In light of the saddening decision by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold prayer at town meetings, there seem to be some tones of “the atheists have been defeated!” going up in some circles. Putting aside the fact that the suit was filed by a Baptist group focused on secularism in government, this view that this has been a major strike in favor of religious liberties belies, it seems, an ignorance of history. I think we need to remind ourselves of the importance of religious freedom, and there’s no better lesson than history. As much as it may surprise many, the freedom to believe in God has not always been as safe in America as it is today:
To quote some illustrative selections:
“Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.”
“In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.”
When a government is allowed to prioritize one form of religion over others, sometimes to the explicit exclusion of others, the only ones who benefit are those who are in the majority or hold the most power – which is all well and good for them until they lose that privileged status and become at the mercy of those they persecuted and marginalized (see: Iraq and the inversion of power of the Shia & Sunnis).
The issue of and importance of a secular government, while one that atheists should be concerned about, is not an issue that should be or is, by any measure, limited to one that should concern only atheists. If not out of compassion for the people around you, then act at least out of self-interest to try and ensure that the day never comes where you find yourself on the other end of the hammer or pike of marginalization and persecution that has been previously wielded against those not in power.