The same theists who accuse us of being extreme merely because we say we are atheists also accuse us of trying to destroy Boy Scouts of America because we object to government sponsorship and funding of the theist-only Scouting program.
At least fifty percent of all Americans appear to be vulnerable to such anti-atheist bias. These are the small-minded who say a priori that they would not vote for an atheist candidate for public office. By contrast, atheists are well-practiced in voting for theists and as such we shouldn’t hesitate in standing firm against such double standards. However, before we challenge this prejudice it behooves us to understand it. What is the origin of the popularity of the conviction that atheism indicates untrustworthiness?
If a statistical correlation between atheism and antisocial behavior existed, then the politically well-connected, multimillion member, and multimillion dollar communities of social conservative right-wing activists would have made sure we all knew about it. An internet search finds nothing. It is safe to say that such correlation has not been found because it does not exist.
Sociology and psychology provide numerous examples of people whose attitudes are out of touch with reality. Nevertheless, the strength and pervasiveness of the conviction among the general public in the United States and elsewhere that atheists are incompetent or too untrustworthy to hold positions of trust warrants some explanation. At least one explanation for the popularity of this misapprehension is readily apparent.
Members of ideologically-defined communities are naturally tempted to define themselves as better than those who don’t share their ideology. Circular reasoning such as this is common because it provides incentive to adopt the ideology in the first place, and it also discourages consideration of alternatives. Accordingly, one of the central claims common to many conservative religious-dogmas is that the religion in question has a positive transformative effect on the everyday behavior of its believers. A popular foundation of this prison-for-the-mind is an omniscient God that punishes nonbelievers and rewards believers. Many thousands of atheists unavoidably and perhaps unknowingly engage in an indirect, frontal attack on this religious fortress simply by being themselves. The mere thought that atheists could possibly behave as well as their theistic peers is, well, heresy!
Underlying the superficial, prodiscrimination “upholding values” propaganda is an effort to protect religious belief from the “corrupting influence” of exposure to the personal integrity of the average nonbeliever. Those who represent the interests of religious institutions lack self-confidence regarding their ability to compete in a context of the free market of ideas. The “value” being upheld is religious belief for its own sake, and the methods employed involve false, negative stereotyping of, and ideological based segregation from, those who hold the alien, conflicting opinion.
These religious-based social conservatives define atheism as something akin to a virus carried by atheists, and they advocate quarantine as the antidote. Never mind that atheism is just an opinion about metaphysics. People who build their livelihood, identity, and personal meaning on dogma–and the people who cater to them–insist on turning competing opinions into pathogenic viruses. It is ironic that these same theists claim that they elevate humanity over smaller-brained primates by adopting this closed-minded, anti-intellectual, and thus dehumanizing approach to honest dissent.
BSA councils collectively receive many millions of dollars from a $10 per student fee and $250 class fee for BSA’s Learning for Life (LFL) subsidiary program, a program that is offered in many hundreds of public schools. Although the LFL program does not discriminate, the LFL money, which is presumably sometimes paid at least in part by the school districts themselves, is combined with the money collected by the BSA councils for the discriminatory Scouting programs. Government-sponsored funding of membership organizations that restrict membership based on personal creed violates existing antidiscrimination law.
That this violates existing law should be obvious, otherwise the other membership based programs that discriminate based on creed would receive similar government sponsored funding. It is impractical to fully fund all membership organizations that discriminate and it would be divisive for government to get into the business of deciding how much each creed gets funded. Atheist only membership organizations receive no government-supported funding and neither should theist-only membership organizations. In any case, all citizens, including those who identify with nonmainstream creeds, are entitled to equal opportunity to receive government services. When membership organizations that discriminate receive government funding, such equal opportunity is denied because such discrimination has a disproportionate, negative impact on those who hold disliked, nonmainstream creeds. Laws derive self-coherence from underlying ethical principles that have general applicability.
BSA’s de facto exemption from this legal principle clearly depends on the popularity of anti-atheist prejudice. If BSA continues to fail to separate accounts and not use different Employee Identification Numbers for LFL and non-LFL money, then there will almost inevitably be more legal disputes over the BSA’s foolish commitment to anti-atheism bigotry.
Approximately 10% of BSA councils receive direct government grants totaling about two million dollars per year and various government institutions charter BSA units throughout the country. This should also prompt lawsuits against the government institution’s involved. After all, the popularity of a prejudice is not a valid first amendment legal argument for selective government support of discrimination.
With government funded school vouchers and social service organization currently written into law, the significance of instances of government support for creed-based discrimination should not be underestimated. If BSA is allowed to get away with this, then religious schools and social service organizations that receive taxpayer funding could similarly refuse to serve atheists. As an unpopular minority that is a favorite scapegoat of conservative religious institutions, atheists will likely be among the primary innocent victims of invidious, selective, government support for discrimination.
Religion is partially based on pretense that opinion is fact. There may be no overall consensus on how to define religion, but no religion lacks such pretense. Many people identify this pretense as “faith”–which has the virtue of setting it apart as a distinguishable type of “fact,” thus making it possible, fortunately, for genuine facts to coexist or even trump mythical “faith facts.” It is no surprise, then, that leading right-wing religious institutions, well-practiced in elevating opinion into fact, are behind the effort to defend and even promote such false “facts” as the inability of an atheist to be “the best kind of citizen.”
It would be a mistake to fall into the self-defeating trap of concluding that government complicity with anti-atheistic discrimination has always existed and therefore will always exist. There is no social contract that says this is the way it must always be. The narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, bigoted, dogmatically based, self-righteous, paranoid, hysterical, nasty, scapegoating and discrimination that is all too popular within reactionary conservative religious traditions need not continue to receive government sponsorship and funding if those of us who know better refuse to continue to acquiesce. Anti-atheist discrimination is unjustifiable. Atheists are among the best Scouts, Scouters and citizens.
Government-supported funding and government sponsorship of discriminatory membership organizations is not supported by the first amendment. Such government support does not promote or serve any legitimate government interest beyond appeasing the popularity of the underlying prejudice.
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