Outcry Against Boy Scout Exclusion of Gays Should Also Apply to the Exclusion of Atheists

Edward Tabash

There has been much controversy generated by the United States Supreme Court's recent ruling allowing the Boy Scouts to exclude gays, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 120 S.Ct. 2446 (2000). However, what is frequently overlooked in the contemporary debate over the Boy Scouts policies is that they also practice the same sort of discrimination against those who do not believe in God.

In fact, the California Supreme Court's ruling that the Boy Scouts could so exclude gays, Curran v. Mount Diablo Council of Boy Scouts of America, 17 C.4th 670 (1998), was issued simultaneously with a companion case allowing the Boy Scouts to identically exclude atheists and agnostics, Randall v. Orange County Council of Boy Scouts, 17 C.4th 736 (1998).

A recent Gallup Poll revealed that a greater majority of American voters would vote against a political candidate just for being an atheist than would vote against a candidate just for being gay or lesbian. Thus, in a very real sense, people who don't believe in God are the object of even more general public animosity than are homosexuals.

The United States Supreme Court has consistently held that no branch of government can favor religious belief over nonbelief, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961); Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53-54 (1985). But for these rulings by the Court, legislative bodies all over the United States would be churning out countless measures designed to show special preferences for religious belief over nonbelief. Atheists and agnostics are a frequently not readily seen, but readily despised, minority here in the United States.

As gays and lesbians begin to get recognition for the enormity of the wrong perpetrated whenever prejudice is manifested against them, we nonbelievers must now also draw public attention to the evil inherent in bigotry directed toward us.

There are also very interesting comparisons between the gay and lesbian quest for full acceptance by society-at-large, and that same quest on the part of those of us who don't believe in God. One of the most painful experiences for a gay person, particularly a young person, is the excruciating suffering caused by family rejection upon that person's "coming out of the closet." A strikingly parallel type of horribly painful family ostracism is suffered by many nonbelievers, particularly young people, who "come out of the closet" as not believing in God.

Now, many will argue that being gay or lesbian is not a matter of choice and should therefore not be a basis for discrimination. First of all, even if being gay or lesbian were a matter of conscious choice, homosexuals should still not suffer any discrimination. Accordingly, whether one is an atheist or agnostic by "choice" or by unavoidable intellectual honesty, atheists and agnostics should also not suffer any discrimination. For many of us, not believing in God is the same as not believing in Santa Claus. After many years of reflection, deep study, spiritual quest, and philosophical and scientific analysis, a number of us have come to the conclusion that there are no supernatural agencies in our universe. We have no intellectual choice other than to see the universe as a natural place, with no powers within it that can violate the laws of nature.

Many of us nonbelievers also don't see how the human consciousness can survive death in the first place, before we can even begin to contemplate such concepts as heaven or hell. If even a blow on the head, an anesthetic, or a disease like Alzheimer's can eclipse conscious awareness, how much more of a total obliteration of our awareness would be engendered by the destruction of the entire brain and body by death?

Many of us nonbelievers are also highly suspicious of any religious claim of supernatural support from God, supposedly rooted in ancient revelation. Why did primitive, ancient people get to see all the miracles and have all the prophets and messiahs in their midst, while we moderns are denied the same direct access to these supposedly evidentiary manifestations of God's supernatural power?

Just as people can understand how someone can disbelieve in the tooth fairy, UFOs, astrology, and ESP, they should also understand how someone can disbelieve in a putative supernatural being, for whose existence there is nothing more than ancient hearsay, with no direct communication or evidence forthcoming from this being.

In the absence of direct revelation from some divine power, we are justified in doubting and in outright disbelieving in such a power. The pretensions of humans to speak for, and to be the keepers of the Word for, some ultimate God force, is not sufficient to command belief and assent. We, the agnostics and atheists of society are among the most sincere and intellectually honest of our modern day culture. We govern our view of the world by scientific reasoning and by the application of hard-headed analysis to the physical universe around us. For this, we should not suffer any prejudice.

Every religious person disbelieves in the God or Gods worshiped by others. We nonbelievers just believe in one less God than do most other people.

Unlike many religious believers, we do not wish to forcibly impose our views on others; we only wish for equality with religionists in both law and in societal practice. However, just as religious believers have a right to make their arguments to society-at-large as to why they think there is a God, we nonbelievers have the same right to enter the marketplace of ideas and articulate our reasons for maintaining that such a being does not exist.

If people still want to condemn the scientific/rationalist belief systems that have led a number of us to nonbelief in God, let them read the works of thinkers like Einstein, who openly rejected any possibility of a personal God or of personal survival after death. Let them also read the works of philosophers like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey. They should also peruse the works of contemporary philosophers such as Antony Flew and Paul Kurtz.

Those of us who do not believe in God constitute about 10% of the population of the United States. Prejudice and bigotry against us nonbelievers is no less invidious than prejudice and bigotry against any other minority. So, our public dialogue about the Boy Scouts exclusion of gays should also involve a discussion of the identical practice of excluding atheists and agnostics.

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