Thursday, June 28, 2007

Atheism a Civil Rights Issue? Hell Yes!

Over at the Council for Secular Humanism, DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey argue that atheism is not a civil rights issue. Matt Nisbet chimes in in similar fashion. I must respectfully disagree.

Grothe and Dacey argue:

"But do unbelievers really suffer comparable harm? Atheists are not denied equal access to housing for lacking belief in god, nor are they kept from seeing their partners during life-threatening scenarios in hospitals. Atheists don't earn sixty-five cents for every dollar earned by believers, nor are they prevented from voting."

The reason there aren't as many public issues with discrimination against atheists as one might think given the common ministerial rhetoric out there, seems rather obvious: it is easy to hide, and we all learn rather early on that we should. We don't like to suffer that harm more than once.

We are not like blacks in that one can't tell we are atheists by looking at us, and we are not like homosexuals in that we have no public meeting places bashers can go to find us. In that regard we are not like them, but that is only in degree, not in kind. Were we all to walk around with t-shirts that said "I'm an atheist", the situations would be very similar.

"To our knowledge, there is no such thing as 'atheist bashing.' If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example."

I guess your standards of compelling differ from mine. When you have a slobbering football coach scream threateningly at you when he notices you aren't saying the Lord's Prayer with everyone else, when you have a good friend stop talking to you just for asking that she not prosyletize in emails, when your good friend is told to leave her uncle's house and never return because she told him she was an atheist, when your girlfriend says "you aren't an atheist" with the same tone that she might say "you aren't a bad person", when your mother apologizes for you to family and tells them you really aren't an atheist, when your wife has to explain to your otherwise intelligent inlaws that you do not in fact eat babies, I'd say that's atheist bashing. You just don't hear about it very much because we learn to just shut up about it.

"Sure, it would be hard to be elected to higher office in America as an avowed unbeliever, but it would also be impossible for a socialist or a Mother Earth spiritualist."

What a ridiculous comparison. Socialism is a political position, so obviously it is acceptable for someone to vote against a candidate who was a socialist if that did not match with the voter's political opinions. As for Mother Earth spiritualists, their difficulty would arise from the fact that they hold bizarre beliefs with little evidenciary backing, and this would lose votes the same as a flat earther or Raelian. In a Hindu society a Christian would be viewed the same way and for the same reasons. But atheists are atheists precisely because we DON'T do this. A majority of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist for president because we apply what is considered a virtue in any other area of thought (demanding evidence before accepting a claim) to religion. If that isn't atheist bashing, then what the hell is?

"Civil rights struggles are related to a more general approach to social action known as 'identity politics.' In identity politics, people organize around their shared identity rather than their party affiliation or political ideology. This is quite appropriate for groups whose collective, historical experience of oppression has forged some substantial unity in belief and social agenda. Yet atheists have no beliefs in common but their disbelief. Imagine a voting bloc that would back a candidate merely for lacking faith in a personal deity."

In other words, discrimination against atheists isn't a civil rights issue because we are not politically organized. What a bunch of semantic claptrap. I suppose Grothe and Dacey would claim the same about emancipation of the slaves. They had no unity in belief and social agenda, they don't count. Shame on you both.

Let's not forget the president claiming you can't be a good citizen (as Bush Sr. did), or the fact that we are portrayed as the hero in popular entertainment 0% up until recently when the figure has spiked up to a scary 5% or so. Seems pretty akin to what blacks when through, when only fairly recently have gotten roles that weren't stereotypically black. This has an effect on people's views, and is plain old bigotry.

It's not complicated reasoning really. If friends and family are willing to ostracize you over your atheism, what might people who don't give a rats ass about you do? Most of us would rather not find out. In that way, the best analogy is probably to people with HIV. They too are demonized beyond reason, but you don't hear a lot of cases of people being discriminated against for it because they can choose not to tell anyone, and stay hidden.

Now have at the semantic argument over whether or not bigotry agaist atheists qualifies as a civil rights issue if you choose. I do not. The reality of the discrimination is enough for me to make it an issue worthy of addressing in our society.

Nisbet replies:

"On occasion, atheists are discriminated against because they have a public image problem, and the Dawkins/Hitchens' PR campaign, by radicalizing a movement of attacks and complaints, only makes this public image problem worse, generating more discrimination."

I disagree, especially with regard to Dawkins. People react the way they do to what he says primarily because they are used to religion getting a free pass from the kind of frank criticism he levies. I have never seen an actual quote of his that warranted the shrill complaints about his supposed irascibility, and I've read and seen a lot of him. He just calls religion for the unusupported bullshit it is the same as he would for something like astrology.

Hitchens is no doubt incendiary, but I have yet to see any data that supports the notion that he makes the problem worse. Just from observing book sales and other social trends, it would seem he and the others are giving atheists the confidence to stand up and be counted like everyone else. No one highly offended by what Hitchens has to say was going to side with us anyway.

