A couple of days ago I received a comment to my posts a few days ago called, “An Accused Atheist in Texas”, suggesting that there are more important things to do than to protest the poor treatment of atheists.
I cannot deny that there are horrible things going on in the world, and that the hatred of atheists in America is only one evil (and not the worst - when compared to the pain and death of some of the others).
However, I also hold that many of these other problems are linked, in part, to hatemongering against atheists, and that it may be useful to oppose these evils as a block.
Real World Solutions
For example, the prejudice that exists against atheists is also a prejudice against finding real-world solutions to real-world problems - relying instead on myth and superstition to step forward and save all who are worth saving.
Among atheists, there are some who are fairly intelligent. Some have devoted a significant portion of their lives studying how the real world works. As such, they are particularly well positioned to suggest those real-world solutions to real-world problems. We would be doing the world a favor to focus on preventing the superstitious ways of thinking that cause people to scorn these real-world answers.
Our situation vis-à-vis global warming would have been much better than it is now if the public had a proper understanding of and appreciation for scientific research.
Instead, we live in an anti-science culture that is getting in the way of discovering real-world problems. People are encouraged to believe, whenever scientists reveal some risk or danger, that those scientists are involved in an evil conspiracy to use deception in order to control the world.
We can see how these problems are linked by the use of the phrase 'atheist materialist scientist'. Those who use this phrase are using a very common marketing technique of associating that which they want to attack (science) with something the people already hate (atheism). In this way, they hope to create a culture that ignores - even condemns - science and is more receptive to the anti-science (the anti-reality) claims of religious leaders. The result is more suffering and death than living people would otherwise have to endure.
If you will pardon me with a short aside - these considerations stand at the root of my opposition to plans to abandon the word 'atheist' and to use some other term that does not (yet) have the negative baggage that the term 'atheist' has. First, it will not take theists long to attach the same negative baggage to whatever other term exists, as soon as looks like people might adopt it. Second, leaving the word 'atheist' with its negative connotation will still allow theists to use the marketing technique of linking things like science to atheism in order to promote public hatred of things they do not like.
Ways of Thinking
Another issue related to the defense of atheism itself is the defense of a way of thinking that involves actually basing conclusions on the evidence rather than cherry-picking evidence to support one's conclusions.
We can clearly see that the Bush Administration cherry-picks its data in its approach to the issues such as global warming and the threat that Iraq was to America. Its way of thinking very much follows the pattern of coming up with a conclusion, then cherry-picking the data so as to defend that conclusion.
We can see this way of thinking in the campaigns to promote creationism and intelligent design. The harm in these fields of study rests in the way that they promote backwards thinking - using desired conclusions to decide which evidence to agree with and which evidenced to throw away.
This way of thinking is central to the way that some people think of the Bible. Religious fundamentalism involves taking a bunch of claims (made up thousands of years ago) and giving them the status of 'truth.'
With this truth in hand, we have a way to evaluate all other forms of research. If a particular line of research ends with results that support the 'answers,' then that research must be sound and can be accepted. However, if a particular line of research contradicts the answer book, then either that scientist is not competent enough to be doing that type of research, or he has contracted with the Devil to mislead the people and turn them against God.
We can easily see how this way of thinking brought about the invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration first decided what was true - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was involved in the attacks. They then went to the intelligence community. Those who failed to provide evidence that supported the Administration's position were obviously incompetent and needed to be replaced (or, at least, but under the leadership) of those who knew the truth and was not afraid to prove it. The only other option was that those who failed to provide the Administration with its proof was in league with the enemy and wanted America to lose this war on terror.
This analysis also finds an application in assessing the Bush Administration's view on global warming. Again, the Administration started with conclusions that they knew to be true, and then went out to evaluate the evidence based on its ability to support the truth. If a scientific report came in that did not support those conclusions, then the study had to have been flawed. Staff people needed to go in and correct it by editing out those parts of the report that did not correspond to their truth.
Promoting atheism means promoting a way of thinking that puts the evidence in front of the conclusion over a way of thinking that judges the conclusion first and cherry picks the evidence to support the desired conclusion. That is something that the country very much needs.
Attitudes Towards Others
I am, perhaps, particularly sensitive to this prejudice. Through high school and most of college, I thought that being a judge would be one of the highest and most noble professions. Yet, as I considered that option, I had no choice but to consider the fact that my efforts to pursue that career might not go anywhere. Those who thought that atheists are unfit to fill that role would certainly stand in my way, limiting my chances for success.
