This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
But to be honest, there are parts of the country where being an atheist really isn’t all that awful. Heck, I live in one of them. There’s some bigotry, some discrimination, a fair amount of misunderstanding and even hostility… but all things considered, it’s pretty okay. And then, there are some parts of the country where being an atheist sucks giant donkey dicks.
Let’s talk about a few of those, shall we?
Many atheist and secularist leaders I spoke to stressed this point. According to Fred Edwords, National Director of the United Coalition of Reason (the organization responsible for many of the atheist billboard campaigns), “As for the worst states to be an atheist, it doesn’t generally work that way. It depends on what part of a state you are in.” In fact, he’s not even sure that this difference always breaks down along urban/ rural lines. “Is the key idea that the more rural areas give us the most trouble?” he asked. “Maybe. But we had bus ads vandalized in Detroit, too.” And he added that in Kentucky, “we had no problem in Louisville, but I still can’t get a billboard company to run our ads in supposedly more liberal Lexington.” And according to the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State “No state is really safe for non-believers. You find creationist ideas in schools from Louisiana to New Jersey. You find efforts to send secular tax dollars to religious schools in Indiana and Florida. And, finally, you find polls done of all Americans demonstrating that plenty of families don’t want their sons or daughters marrying atheists. There are many sad states of affairs.”
So the point here isn’t to show that some states suck for atheists worse than others. The point is to show that anti-atheist bigotry is real. The point is to show that it has real-world consequences. And the point is to let you know what some of those consequences are.
So with all that being said — let’s get on with the list! If you’re finishing your degree in secular studies and are trying to decide where in the country you want to plant your godless stakes… here are some places you might want to avoid.
And Pennsylvania is Exhibit A. Specifically, Annville, Pennsylvania. Where atheist veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell. Not once or twice by a couple of fanatics… but repeatedly, throughout the course of the parade.
Let me spell that one out again. In small town America, veterans — veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade — were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.
Because they were atheists.
I am not kidding. Even the public excuses being given for rejecting the ads — possible vandalism and even “terrorism” due to the “controversial” nature of the ad — are based on the fact that these ads have atheist content, expressing the “controversial” view that atheists, you know, exist, and are good people. And as the behind-the-scenes scrambling reveals, they are blatantly doing this based on religious hostility to atheism. Check this out:
In response to an e-mail message dated February 28, 2011, from Plaintiff’s media broker to the Advertising Agent conveying the content of the Proposed Advertisement, the Advertising Agent forwarded the message to Betty Wineland, the Executive Director of the Authority, stating in her accompanying message (in its entirety): “Dear God……HELP!” Ms. Wineland replied: “I need Him now more than ever. Good grief. I think we need to throw religion into the advertising policy – as a negative. Stall while CATA reviews.”
Let me spell this one out very plainly: A government-run public transit authority is rejecting religious-themed advertising — solely because the religious view being advertised is the view that religion is mistaken. And no, they haven’t changed their policy to reject all religious-themed ads. They still take religious-themed ads. Just not ones from atheists.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: Yes. They’re being sued.
Oh, and in case that’s not enough: Let’s talk about some places where it sucks to be an atheist in high school. Let’s talk about the Secular Student Alliance, and their new program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. Let’s talk about the resistance that atheist students routinely get from public high school administrators who want to block students from forming secular groups. And let’s talk a little more about Alabama. The only state where the SSA has had to initiate a lawsuit about it.
Duncan Henderson wanted to form a secular club at his public school — which he has the full legal right to do. But his school principal denied his request. According to JT Eberhard, campus organizer and high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “When Duncan’s father scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter, the principal showed up to the meeting with a lawyer, who more or less repeated, ‘We’re going to follow the law’ in response to every question. But the school has not followed through on that promise to follow the law. The school has stonewalled, and attempts by the SSA to discuss the matter were met with an email from the school’s attorney saying they’re not going to speak to anybody.”
Hence — lawsuit. Which, as of this writing, is happening solely and entirely in the state of Alabama. As Eberhard added, “While it’s not the first state in which we have seen pushback from adults in a position of authority over students to the idea of atheists forming clubs in the same way religious students form clubs, it is the first state in which we’ve had to bring in lawyers to fight for equality denied.”
Okay. Let’s be fair. This isn’t exactly an isolated case. Lauren Becker, Vice President and Director of Outreach of the Center for Inquiry, points out that several states have antiquated laws on the books banning atheists from holding office. “The Supreme Court has said that federal law prohibits states from requiring a religious test to serve office,” she says, but “there are still some states that have such laws, whether they enforce them or not.”