"Instead of mobilizing a movement of sophomoric attacks and complaints that paints as black all religious Americans,"

You make my case for me. Why are atheist criticisms of religion automatically labelled "sophmoric" and "complaints"? Because atheists are just supposed to sit down and shut up, of course. It's fine and dandy that someone winning an award thanks the gods for helping her. Never mind how ludicrous that is. Call it as it is, and you are being sophmoric. THAT is sophmoric.

"atheists need to focus on offering a positive vision of what it means to live life without religion; both in the popular entertainment media but also as leaders who span divides in our communities, (instead of just generating further polarization.)

I agree that atheists ought to be focusing on the positive, and I'd argue that most of the atheist authors of these so-called attacks are doing just that. Dawkins is fabulous to listen to talk about the wonder of the world, and our quest for knowledge of it. He gave a moving talk of giving a religionless funeral service, and how enriching it was. Of course, people always want to focus on his views of religion, so that is what gets the press. But read and listen to what the man actually says when left to his own devices, and a very different picture emerges.

As for polarization, just check your average pulpit this weekend, where thousands of ministers will be ranting to their flock of how atheists have no morals, and aren't really atheists anyway, and can't be trusted to tell the truth, or be faithful, or a whole host of bigoted garbage. Hitchens at his acrimonious best doesn't begin to come close to that. Could we atheists do things a little better? Sure. But let's not forget where the real dividers are on this issue, and how their bigotry is no less real, than when they were ranting about negroes.

6 comments:

Lynn said...

Thank you for your post. I have been getting into a similar argument, with regards to sending our children to Camp Quest for the past two years. Our family members and bloggers want to know what's so darn important about sending kids to Camp Quest, and it's a way for our kids to come out from hiding. Plus, it lets our kids know they are not alone in the way they are being raised.

As adults, we have the Internet and books to connect us to other atheists, but children thrive one- on-one contact.

Michael said...

This is an impressive screed. It's unfortunate that you jump into various assumptions so quickly, because I am of the basic agreement that dismissing discrimination as the first article you linked tried to do, is not something that can be done easily.

For example. You say that atheist criticisms of _religious americans_ are 'automatically' labeled sophomoric by Moony. Had you ever considered that he labeled them sophomoric due to their substance? Such as, say, your entire screed where you are busy talking about how your _average_ pulpit, with _thousands_ of ministers, are busy talking about how _atheists are horrible_. Do you honestly believe that, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support 'average', 'thousands', and 'ministers not talking about the reading of the week but instead fearmongering'? That is, as they say, a sophmoric and childish complaint which exhibits more paranoia than the valid concerns that atheists _do_ have, which exist.

I think you were being damn defensive, and purposefully trying to make him out to be an non-rational actor, as an ad hominim attack (attacking him as non-rational, as opposed to dealing with the argument or its substance.) It's easier to demonize him if he's not being 'reasonable.' No longer are you attacking his arguments in substance, because you can just say he's mean, automatically dismissive. Well, I pointed out how much one of your arguments sucked right here, and how little it was based in fact. Is my complaint _automatic_ too? It sure took me a long time to think about and type. Maybe I'm just slow at automation.

I mean, seriously. The original article is not compelling to me, and makes a huge number of parallels which don't completely fit, but you are completely screwing up your argument, and the way you're doing it is indicative of what Moony is grasping at: You're going, 'Civil Rights! Civil Rights!' without considering what that _means_. I'm glad you say that it's degree and not kind, because that's a step in the right direction, but you again don't consider what it _means_.

Furthermore, you're demonizing the entirety of ministers with no data. The 'average pulpit' doesn't say a damn thing about atheists. The _crazy_ pulpit might. But a large chunk of sermons _don't talk about atheists_. You are being incredibly defensive, _again_, and fearful, without justification. You're using anecdotes as examples of it being a civil rights issue. You know what makes it a civil rights issue? Government discrimination. You know what makes it like feminism or black rights? _Systemic_ Government Discrimination. You are not bothering to show any of these things. If you _did_, your argument would be more solid.

Furthermore, Moony's framing argument is _correct_ in its base. You ignore the bad things Dawkins says, and only focus on the good ones. That makes you unaware of the fight he is picking. The title of his book _itself_, 'The God Delusion', very clearly equates 'Religion' to 'Crazy'. Not 'Government restriction of religion' to 'crazy.' One is an attack on religious. One is a civil rights argument. Guess which one he is _not making correctly in his book_? Guess which one PZ does not make correctly? Atheists are too busy attacking the religious, and taking up the _language_ of oppression, to examine theoretically _what the exact nature of their oppression is_. And that leads to some really crappy PR.

Such as the title. The title is provocative, but it sets a very clear tone. And that tone is 'belief is bad.' He can do other things elsewhere, but the foundation has been dug.

These sort of observations are what you are missing, in the rush to defend the push for atheism being more accepted in society.

-Mecha

Michael said...

Bah. I screwed up. In all the cases above, not Moony, Nisbet. My mind has them tied together too strongly. My apologies to both of them, and you for introducing that bit of lack of clarity.

ScienceAvenger said...

