Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Faith's War on Atheism

So many political figures like to bitch, bitch, bitch about the War on Faith (tm), as if those with religion are second-class citizens. What they should try for a minute is standing in the shoes of an atheist. While not being one myself, a recent study showed they are the least trusted group in America when it comes to religion. Even after the Danish Cartoon War fiasco blew up the negative ratings of Islam, Muslims are still nowhere near as subject to the negative connotations and perceptions that atheists are. I, as a mildly-religious person, find this hailstorm of negativity troubling and in some instance bigoted. Some militant atheists do seek to eradicate religion and banish faith from the public square, that's true. But they are no more or less zealous than the Falwells, Robertsons, and Santorums who want to institute a theocracy. And they, just like the theocrats, only represent a tiny fraction of the atheist population. Some may see absolutely nothing bad about this. I see this as every bit as troubling as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As the Fox News crew churns the idea that this country is run by atheists and that there is a War on Faith, I can't help but see echoes of Early Modern Europe (especially 20th century France and, of course, 20th century Germany) and political scapegoating of Jews. Or really political scapegoating of Puritans in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century or (insert any attack on a religious minority here). But this doesn't end at demagoguery, it extends to discrimination.

Andrew Sullivan has been following this issue thoroughly since the study came out with the help of a lot of emails he's been getting from his atheist readers, and his posts on it are here (first one), then here, and finally the startling issues of custody discrimination here, and a relevant Jeffersonian perspective here and Adams here. But aside from that, Sullivan pointed to some fresh empirical work by none other than the illustrious Eugene Volokh on the matter of this discrimination. That was the thing that prompted me to write on this topic. Volokh's article is a whopper, and the case it lays out is damning. He begins with the case of the famous poet Percy Shelley who was one of the first, and most famous, fathers in English common-law history to lose custody of his child. The reason was his atheism. Since then, history has only proven to be setting more unkind precedents, which Volokh clearly indicates as damaging to the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution (which should INCLUDE atheism, as the Founding Fathers themselves clearly believed.) Courts in Mississippi have forced atheists parents who gain custody to take their children to church anyway, and a manifest of other such mandated judicial "remedies" to a parents beliefs being unorthodox or atheist. Most of Volokh's examples aren't from decades past, too. They are from THE LAST 10 YEARS, or sometimes the last two years. Utilizing the "best interests of the child" excuse, the judges basically have leave to really tamper with the parents' beliefs and how they choose to raise their children.

With all the overheated rhetoric about the supposed persecution of people of faith because they can't place nativities on public property or display the ten commandments, many are failing to recognize real persecution. The court-mandated church visits and denial of custody for people because of their atheist beliefs, or any other religious beliefs is true discrimination and real oppression on people because of their beliefs, even if they choose to not believe in God they are still free to exercise that religion. And the fact that family courts threaten custody over their children with such things is clearly an unconstitutional travesty and is a War on Faith of a different sort. And one more relevant to American values than attacking public displays of religion.