Why atheism scares them
“This is nothing, cried she; I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home.”
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 1847
The desperate cries of Catherine Earnshaw still haunt the ears of any seasoned reader. They are the words of a proper stranger: stranger to her kin, whom she won’t listen to; stranger to God, rejected with heaven; even stranger to herself, by claiming that she is Heathcliff. If it wasn’t for its passionate intensity for the future tenant of Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s wailing could convincingly epitomize the confession of an atheist.
Atheists are strangers themselves. Or at least, that is what many political regimes, many ideologies and sundry peoples would want us to believe. In 2019, 69 countries still outlawed “blasphemy”, and 13 countries presented legal systems in which atheism is punishable by death. Among these, Saudi Arabia proves to be a serious competitor, since atheists are branded as terrorists and subject to the death penalty. Yet the most frequent form of discrimination against atheists lies in the promotion of a particular religion by official authorities. The United States complies with this standard: let us never forget that its official motto reads “In God We Trust”; and that some local states, like Texas, enshrine such offensive principles in their constitution as: “Nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
This particular form of discrimination might come across as surprising in a growingly secular world. Indeed, modern religiosity is characterized by what British sociologist Grace Davie calls “believing without belonging”; namely the decrease in institutional religious practice, leading to various scattered beliefs centered upon individual spirituality, at the expense of common tenets and rituals. This gradual shift has bred a wide array of forms of religiousness, undermining the idea of a single metaphysical truth.
Such a kaleidoscopic religious landscape could easily mislead us into thinking that modern societies are more tolerant regarding atheism. However, the examples mentioned above (among so many others) are empirical evidence of the contrary. Although irreligiousness is on the rise, there still seems to be a significant gap between increasing secularism and social recognition of atheism. “Why so scary?” could be the main question to raise.
The basic definition of atheism stems from its etymology: the belief in the non-existence of any god. Yet so many people inevitably extrapolate, by calling into question the morality of such a philosophical stance. It often comes in with a distorted, high-schoolish reminiscence of the works of Nietzsche: atheists are wannabe deicides and nihilistic individuals, with debatable ethical principles (if any at all), since they do not abide by the supreme value, i.e. “God”. They consequently harm public order (as indicated by the Saudi legislation for instance) and threaten the very cohesion of society, as well as religious fundamentals.
This is roughly the most widely spread starter pack for discriminating against atheism, which evinces several blatant intellectual shortcomings. Firstly, it demonstrates a sheer inability to conceptualize the notions of value and belief outside the scope of religion and a transcendent entity. Any humanist grounds for ethics and politics thus find themselves casually dismissed: human dignity would result from being a creature of “God”, not from being human. In other words, for the advocates of a religious-based political system, being human is not enough to build something worthwhile.
Moreover, the idea that the legality of atheism would upset public order presupposes that only religiousness manages to bind countless individualities into a fully-fledged social structure. It is interesting that such a quaint idea should pop up in the minds of secular political leaders, insofar as the very nature of their office differs from that of the clergy. Politics founded on super-human values is thus nothing but religion in disguise.
As a result of this institutional blend, another major “rationale” for discriminating against atheism could lie in the abovementioned growing irreligiousness, as pointed at by French philosopher Camille Riquier: “The issue of God, which according to Kant used to be a ‘need of human reason’, has been uprooted from many consciences, to the extent that some have even forgotten what ‘believing’ means.” Atheism would also be rejected because of its success: the idea of “God” has lost its full meaning and potential for many people all over the world. Such is the genuine significance of Nietzsche’s “God is dead”: God can remain dead, along with the ontology and ethics enclosed therein and promoted by these regimes, willing to conceal this metaphysical break which might undercut their legitimacy.
But above all, such an inaccurate perception of atheism, resulting in political discrimination and death penalty, fails to grasp its positivity. Proper atheism negates all kinds of gods and simultaneously puts forward a substantial philosophical and political position, no longer lingering in the limbos of conceptual negativity. This dialectical turnaround is best evidenced by The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus: “I cannot understand what kind of freedom would be given me by a higher being. (…) The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action. Now if the absurd cancels all my chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action. That privation of hope and future means an increase in man’s availability.”
We shall not discuss here whether Camus was an atheist or not. Nevertheless, this short paragraph indicates the massive increase in man’s action and responsibility which comes with atheism. Human beings are restored to their full sovereignty, be it tyrannical or democratic. Atheism recalls politics its true origins, namely a historical construction. No more myths or eternity, no more unquestionable values. That is also one of the reasons why some political regimes might judge atheism a dangerous idea: it is a rejection of all idols, including the political totem that religious-based states tend to turn into. And if criticizing a deity is no longer frightening, then shedding light upon the flaws of human government should be a cinch.
This is the reason why these regimes and individuals wave blood-splattered blades and segregationist decrees at atheists. Because they want to avoid full accountability. Because freedom of thought threatens power by divine right. And since atheists, just like Catherine Earnshaw, have declared that heaven is not their home, some have chosen to make earth their hell.
 Humanists International, The Freedom of Thought Report 2019: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-Religious
 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1994, 240p.
Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1994, 240p.
Camille Riquier, Pierre Zaoui, « Les athées ont-ils tué Dieu ? Dialogue », Esprit, Mars/Avril 2014, https://esprit.presse.fr/article/camille-riquier-et-pierre-zaoui/les-athees-ont-ils-tue-dieu-dialogue-37779
Adam Withnall, “Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents”, The Independent, 04/01/2014,
Humanists International, The Freedom of Thought Report 2019: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-Religious
Amnesty International Public Statement, “Indonesia: Atheist imprisonment a setback for freedom of expression”, 14 June 2012
Texas Constitution, https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/legref/TxConst.pdf