Atheist Money Is Terrifying

April 1, 2010

Those working to bring about a secular United States, including many at CFI, have been encouraged by some signs that progress is being made towards this goal. Recent surveys of religious belief have indicated the number of nonreligious Americans is growing, and the Obama administration has at least taken note of the existence of nonreligious Americans.

But don't kid yourself. The United States is still an overwhelmingly religious country, and prejudice against atheists continues to run deep.

If you needed any additional proof, this news item from the New York Times should dispel any doubts. In a nutshell, an alternate prom is being held in a Mississippi school district because the official prom was canceled after a lesbian student demanded to attend the prom with her girlfriend. Donors Todd and Diana Stiefel, through our friends at the American Humanist Association, graciously offered $20,000 toward the costs of the alternate prom. The local affiliate of the ACLU, which apparently is helping to coordinate the event, declined the offer, explaining that the majority of Mississippians "tremble at the terror of the word ‘atheist'."

It's bad enough to be a lesbian in Mississippi, but if you're an atheist who supports human rights for all, including lesbians -- well, that's beyond the pale.

Anyone who has worked for CFI, the AHA or other secular groups, either as staff or a volunteer, knows that this is not an isolated incident. All too frequently, we encounter some reluctance to work with us from organizations or individuals who share some of our concerns and goals (support for gay rights, assisted dying, reproductive choice, and so forth). Their reaction, sometimes expressed sometimes implied, is that they will work with us only if we mute our nontheistic beliefs, lest we give offense to others.

I say "phooey." (Actually, I say something a bit stronger.) Our primary goals should be to end the stigma that is still attached to being a nontheist and to end the privileged position that religion still enjoys. Anything else is secondary. And we cannot achieve these primary goals if we pretend that we are something we are not or intentionally obscure our beliefs.

There are some who urge that we play this game, that we soft-pedal our lack of religion so we can be part of the "mainstream." Sorry, but I do not feel like compromising my integrity just so I can join more coalitions and get invited to more wine-and-cheese parties. If the mainstream still harbors prejudice against atheists and other nontheists, our ambition should not be to join the mainstream, but to make the mainstream change its course.

FOOTNOTE: As indicated in the comments to this post, the national headquarters of ACLU and its Mississippi affiliate have issued an apology to the AHA and have clarified that the staffer who expressed a reluctance to accept the donation did not have the authority to refuse the donation.