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Do atheists have freedom of religion?

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Front Page


Imagine a United States in which Christians were constitutionally barred from holding state office. In which polls show that over half of all Americans would not vote for a Christian president. In which a former President felt justified in stating that Christians should not even be considered citizens.

Such a nation seems completely beyond our conception of the United States and what we as Americans stand for. We are taught to judge others based only on the quality of their words and deeds. We pride ourselves on tolerance and diversity, and we glorify the idea that any person can achieve the highest levels of success, regardless of personal creed. A religious litmus test calls to mind the persecution that led the Pilgrims to settle in America; our nation was founded in direct opposition to such bigotry. In fact, this sentiment is enshrined in a document no less hallowed than the Constitution, which proudly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. If Christians were ever to find themselves so harshly persecuted, the uproar would be tremendous. And this is just as it should be, for such a nation would be one that has truly lost sight of the principles under which it was founded and made great.

Yet not only is this scenario possible, it captures almost exactly the nation in which we live today. The only difference is that it is not those who subscribe to Christianity or to any other faith that are treated with such malice and mistrust. Rather, it is those who do not believe in a god, the atheists and agnostics, who are so reviled. George H. W. Bush famously stated on the campaign trail that “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots”, and six states still have laws requiring belief in God for holding public office. And yet where is the outrage? Where are the advocates for the atheists? Why are these facts not more widely known?

Secular thought comes from a long and proud philosophical tradition, and both Eastern and Western schools of belief included atheistic elements throughout much of their foundation and development. The early Indian philosopher Ajita Kesakambali stated in the 6th century BCE that “[f]ools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not.” Around the same time, the Greek Diagoras tossed a wooden idol into a bonfire, stating that its consumption by flame was proof of a lack of divinity. Similar nonreligious sentiments can be found in the writings of many of our Founding Fathers. John Adams believed that “[t]his would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it”, and Thomas Jefferson echoed him by saying, “[r]eligions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” A list of those who denied belief in a god includes respected individuals such as bicyclist Lance Armstrong, authors Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. In fact, demographic estimates suggest that between 12 and 17 percent of the world’s population is nonreligious, making it the third or fourth largest belief system in the world.

Obviously, secularism comes from a long and distinguished line of thinkers and still maintains a powerful influence on how people perceive the world. How, then, can such blatant discrimination be condoned?

I, for one, have had enough of anti-secular bias. As someone who proudly self-describes as both an atheist and an agnostic, I have heard the personal attacks and been subjected to the prejudices too long to allow them to go unchallanged. The Garden is Beautiful will become a regular column dedicated to promoting secular philosophy and examining anti-secular discrimination, particularly that in the United States relating to the oft-violated principle of church-state separation. To my fellow atheists and agnostics, I would love to hear from you with any opinions and criticisms; after all, we are have felt the effects of bias, and we all hope for a better, more tolerant future. To any religious readers, know that I wish you no emnity or disrespect. Some of my closest friends and family members are strong adherents to many different beliefs, and through their faith they have shaped my worldview and the person I have become. I offer my promise that I will treat every belief system with its due respect; after all, that is exactly what I seek for myself.

I am very excited about the possibilities that The Garden is Beautiful presents, and I look forward to seeing it evolve. I hope that many of you, whether secular or religious, will appreciate hearing what I have to say. Most of all, I hope that I can, in some small way, increase the tolerance and understanding that the nonreligious are so frequently denied.