From the comfort of Yale’s ivy walls, it may seem ridiculous to claim that atheists are an oppressed group. Your average atheist is educated, white and comfortably wealthy. Here, we may even be a majority.
So why were there not one, but two initiatives supporting the rights of atheists on campus this fall? Sophomore Jesi Egan’s idea for an atheist and agnostic society ultimately gave way to junior Conor Robinson’s Humanist Society, but the purpose of either group is not immediately clear. Atheistic communities are in a strange position: What is the purpose of a gathering? To celebrate the glory found in meaninglessness? To revel in a lack of beliefs?
To see what Egan and Robinson are concerned about, leave academia for a moment. Americans would rather elect a homosexual or a Muslim as their president and would rather have a socialist teach their children than an atheist. In America today, only the faithful are allowed to participate in politics. Atheism is confused for immorality, and on that basis open atheists are effectively barred from elected office by the religious public’s categorical mistrust. Egan knows this mistrust first-hand — her religious family and Kansas community would not accept her atheism, and so she has yet to “come out” to them. “A lot of people would be personally offended that I am an atheist,” Egan told me.
Throughout history, groups of people have been oppressed exactly because they have been so mistrusted, seen as unfit for participation in polite society. Blacks were once seen as sub-human. The property-less supposedly had no stake in governance, and thus no claim to the franchise. Jews and Catholics were portrayed as weak-willed followers. Women were excluded because they supposedly lacked the rational capacities of men.
Slowly but surely, we have weakened these prejudices and shown them to be universally false. Though the discrimination we face is neither as pronounced nor as visible as that against other groups, we must still, in this grand American tradition, eliminate the prejudice that prevails against atheists.
It is understandable that some religious people, whose morality is inextricably linked to their faith, can make this mistake. But I challenge those who hold this belief to say to the faces of the atheists they know that atheists are, in actuality, less ethical than their religious brethren.
The ethical atheists you know are not exceptions. They are the rule. In fact, atheists, who have to defend their beliefs far more often than those who subscribe to the dominant American culture, have often thought much more about morality than those who take their values from a book. One of the major goals of the Humanist Society is to promote such discussion among believers and non-believers alike.
The single most significant variable in predicting someone’s support or opposition to gay rights is whether they claim to know a gay person. It makes sense; the foreign traits that people fear from homosexuals are somehow less threatening when they are given a human face. Atheists have human faces too, and they are — far more often than not — kind, thoughtful, ethical people.
That’s what Robinson wants to show Yale and the world. “One of the main goals is to portray ourselves as non-threatening, positive members of the community,” he told me.
Even though it may seem paradoxical at first, I applaud the motion of atheists on campus to form a community. Demonstrating ourselves to be normal citizens is the first step to gaining acceptance in the world at large. As Egan told me, “We are only here for four years.” Afterwards, who knows? We may face discrimination in the workplace, in the political sphere or even in our communities. So show yourselves, atheists, and be proud.
Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.