By Erin Yazgan
Although this country was founded on the separation of church and state, many have been persecuted for trying to uphold that separation. This is in spite of both the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate based on religion.
In states such as Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Maryland and Pennsylvania, people who do not believe in God are excluded from holding office.
Atheism is the disbelief in any god, deity or anything supernatural. A 2007 survey by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International of 35,556 adults showed that 16.1 percent did not associate with any religion. Included in this category are atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” While atheism claims the certainty that there is no god, agnosticism, literally “not-knowing,” is the belief that knowing whether God exists or does not exist is impossible.
“It’s dangerous for our children to even know your philosophy exists! Get out of that seat … You have no right to be here! … You believe in destroying what this state was built upon!”
These were the words spoken by Illinois House of Representatives Democratic member Monique Davis to atheist activist Rob Sherman during his arraignment in April of this year. Sherman was testifying before the committee about an unconstitutional grant of public tax dollars to the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago.
Jeremy Hall, a U.S. Army specialist, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense in 2007 because he was being harassed and threatened by his fellow soldiers for being an atheist. He claimed that he was passed up for promotions because of his atheist beliefs and was threatened by a superior officer because he wanted to hold an atheists’ meeting in Iraq.
Former president, George H.W. Bush has expressed disdain for atheists. In a news conference while campaigning for presidency in 1987 he said, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
Elliott Collins, a fourth-year philosophy and economics major, has been an atheist for most of his conscious life. Growing up with a religious mother and stepfather, Collins remembers going to church and being raised in a Christian community.
“Once you’re in a religious community, looking for reasons for the belief in God is looked down upon,” Collins said, tearing off the label of a beer bottle. “There’s a real authority of the community itself, where no particular person in the community has the authority to enforce the belief in God, but they give that belief its own power.”
Collins decided to separate himself from religion after none of his questions were answered regarding proof and evidence of a higher being.
“The belief in God is the only belief that doesn’t require justification,” Collins said. “I was taught to look for those justifications. That’s why I’m an atheist, because that foundation in the belief in God is just an acceptance of authority and conforming to what a religious community is believing without looking for justification.”
Collins has never experienced any religious hostility in Santa Cruz, but he realizes that discrimination against atheists is still a national phenomenon.
“Nationally, it’s very taboo to be atheist still,” Collins said. “No one could be elected president if they were an atheist, and there are places where it’s official state law that state officials can’t be atheist. There’s a lot of explicit discrimination going on.”
Many churches and religious communities in Santa Cruz, such as the Faith Community Church on Seabright Avenue and the First Congregational Church on High Street, are accepting to all different kinds of belief or non-belief.
However, there are other parts of the United States where being an open atheist is dangerous. In a small Oklahoma high school in 2006, Nicole Smalkowski declined, as an atheist, to participate in her school basketball team’s Lord’s Prayer. Subsequently, she and her entire family were harassed and physically attacked at her school and at her home by students, school staff members, and others in their neighborhood.
The Smalkowski family asked for help from the American Atheists, a national organization that provides atheists with legal protection and works to uphold the separation of church and state. The American Atheists filed a lawsuit on their behalf, and after a two-hour deliberation, the Smalkowskis won their case.
Atheists are not the only ones standing up against discrimination. The First Congregational Church on High Street boasts a wooden “NO ON 8” tablet directly beneath their church sign. Working in a large, well-decorated office with soft lighting and numerous bookshelves, Rev. Dave Grishaw-Jones of the First Congregational Church said he is aware that atheists are looked down upon politically and socially.
“In the political culture that we’ve been in in the last 20 or 30 years, there’s a strong bias toward mainstream, evangelical Christianity,” Grishaw-Jones said. “So atheists are discriminated against, Jews and Buddhists and all the rest are discriminated against in light of that culture.”
Religious leaders and organizations are not blind to the critique of lack of proof. “They’re asking rigorous questions,” Andy Lewis, lead pastor for Faith Community Church said, “People who are agnostic and atheist are trying to be intellectually honest.”
