Sunday, April 1, 2012

Atheist Rally: Precursor to Religious Equality Movement?

 In a recent article from USAToday, Cathy Grossman reports on a large atheist rally held just outside the Washington Monument on Saturday, March 24 of this year. The rally, which included around 20,000 atheists, featured several speakers, such as Richard Dawkins and David Silverman, who urged atheists to start taking a stand against the oppression of their religious peers. Dawkins even went so far as to encourage his fellow atheists to “ridicule and show contempt” for religious teachings and traditions. Others, like Hemant Mehta, took a more political approach by urging atheists to be more involved with or run for positions in public office. But why was this rally even necessary? What has made these atheists so angry?
                My guess: religious favoritism in government. Though the American Government has recently moved toward maintaining a position of neutrality in the religious realm, certain practices show a distinct lack of equality among the religious and non-believers. For one, religious groups receive special benefits, in the form of tax exemptions and the recent contraceptive exemptions, simply because they claim a violation of their religious beliefs. Also, Christians are particularly favored in phrases like “In God We Trust,” which is stamped on all national currency, or “One Nation, Under God,” a line from the Pledge of Allegiance which most school children recite each and every day. These practices have been upheld by the court under the premise of “ceremonial deism,” but when your personal beliefs reject the existence of any deity, such policies seem less than neutral.
                Is government neutrality even possible, though? In the Supreme Court decision of Lee v. Weisman (1992), a case about prayer at public school graduations, the court struck down the practice as unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Their reasoning, however, left room for cases like Jones v. Clear Creek (1992) which held that student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies is permissible as long as there is no interference on the part of government officials. Such decisions lead to questions about the possibility of true neutrality in government. By ruling that student-led prayer is acceptable, the court has created the opportunity for religious students to undermine the rights of their non-religious peers by forcing them to participate (or at least observe) a prayer which runs counter to their personal beliefs. If the court was to ban prayer altogether, however, Christians would claim infringement on their free exercise rights, and the battle for supremacy would continue.
                So what is the next step for those atheists who seek to destroy this governmental favoritism for religion? This rally seems like the first step in what could be a very successful religious equality movement. Though the court has not been a particularly favorable venue for atheists in the past, solid reasoning and good public relations could lead to equal rights for all people, regardless of their personal beliefs.


Emrah K said...

Equality between believers and non-believers is not so easy because believers have some demands from governments but non-believers do not have extra demands. For example, believers want a church, religious course as well as scientific one, prayer, etc. but what do non-believers want? Also, a non-believer does not need to do something to live his disbelief but a believer needs to do extra things to able to live his belief that he needs a community, extra religious education, a building like a church, etc. In this case, when a government stands on equal distance to believers and non-believers, it cannot offer equal service to them because their expectations are different. Finally, atheists, I think, should not regard as injustice something the government does for believers, and they should not be angry.

Angela S. said...

You get issues like the one we’ll be discussing when we get to The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Basically if the court comes down on the side of the religious people should be able to keep their decorations on the graves despite the fact that they are against the cemetery rules it will in effect be discriminating against everyone else that still has to follow the rules. I know that personally if my mom was dead and I wanted to put something on her grave that had significance to me and was no more out of line than what the Catholic woman 2 plots over had, but was denied because it wasn’t for religious reasons I’d be upset.