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Of course there’s discrimination against secular people in Southeast Wisconsin”, I thought to myself, “I just said as much!” But my questioner’s tone had smacked of incredulity, and as his request for clarification with emphasis sank in, so did the weight of the irony.
Wisconsin, in the 70s, had a reputation for excellence in education that was powerful enough to reach the ears of a 12 year old boy in Connecticut. Both my parents were teachers, so these things came up in our house. Yet still, the poo-pooing New England patricians of my youth had always referred to Wisconsin, along with Iowa, as the only frontier provinces actually interested in educating their unwashed masses. To say it has gone in the opposite direction in the 40 years since, is an overwhelming understatement. Education of course, makes one more intelligent and less religious, so as the pendulum of scholastic achievement swung inexorably back to its nadir, the level of fundamentalist fervor quite naturally rose in converse proportion. It had risen so high in fact that a law had to be passed in Madison prohibiting…..discrimination against the non-religious!
At a high profile company near us, their semis all have illuminated crosses in their grills, an incredibly effective conversion tool coming out of the fog at 75 mph, I can assure you. Massive, thundering, diesel-powered Churches that Peterbilt. Bleary-eyed, tweaked-out road warriors looking for an answer hardly stand a chance. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, job candidates are subtly screened for religious accessories and puritan dress, and should one make it through to an interview with the boss, she is subject to frank questions about her personal spiritual beliefs, in bold violation of the law. When we moved into our neighborhood some years ago, a neighbor introduced herself and invited us to her church. When I explained politely that we were atheist, she turned and walked away, and I have not seen her since. Only little Noah, who is not allowed to wave to us. My 6 and 7 year old have been told they are going to hell by classmates at public school. My 6 year old takes it in stride, telling listeners flatly that there is no hell, and “Jesus is just as fake as God” (I couldn’t have been prouder.) But her older brother is less certain, and needs held and loved, and reassured that these are just stories people made up to scare and control others, and look how good they work, by the way. He will be fine, because he has a support system, but others aren’t so lucky…. The marginalization of atheists which occurs within their own families, leads to chronic, lifelong, crippling feelings of guilt and mental oppression. So yes. Yes, atheists do face discrimination, even in Southeast Wisconsin.
The question is, what can be done about it? Much can be done, obviously, but it all starts with one thing: Admitting what we are, and announcing we are here. Sound familiar? That’s right, we need to come out. Come out to our colleagues, come out to our friends and neighbors, come out to our families. Most of all, we need to come out to our politicians, and demand that they come out as well, or reaffirm for us all that they base their decisions, to any degree, on ancient mythologies. The recent emergence of the Openly Secular campaign and OS Day are perfect opportunities to come out and join the movement. Start with someone you trust and move on from there. When you are ready, come out and join us in the public arena. It’s one thing to meet in secret with like-minded friends, and quite another to hold hands in the street and force progress on a broken and backward society. So come out. Come out for controversial billboards. Come out for groundbreaking atheist conferences. Come out for TV appearances, Newspaper Articles, Socials, Adopt-A-Hiways, Sports Leagues, Field Trips, Activism and Charity. Most of all, come out for you. You and your beautiful mind. Because the only way to end discrimination is to stand up and fight it, like our friends have done before us.