Fourth-year history and politics major Nathan Ellstrand is former president of the Student University Interfaith Council (SUIC). He said that as an atheist, he has only ever felt acceptance and respect from both the University Interfaith Council and SUIC. “Certain atheists, more closed-minded individuals, give the rest of the group around the country a bad name,” Ellstrand said.
Although there is no student atheist or agnostic group on campus, there are community groups, such as the Santa Cruz Atheists and the Secular Humanists of Santa Cruz, where atheists can join to talk to others.
Howard Burman, founder and organizer for the Santa Cruz Atheists, sports a Richard Dawkins T-shirt. Dawkins is a high-profile biologist and atheist. In 2006 he wrote “The God Delusion,” a bestselling nonfiction book in which he argues that supernatural creator does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion.
Burman started the group because having a community is always necessary, he said.
“Atheists are among the most discriminated-against people in the country, if not the most discriminated,” Burman said. “There is such a desire for so many of us to talk to other people that have similar worldviews.”
While still critical of religion, the Secular Humanists of Santa Cruz offer a somewhat different worldview from the Santa Cruz Atheists. According to founder Dennis Etler, humanists may come from any religion, yet secular humanists tend to be nonreligious.
By founding the Secular Humanists of Santa Cruz, Etler aimed to bring people together rather than separating them, which he believes is a side effect of religion.
“When you identify with a particular sectarian ideology, that tends to pit one group against another,” Etler said. “They see themselves as representing something that’s more true than what others represent, and that leads to conflict. We’re looking for the community of people worldwide that’s not restricted to one versus another, but the global village.”
While some atheists, like Dawkins, seek to challenge the fundamental ideology of religion, most atheist organizations serve to bring like-minded people together or focus on upholding the separation of church and state, such as the American Atheists or the Freethought Society.
However, the fight for separation of church and state goes way beyond atheists. The issue of separating religion from public institutions has been a hot topic, even within the UC system.
In August of this year, a judge ruled that the UC school system has the right to deny credit to university applicants for classes that teach supernatural explanations over historic or scientific explanations. Judge James Otero agreed that those classes would make students from private, religious schools fall behind in science classrooms because they omitted important topics in scientific and historical discussion and fail to teach critical thinking.
Burman said that issues like these are small victories for the Constitution.
“This country was based clearly, distinctly and positively on the separation of [church and state],” Burman said. “It may be a nation of Christians in the majority, but it’s not a Christian nation. It wasn’t based on Christian principles or Christian foundations.”
Peggy Pollard, vice president of the University Interfaith Council and a practicing Christian, said the separation of church and state is misunderstood and is too rigid.
“It’s not clear within the Constitution that it means complete separation,” Pollard said. “This separation has resulted in a lot of hostility against religion, particularly Christianity because it’s been the predominant religion.”
Pollard said that atheists have a negative connotation attached to them because of their legal involvement in church and state separation issues.
“That seems to be the predominant time you hear about atheists, is some lawsuit where they don’t like something,” Pollard said. “I feel mad when I hear that, because I think, ‘I’m fine to respect them and their belief, but why are they trying to stop me or other people from having things associated with our belief?’ It’s an attack.”
Collins said that the separation of church and state is not an attack on religion, and he acknowledges that religion has an important role in society.
“Some of the smartest people in the world, some of the greatest artists in the world were inspired by [a religious] worldview, so there’s a lot to be learned from it,” Collins said.
For both religious and nonreligious people, there is a strong desire for the same result: to stay out of each other’s business. Etler said people are entitled to their own beliefs but should keep those beliefs out of the public spectrum and other people’s lives.
“There’s no need for you to be proselytizing and telling others how they should think or behave,” Etler said. “You want to think and do whatever you want, that’s fine, as long as you’re not pinging on others and engaging in acts that damage others than yourself. Just leave the rest of us alone.”