discriminating against

Discrimination against atheists

Discrimination against atheists is a negative categorical bias against atheists. Such prejudice and discrimination is a type of religious intolerance. In nations where freedom of belief is biased towards established religions, the issue becomes persecution of atheists. The Out Campaign and Brights movement are efforts to counter the feelings of discrimination and raise a positive public awareness about atheism and naturalism.

Current issues


In modern Britain, the monarch must be a member of the Church of England, as he or she is the nominal head of this religion.


Even though religious freedom is guaranteed by the Danish constitution, the same constitution requires the monarch to be a member of the state church.


Egypt introduced new identity cards in 2004 which identifies each citizen of Egypt as one of three religions: Muslim, Christian or Jewish. No other entries are possible, nor is it possible to leave the space for religion blank. If atheists are unwilling to lie about their religion, they are denied many basic human rights. Egyptian atheists cannot obtain birth certificates, death certificates, marriage or divorce certificates or passports. Without identity cards they have no access to medical treatment, cannot vote, cannot be employed, cannot do business with banks, not even to withdraw money from their own bank accounts.

This treatment is a requirement of Sharia law, which is the basis of the Egyptian constitution.


Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, yet the state collects a church tax ("Kirchensteuer") from all registered members of the Protestant and Catholic faiths. De-registering oneself costs up to €50, depending on the federal state (as of 2000, has increased in the meantime). Payment is not required when switching between the two "taxed" faiths. This fee is also required if the person who wants to leave the church doesn't have any personal income (such as a dependant), in cases of someone who is 14 (the legal age in Germany at which a person can choose his religion without the parent's consent), or in cases of someone who is unemployed. In an article in a German atheist magazine, a telephone conversation with a German civil servant about this is reported. When he was asked how the fee was compatible to the Grundgesetz (the constitution of Germany, that includes religious freedom in §4), the civil servant replied: "It's just the way that this case has not been considered by the legislator".


In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Norwegian parents who had sued the Norwegian state. The case was about a subject in compulsory school, kristendomskunnskap med religions- og livssynsorientering (Teachings of Christianity with orientation about religion and philosophy), KRL. The applicants complained that the refusal to grant full exemption from KRL prevented them from ensuring that their children received an education in conformity with their atheist views and philosophical convictions. A few years earlier, in 2004, the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva had given its support to the parents.


In Sweden, generally considered one of the most secularized countries in the world, there exist laws that could be considered discriminatory towards atheists:

  • According to the law, the King of Sweden must be a Christian. This is seen as an endorsement of Christianity by many atheists.
  • There is a special law that regulates the church and its affairs.
  • In many public schools, the commencement after each semester is held in a church and a priest delivers a sermon. Sometimes schools go to church to celebrate holidays. When atheists have objected to this "tradition", politicians have defended it. On 26 October 2006, the Swedish minister of schools, Jan Björklund, stated that "We should not have any general rules in Sweden that you may not continue to have school commencements or ceremonies in a church any longer. There will definitely be no change on that issue.
  • In October 2006, the Swedish Humanists filed a complaint to the ombudsmen of parliament and The Chancellor of Justice about sermons arranged by the parliament because, the Humanists claimed, it was contrary to secularization, and thus discriminating against non-Christians, including atheists. Both the ombudsmen and the chancellor concluded that they had no jurisdiction over the issue and chose not to comment further on the case. Thus, these sermons will continue.
  • There is special funding to religious NGOs, "trossamfund", Lag (1998:1593) om trossamfund. According to Swedish law, in order to register a trossamfund one must organize divine services. Thus secular and/or atheist organisations who fill the same purpose as religious groups are discriminated from this funding. There is no equivalent funding for secular groups

United States

In the United States, there is widespread disapproval of atheists. As a result, there has only been one openly atheist member of Congress in history; Pete Stark. According to, 52 percent of Americans claim they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist for president. More recently a 2007 Gallup poll produced nearly identical results. A 2006 study at the University of Minnesota showed atheists to be the most distrusted minority among Americans. In the study, sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann conducted a survey of American public opinion on attitudes towards different groups. Forty percent of respondents characterized atheists as a group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society", putting atheists well ahead of every other group, with the next highest being Muslims (26 percent) and homosexuals (23 percent). When participants were asked whether they agreed with the statement, "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group," atheists again led minorities, with 48 percent disapproval, followed by Muslims (34 percent) and African-Americans (27 percent). Joe Foley, co-chairman for Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists, commented on the results, "I know atheists aren't studied that much as a sociological group, but I guess atheists are one of the last groups remaining that it's still socially acceptable to hate. Nevertheless, atheists are legally protected from discrimination in the United States. They have been among the strongest advocates of the legal separation of church and state.

