On May 3rd The Guardian posted a piece discussing a recently enacted statute, by the city of Madison, Wisconsin that would officially ban discrimination against atheists. The law passed with little publicity in early April, but has gotten significantly more attention since the Guardian’s report. The law explicitly includes non-believers in the city’s existing prohibitions against discrimination based on race, religion or sexual orientation, making it the first statute of this kind in american history.
Being a vocal atheist, I am touched by the gesture, but I have to say, “no thanks.” I acknowledge that bigotry against atheists is a problem. During the Cold War government propaganda linked atheism to communism and celebrated America’s supposed religiosity. The “under God” in the “Pledge of Allegiance” dates to this time as does the printing of “In God we Trust” on all US money. Since that time atheists have become one of America’s least trusted and most disliked minorities. It is still considered political suicide to claim to be an atheist and many State constitutions still require a religious test for office (though these have been declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court). This is not to mention the theocratic stranglehold the religious right has on many of our state governments and one of the two major political parties.
I would rather fight this bigotry on voluntary terms. The last thing I want is to force someone, who hates me, to do business with me. I am fearful of the quality of any product provided for me by someone who is only serving me because the government says they must. What’s more I am happy to let the bigots self-identify, so I can choose not to do business with them. Forcing others to accommodate us only fuels the persecution complexes that religious bigots often have. Not that this is a situation I am likely to be in. One cannot usually detect my atheism by looking at me, and even when my clothing proudly proclaims it, I have never had a problem getting the services I seek. Most business are not seeking to turn away paying customers over religious prejudices. And furthermore nonbelievers are among the fastest growing demographics in America, and as more people realize they know us personally, the less acceptable discrimination will become.
The case has not been made that discrimination against atheists is a big enough problem to justify imposing on the freedoms of others not to associate with us if they so choose. Contrast this with racial discrimination which was fueled by centuries of slavery, state enforced segregation, police violence, mass incarceration, discriminatory drug laws, and a legal system that historically turned a blind eye to violence inflicted upon racial minorities (such as lynchings and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan). These government actions grew out of a racist culture which they only made worse. While laws that mitigate the ill effects of such government action are a welcome change of direction, it was ultimately state action that made racial inequality the problem it is today.
It is force and violence, usually from the state that empowers bigotry and impoverishes all. Voluntary association works to undermine bigotry and improves lives. I would hate to see it compromised on my behalf.
Citations to this article:
- James C. Wilson, Madison: Thanks But No Thanks, Sonoran News, May 13, 2015