The United States has always prided herself as a secular society. Consequently, every American citizen has the right to practice any religion or not be compelled to join a religious movement. To a huge extent, secularism in America has yielded enormous positive benefits with religious tolerance being the most notable outcome. Certain biases against various religious identities, notwithstanding, religious tolerance is today an indispensable aspect of the American way of life. Little attention has however been given to the perception and treatment of non-religious or anti-religious groups in the country. Atheism has grown in popularity over the past few years in the united states. At least one in 10 Americans expresses religious doubt or has rejected religious inclination (Shermer). But despite their increasing popularity and significance in the country, atheists are by and large treated with suspicion and subject to many biases. As this paper demonstrates, this is primarily due to the misconceptions associated with this social category.
Arguably, the most fundamental misunderstanding about atheists as an identity group starts with what they believe in and seek to achieve. To many, atheism represents a rebellion against the established religious doctrine and, more crucially, a rejection of God (The Guardian). Such conceptions, however, assume unanimity in the views of atheists and similarity of agenda.
To be sure, there is a diversity of opinion within atheism as in any religious group. The only factor that unites atheists is their rejection of the existence of God or claim that such existence cannot be proven (Crabtree). Beyond these two broad views, atheism is as diverse as any other system of beliefs.
Although developing a neat categorization of atheistic groups is almost invariably a treacherous affair, some scholars have made worthwhile attempts. Implicit atheists refer to those people with no prior exposure to the idea of gods and thus proceed as such while explicit atheism refers to those who understand the concept of God but eventually reject his existence. Gnostic atheists are used to refer to a category of atheists who have examined the philosophical arguments on the existence of God and flatly reject them (Crabtree). Agnostic atheists, on the other hand, refers to those who have not given sustained thought to the idea of God but are generally unpersuaded by prevailing arguments about his existence. In terms of Agenda, militant atheists seek to abolish theistic institutions like Islam and Christianity in favor of a society that believes in no God. Other atheists, typically referred to as humanists, do not seek to upend the status quo. Rather, they seek recognition as individuals who do not believe in a deity (Crabtree).
The mere fact that many atheists do not publicly come out means they are often unaccounted for in most statistical estimates. Given that 69% of Americans report that belief in God is essential, it is likely a significant percentage of the remainder hold some atheistic inclination. Some surveys suggest that up to 26% do not believe in God. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of atheists are between 18-29 years (40%), while the minority are above the age of 65 (9%). Consequently, younger millennials (28%) are more likely to be atheists more than older millennials (21%), generation X (28%), and the baby boomers (18%). In terms of gender, men are nearly two times more likely to be atheists than women (Pew Research Center). The Pew research center also estimates that whites are much more likely to espouse atheism relative to Blacks, Asians, Latinos and racial groups.
The complexity of atheistic groups, however, rarely manifests itself in popular views. To some, atheism represents a heretical departure from established canons and therefore need for this category to undergo remolding. From this perspective, atheists require rehabilitation to abandon their evil ways (Speed, Coleman, and Langston). In more tolerant societies where religious freedom is guaranteed, atheists still face various biases. For instance, the mere fact that atheism is increasingly associated with younger millennials has led to the entire atheist tradition being considered a fancy of young people fascinated with new ideas but who will eventually retrace their footsteps. The result is atheism is not treated as a viable alternative to established religion. Such views, however, fail to appreciate the rich tradition of atheistic thought that is associated with great thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Spinoza.
Yet another common assumption is that atheism is synonymous with a lack of purpose in life. This view is certainly understandable in that the psychological functioning in human beings seeks to create a purpose out of life (Speed, Coleman, and Langston). However, suggesting human beings are wired to create meaning out of life does not mean belief in a deity is the basic purpose creation. To this extent, these assumptions about atheism fail to move beyond a religious worldview. If anything, there is no shortage of basis from which a purpose of life can be conceived. Several studies also suggest that many people tend to associate atheism with immorality (The Guardian). To this extent, atheists tend to be seen as less trustworthy and more of trouble makers in otherwise peaceful social circumstances.
Besides the biases confronted in social encounters, atheists face more practical challenges, particularly in institutionalized settings. In many courts across the world, witnesses often have to invoke a higher power as a means of bolstering their credibility. Even in secular societies like Australia and Britain, secular affirmations have to be taken (McKay). Even in such instances, being a witness and an atheist often implies one gets less credibility. In other words, failure to take a religious oath often means attracting suspicion. For atheists on trial, such biases make them take religious oaths for the sake of retaining their credibility and therefore avoiding unfavorable judgements (McKay). On few occasions, being an atheist may be a bonus particularly where a trial involves parties suspicious of each other’s religious inclination. In such an instance, an atheist serves as an impartial arbiter. Beyond the courtroom, oaths of office also tend to discriminate against atheists. This is mainly because public oaths of office have to be taken in public and therefore a natural disinclination to secular oaths. This is especially the case in America where a subscription to a religious movement is associated with one’s moral values.
A natural consequence is that would-be politicians are likely to conceal their atheism in a bid to win public support. It is therefore not surprising that some of the most famous atheists are in spaces that do not require public approval such as academia. Moving beyond psychological and institutionalized biases against atheists can greatly aid the enjoyment of their fundamental freedoms just like the rest of the citizen population. Doing away with antiquated oaths in the courtroom is a viable starting point.
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