I’m glad to see my Crimson column of October 18 is still getting some attention! I had written that discrimination against atheists, both in the legal arena and in the popular mind, is a serious problem — not the biggest problem in the world, but a problem worth noting and criticizing.
In his critique of that column, the Harvard Salient’s Dhruv Singhal begins by criticizing my evidence of anti-atheist bias in America. I had cited a study that documented 25 child-custody cases over five years in which a non-religious parent had been deemed less fit than a religious one. In my column, recognizing that this might seem paltry, I explained further: the study looked only at cases that reached appeals courts, which most custody cases do not; and it documented only instances in which the judge explicitly cited lack of religion, which biased judges would not always do.
I recognize that this last point is speculative, though I believe it is sound. But Singhal never acknowledges the first point. My point was not that there are “five child custody cases a year involving apparent discrimination.” My point was not even that there are many more than that, which there undoubtedly are. Rather, the point was to show that, even among educated people like judges (in divorce courts, and all the way up to the Supreme Court, as I showed in the first half of the column), anti-atheist bias is a pernicious force, one that causes tangible injustice to some number of people.
The poll numbers cited elsewhere in the article, which Singhal likewise never mentions, were meant to show that anti-atheist prejudice is also a force among the general public. The strongest evidence for this, even stronger than the poll numbers, is that there is only one acknowledged atheist in national elected office. Why is this good evidence? Not primarily because it suggests that voters are rejecting openly atheistic candidates for office, but because it suggests that atheist candidates, knowing they would be rejected if they revealed themselves as such, stay in the closet. To paraphrase Arnie Vinick, the fictionalized John McCain knockoff from the West Wing: if you demand religious demonstrations from your politicians, you’re just asking to be lied to.
What is Singhal’s response to the under-representation of declared non-believers? First, he points out that they aren’t alone: women and African-Americans are under-represented too. Since one point of my column was to draw something of a connection between anti-atheist bias and the more familiar forms of sexism and racism, I heartily accept this point. But then Singhal implies that“prejudice alone” cannot account for the under-representation of atheists, just as it supposedly cannot account for that of women. But this is where those never-acknowledged poll numbers come in. A majority of Americans wouldn’t consider voting for an atheist for president, more than say the same about Muslims and Mormons and women and homosexuals and everyone else. Likewise, a majority of Americans hold an unfavorable view of atheists—more than for any other minority. Most recently, a poll came out showing that 7 in 10 Americans who practice a religion would be bothered if their child married an atheist, and 27% would never accept the marriage.
In light of these numbers, Singhal’s insistence that the dearth of atheists is “not the product of bigotry” starts to look a little pale. Call it whatever you like, you might even just call it “distrust,” but it’s clear that many Americans have a big problem with atheists.
The rest of Singhal’s article can be summed up: “But atheists do it too!” Of course it’s true that some atheists have said some nasty things about believers. And naturally, if Bill Maher had written a column for the Crimson lamenting how everyone hates atheists, one might be justified in pointing out some of his more insulting diatribes. But Maher didn’t write that column, so I don’t see the relevance of his comments.
When Singhal does return to my actual column, he says that I “apparently” assume something that I do not: that prejudice against atheists is a “religious prejudice,” rather than a “scientific prejudice.” It seems that Singhal believes that a religious prejudice is one held against religious people (his example is anti-Semitism) while a scientific prejudice is one held against a scientific theory, like climate change or evolution.
Singhal is entitled to his own terms, of course, but he assumes what he wants to prove: he wants to show that atheism is a religion because it is the victim (so, supposedly, say I) of “religious prejudice.” But if religious prejudice is simply defined as prejudice against a religious view, then Singhal’s argument is circular. So, let me clarify: prejudice against atheists is prejudice against atheists, not anything else. Does this mean that I forfeit the protection of the “aegis of religious bigotry,” as Singhal says? I guess so. If the only kind of prejudice we should care about is prejudice against religious groups, then I guess anti-atheist prejudice is fine and dandy. But I think that we should care about all sorts of different prejudices.
There seems to be a hidden definition of “bigotry” at work in Singhal’s article. It is captured by the subtitle: “If anti-atheist prejudice is bigotry, then atheism is religious.” Let’s try some other examples with the same form. “If anti-black prejudice is bigotry, then being black is religious.” “If anti-female prejudice is bigotry, then womanhood is religious.” “If anti-gay prejudice is bigotry, then homosexuality is religious.”
It seems that the goal of Singhal’s article, judging from his title, is to show that atheism is a religion like any other. He wants to enlist me in this argument; he thinks I have provided all the proof he needs by contending that there is such a thing as “anti-atheist prejudice,” or, if you like, bigotry. My point, and it really is a very mundane one, is that this argument doesn’t wash, whether or not you believe, for other reasons and with other arguments, that atheism really is a religion.
Photo credit: Flickr stream of mrccos