Given this fact, I thought that, perhaps, I should be devoting my time, not to being a judge, but to fighting the prejudice that stands in the way of people like me becoming judges - so that some young would-be atheist who is still in grade school or yet to be born, can have the opportunity to freely pursue a career that I could not pursue.
When President Bush stated, "We need common-sense judges who realize that our rights come from God, and those are just the types of judges that I intend to put on the bench," I saw my original assumptions being confirmed once again. If I had pursued that career option, I would have been blocked by a society that condemns atheists and considers them unfit for advancement in that field. When Bush made that statement without protest - when, in fact, this improved rather than diminished his chances of getting elected, I realized just how much work there was to do in that regard.
The Texas Republican Party assertion that <
Effects on Children
I am particularly concerned about the effects that this bigotry has on children who are atheists as well as children who might have otherwise become atheists.
They hear that the term 'atheist' is a term of condemnation and hatred, and they tend to pick up these sentiments.
Please, let nobody give me anecdotal evidence of how this situation did not affect them when they were a kid, or how it did not seem to affect their school. Anecdotal evidence is pathetically poor – an excellent opportunity for people to see what they want to see and to report it as true.
The child who hears or reads the Republican complaint that atheists are unfit to be judges is going to be more likely to form the opinion that atheists are bad. If he knows an atheist at school he is going to think of that child as ‘bad’ and correspondingly more likely to shun and ridicule that child (and invite other classmates to do the same). If the child himself is an atheist he will more likely feel shame. If the child’s parents are atheists then the child will be taught that their parents are inferior to other parents. Their parents are not good enough to be judges because they are untrustworthy and disloyal; while other kids’ parents are trustworthy and loyal Americans.
The Pledge of Allegiance and posting "In God We Trust" reinforce these attitudes. The Pledge of Allegiance is a daily ritual of separating those who profess theism from those who deny it – giving the theists a sense of inclusion and belonging, while giving those who are not theists a sense of exclusion – a message that ‘you are not one of us.’
In the national motto we also see the message, “Those who trust in God are ‘we’” and, by implication, “Those who do not trust in God are ‘they’” The effect of this is also to promote a sense of shame at being atheist, and an eagerness to be theist, so that one can belong and be fully welcome in society.
These activities not only promote these attitudes towards atheism, but with anything that skillful marketers can associate with atheism. The phrase, ‘atheist materialist scientist’ is an attempt to put scientists in the same casts as atheists. This means fewer people being interested in pursuing those areas of study that deal with finding out how the real world works – and giving us real-world solutions to real-world problems.
I want that child to realize that, even if others were to call him unfit to be fully accepted in society, that there are those who do accept him and who condemn those who not. There are those who are willing to fight for him and who declare that there is no shame being atheist (or scientist, or anything else that others may want to associate with atheism). That their parents are not bad people and that, though others exclude him from these civic ceremonies, the moral fault is theirs for excluding the child, not the child’s for being such that others find including him unacceptable.
So, I hold that defending atheism is important.
There are other issues to be concerned with. Yet, ultimately, these issues have a lot in common - a lack of willingness to stand up for certain underlying principles concerning fairness, justice, and respect for others. Ultimately, some atheists might have the knowledge to come up with decent solutions to some of these problems. Yet, that option diminishes to the degree that children grow up to view atheists with contempt.
It is not chance that made atheists the most hated group in America. It is, in part, the fact that the first day a child enters school the one message that they get every day is that atheists are worthy of contempt. They learn this lesson well, and the results show up in surveys on the nation's attitude towards atheists. It comes out in a natural culture that can undermine respect for scientific findings by associating science with atheism. It comes out in a culture that prohibits atheists from being judges or holding public office.
None of this says that atheists are inherently superior to theists. It says that atheists are superior to bigots. Not all theists are bigots. There are theists who will not buy into the claim that atheists are unfit to be judges, that our nation must divide people between a ‘we’ who ‘trust in God’ and a ‘they’ who do not, or that a citizen must pledge his allegiance to God to be a true patriot.
The real question does not revolve around a distinction between theists and atheists. It revolves around the distinction between bigots and those who can accept and live in harmony with those who have different beliefs but who still seek peace and mutual benefit.