An atheist activist leader says that atheists are discriminated against socially and politically in the U.S., and compares their struggles to that of African-Americans during the era of Martin Luther King Jr. and the homosexual rights movement of today.
Al Stefanelli, author of A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World: The Rise Of Atheism On Planet Earth and who says he is a former Southern Baptist pastor, told The Christian Post that atheists in this nation are not only discriminated against, but marginalized and stereotyped as well.
"We are considered the least trustworthy minority in the country, have lost jobs and been shunned by friends and family due to our lack of faith, are routinely demonized and accused of worshiping Satan, and those of us who happen to hold a public office are held under scrutiny by the religious right in a way that can only be described as a witch-hunt," wrote Stefanelli in an email exchange with CP. "I can go on almost indefinitely with examples of this, up to and including threats against our lives only because we do not believe in god."
When asked whether atheist activists are now adopting a civil rights strategy on par with the historical legacy of African-Americans and the current efforts by the homosexual community in the U.S., Stefanelli did not mince words.
"Yes, absolutely. It needs to be. It has worked with every major civil rights struggle, to date," the state director of American Atheists, Inc., in Georgia answered.
Stefanelli was then asked if he could honestly compare the claims of discrimination experienced by atheists with blacks.
"The bigotry, hatred and discrimination that is being levied upon atheists is the same treatment that so many activists who have preceded us have fought against on behalf of African-Americans, women, Native Americans, and more recently and concurrently, our Latino neighbors and the LGBT community," he explained. "This same pious ignorance and bigotry was responsible for the proliferation of slavery, the oppression of women and the wholesale slaughter of an entire nation of Native Americans (along with the theft of their land), and they justified their inexcusable behavior as the will of God."
He elaborated even further about his belief that atheists are "subject to atrocious behavior" in many parts of the U.S.
"We are made to feel like total outsiders, are unwelcome in almost every situation and are trusted by the general public even less than a rapist of children – all because we lack a belief in God," Stefanelli said. "In fact, we are likely the last minority in which it's still socially acceptable to publicly humiliate and discriminate against. The sad thing is that most people are totally OK with this."
His comments come as thousands of atheists gathered in Washington, D.C., on Saturday for the Reason Rally, described as the largest event of its kind in history.
One participant from Ohio, Tom Llewellyn, who identifies himself with the skeptical community, told CP, "A lot of what is being said on stage is actually true. As an atheist you really do have to be very careful who you tell because in our peace-loving, religious-based, freedom-oriented society, the quickest way to be ostracized is to let it be known you're an atheist."
Whether there is discrimination or not, Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg doesn't believe the atheist community's aggressive approach is making the situation any better.
"I would venture to guess that the advice Richard Dawkins gave to atheists at the 'Reason Rally' – to ridicule and mock religious people in public – is not the best way for them to become a more highly loved group of people!" he commented to CP. "What a contrast to the Apostle Peter, who told us as Christians to speak to people 'with gentleness and respect' (1 Pet. 3:15). And, of course, Jesus told us to 'turn the other cheek' and to love our enemies.
"I've got to believe that people will be drawn much more to those who are gentle, loving, and who show respect, than to those who follow Dawkins' advice to mock and ridicule others. It's also interesting to note that the very first verse in the book of Psalms tells us, 'Blessed is the one who does not sit in the company of mockers' (Ps. 1:1 NIV)."
Stefanelli noted that the growth of social activism by atheists in this country is the result of an increased desire to raise awareness of the prejudicial problem they believe exists.
"We reason that change must come through our society, and social activism serves to make our society aware that there is a group of their fellow human beings who are being treated badly, immorally and with extreme prejudice," he explained. "Our goals are not to destroy individual's faith, but for neutrality in government, non-discrimination in society and assuring that our youth are educated in the facts by lobbying to avoid magic replacing science in our classrooms."
A study released late last year out of the University of British Columbia found that distrust is the primary reason religious people don't like atheists and suggests atheists are less trusted than rapists in certain situations.
"Where there are religious majorities – that is, in most of the world – atheists are among the least trusted people," said Will Gervais, lead author on the study and a doctoral student at UBC, in a statement. "With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people."
Researchers of the study explained that a significant motivator behind conducting the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, even if he or she was otherwise qualified for the job. Those polled also said atheists are the group that least agrees with their vision for America.
The Secular Coalition for America claimed during the same time period of the study that there are 28 atheists in Congress, but said Calif. Rep. Pete Stark is the only one who has gone public with his nonbelief.
The UBC study was conducted in the "atypically secular settings of a university, in one of the most secular cities in North America," indicating atheist distrust might be even stronger in "more typically religious areas," as reported by CP previously.