I came of age in the 1980’s, a decade of immeasurable loss in the gay community. I watched and lived through the often painful march towards (more) equal rights in the workplace, in social services, in media and in the eyes of the public. Most importantly, I have seen the powerful sense of inclusion and diversity in so many more of the subsequent generations; each of them, it seems, being more tolerant and accepting. It’s a much more welcoming world these days if you are gay, the current administration notwithstanding.


Not so for atheists.


I would go so far as to say that atheists are so maligned by much of society that we aren’t even sitting at the back of the bus: we’re tied to the bumper outside the bus altogether. Secular-minded individuals account for about 20% of the world’s population, by rough estimate. That’s 1.5 billion people who have chosen reason over the belief of imaginary creations; and substantially more than that if you count younger people – who are generally grouped in with their parent’s belief system when this type of accounting is done.

Longshotz
For an atheist, every day is faced with a series of real-world, tactile reminders that they are a silent minority. “In God We Trust” is on our currency. People in service industry jobs will often wish you a “blessed day”. We sneeze, and it’s “God bless you.” People pray in public settings. We are asked to take oaths on a Bible. Now, rationally, I know these examples are meant with every good intention and we should take them in context of how they were presented. But in reality, it is a form of discrimination that is endemic in our society.


It is, simply, religious privilege.


The underlying problem the non-secular majority has with this is they ask how atheists are being discriminated against. If atheists have no belief system in a single higher power, how do any of those examples impact our lives negatively? What are we being prevented from doing? To those questions, let’s simply say: we are being denied the right of religious neutrality in public spaces. We are being asked to participate - however covertly and politely - in rituals that many atheists have turned aside as being unhealthy and demeaning. If one of our country’s basic principles is religious freedom, then the absence of religion affiliation must also be protected.


Talking about religion in this manner is difficult, and the secularists among us often remain silent; but silence, in the face of any discrimination, is toxic. Few people, until recently, have been able to view this topic through the lens of discrimination and equal rights because it has never occurred to them that their actions could be seen and felt as something troubling. For believers, the natural cultural assumption is that everyone should believe in a higher power because they are scared not to; scared of thinking that there is no eternal life. But, until we can collectively move the discussion past the premise of faith, and into the realm of dealing with this issue as a discriminatory value in our society, it will not get better; and the “faithless” will continue to be coerced by an unknowingly complicit majority.


And, to be clear, this is not a matter of faith. Atheists can have an abundance of faith and spiritual connection. It is simply not connected to anything Divine. Religions are created to answer the questions that science has simply not caught up to yet: in the past, men were scared of lightning, so created a God to account for that atmospheric condition. We didn’t understand volcanos, so we created a God to rationalize those naturally-occurring geologic wonders. Today, we do not understand death, so we have created a hierarchy of belief systems that protects us from worrying about that. It’s understandable. But it's also, not a singular vision.


I grew up in a devout, Catholic household. I lived my childhood in churches; and they provided me a partial means of escape, at times. I understand personally how the power of ritualized belief can guide and nurture a person’s path; and I’m not advocating – at all – that religion should be outlawed. When I started college and began to seriously study religion, reason and humanity; it became clear to me that religion was a creation of fear. But, I do not discount the positive effect it has on some people.


This is simply a case of what is right and appropriate in a public setting; and, more importantly, how to continue to raise the issue that this is not a question of religious right, but of the equal rights of those who do not believe.


LGBT rights still resurface from time to time, sure. There are still inequities in the world that need to be addressed from ethnic dysfunction to the availability of food and basic health services in much of the world. Thankfully, we don’t have some of those issues in our first-world view in the United States; but to have come so far in one area and still be subjected to discrimination in other only shows how much further we have to go to achieve a balanced and nuanced society. Or, as an acquaintance put it recently that verbalizes the wide disparity that still exists: “it doesn’t matter who you are sleeping with as long as you have God in your life.”

 

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