To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist

From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger. But two recent stories underline a contrasting point: If Christians really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.

Christian pastor Ryan Bell is literally trying, and it’s not going well. In the spirit of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Bell announced that he would live 2014 as an atheist and chronicle his experiences on his A Year Without God blog. In his announcement post, he portrayed his experiment partly as a religious identity crisis and partly as an attempt to answer a friend’s question: “What difference does God make?”

How could Bell explain the difference unless he had tried both? So:

For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

No doubt Bell anticipated writing about challenges like: Could he really “live as if there is no God”, or would his sensibilities rebel at the vision of a godless universe? Would he get depressed without God to give him hope? Would his moral character weaken? Would he have to abandon his experiment if he faced a true life crisis? Near the end of the year, would he look forward to the day when he could return to religion? In 2015 would he, like King David, be “glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord”?

What actually happened is that in the first week he lost all his sources of income.

I was an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching Intercultural Communication to undergrads, and Fuller Theological Seminary, coaching doctoral candidates in the writing of their dissertation proposals. Both are Christian institutions of higher learning that have a requirement that their instructors and staff be committed followers of Jesus and, obviously, believers in God. They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I’m am in this year long process. … The other work I do is consulting with congregations … the fact that I was embarking on a year without god was just too much for them.

His friends have not ostracized him, but he hadn’t realized that was even a risk. Apparently it was.

We still love you!

So many of my closest friends and colleagues have said this to me in the past few days. My initial, unspoken reaction was, “Well, I certainly hope so.” Now I understand that this is not a forgone conclusion. I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence.

The lesson seems pretty clear: If you’re having doubts about God’s existence, don’t tell anybody.

The second story concerns Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog. Mehta lives in Naperville, Illinois. In October, the local American Legion post in nearby Morton Grove stopped giving financial support to the Morton Grove Park District because one of the district’s board members was refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Mehta asked his readers to make up the difference, and raised $3000 to more than replace the Legion’s $2600. There were no strings. Mehta says, “the only ‘ethical implication’ of accepting money from atheists is that you get money.”

The Park District turned it down. So did the library, after the library’s treasurer referred to Mehta and his readers as “a hate group” and backed up that accusation by reading “a couple of the religiously-inflammatory and expletive-ridden comments posted on Mehta’s Friendly Atheist Facebook Page.” (As if you couldn’t find offensive comments on any popular Facebook page, including Christian ones.) She asked the other trustees: “Would you take money from the Klan?”

The apparent reference is to Georgia’s refusal to let a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan participate in its Adopt-a-Highway program. But there the Klan would get a benefit:

The program provides advertising for sponsors who agree to clean a stretch of road on a sign posted along the stretch.

Mehta, on the other hand, was asking for nothing: no plaque, no mention in the newsletter, nothing. Just take the money. He comments:

I firmly believe that if the money came from the “Friendly Christian,” none of this would be an issue. The “A” word is just freaking everybody out.

Finally, the Niles Township Food Pantry cashed the check. If any of the food it bought burst into flames when the needy said grace over it, I haven’t heard.

I know: As examples of religious persecution, neither of these stories holds a candle to the Holocaust or the Inquisition. Nobody is dying, languishing in prison, or getting tossed into a fiery furnace. But in the same way, they put into perspective fundamentalist Christian problems like not being able to display a Ten Commandments monument at the state supreme court, or your monument maybe being forced to share public space with other people’s monuments, or the law forcing you to treat gays and lesbians as if they were part of the general public, or being offended that someone wished you “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”.

But still, Christians can give no-strings-attached money to the local library without worrying that they might be likened to the KKK. Compared to the alternatives, being Christian in America is still a pretty cushy gig.

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  • Joel Monka  On January 18, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I have to spell it out, because I really did Laugh Out Loud- “lol” is inadequate. Atheists think they’re persecuted? Try being a member of any non-mainstream religion deemed Pagan… You’ll be ridiculed by Atheists as well as Christians, (in fact, in a forum discussion, I received so much abuse from one Atheist that a Christian who had called me “deluded by Satan” just a few comments upstream came to my defense!)… Atheists don’t get sent to prison by false “recovered repressed memories” of “Satanic ritual abuse”… while in prison, Atheists are not denied certain privileges and opportunities because their beliefs are deemed a “security threat group”… Nobody says, “Thou shalt not suffer an Atheist to live”. Here’s a direct comparison: the Veterans Administration approved having the Atheists’ symbol carved on headstones at VA cemeteries after a 90 day review; it took Wiccans nine years and a federal court’s Writ of Mandamus to get theirs- and the Druid Awen and the Asatru Hammer still haven’t been approved yet!

    • weeklysift  On January 19, 2014 at 7:57 am

      Actually, I have been pagan. (You can see some of how paganism has influenced me in this article.) And yes, pagans are persecuted, especially in certain parts of the country. So are Muslims — I think they’ve got it way worse than atheists, and in certain ways worse than pagans.

      In general, I don’t think we accomplish much by getting into an I’ve-got-it-worse-than-you contest. The majority Christian culture (like white culture and straight culture and the men’s movement) has flipped the whole notion of discrimination and persecution upside-down to claim that the persecutors are the persecuted. That threatens all of us.


  • By Cold and Dark | The Weekly Sift on January 13, 2014 at 11:06 am

    […] I’ve written before about the myth of Christian persecution in America. One reason that myth is so easy to sell to Christian fundamentalists is that many of them have no clue what it’s like to belong to a religious group that actually does suffer discrimination — atheists, for example. Two recent stories bring home the routine disapproval that atheists face in America. (A Christian pastor is surprised how quickly things get serious when he starts “a year without God”, and an atheist trying to give money away is compared to the KKK.) I discuss them in “To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist“. […]

  • […] atheists—including UU atheists—experience, writing that “If Christians really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.” (The Weekly Sift, January […]

  • […] nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of […]

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