Strategy 2: Building a humanist rights movement
Philip K. Paulson, a humanist who served in the Vietnam War, wrote about his experiences in the September-October 1989 issue of he Humanist magazine, particularly on sharing his atheism to others:
I knew that proclaiming to be an atheist while on duty in South Vietnam could likely prejudice promotions and possibly cause harmful reprisals. An atheist was perceived as tantamount to being a communist. Our army chaplain was a fundamentalist Christian who saw the devil in virtually everything he didn’t believe in. Army chaplains wielded a lot of power; their opinions could make the difference between whether or not you got promoted. So, I was quiet about my nonbelief in God.29
Paulson’s story is common, not just in the military but in everyday job practices—business, teaching, medicine, and so on. In addition to the pressure to keep one’s non-belief private, is actual discrimination against atheists. In one Tennessee school a pagan girl discovered she was the only student in the school to show up the day they held a Christian revival nearby. While she had been private about her pagan identity in the past, she faced such harsh harassment that the family was forced out of town.30 In Bastrop, Louisiana, Damon Fowler was ostracized by his fellow classmates and parents for objecting to a religious prayer planned for his public high school’s gradua- tion.31 In Cranston, Rhode Island, Jessica Ahlquist was called a “stupid atheist” for filing a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union to remove a banner containing a religious prayer that had been hanging in the school since the 1960s.32 And in Hardesty, Oklahoma, Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off her school’s basketball team and nearly driven out of town for refusing to participate in group prayer before games.33 In response, national organizations like the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, and Freedom From Religion Foundation have made it a priority to represent humanists in the courts when they are discriminated against based on their viewpoint. here are clear instances where humanists have been fired from their jobs,34 been passed on promotions,35 seen their taxpayer money support religious schools,36 been forced to listen to inappropriate religious proselytizing in public settings,37 and many others. It is clear that what is happening is a drive toward a humanist rights movement.
Furthermore, one area where change is overdue is in the nation’s court system as it pertains to the rights of the non-theists’ growing minority. Humanists are held captive to the will of Christian conservatives who emphasize their superior position by using the power of government to enforce laws that put truth claims about religion in front of us at every turn. Humanists must endure statements about the nation’s trust in a fictional god on money,38 on public buildings, and in ceremonies for public office—from census worker to president. Children and grandchildren have to hear a statement that excludes them and their family every day at school, and they are asked to stand and recite the statement along with the majority.39 Humanists have to watch on as neighbors go unpunished for child abuse because they claim a religious exemption to certain laws.40 And such exemptions may also apply to vaccinations that leave all children more vulnerable to disease.41 It is critical for national humanist organizations to lead the fight against atheist discrimination and protect religious freedom in the United States. In addition, humanists and atheists must recognize discrimination when it happens and speak out.