Atheists are an unpopular group in the US. According to a Pew Research poll, 53% of Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist. One person I know is afraid she’d lose her job if her employer knew she was one.
Personally, I don’t feel persecuted for my atheism. On November 1, 1996, the lead front page article of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune began: “Gary D. McGath said he is an atheist…” Nothing bad happened to me as a result. The story wasn’t actually about me, but about a pagan ceremony which I attended; the pagans had been targeted with a death threat, but the ceremony happened peacefully. A reporter just happened to talk to me there. My song “Night of Halloween” is about that event.
It makes a big difference where you’re living, I’m sure. In New Hampshire you’ll be left alone with just about any religious view. In some other parts of the US, not so much, and there are still issues nationwide. The people who consider it a grave injustice that the Boy Scouts ban gays are mostly silent about its doing the same to atheists on the grounds that we can’t be “the best kind of citizen.” (As a private organization, the Scouts should be free to ban anyone they want, but they should admit they’re a religious organization and not get any favors from the government. The Masons’ requirement for a belief in God doesn’t bother me, since they’re an openly religious group and don’t claim I’m an inferior citizen.)
Distrust of atheists is related to the notion that without a belief in God there can be no morality. Religionists say things like: “If there is no Moral Law Giver (God), then how can there be a moral law that prescribes: ‘Be good.’ Every prescription has a prescriber, and this is a moral prescription.” In this view, morality is a matter of obeying orders. Something is right or wrong because an authority says it is. If God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” then it’s wrong to kill. If He says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” then it’s wrong not to kill.
Weak as this argument is, the better-known secular ethicists haven’t answered it well. We hear that right and wrong come from our values, which is true as far as it goes, but they hedge on the question of where values come from. Some claim morality is derived from biological impulses, but they cherry-pick just the impulses which they like in order to arrive at pre-selected conclusions. Rand had it right: the only rational standard of value is human life. People don’t like this, though, because the life which is central to you, which makes it possible to value anything at all, is your own, and this is “selfish.”
Most people do act on the standard of life most of the time, but it’s understandable if they’re skeptical about secularists who flounder and dodge on the fundamentals of ethics. Until it’s more widely understood that life and the pursuit of happiness are moral goals that don’t require a divine commandment, the distrust of atheists will likely continue.