In the past, I’ve made light of a concept I find absurd: the notion of atheist discrimination and persecution. It’s absurd generally, but especially in a mostly free country like the United States. I’m aware that in less free, more religious countries, an individual’s atheism is a brave, dangerous choice. I’m also aware that in some cases, atheists publicly speaking out against religious atrocities has led to threats, violence, and murder, which is why a handful of atheist critics choose anonymity. I think, when I’ve mocked the idea of “atheist discrimination” in the past, I’ve made that distinction clear.
However, until recently I’ve never taken the time to properly think through the notion of atheist discrimination in the U.S. One reason it always strikes me as laughable is because it’s always couched in terms of government and employment. Although it obviously happens, it is neither appropriate nor legal for government officials to discriminate on the basis of their (or your) religious beliefs. The same goes for employers. So naturally, I think it’s silly when I read articles complaining that the U.S. military “discriminates” against atheists (they don’t). I think it’s equally silly when government discrimination is painted with the same brush as private discrimination, as when the Boy Scouts of America disallow atheists. That’s their choice and their right as a private, Christian organization. You want an atheist scouting organization? Start one.
What is both more concerning and upsetting to me than the vague notion of unprovable discrimination by unseen forces is the very real human cost of atheist discrimination.
A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a lecture given by an atheist activist, Katie Kruse. The video is 46 minutes long, but I’d recommend watching it if you feel the way I do. The lecturer, Katie Kruse, explains how her experiences as a missionary in China led to her loss of faith. In order to do justice to that, she explains her entire faith journey, from a childhood as an evangelical Christian to a young adulthood obsessed with learning the roots of the faith, to her missionary work and subsequent loss of faith, and finally, to the aftermath of “coming out” as an atheist.
I understood the journey. I know people like Kruse who haven’t lost their faith, so the early story was familiar. The atheists and agnostics I know are of a stock that never started out particularly religious; it was foisted on them by parents, but they never bought in. Some feared the consequences of their parents (or others) finding out; some tossed it back in their parents’ face as a form of rebellion. I’ve even read accounts of religious folks who faced dire consequences for abandoning their faith (even Scientologists), although I’ve never personally met any.
What resonated with Kruse’s story was the particular challenge of continuing to live in a world she had built around evangelical Christianity. In many of the accounts I’ve read, people are either excommunicated, or they’re forced to flee a brutal regime; in both cases, they mostly lose contact with the loved ones who wouldn’t necessarily understand what had changed or why. Kruse stayed where she was. She had to reckon with family and friends who would, at best, struggle to understand the shift in point of view. As someone whose biggest frustration is being misunderstood, this hit me hard.