Law in Contemporary Society

Atheism and Acceptance

-- SandorMarton - 03 Apr 2008

I. A despised Group

Over the past fifty years, minority groups that have traditionally been distrusted by Americans have steadily gained acceptance in this country. A gallup poll released in 2000 which measured voter’s willingness to elect a president from different minority groups demonstrated the significant progress many groups had made in gaining acceptance by the majority. For example, 95% of respondents said they could vote for a black person (up from 37% in 1958). Religious groups have also made great strides. In 1937, 60% of those polled said they would not vote for a Roman Catholic for president. 46% said they would not elect a Roman Catholic. In the 2000 poll both groups had a positive response rate of about 92%. While the current presidential election cycle has shown us that the connection between polls and how people actually vote can be fairly tenuous, the mere fact that the number of people who will say they would vote for one of these minorities has so greatly increased is an indicator that these groups are more accepted than they once were.

While Atheists have also gained acceptance in some parts of the country (typically among college educated people living on the coasts, as found by a study conducted by the University of Minnesota), they remain one of the least electable groups: only 49% of respondents said they could vote for an atheist. That same University Minnesota study found that Atheists were by far the most disliked group among Muslims, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Jews, conservative Christians, and Whites. 40% of those polled selected Atheists as the group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society." The Minnesota study also found that Atheists have become, for many people, “a symbolic figure to represent their fears about ... trends in American life." “These included crime, rampant self-interest and [the elite].”

II. Constitutional Protection

The constitution provides protection for those that do not believe in a religion. The 1st Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has held that the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment applies not just to the decision to believe in a particular creed, but also in the decision to believe in no religion at all. This view is most clearly expressed in Wallace v. Jaffree: “the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all." Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985).

The Court has also held that religious tests for public office are unconstitutional under the 1st and 14th Amendments and that neither the State nor Federal Government may “pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers.” Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495-496 (1961).

II. Impact?

So, while Atheists are legally protected, they are distrusted by many of their fellow citizens to a greater degree than most other minority groups. Discrimination against atheists, however, is, to a large extent, limited to political rhetoric. Unlike with other minority groups, it is difficult to discriminate against atheists for the simple reason that atheists are difficult to identify. They do not share a common skin tone and do not live in the same part of town together nor may they be identified by their personal relationships. Further, unlike religious groups who can often be identified by their religious practices, atheists specifically do not engage in any sort of ritual activity that would set them apart from the rest of society. They look no different than any other person who lapsed in the observation of their religion. It is difficult to act on one’s prejudice when one cannot identify a target.

Once one self-identifies as an atheist publically, however, the protection of anonymity disappears. So, while there is no legal bar to an atheist running for office, the public dislike for atheists means that many people will not vote for them if they make their religious views known. The result is a constructive bar to office.

Prejudice towards “outted” atheists even extends to the judicial system. In a 2006 article, Eugene Volokh cited cases across 18 states where the religiosity of a parent was a factor in the outcome of child custody cases. Eugene Volokh, Parent-Child Speech and Child Custody Speech Restrictions, 81, New York University L.J. 631, Appendix (2006). Representative of these cases is the South Carolina Court of Appeal’s 1998 decision in Pountain v. Pountain, where it upheld the lower court’s decision to deny child custody to an agnostic father and went on to state that “Although the religious beliefs of parents are not dispositive in a child custody dispute, they are a factor relevant to determining the best interest of a child”. Pountain v. Pountain, 503 S.E.2d 757, 761 (S.C. Ct. App. 1998).

III. Acceptance?

How may atheists gain greater acceptance? Social Psychologists argue that the basis for prejudice is the cognitive structures people naturally form to deal with a complex world: people simplify reality by attaching simple rules to their surroundings. Only when those rules are confronted by a conflicting reality are people likely to unlearn that rule. So, by promoting social ties between different groups, one can help both groups accept the other.

However, because Atheists are so difficult to identify, people’s preconceptions about them are challenged less often than those of other groups. Perhaps the best way to encourage acceptance is by establishing a more visible Atheistic presence: push more Atheist candidates to run for office or be more open about one's lack of belief. The problem is that atheists do not experience discrimination if they are unobtrusive about their beliefs beyond hearing negative public commentary about them. Further, if they are open, they face the potential of discrimination. It is therefore likely that distrust of atheists will continue.



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r5 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:10:31 - IanSullivan
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