Last week, members of the Secular Coalition of America gathered at the White House to share some of their concerns. It appears to have been the first time in U.S. history that such an invitation to non-believers was extended. Discussion included their worry over discrimination against non-believers in the military, faith-based initiatives and religion-based child abuse. The gathering didn't receive a lot of publicity. Understandably, most politicians avoided all contact with the gathering knowing as they do that atheism is not an asset in the American political process.
As I understand it, only one out of the 535 representatives and senators in Washington admits to being an atheist (Rep. Pete Stark, D-CA). Judging only from my own experience and what we all know about honesty in our nation's capital, I have a hunch the real number is significantly higher. Of course, every poll taken on the subject declares the vast majority of Americans want their congressmen and women to be God-fearing folk just like themselves. So the odds of adding to the pool of self-proclaimed atheists serving under the famous rotunda are very slim indeed.
Anti-atheist prejudice is not just pronounced in Washington but can be found in a vast array of professional and cultural venues. Cases involving unbelieving teachers, police officers, firefighters and many more have been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union and other defenders of religious and non-religious freedom. A few years back there was a profile in The New Yorker magazine of Vernell Crittendon, the former spokesmen of San Quentin State Prison, that showed just how deep this discrimination permeates. Crittendon was quoted as saying he would advocate for reduced penalties, even parole, for prisoners who participated in the prison's public service programs but not, he emphasized, for participating atheist prisoners ... even if they were exemplary models. "Without a belief in something larger than yourself, you backslide," was Crittendon's definitive rationale.
Similar thinking is at the center of the highly popular 12-step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. I have known a number alcoholics who were bemused by this requirement and were forced to seek treatment elsewhere. Those with an aversion to God or God-talk are thankful that there are a growing number of secular alternatives to AA now available.
All of us, I am sure, have heard the fuzzy argument against atheism that emphatically declares that without the fear of divine retribution, society would be in chaos and sinful behavior would run rampant. Such a low estimation of human behavior may say more about the proponent's self-esteem than the proposition's accuracy. We all have known folk who do not share a faith in God but are loving parents, productive co-workers, community leaders, valued members of society. The fact that they do not believe in God seems to be irrelevant to their contributions. And, of course, any one of us can cite more than a few examples of despicable behavior perpetrated by deeply believing people.
The time is long past to fully honor atheism as a viable understanding of reality and a philosophy that can provide meaning for engaging in a moral and productive life. The continuing prejudice against atheistic proponents is tantamount to racial bigotry, gender bias or homophobia. One hopes that more national leaders will come out of the theological closet and admit their religious reservations and resistance. Hopefully, last week's meeting was a courageous first step in that process.
Rich Mayfield is the author of "Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation." E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.