According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to “persecute” one person or a group of people means to “harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief”. It is a very loaded word that brings to mind severe historical baggage such as slavery, the Holocaust, and other terrifying, disturbing, and important parts of humanity’s past. So to say that groups of people are “persecuted” is not something one should say lightly.
Sadly, the term “persecution” is used all too often in this day and age, nearly destroying it of any meaning. Fanatic Christians in the US, specifically, try to build a narrative that they are being persecuted. They say that allowing abortions, homosexual marriage, the separation between church and state, and so on contribute to that persecution of Christians. All of this, of course, is not true. When these particular fanatics use such narratives, they are belittling Christians in the world who are truly being persecuted. They are also belittling People of Color, women, LGBTQ, Jews, Hindus, and so on who have been persecuted severely in the past, and in many cases are still being persecuted to this day.
It’s understood by most, however, the gravity of the claim that people are being persecuted. It’s understood that this involves imbalances of power and oppressive laws and so on.
So when I say that there are places in the world (NOT including the US) where atheists have been and, to a lesser extent, still are legitimately being persecuted, understand that I say this with a full understanding of just what it is I’m saying.
Most historians agree that up until the end of the 17th century, modern atheism did not exactly exist, and up through the 19th century was, in fact, an insult. Someone charged with being an atheist could be jailed, or sometimes killed. Both Plato and Thomas Aquinas argued that atheism was dangerous to society, and should be stamped out, either through reeducation or death. Even Thomas More, someone who advocated for religious freedom, did not believe that it should extend to those who do not believe in a god or gods. People accused of atheism, blasphemy, or both, were tortured and executed during the Inquisition.
As late as the 19th century, at least one century after atheism in its current form came about, British Atheists were subject to legal discrimination. For example: if they refused to swear an oath on the Christian bible, they could not give evidence in court. In 1811, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford and denied custody of his two children because he wrote and published the pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism”. It has only really been in the late 20th and 21st centuries that atheism has slowly (and I do mean slowly!) started to gain acceptance. But it hasn’t done so without pushback, especially in Islamic countries.
In countries where Islam is the dominant, or even official, religion, atheism is still hated. Atheists face imprisonment and even death in such countries. Most of those who are atheists in Islamic countries are anonymous. In their public they follow all the laws of Islam, pray five times, and so on because they are justifiably terrified of what would happen to them if they were found out. That fear, as I say, is justified, because we have very direct examples showing what would happen to them. For starters, in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, the punishment for denying Islam (apostasy) is death. Many outspoken atheists within these countries have been and are still being jailed.
In Iran, atheists have no legal rights whatsoever. They must identify with specifically Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism in order to claim some legal rights, including entrance to university.
Of course, atheists are not persecuted throughout the world. In many other countries, atheists are alienated instead of persecuted. They won’t be jailed nor officially killed for their lack of faith, but laws and programs within these countries do push atheists out of the social dialogue. So what about the United States? Are atheists alienated or even persecuted in the US?
In fact yes, we are alienated in the US.
Now, we don’t face the type of legal persecution that atheists have faced in the past and that atheists currently face in Islamic countries and elsewhere. But what we face is not good, and can only alienate us. US society largely view atheists as untrustworthy. While it’s true that, as of 2012, 54% of USians would vote for an atheist for president, this is still the smallest majority, trailing behind even Muslims (at 58%). However, this is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.
Still today, seven US states insist, in their state constitutions, on a religious test that excludes atheists from holding any public office in those states despite the provisions’ clear unconstitutionality. These are the states and what their constitution specifically says:
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State
North Carolina – Article 6, Section 8 (page 27 in the PDF):
The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Tennessee – Article 9, Section 2 (page 18 in the PDF):
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
Texas – Article 1, Section 4 (Page 5 in the PDF):
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
Other instances of alienation include the Boy Scouts still not allowing atheists to join, a declaration of atheism being seen as political suicide (despite Rep. Peter Stark), parents being denied custody of their children on account of their (the parent’s) atheism, “In God We Trust” as our motto, and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (both of which, by the way, were introduced in the early 50’s under McCarthy’s Communist Scare… and both of which need to change back… our motto as “E Pluribus Unum” [“Out of many, one”] and no “under God” in the pledge).
So no, we atheists are not persecuted as such in the US. But we are mistrusted… hated, even. And this will not change as long as people are afraid to talk about it. The more atheists speak up and speak out, the more normalized atheism will become. Soon, the greater society will have to acknowledge and accept our existence. That is, after all, the ultimate goal of this activism…
Part 2 of this series will talk about the positive things that have come out of Activist Atheism. If you have any suggestions and sources I can use for it, please link them in the comments below.