[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Sarah, I have never considered atheists as an oppressed group. Would you consider yourself and others oppressed?
Whether or not an atheist is oppressed depends largely on his or her environment and means of expression. When it comes to thoughts about oppression, we may be dealing with a difference in, not only perspective, but also definition. I do not answer for a collective group, but represent only my thoughts and observations as an atheist living in the southern United States. Many would probably avoid the word “oppression” in regard to the treatment of atheists, and you’ll notice that even I lean more toward “discrimination” and other synonyms at times.
Where I live and grew up, atheists are the recurrent recipients of negative stereotype and prejudice. An open atheist risks being called “evil” or as with a past teacher of mine— losing their job if their boss knew about their beliefs. The environment of fear is palpable.
One of the past (and most frequent) arguments I have heard entailed a difference in visibility, particularly when comparing atheists to African Americans in the south. The premiere point being that one cannot tell if another person is an atheist by merely looking at him or her. The same cannot be said for African Americans or other people of color. Therefore, the atheist has a type of comparative privilege and societal camouflage. But what if an atheist was made visible in some way? (Recall briefly how Jewish people were made to wear the yellow star of David during World War II.) I would not, for a second, want to wear some type of t-shirt or other garment denoting my atheism and walk around my hometown adorned. I would risk subsequent ostracism and threats.
Photo Credit: Rhodes Jewish Museum
To further comment on this comparison, I will say immediately address how silly I find this contest of oppression and its subsequent degree.
Person #1: I’m oppressed!
Person #2: I’m oppressed more!
So it goes.
At the same time, atheists tend not to be parallel to the same amount of physical violence as the LGBT community or the same level of economic oppression as women. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing amount of anti-atheist sentiment in the United States, and like these other aforementioned groups, atheists represent a minority within the general populace.
People have been oppressed for ages based on their race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, age— and of course, religious connotation or lack thereof. The argument that atheists are not oppressed because of separation of church and state or freedom of speech is simply illogical. Just because the United States abolished slavery doesn’t mean African Americans aren’t oppressed. The same can be said for atheists.
Culture of Silence
I do not attempt to victimize myself by writing this response and have struggled greatly while trying to find structure within this defense. I often feel that if I raise the point of atheists as an oppressed group, then I may be accused of an emotional pursuit to garner sympathy. The result, therein, becomes silence. If I don’t speak openly about oppression, then again the result is silence. It’s the inherent Catch-22. Oppression runs deep within the culture of silence; and through adherence to silence, I am being programmed into conformity.
In a future entry (or series of entries), I will attempt to relate atheism to the
various faces/types of oppression. Thank you for this question, Anon!