The Atheist Persecution Complex

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent the views of or its other editors or contributors.

When I was a Christian, I felt like the whole world was secular and it was set against me expressing my belief.

And when I became an atheist, it seemed like the whole world was Christian and was set against me expressing my disbelief.

Both of these experiences cannot be accurate.

And yet, it’s clear that a lot of people in the U.S.–both Christian and atheist–feel this way.

The so-called “War on Christmas” is only the most timely example.  Atheists like myself look on in disbelief as Christians claim that Christmas is under attack, at the same time that it seems to us like Christianity has permeated every aspect of society. And yet, I remember what it felt like when I was a Christian and it seemed like the secular world was waging a war on Christianity.

Which is right?  Or are both wrong?

I mentioned this to my 15 year-old daughter recently and she told me the following story:

Earlier this year, her school had its annual pajama day.  She wore a one-piece unicorn pajama jumper, complete with a hood with a horn.  It was quite a bold statement for a high schooler–even on pajama day.

But when she got to school, everywhere she looked, she saw kids dressed in regular clothes.  Fortunately, my wife had convinced her to take a set of regular clothes with her, so she rushed off to the bathroom to change.

But when she emerged, all she could see were kids wearing cute pajama outfits.  So she returned to the bathroom and put her unicorn pajamas back on.

Now all those kids didn’t change into pajamas in the time my daughter was in the bathroom.  She realized that, when she was wearing the pajamas, she could only see the kids dressed in regular school clothes, and she was blind to the kids in pajamas.  And when she was dressed in regular school clothes, she could only see the kids in the pajamas, and was blind to the kids in regular clothes.  But the truth is, both sets of kids were there all along.  (I would love to set up a social science experiment along these lines.)

I was raised Christian–Mormon specifically–and the church curriculum cultivated an acute sense of persecution as a part of my religious identity.  The persecution of early Mormons is a central theme in Mormon history.  And although Mormons have been largely assimilated by mainstream American culture over the last several decades, Mormons still see themselves as victims of persecution–it’s almost a siege mentality.  I’ve noticed that the same is true of a lot of Christians.

When I became Pagan, I was bemused to find the same dynamic at work there was well.  The myth of the Burning Times was only the most common expression of this. There was also the ancient Christian persecution of pagans in the Roman Empire and the Kurgan invasion.  I’ve literally had polytheists and religious feminists rage at me about these persecutions like they happened yesterday, to them personally.

All of these myths (I mean “myth” in the anthropological sense, not in the pejorative sense) are based in some degree of historical fact.  What is important is not how accurate these myths are, but how they are used today.  Many contemporary Pagans see themselves as victims today, and they tell themselves these stories about the Burning Times and so on in order to link their perception of contemporary victimhood to the victimhood of their religious ancestors, as a way of validating their perception of themselves as victims.

This is not to say that there isn’t real discrimination and persecution of Pagans today.  But, there has been considerable progress in recent decades.  At least we might say that most Pagans today are more likely to be dismissed than they are to be actively persecuted.  The greatest threat to Paganism today is not from a Christian dominionist attack on our freedom of religious expression, but from centrifugal forces operating within.  What harassment does exist rarely rises to the level of the persecution that other religious groups have suffered over the centuries (and still do in some places).

What concerns me is how these myths of persecution, whatever their historicity or lack thereof, can be obstacles to spiritual growth.  They keep us isolated from other different religious groups, fearful and distrusting.  And they keep us locked in a cycle of personal disempowerment.  The myth of victimhood steals away our power.

While I was disappointed to find a similar kind of persecution complex among Pagans as I had experienced among Christians, I wasn’t all that surprised.  I was surprised, however, to find the same thing at work among atheists.  After all, we atheists tend to hold ourselves out as bastions of rationality.  And so I was surprised to discover that atheists seem to be just as prone to a victim mentality as Christians and Pagans.

Again, this is not to say that there aren’t examples of discrimination and harassment of atheists.  But the perception of the degree of persecution seems to me to be way out of proportion.  And as many of the readers here–myself included–identify as both atheist and Pagan, we may be doubly vulnerable to this.

