Many atheists, myself included, are offended by what we view as unwarranted antagonism toward atheists. I’ve participated in a number of debates on topics like “Can we be moral without a belief in God?” In these debates, I try to change stereotypical opinions that atheists are inherently immoral and untrustworthy. It’s sad that debates like this even take place in the twenty-first century. It would be unthinkable to see a debate in this country on “Can a Jew be moral?” or “Can a Catholic be moral?”
For decades, Gallup has asked people if they would vote for a generally well-qualified person for president who happens to be Catholic, black, Jew, atheist, woman, Mormon, Muslim, or gay. While our country is becoming more tolerant toward all these groups, atheists remain consistently at the bottom of the approval list. The good news is that “only” 43 percent of those polled in 2012 said they would vote against an atheist, the first time the percentage has fallen below 50 percent.
We are fortunate that our secular Constitution makes no mention of any gods and guarantees freedom of religion.. Nevertheless, many politicians fail to understand that religious freedom includes the freedom not to believe. Why else would Joe Lieberman, who in 2,000 became the first Jewish vice presidential candidate on a major ticket, have the chutzpah to say during his campaign, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
But enough complaining. The political climate for atheists has improved, and will continue to improve. There will come a day when an open atheist can be elected president. Some might say that atheists are “blessed” to be living in the United States rather than in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. What these countries have in common is that atheists can face the death penalty for their critical thinking. Other Islamic countries, including Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Turkey, have also stepped up prosecution for “blasphemy” and for any criticism of religion. Some countries even ban atheism, and force their people to officially adopt a faith.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) recently highlighted the criminalization of atheism in many parts of the world. In a document submitted to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, the IHEU pointed out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties protect the freedom of conscience for everyone, including the right to reject any religion or belief and the right to openly criticize religion.
Many Muslims, both here and abroad, worry about a rising tide of “Islamophobia.” However, the cure some have proposed is far worse than the disease. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) would like to see Western countries criminalize the denigration of religion. The head of this 21-country Arab League told the U.N. Security Council that the OIC will propose a binding international framework to ensure “that religious faith and its symbols are respected.”
Some of the countries in the OIC fail to see the hypocrisy of prohibiting the denigration of any religion while at the same time sanctioning the death penalty for atheists who live responsibly and peacefully without religion. Perhaps that’s their version of freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.
Political leaders in every country, including the United States, must understand that we can’t have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. We either have freedom of conscience and belief or we don’t. And our godless U.S. Constitution says we do.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.