North Carolina, however, has the distinction of actually trying to enforce one of these laws. Less than a year and a half ago.
So that’s gotta suck.
That’s Rhode Island, folks. And this story isn’t just about a school administration insisting on its right to unconstitutionally establish religion. It’s about a community’s ostracization of an atheist teenager — in some cases to the point of threats of violence. Ahlquist has been shunned, insulted, vilified, and even threatened with violence. Students in an English class in her school said — during class — that she should be “smacked around and beat up” for fighting the prayer banner. Comments in the Providence Journal article on the story were ugly, personal, even threatening — to a great extent about the ACLU, but largely about Ahlquist herself. (“I think you need to talk to a doctor and get help… you are sick in the head.” “Looks like we have a moon bat in the making.” “Make no mistake, Jessica and the Bolshevik thugs representing her are driven by anti-Christian bigotry and intolerance and censorship… Curse them to hell.”) In fact, according to the Providence Journal, Ahlquist and another student were removed from their regular classroom schedule last month — after some students said they intended to harm her. To quote JT Eberhard, high school specialist at the Secular Student Alliance, “In the city of Cranston, an entire community, perhaps an entire state of adults, is engaging in a smear campaign against a single high school student. Her crime? Believing her school violates the first amendment by hanging a prayer banner in the gym invoking the phrases ‘Our heavenly father’ and ‘Amen’.”
And this is in New England. This is Rhode Island. The first of the 13 original colonies to declare independence from British rule. The state specifically founded as a place of religious freedom, as a response to religious persecution. A slat in the cradle of liberty. And they are vilifying and threatening a fifteen- year- old girl for being an atheist, and for insisting that her public school follow the Constitution and not shove religion down her throat. Anti-atheist bigotry is everywhere. It’s not just in Alabama or Mississippi. Or even Texas.
Come on. Did you really expect Texas not to be on this list?
That’s reasonably messed-up. But I want to focus instead on a much more practical, nuts-and-bolts, life-screwing-up form of anti-atheist bigotry — child custody.
It is depressingly common for atheists to have child custody limited, or even denied, explicitly on the basis of their atheism. Cases have been documented again and again and again, in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. But according to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “Mississippi is the most serious offender.” Volokh goes on to say, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.'”
Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because they’re an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens. And it happens in Mississippi more than anywhere else in the country.
And finally, we come to my Number One Worst State to Be an Atheist:
I freely admit that this list, and the order I’m presenting it, is subjective. It’s not based on a careful statistical analysis of rigorously gathered data based on journalistically objective criteria about anti-atheist bigotry. It’s based on stories that happened to get my atheist dander up. It’s based on stories that made me sad — and enraged.
And the story that happened in Louisiana made me sad, and enraged, more than almost any other.
I’m talking about Damon Fowler.
I’m talking about the atheist high school student who opposed his public school having a school-sponsored prayer at his graduation. Whose name was leaked. And who, as a result, was hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community; publicly demeaned by one of his teachers; physically threatened; and thrown out by his parents, who cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and threw his belongings onto the front porch. Whose public school went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway. Who has had to leave his home and move in with his sister near Dallas, Texas.
You know things are bad when your atheist safe haven from extremist religious persecution is in Texas.
Worst. State. Ever.
You’ve got Maryland. Where yet another atheist high school student started a group, whose posters were torn down by other students — and where actual parents of those students wrote letters to the editor supporting the vandalism, and calling the atheist posters “an atrocity.” You’ve got Georgia. Where students taking their AP tests at a church were proselytized to by church members. You’ve got Utah. Where, says American Atheists president David Silverman, “the State Attorney General is trying to have the Roman Cross pronounced secular so it can be placed on public buildings and schools without regard to equal access.” You’ve got Oklahoma. Where still another public high school student tried to start an atheist group, and was accused by his principle of trying to start a “hate group”… and where the faculty advisor for the group suddenly withdrew, saying she had been told sponsoring the group would be “a bad career move.” You’ve got… oh, you get the idea.
Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No, probably not. Not for the most part. I don’t like comparing oppressions: it’s divisive and pointless, and I don’t think anything is gained by playing “more oppressed than thou.” There are a few ways that anti-atheist bigotry is worse than others — the roadblocks being tossed up against high school students leap to mind, as does the whole “least trusted/ least likely to be voted for” thing. But atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people — or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color. And I’m not saying that they are.
My point is not that anti-atheist bigotry is as bad as other forms of bigotry. My point is simply that it exists. It is real. It happens all over the country. And it has real-world consequences.
So if you’re ever tempted to ask why atheists are so angry, or why they have to kick up such a fuss all the time, or why they want to organize and form groups based on what they don’t believe in… remember that.