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Canadian atheists share experiences of stigmatization

Canadians are notoriously polite, which doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate or oppress each other. When it comes to religion and atheism, similar rules apply – believe what you will, just don’t talk about it.

“I live in Canada, where there is general indifference to one’s religious beliefs. If you casually mention your beliefs in a conversation, no one will care.” – Male survey respondent, Canada

Religion in casual conversation – “What did you do this weekend?” “I went to church.” – is generally ok. But speaking fervently about your belief or non-belief generally makes folks feel uncomfortable.

“Mainstream believers (Christians except for ultra conservative sects) are not stigmatized at all, while religious minorities (e.g. Muslims and ultra conservative Christian sects) are strongly stigmatized.” – Female survey respondent, Canada.

Similarly, if you are a quiet atheist, most people will not care. But if you start talking about it…well, that’s when stigmatization rears its ugly head.

When asked to provide a recent example of a social situation where they had experienced stigmatization because of their atheism, 57 women and 97 men from Canada shared their story.

Typical reactions they encountered included:

  • Questions
  • Doubt and fear
  • Surprise or ‘double-take’
  • A cold shoulder
  • Sadness and pity: You’ll never be happy or fulfilled, etc…
  • Social awkwardness
  • Shunning
  • Loss of friendship and family relations
  • Accusations of being immoral: lacking a moral compass

There were also more aggressive and discriminatory reactions that included being given a bible or crucifix, online death threats, being fired from a job, or being preached to during times of grief and loss.

“I was fired from a job after one month. A week after my born again Christian boss found out I was an atheist.” – Female respondent, Canada

“I once casually told one of my managers at work that I was an atheist. Turned out he was a member of some kind of evangelical Baptist church. After that he started causing me grief and eventually invented reasons to get me transferred out of his team and leaving me with a huge black mark on my personnel file.” – Male respondent, Canada

“My children were attacked (physically) when they innocently told playmates they didn’t believe in a god. When I confronted the parents of the attackers, only one reprimanded their child. The rest called me an unfit mother and a satan worshiper. After that, I was no longer asked to participate in school functions, community events. My children became ‘persona non grata’ as well.” – Female respondent, Canada

These go beyond stigmatization to outright discrimination. But when compared to the responses of American atheists (many more rejections, death threats, much more fear and social consequences to being out as an atheist), most examples of stigmatization provided by Canadians were relatively mild. One respondent compared her experience in Canada with her previous experience of living in the States.

“I don’t have a recent experience, but I did have an unpleasant Thanksgiving while living in D.C. I was pressured to go to someone’s (from work) for dinner. I was asked to say grace, which I found extremely presumptuous and I replied that I didn’t say grace, I was an atheist. You would have thought I had horns, the way they all looked at me! I had never experienced anything like that in Canada.” – Female respondent, Canada.

Indeed, when I read the examples from our American counterparts, I can’t help but think we’ve got it easy. Of course, politeness should not be confused with acceptance – we still have a long way to go. How can we talk about the wacky beliefs of our politicians if speaking about people’s religion is seen as impolite? That’s one of the challenges facing the atheist movement up North.

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