I have read many newspaper columns complaining that atheists are unjustly discriminated against when they are excluded by nonchurch organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the Boy Scouts. Two specific cases come to mind.
First, a few years ago a high school senior wrote a guest column about applying to join “Up with People” (UWP), a religious-based, but not church-related, musical troupe that sings uplifting and inspirational music.
According to the student, his application was denied because he noted that he is an atheist.
The young writer was upset that he was allegedly excluded from UWP only because of his atheism. I have not been able to verify whether belief in God is actually a requirement for belonging to UWP.
Second, a columnist for an Iowa newspaper recently repeated the oft-heard complaint that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) excludes atheists.
Anyone familiar with that organization’s history and practice knows of its emphasis on reliance on a “higher power” to recover addiction to alcohol.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” plays a central role in it as well. The ethos of AA, like that of UWP, is generically Christian.
Neither group (like the Boy Scouts) is affiliated with any church or denomination. Both were founded by people who felt that belief in God is important for society’s moral betterment or for recovery from addiction.
I have heard a growing, mounting complaint that a free, pluralistic society, such as the United States claims to be, ought not to include and give tax-exempt status to non-ecclesiastical groups that exclude atheists.
I have heard no parallel complaint that our society ought not to include and give tax-exempt status to groups that exclude believers in God. Such do exist. A notable example is the American Atheist Association.
The question the atheists’ objection raises is pluralism. If we are a truly pluralist society (as most atheists and others argue), then why shouldn’t any group that can make a case that it exists for “religious, educational or charitable purposes” be granted 501(c)(3) status as tax exempt and be permitted to limit membership to those who agree with its beliefs and purposes?
Neither of the cases I mentioned above claimed that UWP or AA should be illegal or stripped of their 501(c)(3) status.
Both, like many others, were claiming, implicitly if not explicitly, that belief in God matters so little to anything important that it is wrong for any organization (with the possible exception of churches, synagogues and so on) to require it for membership.
But that, of course, is an argument based entirely on opinion and perspective. It has no more “punch,” as it were, than a claim that belief in God does matter in many things.
There are people who apparently wish to force (by pressure if not law) belief in God to be entirely privatized, kept out of the public spaces except within the walls of churches, synagogues and mosques.
The way to do this, they believe, is to point at large, successful charitable organizations that require belief in God and cry, “Discrimination!”
What they rarely, if ever, acknowledge is that they are free to set up their own alternative organizations that require atheism for membership and participation.
A major question for them is why so few such large organizations designed to promote the common good (however conceived) exist.
Most of them, so far as I know, are support groups for atheists and groups whose main aim is to counter the influence of religion.
Why do so few organizations centered around atheistic belief and ethos exist for primarily charitable purposes?
Could it be that atheism simply doesn’t include such an impulse – to help others live whole human and successful, happy lives?
I am not denying that individual atheists can be, and often are, kind, good-hearted, decent people who care for others.
I’m only asking why these atheists don’t organize to fight the ills that plague humans, such as addiction and poverty.
In recent years, several atheist alternatives to AA – atheist “Twelve Step” programs – have been founded. There are even atheist churches now.
I could say, “I feel excluded by them!” But I don’t feel excluded by them. I don’t cry “discrimination!” when I hear of them. I applaud their freedom and initiative to have their own organizations. That’s pluralism.
So why would groups such as UWP (if they do), AA and Boy Scouts exclude atheists? Are they haters?
That word “haters” has become so overused I find it useless. Does someone necessarily hate everyone they exclude from their own organization? Hardly. Such a claim would be absurd.
Special interest groups abound and nearly all of them exclude someone. A senior citizens club excludes teenagers. A chess club excludes people who have no interest in chess.
A large chain of exercise gyms for “women only” excludes men. I somehow suspect that a chain of gyms for “men only” would get a lot of criticism.
Groups that exclude atheists probably also exclude others. The main point is not to exclude atheists but to emphasize the importance, for them, of belief in God or a “higher power” for the flourishing of human life.
Apparently, the critics of such organizations not only disagree but also want that belief singled out and excluded as an organizing principle for any organization (with the possible exceptions of churches, synagogues and mosques).
But this would be no different than believers in God arguing that no organization (with the possible exceptions of “atheist churches”) ought to be permitted to hold as an essential principle that belief in God does not matter or serve any good purpose and should never be made a litmus test for membership.
I have never heard any believer in God make that argument.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”