Guess Who Got into a Facebook Face-off over Atheism?

While the idea of a face-off on social media might suggest stepping into the middle of a frivolous fracas, a serious issue was raised in a recent Facebook post by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in which she accused State Sen. Katrina Shealy of “spreading the lie” that the director of the Department of Social Services, Lillian Koller, is an atheist. Shealy responded on her own Facebook page that she was angry over the governor’s accusation, asserting that she had asked Haley’s staff months ago to confirm or deny rumor about Koller’s alleged atheism. The staff clarified that Koller is Jewish, which came as a relief to Shealy. “I don’t give a flying flip what the Director is,” came her retort. “Well that is not true either, I would worry if she were an atheist.”

Really? And why is that? If Koller were an atheist (again, she apparently isn’t), how would that negatively affect her job performance? Why would anyone’s religious beliefs or lack of beliefs be an issue at all?

Of course, we all know why. The issue is prejudice. Atheists are one of the most maligned groups in the United States, especially in the Bible Belt where the first question someone asks upon meeting you is, “So where do you go to church?” According to polls, being atheist is less acceptable in America than being gay, Muslim or Jewish. Heck, even Haley and Shealy can accept a Jewish director of Social Services, but apparently not an atheist one.

Last fall, a group of atheists in Spartanburg, South Carolina, were excluded from volunteering at a soup kitchen. Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer, which she said would be a “disservice to this community,” adding that the Christian organization that runs the soup kitchen “stands on the principles of God.” Apparently, allowing others to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. So what did the Upstate Atheists do? They raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.

Recently, when Charleston atheist Herb Silverman was invited to give the invocation at a City Council meeting, several City Council members got up and walked out. One of them gave his reason for walking out in the Charleston Post and Courier. According to Councilman Wendell Gilliard, an atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops because they are “fighting for our principles, based on God.” Mr. Gilliard apparently believes that our troops are fighting a holy war. I thought we were fighting against the Taliban; I didn’t realize we were the Taliban.

If Herb Silverman’s name rings a bell, you may remember him as the person who succeeded in challenging the provision in South Carolina’s constitution that atheists cannot hold public office, including serving as a notary public. Yes, believe it or not, the Constitution of the State of South Carolina discriminates against people who do not believe in the existence of God. In Silverman’s case, the State Supreme Court unanimously ruled that such discrimination violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for holding public office, and the First Amendment, which prohibits the government’s establishment of religion.

Courts can abolish discrimination, which is written into law, but they can’t abolish prejudice, which is written in hearts and minds. Hearts and minds are much more difficult to change because they can be clouded by ignorance. All prejudice is founded on ignorance and fear: atheists are immoral; blacks are lazy; Jews are stingy, Muslims are terrorists; gays are pedophiles. Only understanding can eradicate ignorance, and only love can cast out fear.

During the 2008 election, some of Barack Obama’s opponents, who were either ignorant or politically underhanded, claimed that he was Muslim, which raised the ire of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” said Powell in correcting the allegation. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”

Indeed, prejudice of any kind is “not America.” Someday, maybe it won’t be South Carolina either.

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