Recently, I wrote an article about the connection between atheism in Unitarian Universalist congregations and White privilege.  As can be expected any time White privilege is mentioned, I had people rushing to tell me how persecuted White people are, how their ancestors starved in Ireland and worked in coal mines in Appalachia and walked to school barefoot in the snow–and at least slaves had a roof and a hot meal … you get the idea.  One White Pagan woman made sure to tell me about her Native American ancestor who was burned at the stake in Salem as a witch.  (It’s impressive when your persecution myths start to overlap.)

In a similar fashion, I had atheist friends rushing to tell me how persecuted atheists are.  They told me that atheists are the most hated religious group.  Yes, I know that people are more likely to vote for a Muslim as President than an atheist, but it’s not Unitarian congregations and Sunday Assemblies that are usually the target of hate crimes; it’s mosques and synagogues and Black churches.

What’s interesting is that the responses–of Whites to talk of White privilege and of atheists (who tend to be White) to talk of the connection of atheism and White privilege–are remarkably similar.

This wasn’t just one or two atheist friends either, and it’s not my intention to single anyone out.  I’ve heard these complaints for years.  And everyone seems to have a personal story of some time they didn’t feel free to say or do what they wanted.  It’s a uniquely American (and a uniquely White) form of fragility to feel like any perceived limitation on your desire to say anything anytime anywhere is a direct attack on your personal dignity.  No, I’m sorry, but being “forced” to listen to a prayer in a Unitarian church is not oppression.

I have no doubt that atheists experience Christian bias, but I just have a hard time seeing atheists as oppressed–especially considering we are predominately White*, male, educated, and wealthy.   Now here come the atheist stories of personal struggle … which I am not denying or trying to diminish.  But I am trying to put them in perspective.  It just seems to me that a lot of us atheists (like a lot of Christians and a lot of Pagans) have lost any sense of proportion.

This seems to be a common problem among White people like me.  My article was written in the context of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s top to bottom struggle with White supremacy.  And when the “oppression” of atheists is raised in the context of discussion of the centuries long history of enslavement, murder, rape, and imprisonment of people of color, I think it’s time for a privilege check … and a reality check.

Yes, there is Christian bias and Christian privilege.  Yes, there is some discrimination and some actual harassment of atheists.  And, yes, there is some discrimination and some actual harassment of Pagans.  On the other hand, compared to many other countries, we live in an overwhelmingly secularized culture which is, in many ways, more hospitable to atheists than it is to Christians, at least in the public sphere.  And if your Christian belief requires you to proselytize, then it may even been more hospitable to Pagans, in that way, who don’t have a religious injunction to convert others.

Neither atheists nor Christians nor Pagans seem to be able to see any perspective but their own.  It’s like the pajama story.  If you’re wearing pajamas, it seems like everyone is dressed in regular school clothes.  But if you’re dressed in regular school clothes, it seems like everyone is dressed in pajamas.  The reality is, they’re all there at the same time:  There is Christian bias and there is secular bias.  Pagans are limited in how they express their religion, and so are Christians.  Atheists have to tolerate Christian prayers in some places and Christians have to tolerate religion-free secular spaces.  It’s the reality of a religiously inclusive society.  Are there ways our society can improve to be more inclusive?  Yes.  But atheists will have to get in line.

The bottom line is that I hesitate to call White atheists, Pagans, or Christians “oppressed”–especially in light of the serious, systemic, and pervasive oppression of people of color in our society.

* Note: Yes, there are atheists who are also people of color.  But that really a form of tokenism and not an argument against connecting atheism to White privilege.

9 Comments on “The Atheist Persecution Complex

  1. Maybe what you are describing is a very human tendency towards xenophobia, or if that’s too strong a term, call it tribalism. Like our preference for calorie laden foods, it had survival value for a long time. The problem now is that it is more often than not an unhealthy response to our increasingly diverse yet connected world. Tolerance has a steeper learning curve than we like to admit and we’re all prone to backsliding. So we’re not perfect. Acknowledge it and try again. And again. And again. That’s moral courage, not failure.

  2. While I agree with the overall thrust of this article, I think you have painted with far too broad a brush. We didn’t tell white, affluent professional gay people that they weren’t oppressed, and it would have been wrong to do so.

    No, it isn’t oppression to have to sit through a prayer. But it is to have your entire spiritual perspective disappeared. If there is at no time an acknowledgement that some do not believe, and that the prayer is for those who do, then religious bigotry is being carried out.

