Atheism in the Public Square: Marginalised or Militant?

image Are atheists marginalised in our public conversations, even in the largely secular West? Last week, atheists had their first ever official visit to the White House. Sixty representatives from the Secular Coalition for America met with officials and discussed issues ranging from child medical neglect, military proselytizing, and faith-based initiatives. USA Today reports that ‘this is the first time an administration has met with a non-theist community.’

This has, of course, prompted outrage from the expected quarters in the US, where there is a significant minority that believes that atheism and secularism will be the downfall of the country. USA Today quotes the chairman of a group called In God We Trust, who claims:

It is one thing for the Administration to meet with groups of varying viewpoints, but it is quite another for a senior official to sit down with activists representing some of the most hate-filled, anti-religious groups in the nation.

Betty Klinck, the writer of the article, poses the following question, which has prompted some interesting comments (many reflecting the usual extreme positions of either side):

DO YOU THINK meeting with atheists reflects poorly on the Obama administration or is this a logical step? Does the Secular Coalition for America represent "hate-filled" organizations or do they make valid points?

In my School’s recent surveys of faith on the island of Ireland, one of the more surprising results was that atheists were keen to participate in the online layperson’s survey, responding disproportionately to their numbers in the general population.

Almost uniformly, they complained that atheists are discriminated against in the public spheres both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. Many feel that they could hurt their social and job prospects by ‘coming out’ as atheists, and that their concerns (especially about religion’s public role) are not taken seriously by policy makers or by their religious fellow citizens.

If atheists feel ignored, marginalised and discriminated against, they may be more likely to retreat into the extreme positions or use the extreme language of which they are at times accused. This past week, even Richard Dawkins had to moderate his own blog because he felt that many of those who were posting on it had become too ‘muddied with thoughtless abusiveness.’

There has been much controversy on the media reporting of this incident – even the minimalist account of it which BBC presenter William Crawley posted on his blog raised some hackles.

This leads me to ask:

If atheists are really marginalised in the public sphere, does this contribute to public debate that is more abusive than civil – ultimately hindering our ability to create societies where people of all faiths and none can live harmoniously together?

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