Last week, we took brief pause at a report that the Tea Party was “even less popular than much-maligned groups like atheists and Muslims.” It’s nice to know that those of us who profess no religion are still beating those who profess religion loudly at school board meetings, but man—Muslims? They’re holding Congressional hearings about those guys. Then, on Sunday, as I was resting, Smick sent me this blog post about plans to compile a national registry of atheists. The unattributed “they”—”they are comparing atheists to child molesters” and “they want a list of all the atheists in their area”—is the kind of ace reporting that has made the reputation of the Daily Kos. “They” turn out to be various Christians on internet message boards, but the phenomenon is still troubling. They are the same people who published George Tiller’s home address, after all. Putting aside the betting line on a list-making and planning war between evangelical Christians and atheists in this country, I think it’s time to address a salient question: do we get minority status now?
You know you want it. When I saw the Daily Kos post, I personally was kind of disappointed that the atheist-hunters weren’t more organized. Like most people who have enjoyed enormous social privilege their entire lives, I always thought it was kind of unfair that I never got to be a type of victim. This view was neatly encapsulated for me at a party, once, where a young lady opined to me that atheists were the most discriminated-against minority in the United States. “Have you heard about black people?” I said.* This is why I don’t date a lot, but the point is that I am suspicious of the urge to make atheists into a suffering minority. It coincides too neatly with the impulse among educated white people to make victims of themselves.
But then there are the polls. Historically, Americans are famously reluctant to vote for an atheist President, and as of June they would rather vote for a Muslim. As always with polls, “Americans” means land line owners who responded positively to the question would you like to participate in a poll?—so basically old people. But to know you are trailing a hypothetical Muslim by one point even among the elderly is a bummer. Bummer, too, is the 2006 University of Minnesota poll that found atheists to be the most distrusted minority in American society. “Atheists,” says the study’s lead researcher, “who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years.”
I reiterate, though: polls. There are two components of victim-of-prejudice status, and only one of them is what everybody thinks of you. The last twenty years of polls say that everyone loves black people, but they’re still incarcerated at a ten-to-one ratio to whites. Here it is instructive to look at income distribution. Members of historically black churches—who are, historically, black—are substantially poorer than the national average. By comparison, the distribution of incomes among “unaffiliated”—an admittedly problematic category that likely includes people who believe in god but don’t go to church—is very near the national distribution. In fact, it’s closer than that of any other religion. At least along the broad indicator of how much money you get, atheists do not seem to be suffering the effect of institutionalized prejudice.
There’s an old joke: Which is harder in America—being black or being gay? Gay, because if you’re black you don’t have to tell your parents. On the other hand, you don’t have to tell cab drivers and human resources interviewers, either. This brings us to another aspect of institutionalized prejudice, visibility. For the same reason that “unaffiliated” is a tricky category, atheists can turn off their status in a way that members of many other groups cannot. That often involves denial of personal beliefs and other affronts to dignity that no one should be made to suffer, but still: no atheist ever got pulled over and asked what he was doing in this part of town. If you want people to leave you alone and keep assuming that every decent person believes in god, don’t tell them that you don’t believe in god.
Is that gross and maybe dishonest? Definitely, but it does not a victim make. Having fed all these factors into my Big-O-Tron 5000 prejudice computer, I conclude that atheists have it worse than Mormons but better than Jews. If you don’t believe me, try it out: the next time you’re at a party, tell everyone about Jesus’s apparition to the American Indians and see how they respond. Then tell everyone you learned about it producing the Joseph Smith story for Miramax. Then stop talking. I think you’ll find one strategy gets you treated best.