I have self-identified as an atheist since I was about 11 years old. I simply decided, after months of deep introspection, meditation, reading, and even prayer, that there was no God. I haven’t always been open about my atheism, and for a long time, lived in fear of the social consequences for my honesty (specifically because my atheism is congruent with Satanism, by which I also identify my beliefs). The reason for this is simply that I realized very early on in my life that atheism isn’t popular, and is frequently looked down upon in this society — a society scheduled entirely around the Christian calendar of religiously significant events, in which we are taught that human history is either “BC” (i.e., before Christ) or “AD” (i.e., Anno Domini, or, In the year of our Lord). To openly identify as atheist in this society is to take the risk of marginalizing oneself from the mainstream. And in this society, that’s really one of the only risks we take by identifying as atheist.
My Personal Frustration and the Christian Calendar
For instance, the academic field of anthropology recognized at some point in the past 100 years, that using BC/AD to give chronology to various cultures across the globe and through time is ethnocentric. It has since adopted the abbreviations BCE (i.e., Before the Common Era) and CE (i.e., Common Era), and these abbreviations are used in many academic traditions. While I am certain that anthropology is not the origin of these abbreviations, it is the context in which they were first introduced to me. By that time, I had become fully vocalized as an atheist, and a short time later, as a Satanist as well.
Prior to learning this, I had personally taken a stand — ten years ago — against organizing my life around a Christian calendar. I stopped taking part in Christian holidays with my family and friends. If someone wanted to spend time with me, it could happen any other day of the year. Over time, I stopped signalling with a smile and a thank you, that I was complicit with everyone operating on the assumption that everyone else was celebrating Christian holidays. More recently on Facebook, I have consistently and publicly vocalized for at least three years, that I don’t wish everyone a merry happy season’s holidays greetings Christmas, and want to be left out of this tradition by everyone as well. This year, as in the past two years, just one person violated this wish, by including my cell phone number in an impersonal mass message about the Christian holiday. Just like last year, it was someone who hadn’t spoken to me in months. And just like last year, when I told them that I had asked that they respect me as an atheist by not including me in this gesture, they started trying to fight and guilt-trip me over it, and I quickly ensured that future contact is terminated.
When Things Get Really Bad For Some Atheists
What I don’t do, even despite these experiences, is claim that atheists are oppressed in North America. I know other people have had it worse. I know that, for instance, some middle-class families have paid up to $30,000 a year to have their self-declared atheist children abducted and confined in prison-like institutions where former military personnel are hired to keep them in line while they are religiously indoctrinated. That’s a terrible thing to happen to a child — a decision that I have little doubt, came with a high cost to the integrity of the family in many of these cases. But let’s not downplay the fact that the ex-military, who are hired to do what is glorified babysitting for these middle class families, are being exploited as well. Unfortunately, many atheists do downplay the exploitation of these ex-military staff. They want to see anyone who is a part of the cycle of this terrible treatment of some atheist youth as the Evil Other, whose motivations and actions are oppressive forces against atheists. They need to see it that way, so that they can continue whining about the alleged oppression of atheists as a class of people. Then they can win the whole internets in any argument against a religious person.
What these experiences are talking about is essentially a boarding school. Any youth who comes from a home with multiple flat-screen televisions, computers, laptops, e-readers, video game consoles, and full cable/satellite television is very likely going to be traumatized by suddenly being plucked from their home and put in a boarding school for two to five years. This is the same as what would happen to the emotional constitution of anyone who had jacked a car or got caught selling drugs, and had been sent to prison for the same period of time. Or anyone who had been given an ultimatum by their family and friends in an intervention over their struggle with an addiction — “go to this rehab centre or we don’t care what happens to you any more.” Or for anyone whose family had lost everything in a house fire, or whose family had to sell everything they own to pay for hospital bills when one of their loved ones had fallen ill without health insurance. These are all terrible things, but these alone are not what the experience of oppression is characterized by.
Atheist youth are bullied in school too. And while that’s not right, it’s not evidence that atheists are an oppressed class. Bullying spares no targets, and I was bullied in school for being of the female sex, for violating norms of gender and sexuality, and for failing to fulfill North American beauty standards. My failure to hide that I wasn’t middle class certainly didn’t help me, and I didn’t have a very thick skin to handle all the hatred that was projected onto me. I also didn’t feel safe at home because of everything that was happening to me there, and as a result, I didn’t have anywhere to turn to except into myself — and given what I had internalized about how bad my gender identity and sexuality were, the last thing I needed was time alone with my thoughts. My feelings were hurt a lot at school, and the sense of alienation I felt drove me to unfathomable depths of despair and anger. I was often threatened with violence by my classmates, and sometimes people made good on those threats.
