The unspoken bias in America

According to a University of Minnesota survey in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, atheists are the least trusted minority in the U.S., less trusted than Muslims, recent immigrants and gays and lesbians.

The survey suggests that many Americans still associate atheism with immorality, an association motivated by the old canard that ethics necessarily depends on religion, that you can’t be good without God…

..Perhaps most egregiously, atheists (and their children) have suffered at the hands of family courts. In an essay that will appear in the May issue of the New York University Law Review, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh provides evidence that courts have discriminated against atheists in custody disputes.

Volokh, who also runs the insightful weblog The Volokh Conspiracy, documents examples of anti-atheist discrimination in 17 states (including New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and many southern states) and the District of Columbia.)

– (The Vancouver Sun)

It’s a really good read..

8 thoughts on “The unspoken bias in America”

  1. I understand that concern, and as I mentioned above I can see it being a possible injustice.

    Custody disputes are a tricky thing though. Their major purpose is not justice for either of the parents but the best interests of the child. This is of necessity going to be at least partially subjective. It will not always be ‘fair’ to the parents involved.

    I don’t claim that atheists are not good parents. Indeed, I would be happier if the bias Volokh has identified did not exist. In a perfect world, the religion of the parents would probably not enter into it.

    The morality of the parents might be a valid question to ask though. And it is true that some people will equate religious belief with morality. Even more likely, I can see religious and community activity being evidence of moralityand that would put athiests at a disadvantage at times.

    If we have two parents, all else being equal, and one is a member of a charitable religious group doing good works and the other is not, I can see a Judge not being biased against atheists per se choosing to award custody to the first. Of course the second may in fact be the more moral person, and do many good works in private while the first is merely involved for the ostentatious display of it all.

    Another way this could be ‘unfair’ but not an obvious bias is if we look at evidence of what each parent does with the child. Both parents take the child to sporting events perhaps, and other neutral events but only one takes the child to religious activities.

    Sometimes, statistics can’t tell you a lot about what is going on. I haven’t seen Volokhs evidence, so I can’t evaluate it although I have a lot of respect for him and trust that if he says there is a statistical difference in outcomes for atheists and non-atheists I imagine it exists.

    I do seem to recall though that male atheists are more common than female atheists. If this is correct, then given that we know judges tend to prefer to grant custody to women over men, bias against atheists in a family court could be an artifact of this.

    Regardless, it seems to me that family court bias is a pretty small thread to hang any great claims of systematic bias. As I stated, family courts are purposed not primarily on justice for the claiments, but best interests of the child. If we had evidence of similar bias in other court situations that would be a cause for much more concern.

  2. In the linked article, they say "<i>Perhaps most egregiously, atheists (and their children) have suffered at the hands of family courts. In an essay that will appear in the May issue of the New York University Law Review, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh provides evidence that courts have discriminated against atheists in custody disputes.</i>".

    My concern is that harm is being done because of religious preference, or lack there of. As a society, the U.S. claims that we are ‘the good guys’, what ever that means. We claim that we are pro-freedom. However, when our actions and the actions of our legal system show otherwise, there is a very large disconnect.

    We vehemently protested the possible execution of a Muslim turned Christian, and yet we turn a blind eye to courts judging against atheist parents <i>solely based on their lack of religion</i>?

  3. In 2000, John McCain called Falwell an ‘agent of intolerance,’ arguably that is an accurate description, but just as arguably it could be considered intollerant of Falwell and his supporters. Does that make evangelical christians a persecuted group?

    Certainly their are people who dislike or distrust atheists. I haven’t seen any attempts to strip the of citizenship or send them to re-education camps or anything like that. I am not aware that atheists have lower income potential because of intolerance (indeed I have seen it argued that atheists on average are better off than most other groups.) I personally don’t agree with, or support the statement G.H.W. Bush made above.

    I certainly agree with you that tolerance requires fair treatment. I am not sure that it requires compassion or understanding though. This is not to say that comapassion and understanding are not good things, but simply not a requirement for tolerance. I don’t have to understand why someone is an atheist, or feel compassion toward them being an atheist, I simply have to accept that they can be an atheist if they want, and that atheism should not confer any legal penalties despite any disapproval I may have for that choice. If I do that, I am tolerant. If I don’t I am not.

    Of signifigance, I think a person can be tolerant of atheism (or anything else), but choose not to associate with atheists. They are still tolerant.

    People seldom really want to be tolerated however, what they want is to be accepted and approved of, which is a different thing entirely.

  4. <i>I don’t think that there is in fact much intolerance toward atheism in America.</i>


    Comments like <a href="; rel="nofollow">Vice Pres. Bush</a> "<i>I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.</i>" really concern me.

    I agree that tolerance does not require agreement. However, it does require fair treatment, compassion and understanding.

  5. To an extent, I think you can always find intolerance and discrimination if you look for it. I don’t think that there is in fact much intolerance toward atheism in America.

    The family courts may be an injustice, but religious upbringing of children after a divorce is often contentious and it is difficult subject to deal with. I won’t go into that particular issue here.

    Tolerance though does not require agreement or approval. An atheist can still be tolerant toward a religious person while believing they are misguided and foolish. Indeed, an atheist could not feel any other way. The reverse is true as well.

    Certainly some of this will slip over into ‘unfairness’ if looked at from a certain perspective. I would imagine that in a nation where 3 percent of the populace was religous, and the rest were atheist, the society would look down upon the religious minority, as the widespread belief that those religious people were foolish and misguided would prevail and be reinforced by the majority.

    Does this mean that they are ‘intolerant’? I don’t know that it does.

  6. Oddly enough, Jesus preached tolerance and understanding almost more than anything else. (I’m not ruling-out righteous indignation, but Jesus very rarely went that way.) Sadly, closed-minded people often equate tolerance/understanding with support or acquiescence. Thus, "deer-in-the-headlights."

  7. Poppycock. Good word, good point. I totally agree, and it doesn’t help that I went from a relatively "tolerant" religious environment (Vermont) to the country in Maryland. The people here absolutely equate your morality with your attendance on Sunday. I have a hard time avoiding religion in even casual conversation here. Then, when I say "agnostic" (which is, in their minds, atheism) I get a deer-in-the-headlights stare.

    Drives me batty.

  8. Worse than that are the people that think their behavior is moral because they’re serving God (i.e., blowing up abortion clinics, deriding homosexuals, molesting alterboys, blowing up airplanes, etc).

    You can be moral without religion. You can be amoral with religion. It would seem to me that morality and religion are two separate entities. The idea that you can only learn to be good through God is poppycock.

Comments are closed.