Microaggressions Against Atheists?

I went to an event on microaggressions that was put on at Agnes Scott College on Thursday, February 9, 2017. A microaggression is generally considered a subtle act of discrimination against a marginalized group. The website for the project can be found here (https://diversityasc.wordpress.com/), but I’ll give a brief overview of what happened. The event consisted of two sections; an interactive exhibit on examples of microaggressions and a reflective conversation. This exhibit started with a video on microaggressions which can be seen here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDd3bzA7450). Next, it moved into a room with posters on the walls containing quotes from members of the Agnes Scott community about microaggressions, and a slideshow that moved through the quotes. The third and final room contained coloring sheets and words of affirmation on sticky notes which we could take with us. However, the most significant part of the event for me came when I returned for the conversation in the evening.

At the discussion about the project, we were asked what stood out to us when reading the quotes. The one I mentioned was something along the lines of “when well meaning (mostly) Christians tell me they’ll pray for me, an agnostic person.” My initial comment was that I was somewhat surprised when I read this quote, as I had never thought about religious phrases as microaggressions despite the fact that they do make me uncomfortable. I told the group that I identify as agnostic and I was raised by nonreligious parents. After another agnostic person spoke, I voiced a comparison to try to help the religious folks understand where I was coming from. To me, being told “I’ll pray for you” and having my discomfort dismissed with claims that it was a compliment invokes the same feeling as equating sexually lewd comments with compliments. My interpretation and experience is irrelevant to the person talking to me in both instances.

After I made this comparison, someone asked me when I thought it was appropriate for people to offer prayers. My response was that intent matters, but that I can’t tell what a stranger’s intent is. Sometimes their intent is positive but also comes with the expectation that I’ll pray for them. It could also come with the expectation that I should be thankful for something that reminds me that I’m not aligned with the majority of Americans. This is not to say that I will be mad at anybody who directs something religious at me. I don’t mind if friends and relatives that I’m close to, who I know won’t try to pressure me into religion, bless me and offer me prayers. This sentiment is not universal between nonreligious folks. I know people who will get angry if anyone directs anything religious at them. I know people who aren’t religious but are spiritual and find prayers to be uplifting. The best thing, in my experience, is to not assume religion and understand what people are comfortable with before praying for them.

When I was done saying my piece on this topic, and the conversation passed on, I was startled by my emotional reaction to what I had said. For a moment, I thought that I might cry. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a reaction to talking about my religious beliefs before.

In the days since the event, I've taken some time to reflect on specific instances where I’ve felt prejudice for my lack of religion and tried to pinpoint why I’ve not considered them valid microaggressions. I've come to the tentative conclusion that it partially stems from a disbelief that atheists and agnostics can be the focus of prejudice. I then searched for some sort of tangible, external evidence for prejudice against non-religious folks. Here is what I found.

According to the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/), people generally feel negatively about athiests. In the study linked, people were asked to rate how they felt about members of various religious groups from 0 to 100 where 0 is cold and 100 is warm. Atheists were given an average rating of 41, second lowest only to Muslims, who had a rating of 40. Interestingly, Jews were rated highest with a rating of 63. On the other hand, according to the 2014 FBI Hate Crime Statistics (https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2014), atheists and agnostics were the smallest group of victims of hate crimes by religion in 2014 (11 total) while Jews were the largest (609 total). I’m not exactly sure why this gap exists. Maybe people who dislike us just don’t dislike us quite enough to attack us. Perhaps it’s because nonreligious folks are simply harder to spot. We don’t have any identifiable traits (such as prayer or places of worship), and an absence of these things doesn’t always mean an absence of religion.

So if a dislike of nonreligious folks doesn’t manifest as direct violence, how does it affect us in our everyday lives? A prejudice that I’ve often noticed is that nonreligious people (and atheists in particular) are viewed as morally inferior. This ranges from people telling me to my face that atheists are just not as nice as religious folks, to bans still technically on the books in 8 states against nonreligious folks holding office (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/07/16/states-atheists-banned-public-office.html). Even without functional bans, only one person in the 114th congress identified as religiously unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/01/05/faith-on-the-hill/). Proclamations of faith to cement politicians’ moral standing and the use of the bible to swear oaths persist despite the ideal of separation of church and state.

I’ve realized over the course of writing this article that there does exist prejudice against nonreligious folks, despite my ignorance of it. Exploring issues with a unaddressed portion of my identity has been somewhat jarring, but I thank you for taking that journey with me. As we see an increase in people that don’t identify with any religion in particular, I hope that problems with nonreligious people can be stopped in their tracks.