Student discusses atheism and the role of secularism in government

When President Obama formally announced his support for gay marriage, it seemed as if the culmination of the LGBT movement had arrived after decades of struggle—finally and rightfully, the leader of the nation had taken the side of this long-oppressed minority. But another long-oppressed minority has yet to experience a political and social awakening akin to those of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual groups: atheists.

Burnt in the fires of the Inquisition, condemned to die in Hitler’s Germany, atheists still face discrimination in the United States; in fact, seven states—Arkansas, Maryland, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina—ban atheists from holding public office in their state constitutions, apparently in direct contradiction to the First Amendment. However, I am of the opinion that atheists should have a spring of their own, blossoming into an important voting bloc that can challenge the encroachments of the more traditionally religious on religious freedom.

Atheists constitute a silent minority—and a rapidly expanding one at that. Atheism is commonly recognized as the fastest-growing religious affiliation—or lack thereof—in American society. In most polls, atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers number around 13 percent. In sheer numbers, they outnumber important minority groups such as blacks and Jews. However, while the 111th Congress contains 8.4 percent Jewish and 9.5 percent black members, it only has one open atheist, Pete Stark, who is the only atheist ever elected to national office in American history.

I am not advocating that minority groups such as blacks and Jews should have less representation; on the contrary, I believe minorities should have more. However, atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers, who comprise 13 percent of the population, should simply have more than 0.2 percent of the Congress. These silent minorities can form a voting bloc capable of reversing the religious attack on secularism.

Not only do atheists have the ability to gain political power, they also can lend their voices to the advocacy of worthy causes such as keeping scientific evolution in the classroom and keeping religion out of secular government. Since the rise of the New Right and the new-found prominence of evangelical Christians within the Republican Party, Christian groups have engaged in a long campaign of projecting their morals and beliefs upon what should be secular government, as attacks on evolution in the classroom, abortion and gay rights attest. Indeed, some religious advocates have even dabbled in historical revisionism in the preposterous claim that the Founding Fathers, who were mainly deists, intended America to be a Christian nation. While atheists and agnostics should not impose their beliefs on anyone else, they can work with other people, both religious and non-religious, who believe that there should be a clear barrier between church and state. If we as society truly believe that American citizens should not be compelled to follow a certain belief system, it is absolutely necessary to separate government and religion.

In this noble endeavor, atheists, agnostics and non-believers can lend a helping hand, serving as a lighthouse that guides the ship of American religious freedom away from the rocky shore of religious encroachment.