Non-religious discrimination

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Fri 27 April 2012

Today I heard about a family member being bullied and discriminated against for being an atheist. And at the moment, I am incredibly angry, incredibly furious. I don't think I was prepared to be so angry about this. I don't even think my life gave me an expectation or even much thought that this could happen to someone I loved. And so I am feeling a lot of anger that I don't know how to deal with, so I guess I will just write it out.

Let me step back for a moment. I am an atheist who was raised as a Christian. I came out as an atheist in early adulthood. I won't say my family was very happy about it, but I never faced any serious disrespect, and I haven't faced any discrimination about being an atheist in my lifetime. To be honest, after coming out, I never gave it too much thought. I mean, my father is even a religious teacher, and he was understanding about it. Granted, he is about the most liberal, tolerance-minded religion teacher possible; when I told him I was an atheist, and explained my thoughts behind things, he said something like "Well, that makes sense to me. I think you're approaching a belief system and ethics in your own way." Maybe that is why I unsusbcribed from the atheist subreddit; it seemed full of so many people who were just so angry at religious folks for their intolerance against atheists or for their simplemindedness or whatever. But I always thought of my father, a religious person who was willing to and even interested in talking about my beliefs and non-beliefs. My mother seemed a bit more disappointed, but she never changed her attitude to me, and she has always supported me and what I believe in. So that kind of bitterness that these other people held atainst non-atheists never resonated with me. It seemed absurd and reactionary.

And then today happened.

I don't use Facebook anymore, but Morgan occasionally tells me about things she sees on there. Today I heard about my cousin-in-law's son getting bullied and physically assulted for being an atheist. Worse yet, it seems he's been bullied and physically assulted for being an atheists by students at his public school and it seems at this point unlikely that anyone is going to get in trouble for it.

The short version of it goes like this. The kid goes on a camping trip for the fifth grade school outing. There's a campfire at night, and a group of boys sit around and tell ghost stories. One kid declares that there really are ghosts, but it's okay because if everyone around the campfire believes in Jesus, he will protect them from the ghosts, and that if anyone didn't believe in Jesus, they should leave the campfire so that they don't endanger the safety of the circle. So my cousin's kid gets up to leave the circle. The other boys notice. They chase after him. They begin calling him names, and shoving him around. (Apparently, they were forceful, but they didn't leave any marks. Regardless, that's physical assult. And as you can imagine, being a kid and shoved around and harassed by a group of other kids outdoors in the middle of the night has got to be a pretty scary experience.)

The school doesn't call up my cousin(-in-law) and tell her. I'm not sure if they didn't know, or if they didn't think it was important Anyway, my cousin doesn't know until her kid gets home from school. And of course he's scared.

They live in a very small, predominantly Christian town. She tells us that normally she tells her children that it is best to just not talk about their beliefs, and normally they do not. But of course, in this case the issue was forced: he was forced to either hold to his beliefs or lie about them. So he got up, and he walked away, as were the instructions of the other children. And then he was assulted and bullied.

We called Morgan's cousin on the phone. She tells us that of course, she is angry. But she also wonders if she should blame herself for "doing this to her children". But what has she done that any other parent does not do? She has passed on her beliefs from herself and her children. And in fact she has taught her children that even if they do not believe in other religions, they should understand them. Her children are not naive, and in fact they have read up on a lot of religions. But these beliefs, even these non-beliefs, are their beliefs. And that's their right. It isn't the first time her children have been bullied about such things either, but it is the first time the bullying has turned violent.

What can she do? She lives in a very small and predominantly Christian town. If she raises a fuss (which she might) the chance of the school doing anything is fairly small. And even if they do, she does that at risk of alienating her family from the rest of the community. And so what is she to do?

In a moment like this, it is easy to see why so many atheists seem angry much of the time. If the reverse had been true, with atheists beating up a Christian for believing in Jesus-the-savior, of course there would be recourse. There would be a mob. And thus, in retaliation of this hypocrisy, it is tempting in this moment to join the tribes of the angry atheists.

On the other hand, I think of my father, who I imagine would read this and be just as angry and upset as I am. And so it is not true that all Christians, in all communities, are this way. And if this happened in someplace larger and more diverse and more liberal... if this happened in Chicago, this would probably not be tolerated. And of course, this would be bad, just as bad, if it were discrimination in any other situation: whether the child were a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim. Any such discrimination is not okay. And certainly, many of the groups listed above probably face similar fears. It is likely that our cousin would also tell her children to not tell their schoolmates about their beliefs if their were Muslim. And so, part of the problem is simply something that is already generally known to be true: it can be a frightening thing to be a minority, any minority, in a small, tight-knit, and discriminatory community.

I do feel though that this action is likely to not be viewed with the same seriousness (or as the same act as) "religious discrimination" because by definition the religious belief expressed here is non-religious. And so I will not join the crowd of atheists who feel bitterly against all religious people. But today at least I have gained an understanding of how someone can come to develop those feelings. And I am certainly angry, and I feel very justified in being so.