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Representation and Atheism

“We may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on Earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.”
Thomas Jefferson, February 10, 1814

In a Washington Post article from 2014, Hunter Schwarz noted that eight states currently have restrictions on atheists. According to their constitutions, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all state that a belief in God is a requirement to serve in state government. Pennsylvania says that someone who professes a belief in God cannot be excluded from serving, but that wording means that someone who does not profess a belief in God can be excluded. These beliefs are long-standing and ingrained. Indeed, John Locke strongly argued that atheists should not even be granted full citizenship rights. In 2004, George H. W. Bush similarly stated, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.” In 2015, Ted Cruz, then running for President, stated that atheists cannot and should not be President. And, yet, the U. S. Constitution expressly states: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust” (Art. VI).

In a piece for NBC News, Elisha Fieldstadt wrote about a related ruling. In 2019, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania upheld a policy of the State House of Representatives that disallowed “nontheists” from giving the opening invocation. Many governments, federal, state, and local, hold invocations before a session begins. Though not called a “prayer,” it really is — despite the clear and express separation of church and state. The court ruled that the invocation could only be delivered by someone associated with a “regularly established church or religious organization.” Furthermore, the court ruled that this discrimination is not a violation of free speech because it fits into “the historical tradition of legislative prayer.”

So, atheists are expressly barred from holding office, barred from giving an invocation prior to a legislative session, and not considered citizens. But the exclusion of atheists from public life takes many forms.

In a piece on HuffPost on 2014, Nick Wing catalogs a number of things that atheists cannot do, including run for office, get elected to public office (lack of trust in atheist candidates), keep their jobs, get custody of their children, do charity work, make public statements about their beliefs, participate fully in public life and maintain their nontheistic beliefs (public prayers, statements on money, the Pledge of Allegiance), create a school organization, and join the Scouts — who still expressly ban atheists.

Pew Research published findings on atheists and attitudes by and toward atheists. They reported (among many things) that a 2019 studied showed that U. S. citizens like atheists less than any other religion (and I do not mean to suggest here that atheism is a religion!). The survey asked people about their feelings about different groups, ranging from “cold” to “warm.” They rated their “warmth” toward atheists below Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and Jews. At a rating of 49, they were tied with Muslims.

And yet:

Studies show that atheists are engaged in community, are intellectually engaged, and are less likely to commit a crime.

Organizations such as Oasis offer atheists (sometimes called “unbelievers” in this setting) a strong, positive community. In some ways, the weekend gatherings take the place of the community offered by churches. The participants engage in intellectual and community building activities. They also reach out across the divide to the religious communities. Atheists care for community in similar measure to religious individuals. However, political and social conditions have made that difficult until now.

In a 2018 paper for The British Psychological Society, Emma Young notes several studies that have shown the atheists are “more intelligent” than their religious counterparts. In a study of 63,000 people, “the atheists performed better overall than the religious participants.” The study further demonstrated that the religious participants scored more poorly in those tasks that required reasoning, while the scored the roughly same in those tasks reliant on memory. While it is not a causal link between intelligence and religiosity, it does suggest that atheists rely more on reason and less on intuition or blind faith, and therefore have developed and rely on reasoning.

None of which is necessarily an argument for or against atheism or religion. However, I would argue that it does correlate with — and perhaps enable — the following.

In her research, anthropologist Dmitris Xygalatas notes that, according to data collected from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, religious people are far more likely to commit crimes, including murder. Further, she notes that the countries around the world classified as the least religious have the lowest crime rates. As she notes, the data contradicts the widespread belief that atheists are immoral.

Sam Harris summaries the UN Human Development Report (2005). That report concludes that the most atheistic countries have higher standards of living, longer life expectancy, higher gender equality, and lower crime rates (among other positive things). On the contrary, the fifty least prosperous nations also happen to be the fifty most religious nations. These nations have less gender equality, shorter life expectancy, and more crime.

And yet, atheists remain pariahs. They remain this nation’s (and also for much of the world) Other. Or at least an internal Other. “We are superior because we are not like those godless murderers.” Though that believe is, at least partly, built on a fiction.

I also do not mean to suggest that atheists are categorically better than theists. Such a statement would be absurd. Some theists are good and some are bad. Some atheists are good and some are bad. And, yet, the public sentiment remains. Large sections of contemporary society do not trust atheists.

The lack of representation in public life is staggering. Imagine any other racial, ethnic, religious, or gender group. Imagine their representation, in government and in society. They can vote for like-minded candidates; they can vote for judges who share their world view; they can be tried by a jury of their peers. They can profess their beliefs and still get hired, still hold a job, still work with children, still volunteer.

It’s 2020. We have rethought a lot of things in the past 5 years. We have changed attitudes about same-sex marriage, about trans rights, about race and ethnicity. We have collectively done a 180 regarding marijuana. It’s time and past time that we rethink our attitudes and practices regarding atheists.

Given all that’s happening today in politics (and I write this on the third day of House managers’ presentation of evidence to the Senate) can we, just for a second, imagine a government that includes intelligent, reasonable, ethical, and community-based atheists?

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.

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