In God We trust

Atheists are identified as America’s most distrusted minority.

Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”

Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public.

Today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society

Respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

“Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

(Findings by the University of Minnesota, March 2006. To appear in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.)

Diversity in America is an oxymoron. Because the ideals that shaped the libertarian (and its varieties) thoughts of the founding fathers were necessarily a celebration of the marketplace. At times the marketplace was considered to be a civic space (as Jefferson would have wanted), and in more recent times, maybe a corporate space. But throughout, the stress on individual liberty in a marketplace of ideas has remained a defining hallmark of the American society.

In its simplicity, this is of course not quite such an acceptable proposition. For, if the aims of individual liberties were to sustain a socially desirable good, then it just implies that protection of those liberties will eventually result in these goods. However on closer examination, what is socially desirable are often times not the product of individual liberty prerogatives. Else, pornography industry and market monopolies would then have to be declared as socially good produce. So the checks on individual liberty (the practice) then become crucial to promotion of social good (the goal).

Individual liberties, being necessary corollaries of the marketplace, are thus, embedded with its ideologies. But the marketplace is never free, since it’s determined by the dominant actors there. Since the time America became torchbearer of individual liberties, there has been no marketplace of free access. First it was the class of slaveowners who flagrantly violated every possibly known human ethos of freedom thus restricting the marketplace to the same audience that Greece had, during its mythical democracy.

Then came the conservative moderators of the marketplace who while professing free values actually never shared the ownership of the free values with the subjects—hence no rights worth the bill were passed on to the freed slaves, the immigrants, the women and people needing special care. Here again, freedom meant a compliance to marketplace norms than a participation of an equal level.

In the third wave of freedom struggles of the 60’s, the marketplace set its own libertarian rules. Ghosts of McCarthy ruled the policies. Second class citizens and disenchanted black youths were the targets for immediate compliance. The liberties, in order to be relished, had to be subsumed as a trickled down grant than an inherent right.

Today, even as the individual liberties are being celebrated, the critical lens should suggest that they are the sustainers of the dominant marketplace player than anything else. Because just as the realization that certain individual liberties (like vandalism) should be curbed in order that they don’t flagrantly violate social good, and certain individual liberties (like appealing in the courts) should be encouraged so that the people don’t come on the roads, again to violate social good; what is crucial to know is that not all individuals have equal historical conditions of privilege allowing them enough “access” freedom to practice and “control” their realm of freedom.

This realization has come to acknowledge that upholding of individual liberties (lets say of the KKK) often can end up in curtailing the social good of the group liberties of some historically dispossessed (lets say of the colored people). The benefits of identity, then does not lie on individual’s prerogatives, but on the historically oppressed individual’s potential as a progressive group member/champion.

However this idea of promoting the minority groups’ causes then violates the essential framework of marketplace concept, which relies on promotion of individual liberties. Since the marketplace is governed by individual rules, and the dominant actors are the individuals who have infinitely greater influence on the market rules owing to their historical advantages, it is no wonder that to uphold the existing rules, it is desirable for them to further them too. So, implicitly the marketplace then promotes the values of naked individualisms—which benefit the individuals who have both access and control over the fruits of their liberty. For example, if the women are excluded as a group to vote, then the marketplace is free in its theoretical rules, but only in that it lets the men do the voting. Likewise today, the rules around the new immigrants is that the old immigrants who have had a say so far in the marketplace are professors of freedom, but only in terms of what appears to them as legitimate.

This internal contradiction of free marketplace that frames its own rules, promotes them through excluding certain players who want group freedom as well as individual freedom (thereby asking for recognition also as their identities in groups—LGBT, Latino/a, etc).

And the most chilling example is the marketplace of “Secular” state, where the actors surely claim a separation of church from the state, but only so as to theoretically uphold their argument of individual liberty. That is, if someone does not wish to join a prayer session in a school, it could be considered ok (although it’s also far from real). But what it has effectively done to promote its dominant actor class character is explicitly weave the market around its own set of rules. So what we have are educational institutions (including public universities) that host quite a few chapels. What we have are public gatherings where people are asked to seek blessing of Jesus to join the dinner. Recently when I went to attend an award ceremony for Women of Color inside the university campus, before the dinner was served, in a matter-of-fact way it was asked of the audience to show gratitude to Jesus. Considering the vast numbers of Christian organizations and their representatives (quite of few of them keep knocking my apartment doors to talk of God’s grace) who have been historically present, in furthering their causes, the reality is that there are not many non-Christian organizations to even provide a fare trade balance.

The problem area is this, while within the marketplace, the Christian rights are considered individual liberties (and hence the state vs “church” legalities), the rights of the other religious identities are considered as group liberties. And a marketplace dominated by worshippers of individual liberties (of the comfortable right-blinds), the group dynamic creates conflicts. It creates even more conflicts when it comes to the alternative identity beyond the interfaith tradition: the atheists.

Atheists just do not belong to the marketplace of free expression, because there is no leveling field out there. They are not instituted as anything (there is Islamic Studies, for example, not Atheistic Studies). They are not fostered as anything (there are state-sponsored minority religion ceremonies, not of Atheistic Award for Unity). They are not even acclaimed as anything (no governmental efforts are directed towards recognizing their philosophies).

Not just a complete lack of political will, but a near normalization of abhorrence towards anything related to atheism has historically bred contempt, and now breeding indifference (which is even worse, since the contends do not get discussed anymore). Films are not made to portray the sub-cultures of atheism, there is no funding for “advancement of atheism discourse”. Overall speaking, the dearth of popular knowledge on the subject of challenge to the structure and function of faith systems just are not allowed to exist in a society driven by the gatekeepers of its mythical free marketplace: since the key elements of power structure personally propagate their belief.

One wonders why no leader of any repute ever ends addresses as saying “Blessed be my Color” (the race discourse), whereas every leader of any repute starts with “God bless you all” (the religious discourse). For, the assumption is that the people have been conditioned enough to accept the God dynamic, since this has been the founding cornerstone of Western civilization (which has, for the records, merely gone ahead and ‘converted’ through will or coercion millions of people of various ‘races’ into a religious fold, including spectacularly mass converting the indigenous people of America on gun point).

The diversity discourse that exists today then exists because it is well within the parameters of the marketplace that legitimizes its recognition, but does not enforce its institution. So what we lack from the parlance of diversity are the elements that stand to challenge (which turns the question on its head) than to merely oppose (which forms a healthy continuum).

If the United States really needs to emerge out of the comfortable space of assumption making about human natures, then it will do well to promote the rich alternative thoughts that exist within western rational, eastern material, a worldly spiritual (devoid of religious adherence), and an earthly tribal tradition.
For, anything other than that, including a prolonged silence on the issue or even a complete absence of atheistic outlook from the power structures (considering that atheists would want to be ‘group’ed than individualized) will perpetuate vast regressive myths about atheism (like “oh, but you are so nice…I don’t believe you are an atheist”, often confusing moral conducts with religions), and people who believe not in an organized religion.

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

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