spoke to NPR’s Rachel Martin about the attack. Ahmed was injured in the attack that killed her husband.
Rafida Ahmed On WeekendEdition Sunday
“You can do very little when your elected government doesn’t give you any support, especially when these kind of brutal murders are happening,” she said. “The government has stayed completely quiet about this. The prime minister called my father-in-law privately and tried their best to keep it a secret so that nobody knows that they have sympathized with us at all.
“The prime minister’s son … gave an interview to [the press]. Pretty much said that they are walking a fine line, and they’re scared. They don’t want to side with the atheists,” Ahmed said.
After the attack on Samad, the director of public policy at the Center for Inquiry, a U.S.-based secular advocacy group, called the murder “heartbreaking and maddening.”
“The government of Bangladesh must do much more to protect its own people from marauding Islamist killers,” CFI’s Michael De Dora said in a statement. “These murders keep happening because they are allowed to happen.”
Lubna Yaseen was a student in Baghdad when death threats forced her into exile. Her crime was to think the unthinkable and question the unquestionable—to state, openly, that she was an atheist.
Growing up in Hillah, a city in central Iraq, she developed an independent mind at a young age. “My mother is an atheist intellectual person, and she brought up me and my siblings to think for ourselves and to be open to anything,” she told me. Yaseen was particularly concerned about her teachers’ attitudes toward women. “I always asked why girls should wear a hijab and boys are not obligated to do so,” she said. Why would “God” treat the two sexes differently? She quickly learned the dangers of expressing these views: Her teachers often threw her out of their classes, and sometimes beat her.
In 2006, when Yaseen and her mother were driving home one day, al-Qaeda militants pulled them over and threatened to kill them for not wearing the hijab. Still, Yaseen’s desire to explore secular thinking grew at university. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Whenever there was a conversation, I talked.” She started handing out leaflets on Mutanabbi Street, the heart of Baghdad’s intellectual life, and wrote about her atheist beliefs on Facebook. Her activism attracted further threats from fellow students and local Islamist militia groups, but she was determined to continue. “I believed in my rights to be who I am,” she said.
The tipping point came when Yaseen’s story caught the attention of the American TV host Dave Rubin, who featured her on his show The Rubin Report in early 2016. After the clip was released online, she faced a torrent of death threats and finally went into hiding. “I disappeared—I left everything. I had to be always on the run, changing places and disguises,” she said. “I couldn’t feel anything except that I would end up being killed.”
Yaseen would still be at risk if it weren’t for the actions of Secular Rescue, which helped her escape to California, where she is waiting for her asylum claim to be approved. The initiative, launched in 2016, is run by the Center For Inquiry, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that aims to promote secular values, such as scientific rationality and freedom of speech, with the support of Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists.
“It’s really an underground railroad of sorts for non-believers in countries where simply expressing doubt about religious belief is a criminal offense or where it may lead to grave physical harm,” Robyn Blumner, the president and CEO of the CFI, told me.
Secular Rescue does not just face challenges abroad in militantly religious countries; due to some unnervingly resilient biases, implicit prejudice against atheists is still prevalent in ostensibly secular Western countries, making it difficult to raise the necessary diplomatic support there for people like Yaseen.
Even in states that ostensibly protect religious rights, atheists may have to fear repercussions from vigilante groups. In Iraq, for instance, the right to freedom of conscience is enshrined in the constitution, yet Yaseen faced regular death threats from fundamentalists and got little support from the police. “There is a mob mentality that sanctions violence against people who don’t conform on religious grounds,” Blumner said.
Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for Secular Rescue, told me that government complicity is a particular problem in Bangladesh, which has seen the murder of at least 10 writers who had questioned the religious dogma since 2015. “We know there have been, and may still be, hit lists, issued by those who are trying to keep their hands clean, encouraging young radicals to slaughter secularists of their own volition,” Fidalgo told me. “And one of the worst parts is the callousness of the response from the Bangladeshi government. From the prime minister and other officials, we get several versions of ‘Well, they shouldn’t have been insulting religious beliefs.’ After one student was murdered, officials began to investigate the dead guy to see if he had written anything worth killing him over.”
When faced with these threats, many people are understandably reluctant to admit their religious doubts even to their closest confidants, making it difficult to gauge how widespread atheism actually is around the world. But there are signs that the numbers of atheists are sizable. A 2012 Win/Gallup International Poll, for instance, found that 19 percent of people in Saudi Arabia claimed not to be religious, with 5 percent identifying as convinced atheists—roughly the same proportion as in the U.S. That’s a surprisingly high number given the difficulties of exploring non-religious thought in this country, and the true figure may be greater; even if their responses remain anonymous, many non-believers may still have been reluctant to declare their religious doubts openly.
