Question: Atheists and Oppression

[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.

Comparative Oppression

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.

boy-with-star

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!

5 comments

  1. jr cline · February 8, 2014

    I guess a lot of us are oppressed for something for something at some time in our lives. Being Buddhist or pagan or atheist in the Bible Belt can be challenging.

  2. doesitevenmatter3 · February 9, 2014

    Good question! Great answer!
    Thank you for sharing this with us!
    To feel oppressed or to feel trapped are two of the worst feelings. I don’t understand why people work to make another person (or group of people) feel this way. It is tragic.
    I grew up in The Western US and had friends of all religions and no religion, friends of all races, and we were all friends who accepted each other and were there to support and help each other. (the only oppression and discrimination I felt was because my family was very poor) But I have friends in The South who have been made to feel oppressed by others because of their sexual orientation, race, lack of religion, etc. :-(
    (((HUGS)))

  3. D. Eaton · February 9, 2014

    I’ve heard others compare atheists and Muslims too often, and that’s a little ridiculous for me. When it comes to minority groups and comparing them, I think atheists in America identify most with the gay minority.

  4. Catholic Tap House · February 11, 2014

    Oppression isn’t something to take lightly in any situation… Most of my family members grew up in Northern Ireland so I know the oppression in our history. Any religious or nonreligious group faces oppression… It’s what you said in the beginning about a difference in definition and location.

  5. Nolo Segundo · September 11, 2014

    As a believer, I suspect it might sadden God to see members of his ‘flock’ oppress, even mentally, those who have not yet come to Him. And I think it is the purest blasphemy to say what God will or won’t do to an atheist, or any soul for that matter; after all, He made it pretty clear not to judge another, unless you want to get yourself judged.(I personally could see Him taking a goodhearted atheist into heaven before a hypocritical mean-spirited Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu.) As a former agnostic myself, I can understand how some are repulsed by the way others may practice their religion, but God’s compass is far, far greater than any particular faith. Life was easier for me when I didn’t believe because God is not easy, but then neither are we. In truth, whatever you call it, we are all, believer and doubter alike, broken–neurotic–sinful–fucked up. And while I am concerned about which world my soul will go to next (yes, Virginia, heaven and hell are real dimensions), I do thank Him every day for letting me have that worry, because my life has meaning now, so much so that I can only grasp a tiny bit of it– and this is true for all of us. We just don’t know that we are blind and asleep.

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