Monday, March 26, 2012

Reason Rally Highlights Atheists’ Outcry for Equal Recognition and Protections

This past Saturday, the organization American Atheists held an event, dubbed the Reason Rally, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Thousands of non-believers of all stripes, including atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and secularists, converged on the nation’s capitol to draw attention to their growing numbers and hear from major voices within the movement, including rally headliner Richard Dawkins. The rally has been characterized not as an organized protest against religion, but as an effort to stand together in solidarity with other like-minded people. Many participants have taken to co-opting language from the LGBTQ community, describing the rally event as a “coming out” and an invitation for many “closeted” atheists and non-theists to stand up proudly for what they believe in.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, argued in a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post that atheists and other non-theists have for too long remained silent in the face of a disapproving and even contemptuous religious majority. (The United States consistently polls as one of the most religious of the developed nations.) According to Silverman, non-theists are constantly reminded of the pervasive influence of religion in nearly every aspect of their lives, from paying for goods and services with currency emblazoned with religious language, to the news coverage of the Republican primary contest in which the candidates seem to be trying to “out-religion” each other, much to the pleasure and satisfaction of religious voters. Silverman hopes the Reason Rally will be the catalyst needed to encourage conversation about the marginalization and derision experienced by atheists and non-theists and effect the change necessary for the country to begin to treat them with respect, compassion, and equitability, both in legal conceptions and popular opinion.

At first glance, it may seem that atheists and other non-theists really have nothing to complain about. However, common conceptions and uncritical assumptions of American society as a fully secular nation that strictly enforces a “wall of separation of church and state” often obscure the difficulties with which secular ideals have actually been put into practice. Our current political moment has reached a saturation point, as religious groups continue to flex their influence and power in shaping state legislation and public policy. Even supposedly neutral Supreme Court Justices have publically intimated the inherently religious character of the United States. As Silverman argues in his guest post, the pervasive influence of religion in the public sphere can, to the non-religious observer, make it “seem that without religion you cannot be elected to public office, cannot be considered a moral or ethical person, or be considered a patriot.”

But how exactly are atheists experiencing oppression or second-class status from a legal standpoint, since simply being a minority voice does not necessarily mean there exists intentional or systematic disenfranchisement? If we look to the First Amendment’s religion clauses, particularly the free exercise clause, we may find a strong argument for the very real shortcomings of the legal system faced by and articulated by atheists and other non-theists. While the establishment clause is characterized as preventing religious groups and institutions from gaining significant influence over the government, the free exercise clause can best be conceived as an attempt to protect individual religious belief and, to a lesser degree, practice from excessive governmental intrusion or coercion. Thus, religious beliefs are often given special consideration, treated by the government and the courts as a protected category. This special status often takes the form of religious exemptions from legislative measures and public policies. Recently, religious groups have argued for, and been granted, exemption from certain mandates of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act having to do with providing access to contraceptive measures. Because the religious groups argued that contraception ran counter to their religious beliefs, they were granted exemptions from the otherwise applicable mandate. Were someone to petition for the same exemption based upon totally personal and non-religious reasons, it would be highly unlikely that exemption would be granted. Beliefs grounded in a religious tradition continue to have better currency in our present political and legal framework. If nothing else, Silverman and the American Atheists are right in arguing that the privileging of religion as a special status category has the effect of relegating non-theists to second-class citizens.


Catherine S said...

While religious groups do sometimes receive special treatment, non-religious groups (or just people) sometimes also receive special treatment for the goal of religious freedom. At my old job, we could not celebrate birthdays or holidays because a select few complained. As we have seen in some of the court cases we have studied in class, it only takes one opposing view sometimes for an entire practice to end. Does that make it right? Maybe, maybe not. If a few people object to something stating that it shows preference to religion, then potentially the act should be stopped. But should the views of the minority affect the actions of the majority?

Angela S. said...

I think they are talking about issues such as we will discuss when we get to The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. There you have a situation where people provided grave decorations for their loved ones that were in violation of a rule of the graveyard that was not being enforced. When that changed and the graveyard went to enforce the rule they argued that they should be able to keep the decorations because they served a religious purpose for these people. My first instinct was to side with the people that just wanted to honor their family members with in their religion, but then it occurred to me to think about the Atheists. Atheists would not be able to put up the same decoration because it psychologically eased their grief for example.

Anne G said...

A "Reason" rally? The use of the word puzzles me.Atheists are saying they "encourage conversation" - really? It is my understanding that to disagree is to be without "reason." Atheists say "they have too long remained silent" - so now they take a stand to be recognized, respected shown compassion,protection and equitability - really? So people with a cause/belief should do nothing as you have done? Really?

Blake_S said...

I find this always a fine line to equate religious freedom to equal representation and defining what that looks like. This fine line between equity of practice and being sensitive to all persons in the society is hard to do because not every single person's interest can be represented. To say the least, this puts the Supreme Court in the awkward situation of trying to maintain that all persons are treated equally under the law. Like Cathye states, one person has to complain but it is the extent to which that complaint is considered is what needs to be taken seriously. We must ask who is being effected and how will it effect all those involved. Then they must be the mediators between the practitioner and the populace. To say the least, this is a damn hard job!

crunchycheetos said...

"The rally has been characterized not as an organized protest against religion, but as an effort to stand together in solidarity with other like-minded people."

I don't understand why this rally is receiving so much criticism? I agree with the above statement, as posted in the blog post.

I think it is a great thing to create dialogue among disadvantaged groups. This dialogue is what enacts TRUE change of mind, heart, soul and lastly legislation.

Preston L.

Carrie B said...

Cases involving the non-religious often seem to complicate matters of religious freedom. The particular issue of unique privileges to religious organizations gets particularly sticky. How does the law allow exceptions (tax exemptions, etc.) for religious groups while not violating the rights of the non-religious? This privileges religion in a particular way. At the same time, not allowing religious groups to do particular things (such as abstain from contraceptive insurance) may violate the rights of the religious groups. It is a tricky line that does make completely religious freedom seem impossible.