What I’m getting at here is, I can relate to being bullied. What I can’t relate to, is claiming that because a few atheists have been bullied in schools, then it follows that atheists are an oppressed class. The bullying I experienced largely stopped when I graduated from high school and was no longer locked up with 3,000 insecure shitheads for 8 hours a day. My experience of oppression, however, did not stop when I graduated from high school. Only in the years since I was awarded my diploma, have I begun to learn entire histories that I had been deprived of in public school, because the multiple oppressed groups of which I am a member aren’t even visible to the departments of education in my country. Our histories aren’t in our school libraries – in fact, I would be surprised if they were even fairly represented in the public libraries. It took work to find these histories. Lots of work. Years of it. This is in large part due to a systematic, institutionalized deprivation of literacy and education acting against these voices throughout history, and what few voices overcame these barriers faced censorship until fairly recently.
Some Atheists Have Been Systematically Suppressed Too
This is something I will not deny. Events like the sentencing of Socrates and Galileo are important examples of persecution faced by individuals who denounced the existence of God. However — and this is a big distinction — despite the marginalization of atheism into the present day, a remarkable number of atheists have enjoyed enormous success, fulfilling careers, and due credit for their contributions to society. A few have even recently held political office in the United States and Canada. Just google atheist celebrities for an idea of who I’m talking about. Their work is available in school libraries and public libraries in abundance, and is part of prescribed curriculum for studies of all sorts across the continent. That list continues to grow, while the multiple oppressed groups of which I am a member continue to fight for the right to be legally acknowledged as persons without compromising on the distinguishing feature of their collective identity, for the right to marry, for the right to healthcare, and for the right to observe their culture. Some of us are even fighting simply for the right to eat or be referred to by the correct name (in life or in death). To find and maintain gainful employment. To live at all, let alone authentically. To love and be loved.
While atheists in North America presently enjoy the luxury of building communities that span across the continent, North American communities for many of the groups with which I identify are still very fragmented, and struggling — often against one another — to create linguistic tools and safe spaces to put a stop to in-group oppression. All the while, we continue to be badgered, silenced, harassed, censored, beaten, objectified, exploited, and murdered by out-groups. We also continue to be indoctrinated back into becoming our own worst enemies by the dominant culture. Daily. This isn’t to suggest that atheists can all hold hands, work together peacefully, and yarn-bomb trees with fluorescent neon in the middle of the night for shits and giggles. Atheism crosses borders of gender, race, sexual orientation, cultural background, socioeconomic class, education, politics, languages, and so on. And those dynamics generate inequality within atheist communities just like anywhere else.
The Danger of Calling N. American Atheists an Oppressed Class
Belief that there is no God isn’t a crime, an addiction, or a sign of ill health in North America. And like the justice system, house fires, addiction, and ill health don’t selectively target atheists on this continent. Neither does censorship or deprivation of literacy, education, basic resources, gainful employment, adequate representation in mass media and literature, or political office. These things aren’t happening to all atheists here, either — those who are sent to boarding schools are from families who possess a) enough money to pay for it, and b) the conviction that forcing their child into a boarding school to be religiously indoctrinated is more ethical than allowing them the intellectual freedom to explore their own ideas. Those who are bullied for being atheist are often living in religiously saturated communities. Not all atheists are bullied during or after high school, due in part or in whole to a lack of faith.
I could go on, but I don’t see the point in it after all the analysis I’ve already provided. The problem of identifying North American atheists as an oppressed class is that this compares their collective suffering to the treatment of the colonized, trafficked, enslaved, and subordinated classes who presently occupy the same continent. This is horribly insensitive and ignorant. It also minimizes the collective experiences and histories of people who actually face daily oppression due to the manner in which North American society is constructed. These groups need empathy and reconciliation, not invalidation. This is not accomplished by using the word oppression to describe what is just marginalization — while marginalization is both a cause and effect of oppression, it is not the sole defining quality of oppressed experience.