Agnostics, non-religious and openly anti-religious people, too. Hey, I can’t be the only person who had a “holy shit” moment when Obama recognized non-believers in his inaugural speech. Nor can I be the only one bracing myself for the wingnut outrage, since there’s so much effort dedicated to vilifying atheists as the ultimate cancer eating away at our supposedly secular nation. Or maybe not. Perhaps even the most hardened wingnuts will realize that Obama included non-believers in the spirit of inclusiveness he’s been trying to foster in his speeches for awhile now. I’ve really appreciated the way he pointedly includes “gay or straight” and “disabled or not” amongst other phrases that really draw attention not just to the diversity of this country, but to the diversity of oppression that must be overcome. Until he singled out non-believers in his growing list of People Who Count, though, I hadn’t thought a whole lot about how much it sucks to be pointedly ignored by our politicians. Maybe in my brain I had thought that the ChristianMuslimJew list wasn’t so much exclusionary as merely listing. After all, why include atheists and other non-believers, when the point is to not have an affiliation that requires a label? But by listing non-believers, Obama tacitly argued that the non-inclusion of non-believers in the past was a deliberate exclusion he clearly means to reject.
One might safely infer that the sudden shift towards more aggressive, activist-oriented atheism and skepticism has been working. Which of course is why it’s so strongly resisted. Complaints about big meanie atheism from Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher are stemming mostly from a fear that big meanie atheism is effective. I think that among secularists, the issue of raising non-believer visibility has been a troubling one, because we don’t necessarily see the purpose of it. After all, our government institutions should be secular as a matter of principle, and for the benefit of believers as well as non-believers. So, why should we have to raise atheist visibility?
But politics isn’t just a matter of rational arguments. If people contextualize this country as being one that has multiple faiths but not that many faithless, people are going to have a hard time seeing the harm and unfairness of all this god talk coming from government institutions and other issues like faith-based funding. People aren’t going to see the harm so long as all references to god and faith are generic enough. But if you can point to a group of people who are still being excluded, no matter how generic the references, then people might have a better idea why the only fair solution to the issue of religious diversity is to keep religion private and make government spaces secular. “Under god” in the Pledge, for instance, may not seem a big deal if you assume that everyone in the room believes in some kind of god. But it’s obviously exclusionary if there’s atheists in the room.
That’s why the inclusion of non-believers in the inaugural speech is such a big honking deal. Acknowledging atheists as equal citizens to the faithful has a ton of policy implications, ranging from small things like the Pledge to bigger issues, like the right to use birth control and abortion. This little thing could end up sending a signal with bigger implications down the road.