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End Bigotry Against Atheists at Harvard

By Charles M. Silver
Charles M. Silver is a Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in 2011.

When Harvard Law Professor Adrian C. Vermeule ’90 made a lame attempt at humor by tweeting that principled conservatives would be “[t]he very first group [headed] for the camps” under a post-Trump liberal regime, critics condemned him for trivializing the Holocaust. They did so even though he did not mention the Holocaust and even though he might just as easily have had in mind the camps in which Japanese Americans were interned during World War II or those in which the People’s Republic of China is confining the Uighurs today. A joker who comes anywhere near the Holocaust does so at his peril.

But a few months earlier, when Vermeule took dead aim at atheists, the critics were silent. In defense of state laws that forbid atheists from holding public office or serving on juries, he tweeted that they are “sensible” because atheists “can’t be trusted to keep an oath.” This wasn’t an inadvertent insult, like his tweet about “camps” may have been; Vermeule demeaned atheists intentionally. The critics were silent because bigots enjoy far greater freedom to slander atheists than any other minority group.

If Vermeule had said the same thing about laws in Southern states depriving African Americans of the right to hold public office and to serve on juries, the uproar would have been deafening. Harvard students would have overrun the Law School and demanded his resignation. Had he targeted Muslims, gay individuals, or Hispanic immigrants, the reaction would have been the same. But even at a university whose students detest bigotry and discrimination, a faculty member who accuses atheists of immorality bears no greater risk of being condemned than one who speaks out against, say, abusive husbands and neglectful parents.

Because bigotry against atheists is common and tolerated, most atheists refuse to describe themselves as such. When asked by polling organizations about their religious beliefs, about 4 percent of respondents say they are atheists. But a clever study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that people who do not believe in God comprise about 26 percent of the population. The researchers hypothesized that, because “religious nonbelief is often heavily stigmatized, … many atheists [] refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls.” Summarizing the results of a study published in 2016, one author described atheists as the “group Americans love to hate.”

It is all but certain that many Harvard students are closeted atheists. Atheists tend to be far more educated than those who are religious. According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of atheists and other “Solidly Secular” persons hold college degrees versus 14 percent of “God-and-Country Believers” and 12 percent of the “Diversely Devout.” The student bodies at universities and other places of higher learning also contain mostly young people, and young people are far less likely to affiliate with churches than their elders. Yet, because atheism is stigmatized, many are reluctant to state their lack of faith openly and the influence of atheists is muted.

Because atheists tend to be better educated than believers, Vermeule’s attack on them is also a veiled broadside against education. His assertion that it is “sensible” to preclude atheists from holding elected office and serving on juries further implies that less-educated people are better suited to public service. Why anyone would hold these opinions is a mystery; that a professor at one of the country’s elite law schools does is horrifying.

Vermeule’s attack on atheists also implies that religious individuals can be trusted to uphold oaths. But if that is so, one must wonder how he can explain the ease with which Republican members of the United States House of Representatives and Senate ignored their oaths during the impeachment proceedings? The GOP is the party of religion. Republican officeholders typically wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves. Yet, instead of upholding the Constitution and judging President Donald Trump’s culpability objectively, as their oaths required, they frustrated the investigation, rigged the process in his favor, and ignored the evidence entirely. When push came to shove, their religious beliefs gave them no moral courage. The only exception was Senator Mitt Romney, who was pummeled by Trump and Fox News for allowing his religious convictions to influence his vote. Oh, the irony.

Vermeule’s defense of state laws denying civil rights to atheists is religion-inspired bigotry, pure and simple. It’s time to put people like him on notice that atheists are entitled to respect. I hope that members of the Harvard community will send him this message, loudly.

Charles M. Silver is a Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in 2011.

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