Many additional rights and exemptions from legal requirements are granted based on religious grounds. For example, Pennsylvania homeschooling laws, where the State's legal requirements can be waived based on religious (but not secular) beliefs.

Oath of Office and Testifying in Court

Although it has become tradition for US presidents to end their Presidential Oath with "so help me God", this is not required by the Constitution. However, the Vice President, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the members of the Cabinet, and all other civil and military officers and federal employees other than the President are required to take an oath ending with "so help me God."

Similarly, witnesses sworn in at Court are typically asked, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you, God?" Though again, non-theists are free to opt for Affirmation over swearing to God. Those who choose to affirm are asked, "You do affirm that all the testimony you are about to give in the case now before the court will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; this you do affirm under the pains and penalties of perjury?"

Rob Sherman controversy

At a Chicago press conference during the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign George H. W. Bush, at the time a Republican candidate for the presidency, is alleged to have said, “I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic,” according to Rob Sherman of the American Atheist Magazine. When asked specifically about his opinion on the separation of church and state, Bush was reported to have replied: “I support separation of church and state. I'm just not very high on atheists”. This story has been taken up by several atheist groups. With these statements, Bush senior is "believed to have uttered one of the most famous quotes about atheists in American society. However, the statements have been impossible to verify. The only source for it is Rob Sherman himself.

Kevin Drum from the Washington Monthly comes to the conclusion that "apparently it's correct that no other reporters have ever corroborated the exchange" of Bush with Sherman.

Sherman has pointed to an exchange between Jon Garth Murray, then President of American Atheists, and White House Counsel C Boyden Gray in 1989 over the said comments which Sherman believes corroborates his version of events. In the exchange, Gray noted that "the President is a religious man who neither supports atheism nor believes that atheism should be unnecessarily encouraged or supported by the government." Sherman's explanation of this is that "If [Mr Gray's] client, Mr Bush, had not made those statements to me, Mr Gray would have denied that they were said rather than trying to justify the statements. If Mr Bush wanted to distance himself from the statements, Mr. Gray could have tried to create doubt about whether Mr. Bush had made the statements".

Court cases

In the 1994 case Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote in the opinion for the Court that: "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion". Everson v. Board of Education established that "neither a state nor the Federal Government can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another". This applies the Establishment Clause to the states as well as the federal government. However, several state constitutions make the protection of persons from religious discrimination conditional on their acknowledgment of the existence of a deity, making freedom of religion in those states inapplicable to atheists. These state constitutional clauses have not been tested. Civil rights cases are typically brought in federal courts, so such state provisions are mainly of symbolic importance.

In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, after atheist Michael Newdow challenged the phrase "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the phrase unconstitutional. Although the decision was stayed pending the outcome of an appeal, there was the prospect that the pledge would cease to be legally usable without modification in schools in the western United States, over which the Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction. This resulted in political furor, and both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the decision, unanimously.. On June 26, a Republican-dominated group of 100-150 congressmen stood outside the capital and recited the pledge, showing how much they disagreed with the decision. The Supreme Court subsequently reversed the decision, ruling that Newdow did not have standing to bring his case, thus disposing of the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the pledge.

Several private organizations, the most notable being the Boy Scouts of America, do not allow atheist members. However, this policy has come under fire by organizations who assert that the Boy Scouts of America do benefit from taxpayer money and thus cannot be called a truly private organization, and thus must admit atheists (along with homosexuals, and others currently barred from membership). An organization called Scouting for All, founded by Eagle Scout Steven Cozza, is at the forefront of the movement to expose perceived hypocrisy on the part of the Boy Scouts of America. Cozza and others allege that when the BSA wants to discriminate, they act as a private organization; when they want money or the use of publicly-funded buildings, venues, or property, they act as a public organization.

