Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Most Despised Minority in America

This is America, and we aren't supposed to hate anyone because they are a minority, are we? Actually, we have been getting better lately with regard to many minorities - but not all. Electing Barack Obama President of our United States is evidence that being black has become a respectable distinction for a significant majority of Americans. 8% of the Members of Congress are Black compared with 13% of the population - getting closer. Having one woman as a vice-presidential candidate and another as a serious presidential contender affirms that being a woman is also considered acceptable, even though only 16% of Congress is female.

Being Hispanic is fairly well accepted with 5% of Congress representing 15% of the population. Being Jewish has actually become distinguished, as 7% of Congress represents the 1% of the population who are Jewish. A Gallup Poll reports that only 4% of Americans have a negative view of Jews compared with 23% who have a negative view of Evangelical Christians.

Are Gays the most despised minority? Their situation is still grim, but it isn't the worst. Because many gays, lesbians, and bisexuals fear divulging their status, various studies indicate that anywhere from 4% to 15% of Americans are LGBT. Three members of Congress are openly gay. That is a vast under-representation, even though more Representatives may not yet have declared themselves.

So who is most despised? One strong candidate for the title "Most Despised Minority in America" is Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and the others who comprise the group unfortunately termed "non-believers." While "non-believer," in this case, refers to a "non-belief" in a super-human deity, it, like other negative terms, automatically carries a stigma, as would "non-white," "non-male," or "non-Christian."

How many "non-believers" are there in America? This question is even harder to answer than how many Gays, because it appears to be socially unacceptable to state that one is an Atheist or Agnostic. Though the estimates vary widely, 10-12% of all Americans and 20-25% of those aged 18-30 identify themselves as "non-believers," depending very heavily on how the question is phrased. When the poll offers three choices, belief in "God," belief in "universal spirit," or belief in neither, the number who don't believe in "God" jumps to over 20%. 20% of Americans is a huge number to be despised. For comparison, the US Census reports that only 13% of Americans are Black, and only 15% Hispanic.

As evidence of the prejudice against freethinkers ("non-believers"), a poll indicates that only 14% believe that America would accept an Atheist President, while 84% believe we would not. There is only one member of Congress, Representative Pete Stark of California, who openly acknowledges not believing in "God." This is not a lot of representation for 10-20% of our population. How many members of Congress are "closet non-believers?" Who knows. Pete Stark has represented a district near San Francisco since 1973, but only in 2007 announced his non-belief. Would others make similar announcements if doing so were not political suicide? One group suggests that 21 members of congress are closet non-theists.

Freethinkers tend to keep a low profile and not join with others who share similar beliefs partly because they are independent-minded people, and partly out of fear of reprisal for openly acknowledging their belief system. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) in the United States, is one of very few that actively work to protect the rights of freethinkers. One of the projects of FFRF is documenting a few of the widespread hateful deeds and words against freethinkers, such as comparing non-belief in a super-human deity to Nazi war crimes or the activities of the Ku Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda.

As more evidence of prejudice, the response when the group tries to display a billboard with the simple message, "Imagine No Religion," is outrage. Billboard companies refuse to rent space, and religious extremists respond with vicious baseless propaganda such as, "Why Do Atheists Hate America?"

Where do we go from here? How long will it be before every American has access to their full rights of citizenship, including free speech, separation of church and state, and proportionate representation?

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