Believers can be discriminated 
against, too, you know


Iread John E. Citrone's well-written "Godless in the Bible Belt" [Cover Story, April 23] with a great deal of sympathy. It is not easy to hold views that you think most of those around you oppose, or to have people in authority disparage your beliefs — much less those of your child. It's outrageous to think that some states had laws against atheists holding office. If those statutes are still on the books, I cannot imagine that they wouldn't be tossed out by the Supreme Court if challenged — as they certainly should be. (Want to start a petition? I'm game.) Like Mr. Citrone, I oppose all religious discrimination, which includes discrimination against atheists. I also oppose the teaching of dubious science in schools (as, incidentally, do most mainstream churches, which have joined lawsuits opposing the teaching of creationism as a scientific theory).

The article brought to mind some of my own experiences with religious prejudice, which differ from Mr. Citrone's in one minor aspect — most of the discrimination I've seen was done by atheists instead of to them. (Let me clarify here that by "atheist," I do not mean simple unbelief, but rather that variety which believes religion to be harmful.) Since I am an academic, I have noticed such discrimination most often in universities. (Not the one I work for now; please don't fire me.) On one occasion, the faculty talked openly about not hiring the front-running candidate because she let slip — at a party — that she was a Christian. On another occasion, when I proposed setting up a course on psychology and religion (a topic with an enormous body of empirical research), a special university commission was appointed to investigate. The members admitted that no such commission had ever been appointed for any other proposed course (and had the grace to look embarrassed). So far as I know, no other proposed class was ever subjected to such scrutiny again. As an undergraduate, I had a number of professors who made anti-Christian and pro-atheist remarks in class. Indeed, research shows that vocal undergraduate Christians may face discrimination by faculty.

Mr. Citrone was especially concerned about misinformation taught in schools. So am I. Among many counterfactual narratives, I have found three to be routinely taught. (A lot of what we "know" just ain't so.) As an undergraduate, I was taught that religion is psychologically harmful, and associated with pathology. In high school and even middle school, I was taught that religion suppressed classical learning to make the Dark Ages dim and ferociously fought the Scientific Revolution. Also, I was taught Christianity was responsible for most of "the horrors of history," such as slavery and the mistreatment of native populations, and that Europeans gave the natives religion to make them docile. Actually, considerable evidence exists that each of those canards has it almost exactly backwards.

Active religious involvement is associated with superior mental health (also physical health and a number of other desirable characteristics). Christian institutions preserved classical writings after the barbarian invasions, and actively supported the Scientific Revolution. Such institutions opposed slavery and the mistreatment of native populations; the slavers tried to keep missionaries away from Africa and the Bible away from their "property." (For good reason: Christians played a major role in the abolition of slavery.) Incidentally, most of the Enlightenment figures supported slavery, and some, like Voltaire, invested in the trade.

The Galileo affair is often presented in classes as typical of religious interference with science. Actually, it was an aberration in many ways. (Galileo refused to clarify that he wasn't speaking as a theologian, and he called the pope "Simplico" in a book; he wasn't executed or tortured but rather kept under house arrest, and he continued to publish.) The case was not taken as a warning by other astronomers of the time, who didn't stop their research. Though the isolated Galileo incident is often cited, the systematic suppression of entire lines of scientific inquiry by the antireligious Nazi and Soviet regimes is rarely mentioned. It would disrupt the Church-versus-science story.

Mr. Citrone's article says that, historically, atheists have not been treated kindly by the church. This has sometimes been true, and must be condemned by Christians. (So, too, the boneheaded remarks of Alabama Gov. Bentley, which were certainly not in the spirit of Christ.) But then, believers haven't been treated kindly when atheists have been in power. When anti-religious forces came to power in the French revolution's Reign of Terror, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and Pol Pot's Cambodia, heads rolled and blood flowed.

Today? The typical Christian today lives in a third-world country and is persecuted. In the United States, churches are often targets of arson, shootings and bombings. The popular media often presents Christians in an unfavorable light. (Do your own experiment. As you watch TV or movies, make a note each time a religious character appears, and put a plus sign if the character is presented favorably, or a minus sign if presented negatively. Look at the ratio.)

How tolerant are atheist leaders? Well … Michael Onfray, "France's high priest of militant atheism," according to The Wall Street Journal, said that atheism "can no longer tolerate neutrality and benevolence" in its battle against religion. Atheist writer Sam Harris says people who take their children to church are guilty of a "ludicrous obscenity"; Richard Dawkins says those who believe in "god" are delusional and implies that teaching children religion is worse than molesting them sexually (not claims that can be supported by research). Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have already made noises about preventing parents from raising their children as religious.

Now, sure, it's far better to elect an honest atheist than a hypocritical cynic claiming to be religious. But given the history of atheists in power, and the remarks of some leading atheists, you can see where voters might be a little skittish.

Mr. Citrone believes religion is declining, and that it is a good thing. I am somewhat skeptical concerning the first point, as numbers and percentages have fluctuated wildly over the centuries; many secular trends announcing themselves as the Wave of the Future have quietly sloshed into the past. But, insofar as religion really is declining, the reasons may not be reassuring. Believers tend to be somewhat more educated than the general public, not less. Going through a scientific education does not reduce belief. Scientists are no less likely to be believers than the general public. It seems unlikely that education is responsible for any decline in religious involvement. So what is? One possibility is the greater number of broken families. Atheism is more common among children of divorce, those raised with much family strife, and children from abusive homes. It's also possible that electronic distractions leave little time to contemplate the meaning of life.

But it's the second point which deserves more attention. Would it really be a good thing if regular churchgoing declined? Those who are religiously active tend to give more to charity and be more law-abiding than others; are we sure we want to be rid of them? They're also less likely to believe in flying saucers, Big Foot, ghosts, etc.; is it possible the decline of religion would be marked by the rise of pseudoscience? A Gallup poll suggests that those who are very active in their religion are more tolerant of different viewpoints than the uninvolved or superficially involved. If more people drop out of church, it's entirely possible intolerance may increase. Anti-Semitism increased in Germany as church attendance declined.

Of course, some, like Mr. Citrone, might attribute anti-gay bias to Christian teachings. And it's true that many who are opposed to gay rights cite the Bible. But they usually cite it incorrectly. Despite claims of angry letter-writers, no saying of Christ condemns homosexuality. Though Sodom stands for homosexuality in the popular mind, the prophet Ezekiel says the city was destroyed because the rich neglected the poor. People are not anti-gay because they read the Bible; they distort what the Bible says (if they read it at all) because they are anti-gay. Getting rid of religion would change the rationale but not the bias.

None of this invalidates in any way Mr. Citrone's concerns. On the contrary, it suggests that they need to be broadened to embrace those of other viewpoints. We should take greater care that the information given in our schools is fact-based and as viewpoint-balanced as possible. And we need to constantly guard against discrimination against those who hold different beliefs. Even if those beliefs are called religious.

The author is a psychologist and academic, and the author of Hidden History of St. Augustine.

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