State constitutions

Some state constitutions in the US require a religious test as a qualification for holding public office or being a witness, though a unanimous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins held that the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution override the state requirements. The states which still have religious tests on the books include:

  • Arkansas' Constitution of 1874 (Article 19, Section 1) states: "Atheists disqualified from holding office or testifying as witness. No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
  • North Carolina's Constitution of 1971 (Article 6, Section 8) states: "Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God..... This was challenged and overturned by Voswinkel v. Hunt (1979).
  • South Carolina's Constitution of 2006 (Article 6, Section 2) states: "Person denying existence of Supreme Being not to hold office. No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
  • Tennessee's Constitution/Bill of Rights (Article 9, Section 2) states: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
  • Texas' Constitution: The Bill of Rights (Article I, Section 4) last amended on September 13, 2003 states that an official may be "excluded from holding office" if she/he does not "acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
  • Maryland's Bill of Rights:
    • Article 36: "That as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him, all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore, no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate, on account of his religious persuasion, or profession, or for his religious practice, unless, under the color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others in their natural, civil or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent, or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry; nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come."
    • Article 37: "That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."

Some state's constitutions do not have an explicit religious test as a qualification for holding public office or being a witness but contain language that some have suggested implicitly discriminates against atheists. The states include:

  • Pennsylvania's Declaration of Rights (Article I, Section 4) reads "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth. This debatably constitutes a provision that "den[ies] atheists the right to hold public office and/or testify in a court of law.

Historical examples

Roman Empire

During the late Roman Empire, atheism — a capital crime — was a common legal prosecution against Christians by henotheists.Christians rejected the Roman gods, and henotheists rejected the exclusivity of Christian monotheism.

Middle Ages

In the European Middle Ages people were persecuted for apostasy, especially in countries where the Inquisition was active. Medieval impiety and godlessness were closer to weak atheism than avowed strong atheism, and hardly any expression of strong atheism is known from this period. Medieval beliefs that most closely approach strong atheism were probably held by some members of the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit.

18th to 20th Century Europe

Among those imprisoned for atheism was Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784), one of the Enlightenment's most prominent philosophers, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie, which sought to challenge religious (particularly Catholic) dogma: "Reason is to the estimation of the philosopher what grace is to the Christian", he wrote. "Grace determines the Christian's action; reason the philosopher's".

For fear of persecution, the French philosopher Baron d'Holbach had to publish his books anonymously in Amsterdam. His book Systeme de la Nature was burned by an angry mob .

On March 25, 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for not refusing authorship of the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.

Nazi Germany

Further information: Adolf Hitler's religious beliefs#Religious neutrality
Once appointed Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler banned freethought organizations and launched an “anti-godless” movement. In a 1933 speech he declared: “We have . . . undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” However, discrimination against both religious and secular non-Nazi groups was common in the totalitarian Reich, occurring among a wide spectrum of organizations, even against some of the largest religions.

Victorian Britain

In Victorian Britain the atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton. His request to be allowed to affirm on taking his seat was denied, and he was also prevented from taking the (religious) oath as an alternative. During the lengthy dispute, he was fined and even briefly imprisoned, despite being repeatedly elected to his office. Ultimately he was able to get a bill passed securing the right of affirmation.


Both of the world's largest religions (Christianity and Islam) include scripture that is (not exclusively) discriminatory against atheists.

Old Testament (Tanakh)

The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, was adopted as Christianity's Old Testament. Thus, verses listed here are part of the scripture of both Judaism and Christianity.

  • Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12)
  • They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:12-13)
  • If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the LORD of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. (Malachi 2:2)
  • The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. (Psalm 14:1) This is repeated in Psalm 53:1.
  • Deuteronomy 28:15 through 28:68 details an extensive list of curses for those who "wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day," including every disease in the Bible and every disease not in the Bible.

New Testament

The New Testament follows the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. It is part of both Protestant and Catholic scripture.

  • Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)
  • Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
  • Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
  • And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. (Thessalonians 3:14)
  • If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: (2 John 1:10)
  • He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16)
  • He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)
  • He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. (John 3:36)
  • But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
  • And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. (Mark 6:11)


Some interpret the Qur'an as calling for the execution of Apostates, or people who reject Islam.