Michael said: You say that atheist criticisms of _religious americans_ are 'automatically' labeled sophomoric by Moony. Had you ever considered that he labeled them sophomoric due to their substance?

No, because there isn't anything sophmoric about the arguments I've seen, and no one on Nisbet's side of the debate is willing to present a specific example. It is obvious they make sweeping generalizations with no specifics because they can't make their case.

Such as, say, your entire screed where you are busy talking about how your _average_ pulpit, with _thousands_ of ministers, are busy talking about how _atheists are horrible_. Do you honestly believe that, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support 'average', 'thousands', and 'ministers not talking about the reading of the week but instead fearmongering'? That is, as they say, a sophmoric and childish complaint which exhibits more paranoia than the valid concerns that atheists _do_ have, which exist.

You are just tossing words about with no concern for what they mean, which further supports my claim. Just go talk to religious people about atheists, and you'll get all the evidence you need. There is nothing sophmoric about reporting what you've experienced in your own life.

I think you were being damn defensive, and purposefully trying to make him out to be an non-rational actor, as an ad hominim attack (attacking him as non-rational, as opposed to dealing with the argument or its substance.)

I shredded what little substance there was, point by point. I simply pointed out the reality of the situation to someone completely out of touch with it. You guys really need to get out of the ivory tower once in a while.

You ignore the bad things Dawkins says, and only focus on the good ones. That makes you unaware of the fight he is picking. The title of his book _itself_, 'The God Delusion', very clearly equates 'Religion' to 'Crazy'.

I've seen nothing bad that Dawkins says, and those who keep claiming he says awful things aren't ever too keen on supplying specific examples and specific reasons why it is so awful. It doens't take a genius to figure out why.

Religion is crazy. Belief without evidence is bad. That doesn't mean that person is head to toe crazy or bad, but that one belief/opinion is crazy, it is delusional, and that's just the way it is, and you guys simply label anything that calls that spade a spade "sophmoric" and "irascible" and all those wonderful contentless scare words that take the place of reasoned factual argument.

Michael said...

... wow. You really don't understand. And yet you do. It's weird.

No, not all, or even the majority, of religious groups that meet this weekend will talk about how Atheism is evil. That's a scare tactic. I do, in fact, know what average means. And what sophmoric means. Saying that 'The majority of religious people are out to get me, every week! That's what they do in their churches!' is as undeveloped, childish argument. That _does not mean_ that there are not religious people that do not understand, or are afraid of, or do not like atheism. Those are two. Different. Things. One is specifically trying to make all religious out to be anti-atheist crazy irrationals that want atheism obliterated. One is just the actual generally measured facts. Note which one you're talking about.

You said nobody provided an example. I provided an example of one thing Dawkins said: THE TITLE OF HIS BOOK. Which you in another forum AGREED that it _called all religious crazy_. That is not good PR! That is not how you convince people that you're interested in _equality and civil rights_! The 'religion = crazy' mindset is you being interested in YOUR rights. Equality doesn't involve tearing other people down. You assume that people can't react to being called _crazy_ by being insulted without being 'oversensitive' because religion is 'never criticized.' That is inherently inaccurate. Some people _do_ overreact, to _other_ words he says, but the title of the God Delusion makes it very clear what kind of world view is active.

And if you want to call all religious crazy? Hey, that is absolutely your right. But it has _nothing to do with civil rights when you do_. It has everything to do with tearing down religion (and possibly, since atheism = science in your view, building up science.) This is clear and obvious and perfectly valid to do, _but it is not civil rights, and attempting to appropriate the words of civil rights to do it is unfair._

Religious freedom is civil rights. People discriminating against atheists or buddhists or muslims or such to deny them basic rights is civil rights issues. Talking about religious people as irrational? Not so much.

In a number of forums I have disagreed with you, and in every one you fall back on 'You're clearly irrational, because I'm right.' It makes it unproductive to talk to you. Which is funny, because I disagreed with the concept that atheists don't experience discrimination.

(It's also funny that I'm 'You Guys'. It's the _ivory tower framing conspiracy_ that's against atheists. That is so paranoid us-vs-them that it stuns me. Especially since I'm not an academic social scientist. But hey, I'm 'Them'. 'You Guys'. When you put it like that, who's allowed to agree with me? Nobody. Not even you. Which therefore means that there is almost no chance of you agreeing with any point I make. I suppose that's rational to you.)

-Mecha

ScienceAvenger said...

Mecha, you are simply not interested in honest debate. Your depiction of what I've said, and what the other atheists like Dawkins have said, is not accurate in the slightest. I never said all religious people are crazy, or anything like that, and neither has Dawkins. I in fact have said quite the opposite. Your interpretation of the title of his book as evidence otherwise just shows your own paranoia. Nor have I ever said anything remotely like "You're clearly irrational, because I'm right." THAT kind of nonsense, is childish and sophmoric.

You are a perfect example of the points we make about people wanting religion given a free pass, and being unable to deal with a rational analysis of it. So you construct straw men by the dozen rather than deal honestly with what we say. Very revealing, and very boring.