Unjust State Laws Directed Towards a Faith-Based Minority: Atheists

Pete Soderman, at his blog, calls attention to numerous unjust state laws on the books that discriminate against atheists. Here’s one from North Carolina:

Sec. 8. Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

Such a state law, of course, if challenged, would almost certainly be overturned in a federal court. But the point is that a number of states have laws that explicitly thumb their noses at atheists and are baiting court challenges by them. Here’s another (this one from Maryland):

“Article 37. That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God . . .”

Atheists, obviously, have a faith-based worldview, naturalism, and they have views about religion that are in the minority. And no class of persons, simply by virtue of the fact that they hold unpopular views, should be discriminated against or denied their full rights to civic participation.

Soderman has a long and far more detailed (and excellent) post on these unjust laws, and their implications, here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Unjust State Laws Directed Towards a Faith-Based Minority: Atheists

  1. jonolan says:

    In a purist world, these are certainly flawed laws, but can America, or any civilized nations of humans, allow Atheists to be in positions of any responsibility? By their very failing of Godlessness they have shown themselves to be lesser beings incapable of faith or reason to keep faith and oaths except as those oaths serve their self interest?

    Think about that objectively for a moment. Should a man who believes that there is no lasting personal consequence to oathbreaking be allowed to hold a position of public trust?

  2. Aaron says:

    Interesting post. You mention atheists as people of faith. I have heard that argument many times challenged by atheists who resent when Christians try to say that it takes more faith to be one.

    I do agree that it is discriminatory to deny people positions within government based on their religious belief.

  3. santitafarella says:


    I’m not a Christian, I’m an agnostic, but I do believe that all worldviews that exceed the warrants of empiricism (and all of them do, to one extent or another) require faith to fully accept. The thesis underlying atheism is that all phenomena—the laws of physics, the mind, the first cell, and even the very existence of the universe itself—can be thoroughly accounted for by blind time and chance acting upon atoms rustling in the void. That’s a lot to swallow. Atheists may well be making a correct inference about the world, but their inference far exceeds what science can tell us (at least at this point in human history). Someday, perhaps, all the great existential questions will have a scientific answer (though I doubt it). In the meantime, we must make hopeful or pessimistic inferences that leap very far from the empirical (or be confused agnostics, as I am).


  4. santitafarella says:


    I certainly don’t downplay your concern. At least superficially (and perhaps more than superficially), it makes sense that fear of divine justice would secure an oath better than not fearing divine justice. But I think there is no evidence that atheists are any less moral than religionists. None whatsoever. And there are ways that atheists (historically) have grounded their morality (I am thinking, for example, of Camus’s notion of solidarity with others, and rebellion against the universe’s indifference, in facing the absurd together).

    Dostoevsky, by the way, shared your concern (in his novels) about unmoored atheism leading to nihilism. And who can say, after the Russian Revolution, that he wasn’t prophetic? I certainly don’t think your concern is foolish.


  5. jonolan says:

    I don’t agree with with the proposition that an atheist – an actual one as opposed to a doubter – can be truly moral at all. Ethical – yes, certainly; moral – no.

    I have addressed that point here – http://blog.jonolan.net/ethics-morality/a-moral-atheist/

    I suppose it’s not odd that you mention Dostoevsky, since his writings and the actions of the USSR, Communist China, and the Khmer Rouge are, to some extent the basis of my concern.

    But, despite my concerns, we are still faced with the problem of the Constitutionality of such restrictions. I’m forced to refer to Jefferson’s words:

    I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

    Those words, if at all valid, must cut against my sensibilities as easily as they do someone else’s. 😦

    So…will will die – or risk doing so – not only by our word, but because of it? Or shall we be forsworn, the very thing we fear in this case?

  6. santitafarella says:


    I like your dark Jacob-angel wrestling with this question. And I like your Jefferson quote. I might bring that one forward as a stand-alone post.

    As for your making a distinction between ethics and morality, I’ll have to think about that.


  7. Pingback: Quote for a Saturday « Prometheus Unbound

  8. jonolan says:

    Thank you, Santi. I wrestle with almost anything like this. When I sound certain it means one side or the other won the match earlier. 😉

  9. All these laws are dead letters since Torcaso v. Watkins in 1961, but some stupid lawmakers still try to enforce them on occasion (see the Silverman lawsuit in 1993).

    Jonolan writes:
    In a purist world, these are certainly flawed laws, but can America, or any civilized nations of humans, allow Atheists to be in positions of any responsibility? By their very failing of Godlessness they have shown themselves to be lesser beings incapable of faith or reason to keep faith and oaths except as those oaths serve their self interest?

    Sorry, atheists have equal rights in the US, just like religious bigots like yourself.

  10. Digger says:

    How can one allow Atheists to be in positions of any responsibility? Simple – they have no faith-based barrow to push… Just as likely to make mistakes – we are all human after all… that’s why we have the rule of law, and the seperation of church and state in a civilised society. (Can’t remember -does the US recognise the seperation of church and state…it’s kinda hard to tell…)

    The idea of a faith based atheism seems totally illogical btw, it really just amounts to another religion, equally non-empirical and equally static.

    It is the lack of flexibility present within any belief system that provides for the dangers of poor decision making and bad logic. Reasonableness of conduct relies on a workable theory of the interrelations of social groups based on empirical knowledge (not belief) and a mind capable of rational and logical thought, isolated from distorting belief-systems.

    That religious people (of all faiths – I note that Christianity seems to be the only recognised faith in the above posts) are capable of this is not in doubt – these qualities are not mutually exclusive to a belief system, however, how many wars are started over atheism, as opposed to religion – where everyone thinks that THEY are right? I know at this stage someone will mention the Reds, but really, is that not just another belief system? Complete with a mummified, if not crucified, leader lying in state, whose resting place is the place of pilgrimage and worship?

    Steven Fry, Hay Festival 2006 “I don’t think that we should ever allow religion the trick of maintaining that the spiritual and the beautiful and the noble and the altruistic and the morally strong and the virtuous are in any way inventions of religion or peculiar to religion.”

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