The first attempts to define or develop a typology of atheism were in religious apologetics. These attempts were expressed in terms and in contexts that reflected the religious assumptions and prejudices of the writers. A diversity of atheist opinion has been recognized at least since Plato, and common distinctions have been established between practical atheism and speculative or contemplative atheism.

Practical atheism was said to be caused by moral failure, hypocrisy, willful ignorance and infidelity. Practical atheists were said to behave as though God, morals, ethics and social responsibility did not exist; they abandoned duty and embraced hedonism. Maritain's typology of atheism proved influential in Catholic circles; it was followed in the New Catholic Encyclopedia. He identified, in addition to practical atheism, pseudo-atheism and absolute atheism (and subdivided theoretical atheism in a way that anticipated Flew). For an atheist critique of Maritain, see Smith (1979, Chapter 1, Section 5).

According to the French Catholic philosopher Étienne Borne, "Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law".

According to Karen Armstrong (1999):

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was still reserved exclusively for polemic… In his tract Atheism Closed and Open Anatomized (1634), John Wingfield claimed: 'the hypocrite is an Atheist; the loose wicked man is an open Atheist; the secure, bold and proud transgressor is an Atheist: he that will not be taught or reformed is an Atheist'. For the Welsh poet William Vaughan (1577 [sic]–1641), who helped in the colonization of Newfoundland, those who raised rents or enclosed commons were obvious atheists. The English dramatist Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) proclaimed that the ambitious, the greedy, the gluttons, the vainglorious and prostitutes were all atheists. The term 'atheist' was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.

On the other hand, the existence of serious, speculative atheism was often denied. That anyone might reason their way to atheism was thought to be impossible. The existence of God was self-evident, and (apparently) necessary for the proper functioning of society. Thus, speculative atheism was collapsed into a form of practical atheism, and conceptualized as hatred of God or a fight against righteous social mores. This is why Borne finds it necessary to say, 'to put forward the idea, as some apologists rashly do, that there are no atheists except in name but only practical atheists who through pride or idleness disregard the divine law, would be, at least at the beginning of the argument, a rhetorical convenience or an emotional prejudice evading the real question.' Martin suggests that practical atheism would be better described as alienated theism.

Other pejorative definitions

When denial of the existence of speculative atheism became unsustainable, atheism was nevertheless often repressed and criticized by narrowing definitions, applying charges of dogmatism, and otherwise misrepresenting atheist positions. One of the reasons for the popularity of euphemistic alternative terms like secularist, empiricist, or bright is that atheism still has pejorative connotations arising from attempts at suppression and from its association with practical atheism. During the Cold War, U.S. politicians often characterized their foreign opponents as Godless Communists, and godless is still used as a pejorative epithet today.

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, the originators of the term bright, made this explicit in an essay published in 2003:

Our personal frustration regarding labels reached culmination last fall when we were invited to join a march on Washington as 'Godless Americans'. The causes of the march were worthy, and the march itself well-planned and conducted. However, to unite for common interests under a disparaging term like 'godless' (it also means 'wicked') seemed ludicrous! Why accept and utilize the very derogatory language that so clearly hampers our own capacity to play a positive and contributing role in our communities and in the nation and world?

Gaskin (1998) abandoned the term atheism in favor of unbelief, citing 'the pejorative associations of the term, its vagueness, and later the tendency of religious apologists to define atheism so that no one could be an atheist...'

Despite these considerations, for others atheist has always been the preferred name. Charles Bradlaugh once said, in debate with George Jacob Holyoake, 10 March 1870:

I maintain that the opprobrium cast upon the word Atheism is a lie. I believe Atheists as a body to be men deserving respect... I do not care what kind of character religious men may put round the word Atheist, I would fight until men respect it.

See also


Further reading

For more on repressive definitions of atheism, see:

  • Berman, David (1990). A History of Atheism in Britain: from Hobbes to Russell. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04727-7.
  • Berman, David (1983). David Hume and the Suppression of Atheism. in Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 21 (3), July 1983, p.375-387.
  • Berman, David (1982). The Repressive Denials of Atheism in Britain in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 82c, (9), p.211-246.

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