A few days ago, Joe Soucheray of Saint Paul’s Pioneer Press wrote an opinion piece that I took exception to. An area minor league and much loved baseball team known as the Saint Paul Saints carries out promotions in association with most (all?) of their games, to support organizations’ fundarising efforts or to promote their own brand. A few months ago, Minnesota Atheists carried out a billboard campaign which was noticed by the Saints, who then approached the Minnesota Atheists about doing a game with them. This was heartily agreed to, as it would be great fun, and could actually help with some fundraising. As part of the game day, the Saint Paul Saints would change their name to the Mr. Paul Aints, perhaps serve Flying Spagetti Monster pasta in addition to hot dogs (I don’t know if that plan developed; you’ll find out if you go to the game!) and so on. Also, Minnesota Atheists, seeing this as an opportunity for a large get-together, promptly organized a regional conference of American Atheists to occur the day after game day, and the President of American Atheists will be on hand at the game to throw out the first pitch.
As one might expect, there was some push back. The push back that normally happens when Atheists get noticed has two components. First, religious people who believe that one must be religious to be good become upset. They are upset simply because there are Atheists. That happens either because people haven’t thought about Atheism or belief in general…they were raised in a religious setting and that is mostly what they know…or because they have literally been trained by their religious upbringing to view Atheism as a form of bad, perhaps even evil. Second, a smaller subset of these folks speak out, and say things that demean those individuals who have decided that they are non-believers. Comments made by these folks tend to range from somewhat offensive to very offensive to the non-believers. The key element here is this: The comments that are made are exclusionary or denigrating, and if the same comments were edited to remove “Atheists” and replace that term with “Jews” or “Muslims” or “Democrats” or “Union members” or any other group, said comments would instantly be recognized as wrong. And then, even if someone has these thoughts, they would know better than to say them out loud.
Atheists deal with this sort of thing all the time. “Closeted” Athesits…people who are non-believers but who live among believers, among their family or in their workplace, but don’t tell people about their non-belief…keep quiet about their Atheism for fear of being seen as bad people, and to avoid causing friends, relatives, and co-workers to take the trouble of praying for them or dropping occasional hints about how religion is better. This problem is often exacerbated when a person has co-workers, friends, etc. who make constant reference to their own religiosity. “I’m blessed” and “Praise Jesus” and “God Willing” and the like are often innocuous aphorisms, but sometimes they are overt markers of religiosity that comes part and parcel with Evangelical practice.
Studies have shown that Atheists are among the most hated people in America. When asked “would you trust a Jew/Catholic/Muslim/Atheist to be President” or to have some other position of responsibility, most people are OK, or at least semi-OK, having a religious person of a belief different than their own in charge, but a large majority of people balk at having an Atheist in charge, in a position of responsibility, or even, in their own families. There is an irony to this. Many “non-believers” are simply people who are not religious and do not believe in god, but many are active in their non-belief. It is true (and this is debatable but certainly partly true) that many positive social and cultural values come to people through their religion and are reinforced by attendance to church, temple, or mosque, and through the teachings of their religion. But it is not true that being a good person and knowing what is right and what is wrong only comes from a religious upbringing and participation in religion. Many Atheists spend a considerable effort learning, debating, and discussing moral and ethical issues, and go out of their way to do good works. Many Atheists are intentionally good people, while some (I dare not guess how many) religious people assume they are good because they have religion, not because they think about what they are doing. So, in short, active Atheists are good (as are many religious people, of course) but are often assumed to be bad.
This is annoying, and it is also wrong. It is as wrong as sexism and racism and any other kinds of -ism.
Having said that, having recognized that Atheists are in fact among the most denigrated groups in America, I want to quickly add that Atheists fully recognize that Atheism is a special category of The Repressed. Atheists do not walk around with physical markers telling everyone that they are Atheists, unless they want to wear a shirt with a big red A on it (and many do). Often, when an African American person walks into a store, the clerks keep an eye on him or her, following the individual around to make sure they don’t take anything. A group of Hispanic or African American 20-something year olds hanging around in the evening on a corner in the city may get shaken down by the local law enforcement officers, their ID’s checked to make sure they are not out past some youth curfew. Jews face real antisemitism and live with a legacy of the Holocaust. Muslims in America face constant hatred because of anti-Islamic attitudes fueled by a culture of fear. Women are constantly being treated…well, as women are treated in a misogynist society. Atheists, as Atheists, simply blend in unless they don’t want to. Atheists pass. If a middle aged white male Atheist walks into a store, the clerk checks to see if he needs help with anything.
Atheists know that we are by and large the privileged repressed and we are realistic and understanding of that situation. But, when overt anti-Atheism appears in a place where it really should not, such as in a piece written by a professional journalist in the opinion section of the local newspaper managed by professional editors, we tend to say something about it. Thus, this letter:
Don’t get mad at Joe Soucheray for this. He was just doing what a lot of people do. Everyone can learn and I’m sure he will be more thoughtful in the future. If I meet Joe at the Saint’s stadium on August 10th, I’ll buy him a plate of pasta.
And, if you want an idea of what the serious business of playing baseball in Saint Paul is all about, have a look at this religious sacrament hosted a while back by the Saint Paul Saints:
Hmmm… Well, see you at the game!