    Yes, Paganism has a victim mentality problem. The entire COUNTRY has a victim mentality problem, which I believe is rooted in large part in an expectation that we are all supposed to have opportunities and life conditions which are harder and harder to come by except for the very wealthy. That stealthiest of differences–CLASS–is what is operative here. And let’s be honest: with conditions collapsing for the vast majority of Americans, most of us ARE victims. We are losing ground and living in fear.

    Are atheists oppressed? Yes, we are. We aren’t AS oppressed as Black people or women or LGBTQ folks, but there is animus against us. In settings that claim to be friendly to our perspectives, it is not unreasonable to expect some acknowledgement that we exist and that our views are as legitimate as any other, rather than simply steamrollering over them with theistic prayers so that others will feel happy.

    Ask yourself this: if Unitarians were ancient Greeks, would it be reasonable for those who opposed animal sacrifices just to sit through them because it would make those who don’t more comfortable? Or would it be more appropriate to make some kind of acknowledgement and accommodation for those who find that practice offensive? While a Christian prayer may seem innocuous, it ISN’T: it is freighted with a worldview and a set of values that are inimicable to reason, to kindness and to equality.

    • I agree that more and more of us are becoming victims of the corporate class. Welcome to the “fucked over club”.

      I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that “an acknowledgement that we [atheists] exist and that our views are as legitimate as any other” was inappropriate.

      Why is it that whenever we start talking about one group of people as privileged, that group rushes to point out all of the ways they have suffered? The two truths are not mutually exclusive.

      I do disagree with you about the “worldview” of theists, though. I think you’re painting with too broad a brush in that case. Not all theism is literal, and to act like it is is to reduce most of the world to the lowest common denominator. That’s a form of literal-minded atheism.

  3. Atheists often get their kids taken away from them, are bullied, killed, attacked, fired, not hired, ticketed, and more for being Atheist. Your privilege in avoiding these things allows you to turn a blind eye toward them, and that hurts everyone
    . -Jon Cleland Host

    • No one is denying that. In fact, I believe I acknowledged that these things happen in three separate places in the article above.

      Saying that a group, like White atheists, is privileged, does not deny all of the ways that individual White atheists have suffered. The two truths are not mutually exclusive.

  4. Your daughter’s story is spot on, and so is Denise’s comment about tribalism. People aren’t actually very rational; we’re much more attuned to social dynamics than we are to reason. I agree that it’s helpful to put the persecution of atheists into context. Everyone, white male atheists included, experiences inequality. But identifying with those experiences is disempowering, and it can lead to blaming and defensiveness (as you’re discovering in comments).

    Inequality plays out on this very blog, for example. Ten out of the last ten posts were written by white men, and I know it’s not because women and people of color aren’t thinking about HPism. I still assume the goodwill of the editors and the community, until shown otherwise; together we have work to do.

    Also agree that being exposed to a theistic prayer or song does not count as persecution of atheists. I’m not an atheist, but neither do I feel persecuted by the preponderance of atheistic posts on this blog. When I choose to read them, I try to understand them in context. As long as they’re not explicitly about the inferiority of theistic practice, they’re not about me at all.

    • Anna, as the editor for posts at the Spiritual Naturalist site, I am happy that you “assume the goodwill of the editors.” I would so love it if some writers other than white males would come forward. Your comment shows that you are a thoughtful and articulate writer. If you’re ever interested in posting an article as a guest writer on the SNS website, contact me through the SNS site.

  5. As usual the comments offer as much to consider as the posting itself. That being said I appreciated the perspective. I Have wondered much about the complexities of privilege and persecution. Meaning, we are not just atheist or Christians, male or female, or persons of varied ethnicities, can we say the there is unexamined overlap that fuels the feelings of persecution. Just thoughts and questions here. But I appreciate the attempt to achieve balance so often lacking in our personal musings.

  6. John,

    Very interesting post. In a way, I think you are getting at the problem of “either/or” thinking. If we believe “this” than we’ll feel attacked by “that,” for every this generates a that. Both/and thinking is a little more difficult, but it helps us out of the dualism of having to be against something in order to be for something.

    But compassion is an even better solution. Living from compassion, rather than belief, saves us from having to be a partisan in the struggle between “this” and “that.” We can see people first and foremost as beings struggling in much the same way we are.

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