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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Equality for atheists in the 'marketplace of ideas'
A Philosophically Informed Perspective, by Justin Vacula
In recent months – and throughout American history – atheists have been facing discrimination because members of the majority religious view in America [Christians of various stripes] happen to disagree with atheists' philosophical positions, seek to silence atheists, believe that dissenting points of view should not be represented, or various other reasons. In a marketplace of ideas, especially when governmental entities may not discriminate on the basis of religion, Christians who often preach about morality and equality for all who are 'children of God' unfairly exclude those who are in a minority position.
Atheists can easily point to previous centuries of 'witch burning' and inquisitions, but this would simplify a complex situation and unfairly blame those of today for the 'sins' of the past. While it is important to look to the past and not forget it, this would not address all of the difficulties that atheists presently face. While atheists might happen to be in a better position today than centuries ago, this also does not mean that atheists should be complacent and resign to a situation that is better than the past.
No matter how mild our messages may be and how legally justified [or morally justified] atheists may be in marching in parades, flying banners in the month of July, or speaking about science books at country clubs, the cacophony of complaints can be heard from Christians who want to censor us. Messages similar to those of 'Good Without God' and 'Don't believe in God, Join The Club!' are, to some, 'offensive' and shouldn't be displayed in public. The fact that atheists exist, it seems, is not permissible for some. Never mind the fact that Christians display messages about hellfire and pictures of aborted fetuses on highways across America. Never mind preachers who claim that atheists cannot be good citizens or are the mortal enemies of Christians.
Christians are also quick to complain about how “God is being taken out of the public square” and demand that their messages – even when they are flagrantly religious in a governmental setting and exclusionary – be shown in public, but when atheists want to be represented, the standards suddenly change. The hypocrisy, one can see, is tremendous and deeply problematic.
Citizens of the United States are quite diverse; country of origin, philosophical beliefs, and sexual orientation – just to name a few categories – forge what is often called 'the melting pot.' At certain points in history, demographics may change or stay the same. Some, one can say, can be quite 'lucky' or 'unfortunate' to be in a majority or minority position. Instead of allowing one point of view to be represented, a pluralistic society should strive to allow messages of all sorts (whith some restrictions such as defamation and libel) without regards to whether a position happens to be widely held or not.
Embrace different ideas. Expose yourself to perspectives you may have not considered. Meet some new friends. Seek knowledge. Think outside the box. Extend the grace of allowing those in a minority to voice their opinions and understand that you may be in a minority position on some issues. Truths can withstand scrutiny and falsehoods can dissolve in the glass of rationality. In the marketplace of ideas, ignorance can 'take the podium' and be answered by reason.
This position of great openness, of course, has some reasonable restrictions; we must deal with certain ideas on a case-to-case basis. Creationism, for instance, should not be taught in public school science classes because creationism is not a defensible scientific position. For similar reasons, 'Holocaust revisionist history' should not be taught in history classes, 9/11 conspiracy theories should not be presented as fact in physics classes, and health classes should not teach that homeopathy is an effective 'alternative treatment.' Let us be reasonable by keeping an 'open mind,' but not too open that our brains fall out.
Atheists should have the same rights as Christians to present their ideas – within reason – in pluralistic societies. Messages should simply not be censored because those in a position of privilege and power happen to disagree, have negative impressions of atheists, or whatever reason. If Christianity is so justified, as its proponents claim, what is the harm in having dissenting ideas presented and why should Christians worry so much? Christians can, as 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, defend their beliefs [thus responding to atheistic messages]. It's very unfortunate, though, that this often isn't the case. Instead of debate, censorship and exclusion is often the 'order of the day.' Silencing your 'opposition,' though, is the coward's way out.
Justin Vacula, author and owner of justinvacula.com -- a blog about atheism, theism, philosophy, and much more -- is an active outspoken atheist in Northeastern Pennsylvania who is the co-organizer, spokesperson, and board member of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, a secular discussion and activist group of non-theists. Justin received a large amount of media attention in his 2009 church/state battle in Northeastern Pennsylvania and graduated from King's College in Pennsylvania with degrees in Philosophy and Psychology in addition to receiving a distinguished award in Philosophy and a minor in Professional Writing. He regularly publishes articles for Examiner.com as the 'Scranton Atheism Examiner' in addition to authoring blog posts.