The Last Minority by Catherine Fahringer (August 1997)

That this country is a “melting pot” is a well-preserved and cherished myth. If it were so, all the various cultures, colors and religions would have blended together in one big generic soup. Instead, our lumps keep colliding with each other and with a larger blob which we call “society.”

“Society” is white, heterosexual and Christian, but its mainstream has recently and reluctantly acknowledged that Jews and Blacks shouldn’t publicly be denigrated or ostracized, and might even be entitled to some token respect. Gays and Lesbians are still under consideration, though mainstream media are less openly hostile. This new tolerance is constantly disputed by some of the other small lumps, such as the KKK, the neo-Nazis and militia groups, but in the mainstream blob it is not politically correct to practice open bigotry and discrimination.

Under minority group pressure, mainstream media have helped bring this about. However, there are still plenty of little lump-to-lump and lump-to-blob collisions to keep things somewhat turbulent in this putative land of the free.

Successful cohesion and purpose is what drives a minority to its success in achieving its equal rights in this country. The problems facing Blacks were clear, and the discrimination against their color at once bonded and identified them. They had to risk much in order to gain what should have been theirs from the time Thomas Jefferson penned The Declaration of Independence. But, sadly, it was nearly two hundred years before they were able to lay claim to their rights. They had been good enough to do the work nobody else wanted to do, and good enough to lay down their lives for this country, but not good enough to eat at an ordinary lunch counter, or ride on a bus in a seat of their choice.

Gays and Lesbians had to step forward and identify themselves en masse. Color and race were not the issue or distinguishing marks of this group. But the goal was clear: equal rights. There is a curious irony in having to go public about a private matter in order to claim full rights as citizens of this country, one of which is the right to privacy! Once again, here were people, along with Blacks and Hispanics, whose tax money, and bodily sacrifice in battle were acceptable to a country which otherwise wanted them to remain silent and invisible, yet which ambivalently delighted in opening those closet doors for the purpose of humiliating and often prosecuting those within.

The skeptic/agnostic/humanist/freethinker/secularist/rationalist “group” is not united even by name! Some bridle at the word atheist. The American Humanist Association members are constantly discussing and disputing what to call themselves. So now there are Religious Humanists, Secular Humanists, and Jewish Humanists, which have formed their own groups which may or may not still be affiliated with the larger American Humanist Association. But whatever they choose to call themselves, for the sake of brevity they will be referred to herein as atheists or freethinkers, freethinker being a convenient umbrella term for nonbelievers.

Freethinkers come in assorted shapes, colors and sizes. They are straight, gay or bisexual, and unless they point their own finger at themselves, they are pretty hard to detect. On occasion, one of them will do just that, and in a court of law will request that he or she be allowed to affirm rather than swear the familiar “so help me, God.” Having to do this should never be necessary, for this at once calls attention to the lone “outsider,” and automatically sends a message of doubt as to the character and credibility of such a person. The majority of nonbelievers in such a situation would quell their nausea, grit their teeth and play out the charade.

Why are freethinkers so timid about identifying themselves?

Because all of their identifying names have been demonized by “good Christians.” They might lose friends, hurt or alienate parents, put their children at risk for ridicule or even physical harm by their peers, lose jobs, lose standing in the community, have their property vandalized or receive death threats. (Sound familiar, anyone?) All of these are possibilities, and some atheists have experienced all of them simply because of their efforts to protect the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

The outrage of those self-proclaimed patriotic Christian Americans when anyone points out that organized prayer is a no-no in a public schoolsetting, is a fearsome thing. The media, in its perpetual state of adolescence, misses this golden opportunity to defend the Constitution and inform the reading, viewing, listening public that those who do so are not the enemy.

It is still politically correct for mainstream society and media to hold the unbeliever up to ridicule. The terror of the Dark Ages seems to have pervaded the twentieth century right to its dying gasp. It simply isn’t proper or acceptable to say that one thinks organized religion is a cruel hoax, has caused more grief than comfort, more despair than joy, and has been the biggest hindrance to human progress and women’s equality than any other single idea. Not only is it not proper, it is downright dangerous for an individual to do so!

Until such time as freethinkers will set aside their obsession with what to call themselves, and until the media will sell them advertising time and stop being cowed by the Religious Wrong, there isn’t a hope that they will ever be thought of as anything but wild-eyed evil aberrants in a Christian country.

In 1852, the Unitarian, Frances Dana Gage, forecast that in a hundred years’ time oppression and war would have ceased, that we would all live together in harmony, and that woman would be man’s equal partner. Wrong, Frances! Although you did nail one: the end of slavery.

Robert Green Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic of the nineteenth century, believed that organized religion would have to surrender to science within his lifetime. He died in 1899 without seeing that come to pass.

Nearly one hundred years later, science has still not unseated religion which becomes more strident and more intrusive into government every day. There is even a tendency for the lines of science and religion to blur as our government funds “scientific studies” on the effects of prayer on the healing process, or the health of church-goers as compared with the health of those who do not attend.

Is there any hope that our society will ever come to respect honest thought, or will it forever continue to be awed and controlled by the worshippers of the unseen? Will thought ever be recognized in this society as an admirable thing? The mainstream media and the unification of freethinkers who pressure the media hold the keys to enlightened answers.

Over a hundred years ago Robert Ingersoll observed, “When the rights of even one human being are held in contempt, the rights of all are indanger. We cannot destroy the liberties of others without losing our own. By exciting the prejudices of the ignorant we at last produce a contempt for law and justice, and sow the seeds ofviolence and crime.”

Well, you were right on that call, Bob.

Catherine Fahringer is a longtime Foundation officer and activist from Texas. She was the subject of a Sunday magazine profile in the San Antonio Express-News which is reprinted in the Foundation’s new anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition: “No Gods – No Masters.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation