What’s the difference between Chuck Norris and God?
Let’s see, one exists and the other doesn’t. That’s not the actual punchline of the joke, but because being an atheist was apparently such a scandalous thing at my high school, I don’t know what the actual punchline is. I don’t much care, either.
One day, I was in Spanish class, and we were all supposed to be working independently when someone asked this question (it may have been one of several Chuck Norris jokes – they were particularly popular my junior year of high school). Going to public school in a relatively affluent suburb of Minneapolis, I thought nothing of responding with my usual frankness.
The students around me were a lot more religious than I expected. In part, I think, this was due to Spanish being a “regular” class and not an “honors” or “AP” class, but that’s just speculation.
I wish I had a record of the conversation, but I have a relatively good memory from having told this story several times.
The response to my answer went something like this:
Other students: What do you mean?
Me: What it sounded like. Chuck Norris exists. God doesn’t.
Other students, scandalized: You don’t believe in God?!
Me: No, I don’t. I’m an atheist.
Other students (after a short period of stunned silence): [Insert typical “well if there’s no god…” questions]
Boy in class (in accusatory, insulting tone): Are you depressed? Do you need to see a counselor?
While that’s about how the conversation went, it by no means conveys the full extent of what happened. Have you ever had an experience in which you felt you alone were at odds with nearly every other person in a room of around 30 people? Even 1 against 20 is usually unnerving, no matter the topic.
I felt alone. Small. Insulted. Attacked for my lack of belief. Attacked because I was different. And extremely unsafe. Not even the teacher put a stop to the, uh, discussion.
The students that spoke up – there were maybe 3 ring leaders – called themselves Christians. I would call them mean, close-minded and unfriendly. Despite my dislike of religion, these aren’t things I usually associate with the term “Christian.”*
The reason I’m telling this story is to share a message. Atheists are a very small minority in the United States, and they are a very disliked minority. Many people seem to think atheists complain needlessly about discrimination and poor treatment; that is, many think atheists do not face problems because we identify as atheists. We do.
Jessica Ahlquist faced death threats because she stood up for the separation of church and state within her public high school. Numerous billboard campaigns across the country have been rejected despite their friendly and innocuous messages because they are atheist messages or are sponsored by atheists. Rather than allow atheists to be members of the Boy Scouts of America, the BSA lost government sponsorship and removed all scouting units from public schools and similar government buildings. Americans do not want their children to marry atheists, do not want to vote for atheists, and, by one study’s estimate, trust us about as much as they trust rapists. Seriously, look up the statistics. They’re disturbing.
I have been told I have no morals. I have been told I must be depressed because I don’t believe in the Christian God. I have been told my life has no meaning. I have been told I can’t be happy. I have been singled out and treated as inferior.
I do not think that what I or most atheists face is anything like what black/African-Americans had to face (and still face at times) during the Civil Rights movement (or before it, for that matter). I am not trying to claim the “most discriminated” or “poorest treated” minority group title. I simply want to share with you that atheists really do face negative treatment based on our lack of belief in a god.
This is why I continue to identify as an atheist. That might sound counter-intuitive, but as a strong, confident, intelligent, and moral human being, I feel it is important to be open about my non-belief. It is my hope that, by setting an example, atheism will lose some of it’s negative connotation. I hope that being open about my disbelief will function in a similar manner to a homosexual being open about their sexual orientation – people who know gay individuals are less likely to be homophobic or hateful toward homosexuals. If “atheist” were an innocuous term without such negative associations I doubt I would bother to identify as such.
*In fact, when I ran into one of these students the following year and I shared with the two people I was with (a friend and her boyfriend’s mother) why I had a poor opinion of him, my friend’s boyfriend’s mother started making excuses for him, saying he had a hard life (alcoholic dad, divorced parents – my parents aren’t together, either). Apparently, some Christians think it’s okay for other Christians to be complete a**holes if they’ve had some tough things happen in life.