Mark Aveyard, a social psychologist in the United Arab Emirates, believes that some changing attitudes toward religion (at least in the UAE) may be linked to shifts in the way people are encouraged to think in education and at work. “They study or work in organizations where they’re encouraged to be bold, disruptive, innovative, creative, unconventional—with business, technology, entertainment, academics, etc. They’re rewarded for questioning the received wisdom.” Although many manage to compartmentalize these more critical attitudes, it has caused some to rethink their religion, Aveyard said. “So there are more youth now who question and doubt, but they do so privately.”
For non-believers like Yaseen who are more committed to expressing their opinions, however, the internet now provides a community and forum for the formation of an atheist identity. Arabic Facebook groups promoting atheism can reach tens of thousands of followers before they are targeted by “cyber jihadists.” (One popular tactic is to break into the account and post pornography, leading Facebook’s moderators to shut it down.) Blumner, meanwhile, points out that an Arabic translation of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion has reportedly been downloaded by more than 10 million people, with about 30 percent of downloads (3 million) coming from Saudi Arabia. “It shows you there’s a tremendous appetite for understanding religious doubt, for exploring religious doubt, for affirming religious doubt,” she said.
Some religious leaders and politicians are hoping to regulate atheism with increasingly fiery rhetoric and more stringent laws. Egypt, for instance, already criminalizes the act of blasphemy, leading to the recent conviction of a 29-year-old computer scientist for running a Facebook page on atheism. But in late December, the Egyptian government announced plans to extend these laws, so that disbelief itself would be criminalized, even if the person does not actively declare or promote atheism (although it remains unclear how this could be practically enforced).
Although some organizations like Amnesty International have taken up the cause of certain individuals, the CFI’s Secular Rescue was founded to tackle the broader global problem. The support it offers is largely diplomatic, financial, and legal: to pull strings with government agencies, organize the transportation of potential victims, and pay the costs of settling in a new country. Since 2015, it has helped save 30 people, including Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (also known as Tutul), who was chosen by Margaret Atwood for the PEN International Writer of Courage Award in 2016. The year before, he had suffered a nearly fatal machete attack by insurgents in Bangladesh, after which Secular Rescue helped his family to Norway. With enough funds, the group would hope to help many more.
Beyond creating these escape routes, Secular Rescue also campaigns for bodies like the UN to protect the rights of atheists to express their freedom of conscience. Blumner, for instance, recently visited the UN Human Rights Council to discuss mounting concerns in Malaysia, after an eruption of atheist persecution in August was sanctioned by the government. She says that the plight of non-believers is overlooked by politicians from ostensibly secular societies, meaning that activists working on behalf of persecuted atheists often struggle to garner the necessary support. “Part of the problem is that people don’t like atheists and it’s hard to protect a group you don’t like.”
This is even the case in the United States, where Blumner’s assertion finds support in a series of studies by the psychologist Will Gervais at the University of Kentucky, who has described atheists as “one of the most hated groups in the U.S.,” even as they face no state-backed persecution. His work has centered on a well-accepted measure of prejudice that tests how much people implicitly associate certain acts with representatives of a particular group.
In one early study from 2011, he found that people assume that atheists are more likely to commit immoral acts such as stealing money from a wallet left on the sidewalk, or failing to give the correct insurance information after a road accident. Indeed, of all the groups he measured—including Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, and homosexuals—only rapists were considered to be similarly untrustworthy. He has since shown that people are also more likely to implicitly associate atheism with incest, bestiality, animal torture, even murder and mutilation. Opinion polls, meanwhile, reveal that nearly 50 percent of people would rather that their children did not marry an atheist (compared to 34 percent who declared that they would be disappointed if their child married a Muslim).
“People have these strongly negative reactions to atheists,” Gervais told me. Strikingly, these views were not limited to religious participants in his studies. “Even our atheist participants seem to intuitively think that serial killers are atheists.”
He emphasizes that these associations are probably learned, and even if you don’t go to church, you may still be exposed to lingering cues in our culture that encourage that distrust. “We have had millennia of religious influence,” he said. Nor are these biases restricted to the U.S. In 2017, Gervais demonstrated that they are shared across many countries usually assumed to embody secular values, including the U.K., the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic.
It’s worth noting that people turning away from religion in the West may also feel threatened by the people in their community, and given the widespread bias against atheism—among the religious and non-religious alike—it’s not surprising they sometimes fail to report their fears. Maryam Namazie, founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, has described a “tsunami of atheism” in the U.K., with many living in fear of reprisals from their religious community. “There are many cases where ex-Muslims have gone to the police and not received any support at all because the problems aren’t taken seriously,” she told the Independent.
Increasing the acceptance of atheists in the West—and concern about their plight in the West and elsewhere—may be a battle in itself, one that must be fought in tandem with the battle to sustain an “underground railroad” that rescues atheists from physical harm.
Yaseen, for her part, told me that she is still trying to heal from her experiences, but that they have ultimately made her more determined to share her story and build awareness of the dangers facing atheists in countries like Iraq. “I hope my voice can be heard, so Western communities can open their eyes to what’s going on, and build a safer place for people like me.”
This finding comes as no surprise. Social science has long revealed high rates of secularphobia – the irrational dislike, distrust, fear, or hatred of nonreligious people – within American society. For example, a study by Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota, from back in 2006, found that atheists come in last place when Americans are asked to rank members of certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups as potential spouses for their kids. And a Gallup poll from 2012 found that 43 pecent of Americans said that they would not vote for an atheist for president, putting atheists in last/worst place, behind Muslims (40 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim for president), homosexuals (30 percent wouldn’t), Mormons (18 percent wouldn’t), Latinos (7 percent wouldn’t), Jews (6 percent wouldn’t), Catholics (5 percent wouldn’t), women (5 percent wouldn’t) and African Americans (4 percent wouldn’t).
Additionally, psychology professor Adrian Furnham found that people give lower priority to patients with atheist or agnostic views than to Christian patients when asked to rank them on a waiting list to receive a kidney, and legal scholar Eugene Volokh has documented the degree to which atheist parents have been denied custody rights in the wake of a divorce.
Consider further evidence of secularphobia in America: It is illegal for an atheist to hold public office in seven states; atheists aren’t allowed in the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars; Humanist chaplains are barred from serving in our nation’s military; charities regularly reject donations that are offered by secularist organizations. And while secular Americans have never faced the kind of prejudice, hostility, and violence experienced by Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, or homosexuals, there is still no question that atheists, agnostics, secularists, and others who eschew religion are widely disliked.
There is no single, universal cause of secularphobia, and the dislike of non-religious people has varying sources in different societies and at different times in history; what caused people to hate the secular in Jerusalem in 300 B.C.E. or in Tegucigalpa in 1799 is certainly different from what causes people to dislike the secular in Rhode Island today.
That said, we can account for the current level of secularphobia in the US by considering these four factors:
1. Americans equate a lack of religiosity in general – or atheism specifically – with immorality.
2. Americans equate a lack of religiosity in general – or atheism specifically – with being un-American and/or unpatriotic.
3. There is no stigma concerning the expressed dislike of the non-religious. While there is a stigma (to varying degrees, depending on one’s social milieu) attached to being racist, or anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic, or homophobic – there has never existed a social or cultural backlash against people who openly express disdain for secular folks. So people simply feel much more comfortable expressing their dislike for atheists than, say, Latinas/os or women.
4. Insecurity on the part of the religious. Faith – believing claims without sufficient evidence, or claiming to know things that you don’t or can’t know – is an increasingly shaky endeavor. And in order for religious faith to survive, it requires a lot of social support: the more people who share it, the easier it is to maintain and reproduce. Thus, anyone who rejects the tenets of your faith, or calls them in to question, is a threat. Atheists lack a faith in God, and thus theists are particularly threatened by the growing presence of such humans, as they call into question the very thing that is ever so shaky to begin with: religious faith.
How can secular folk counter or contend with the four points above?
I will provide a few examples from Twitter today, as it’s the same type of sweeping statement that I’ve read time and time again.
Maybe religion but not Christianity. Atheists hold the record for murder. You can call it what you will, but it was due to atheists being atheists. Only an atheist with no morality and no apparent consequences for their actions. No God means no consequences.
Atheists are a bunch of people who believe they can do anything without any morality. A young lady in China was sentenced to death because she crudely killed many young children, kidnapped and tortured them before took their life. In court, she said she is an atheist.
Nothing says love quite like Christian and Muslim and Jews hate of us atheists. Here is a whole bunch of YouTube videos that show complete and utter murderous hate of us atheists by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
And Christians, Muslims and Jews wonder why atheists would be oh so pissed off about any of this? And Christians, Muslims and Jews would scream bloody murder if atheists said or did any of these things to Christians, Muslims and Jews, what they have said about us atheists.
Why is it perfectly ok for Christians, Muslims and Jews to scream, foaming at the mouths like rabid dogs, such brutal hatred and death against us atheists without their facing any consequences for their own actions? Why are they above the law? Why are they allowed to demand brutal deaths of atheists, or commit brutal deaths of atheists, or deny rights to atheists, while proclaiming rights for themselves?
Christians, Muslims and Jews wonder why atheists are so fucking pissed at them? Well maybe if they were the ones subjected to all this hate and death? They would understand.
Of course? Christians will cry about how Muslims persecute them and put them to death. Muslims cry about how Christians and Jews persecute them and put them to death and Jews cry about being persecuted and put to death by everyone else.
But they got no fucking problem with demanding the brutal deaths of putting to brutal deaths atheists. And then in their fucking hypocrisy? They cry about how us atheists are persecuting them when we atheists stand up and defend ourselves against these vile, evil, deadly attacks against us by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
TO WHICH I STATE: AS YOU SOW? SO SHALL YOU REAP AND DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WANT THEM TO DO UNTO YOU.
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I HATE ATHEISTS!
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