If you hang around bookstores, you get a sense of cultural trends. One of the latest seems to be evangelical atheism. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris not only do not believe in God, they want to share this "good news" with the rest of us.
My own sense is that this is sort of 19th century, but debate tends to be a good thing. What gives me pause is the argument that atheistic proselytization reflects some type of immutable characteristic that the larger society must not only tolerate, but accept in the same manner as race, ethnicity and, more recently, sexual orientation.
Thus the Secular Coalition of America, a recently formed group that seems to want to create an identity politics of nonbelief, celebrates the fact that it has found a "nontheistic" Congressman, Pete Stark (D-Calif. - but you could have guessed that part), and suggests an inconsistency between the constitution's prohibition of a religious test for public office and the fact that most people would be reluctant to vote for an atheist.
Is that right? Isn't there a difference between assessing people on a characteristic that they do not choose and that is almost certainly unrelated to what we regard as truly important about an individual and forming judgments based upon a person's worldview? It is one thing to abjure legal standards for office holders and another to argue that people must ignore what is arguably the most important belief (or nonbelief) that an individual holds.
In at least one sense I am sympathetic. We tend to be uninformed about world views that we do not hold and our first presuppositions may be inaccurate; Amanda Marcotte being a recent notorious example. Someone's conservative Christianity might be very relevant to understanding him, but Marcotte couldn't be bothered to learn the first thing about conservative Christianity. A famous historic example is some protestant reaction to the candidacy of President Kennedy.
But doesn't that suggest that we be cautious, as opposed to indifferent, about a candidate's religious (or irreligious) world view?
I raise the issue because we seem to be congenitally unable to have a rational public conversation once something is successfully labeled as "discrimination" or "bias." Particularly for us baby boomers, racial enmity (more accurately, its death throes) was the great sin of our youth. If you pitch something to us as a matter of "equality" and "prejudice", we tend to check our critical faculties and get on board.
Atheists are certainly entitled to voice their views and to live without civil disabilities. But the notion that they might be the 21st century's next protected class seems wrongheaded.