What Obama’s Conversation With Bill Maher Says About Privilege

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Recently, our current president Barack Obama held an interview with Bill Maher to discuss a range of topics, from smoking to the nuke-happy carrot with corn hair that is running for president. Among the things brought up by Maher, an outspoken and famous atheist, were the rights of atheists and agnostics in America. He mentioned some of the current statistics on atheists in congress, and how we deserve more representation. As a supporter of Obama, the president’s response somewhat disappointed me.

“You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that there are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s Agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

…I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are.”

This is an excerpt. You can read and watch the entire exchange on the topic here, it’s well worth your time. Obama definitely advocates some good ideas regarding religious culture and how we should curtail it. It’s just that… I’m disappointed with this particular statement.


[Image: Barack Obama and Bill Maher have a conversation seated next to each other]

Obama certainly had good reason to acknowledge that at the very least there is some discrimination against atheists in the political arena. Maher’s statistics aside, discrimination against atheist politicians hit the mainstream this year when it was revealed that a member the Democratic National Convention had conspired to out Bernie Sanders as an atheist. It’s clear that merely being a member of the “atheist” category in politics is perceived as smear-worthy. In fact, according to Gallup, atheists are a religious category (within the categories polled in the survey) that the least amount of people would vote for in America. 40% of respondents stated that they would not vote for an atheist, which was a higher rate of disapproval than Muslims, gays/lesbians, and women (38%, 24%, and 8%, respectively). The only group that had it worse than atheists was the socialist category, which 50% of respondents said they would not vote for.

Political statistics aside, the rest of Barack Obama’s statement leaves a sour taste in my mouth. He comes across as dismissive to the concerns of nonbelievers, and the best evidence he has to support what he says is merely Maher’s success. I find this to be a remarkably empty response. This is almost to say, “Well, atheists can’t have it so bad, since you did so well!” This is incredibly ironic, coming from a president of African descent. I live in his country where people on the right will often state that there is no more racism in America since, after all, we have a black president. This is a terrible argument for anyone who thinks about it for more than a second, and it’s disheartening to hear it not only used against me, but it’s also disheartening to hear it from the first person I voted for president.

Obama’s words here lack substance in the same way that there is faux-skepticism regarding how other marginalized groups are treated. Like the laypeople who insist that racism no longer exists, there are those who will flat-out assert that there’s no discrimination against women anymore. In August, the Pew Research Center released a poll asking people whether they thought women still had obstacles for achieving equal access to society. 63% of women polled stated that they felt that there were still obstacles, while only 34% of men agreed. Such is often the case when members outside of a marginalized group are blind to the everyday sub-par treatment of those who are in that group.

In fact, it’s not hard to find evidence of discrimination against atheists in society, even outside of the political sphere. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) regularly protests violations of  the first Amendment’s separation of religion and government, and a large proportion of these violations are within public schools. Looking just at the examples FFRF provides, this includes prayer by school boards, disallowing freethought clubs while allowing religious clubs, the teaching of creationism, Bible distributions, Church meetings at public schools, prayers at graduation, forcing children to state the pledge of allegiance, mandatory prayer, overtly religious music in schools, religious fliers being sent home, “See You at the Pole” gatherings, and promotion of religious baccalaureate services. In every one of these cases, teachers in public schools across America overwhelmingly tend to side with those who are religious over those who are not. And for those nonbelievers who do challenge these violations, they face severe social consequences. Such was the case when in 2012 high school student Jessica Ahquist challenged a poster hanging in her public school making explicit references to a “heavenly father”. She was subsequently bullied by her school and her hometown, to the point of receiving death threats.

Atheists are judged as untrustworthy and immoral in general. It has been demonstrated through multiple studies that atheists are frequently viewed as people who would engage in immoral acts. Another Pew Study finds that in the United States a majority of people believe that someone has to believe in a god to be moral, which  is not true of any of the other developed nations within the study. A study by psychologists at the University of British Columbia and University of Oregon found that atheists are one of America’s most mistrusted groups, and in certain situations are roughly as trustworthy as rapists. Is it any wonder that there are atheists that are afraid to be out, particularly within the Bible Belt?

