We Must Come Out
Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi architect and blogger, was hacked to death with a machete six feet from his front gate in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, on February 15 of this year. The motive for his murder? He was an atheist who advocated for secular government and education in his country.
Less than a week later, on February 21, violence erupted between police and members of Jamaat Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the Islamist political party in Bangladesh. The fundamentalists carried banners demanding that four atheist bloggers be put to death for insulting their god and prophet.
One month prior, on January 14, 2013, 26-year-old atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin was brutally stabbed by three men near his office in an upscale district of the Bangladeshi capital. The attackers were retaliating against Mohiuddin for his advocacy for secular education and government.
Surely we all remember the brutal murder of Danish film director Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the numerous fatwas issued and riots waged in response to cartoons depicting Muhammad run in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. I could spend weeks listing instances of violence against atheists perpetrated by theists.
Use your preferred search engine to research “violence against atheists” and you’ll be treated to a litany of disturbing images and accounts of atheists being attacked and murdered all over the world for doing what I and many others do every day in this forum and elsewhere: advocate free thought and defend the separation between religion and our public institutions.
The mere appearance of my name in the byline of this blog post would sign my death warrant in many countries. Here in America, it might not get me killed, but it will certainly get me threatened and discriminated against. One need not dig deeply into Facebook or Twitter to find genuinely disturbing hate speech and death threats directed to atheists and various strains of un-, non-, or different-believers. More disturbingly, eight state constitutions explicitly discriminate against nonbelievers: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
In my personal experience–growing up very near the Buckle of the Bible Belt, and living most of my adult life in New Orleans, a city whose history is inextricably linked to Roman Catholicism–I’ve been shunned by friends and family whose professed love was apparently contingent upon my blind belief in the god(s) of Bronze Age Mesopotamian shepherds. I’ve held my weeping mother in my arms as she grieved my eventual demise and eternal damnation. I’ve clenched my jaw as I tried to negotiate the fraught and razor-thin path between lifelong alienation of my wife and in-laws on the one hand, and protection of my son from intellect-crushing indoctrination and the murder of curiosity and doubt on the other. I’ve held my tongue as business propriety and professionalism forced me to observe and let pass unaddressed blatant discrimination against free thought.
Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association asserts, “Americans still feel it’s acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups.” We must show all with whom we come in contact that such discrimination is not acceptable. We must resolve to make our numbers counted and our voices heard. We must come out. It is absolutely essential–in the same way it is essential for our LGBT brothers and sisters–to show our friends and family, colleagues and neighbors and strangers, that atheists are not the distant, indistinct “others” to be feared, but the children, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors of all. We must live our lives loudly so that those peeking over the wall or sitting upon the fence that separates them from reason may draw upon our strength and resolve. To every single theist, we must replace the label with a familiar face. We must make it personal. Only then, when the true mass of those who have cast away delusion and cheap comfort is apparent, will discrimination against atheists be as backward and unacceptable as racism, sexism, and bigotry.
Five short months before he was to be assassinated by a fellow San Francisco city supervisor, Harvey Milk gave a speech with an oft-reoccurring theme and language that helped define his activism and his tragically short political career:
You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children–that we are indeed everywhere–every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.
Many atheists around the world live their lives under constant threat of injury and death. They bear that burden heroically. We who are lucky enough to be free from such a burden have a duty to expose ourselves fully to the relatively scant discomfort and disapproval we may face so that, degree by precious degree, our combined light may shine through the darkness those our brothers and sisters labor beneath.