These are a couple of examples, but I could go on. I could talk about young atheists getting kicked out of their parents’ homes for expressing nonbelief, which Dogma Debate has set up a fund for. I could talk about atheists losing custody of their children. I could talk about how atheists aren’t trusted to do charity, such as when a soup kitchen turned down atheist volunteers or when a Children’s Home refused to accept over $28,000 from an atheist. I could talk about atheist advertisements getting turned down from billboard companies. I could talk about the atheist leaders I’ve watched who have had difficulty getting the right job because they were public figures associated with atheism. These and more forms of discrimination happen regularly in the United States. As someone who keeps up on religion based news regularly, I see this a lot. But as a Christian who is keeping his mind busy by running a country, Barack Obama is likely completely unaware.

In that case, could we attribute Obama’s ignorance on this issue to his privilege as a religious person? To be clear, while he certainly lacks white privilege (unlike me), he has the distinction of being a Christian just like 75% of the country he leads. No matter where he goes in America, people will value his faith*. He will never be discriminated against for having the “wrong” religion. While people will say terrible, awful things about him and threaten to have him assassinated, it will never ever be because he is a Christian. Were he a middle-class worker in America, he would never be treated poorly in the office because he’s a Christian, and in a job interview his faith would likely be seen as a bonus if he were to bring it up. He would never feel the fear that I and many other atheists have felt in disclosing their nonbelief in the office environment.

Privilege is sometimes hard to recognize if you have it, and it’s not a problem that only Obama has. It’s difficult to recognize that you may have unearned advantages in society, especially if despite these advantages you have everyday difficulties. If you aren’t part of a group that is marginalized, you don’t see the effects your privilege has on everyday life. Even if you are someone who is willing to recognize that you have privilege, it’s hard to know where that privilege lies unless someone brings it to your attention. I suspect this is the case with Barack Obama. It’s hard for me to blame him when he has the entire country on his mind, but his ignorance still exists, and that’s still a problem.

Barack Obama is not going to read this blog post, and that’s fine. The people who will read this blog post, however, are atheists, and they are likely aware of these many forms of discrimination they could potentially face. I would like them to consider how dismissed they felt when Obama said these things. If his words bother you, then maybe this is a chance to look at yourself in relation to other marginalized groups and how you view them. If you’re white, consider what it means to a black person when someone says “Black people have equality now, we have a black president.” If you’re male, consider how meaningless it is when someone says “there’s more women in college than men.” If you’re an atheist who is aware of the discrimination and bias we face everyday, then you should be more sensitive to the disadvantages of others, not less.**

Part of being a humanist and a skeptic is recognizing our human biases, and correcting them. If you can recognize Obama’s ignorance in his statement, then you should recognize that you likely have similar ignorance for other issues as well. I’m frequently appalled at how terrible many atheists are about speaking up for other marginalized groups, considering that atheists as a group also lack certain privileges. Perhaps Obama’s mistakes here can help inform us. From there we can move forward.

While I have been very critical of this one mistake that my president made talking to Maher, this was one problem in an overall positive message. In the rest of the segment, Obama did emphasize that we should not value people because of their religious beliefs or the lack thereof.  Not only does our president speak well of the separation of the church from the state, he makes it clear that in America that people of no religion at all should be treated as equals in social situations, not just legal ones. I appreciate that he mentions that here, and I’m happy that he has mentioned us in past speeches to the nation when he wasn’t talking directly to a left-leaning figurehead. I thank him for that. And because of that, I will end this piece on what I think he did get right.

“We should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and Agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.”


*Granted, not the conspiracy theorists who still think he’s a Muslim from Kenya.

**Keep in mind, the struggles of atheists are not the same as those of women or people of color. There are certain aspects that we can compare and contrast, and we can learn from each others’ struggles, but to draw equivalence between them would be a mistake.


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One thought on “What Obama’s Conversation With Bill Maher Says About Privilege

  1. ShelbyCourtland November 7, 2016 at 12:36 PM Reply

    I agree with what you have written here. I am a ‘Black’ woman and although, I have never called myself, an ‘atheist’, I do not believe in some mystical creature beyond the stars that’s supposed to be judging us for whatever reason and for the most part, finding us to be faulty even though we were supposedly made in ‘his image’. I have never understood why so many people could be brainwashed into believing such bull. But that is not for me to know, obviously. I was a ‘christian’ at one point in time; the point when I was a child and had no say about being dragged to church. However, I quickly threw that yoke of oppression from my shoulders the minute I no longer had to listen to my mother demand that I go to church.

    I quite openly state that I don’t believe in so-called ‘religious’ nonsense and I have received no undue stress for it. I refuse to hide my beliefs just for the sake of whatever may be thrown at me. I would suffer the consequences, but I would stay true to who I am and what I believe or don’t believe. But hey! That’s just me.

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