It appears as if the atheist community is getting uniformly angry. This reaction has been in a response to a segment of Paula Zahn Now on CNN. In this segment, Zahn started out with a report on an atheist family in Missouri who got run out of town for being an atheist. However, the moral outrage has been directed at Zahn and her guests, two of whom vented the same hatred that the atheist family in the report had experienced.
Austin Cline at About: Agnosticism/Atheism has covered this issue in a pair of posts Paula Zahn Now: Karen Hunter, Debbie Schlussel, Stephen A. Smith on Atheism and Atheists React to Anti-Atheist Bigotry on Paula Zahn Now.
Through Cline’s site you can find links to others showing the episode or linking to the transcript.
In looking at the reaction to this incident, which Cline also documents, I have to say:
It’s about time!
In the past, an incident such as this would only draw a small response from a small segment of the atheist community. A few atheists would respond to this outrage, and a few others to that outrage. The result is that it is seldom the case that people have protested loud enough or long enough to actually be heard. Typically, those against whom the protest has been directed has been able to ignore the pesky little noise that atheists make.
In order for alienation from a community to result in change, those affected need a symbol. Instead of picking small, scattered battles, they need to find one incident that symbolizes everything that is wrong in the millions of little examples that show up every day. Then, the community can focus its energy on that symbol and make enough news that they can no longer be ignored, and their message finally gets heard.
It can be a working woman who is just too tired at the end of the day to stand up and move to the back of the bus.
It can be a work of fiction such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that portrays all of the suffering and injustice in an institution that needs to be abolished.
It can be a tea party in Boston.
If we look at the Boston Tea Party, we see that the government of England was using it as its own symbol. It had removed the other taxes that the American colonies had been protesting, but left a tax on tea as a symbol of the crown’s right to tax the colonies. Americans did not dump in the tea because they were angry about a tax on tea. They attacked the tax as a statement against the crown’s symbol of taxation without representation. The Americans were able to focus its energy on this one tax, and in doing so speak with a loud and uniform voice.
If one can stand a military analogy (and I can seldom do so – except, it is apt in this case), the use of a symbol follows the principle of concentrating one’s forces to hit a crucial weak spot in the enemy line. Concentrating one’s effort on a crucial weakness and focusing energy on it, as a symbol of everything else that deserves fighting against, can hopefully generate a breakthrough that eventually brings down the entire defensive line.
I do not know what the atheist catalyst will be in this country. However, it will have the look and feel of this Paula Zahn incident. It will generate a wide and spontaneous protest from all corners of the atheist community, all focused on one event.
In looking at this incident, let's at least get the facts straight. I doubt that Paula Zahn set up an attack on atheists – at least not consciously. (A funny thing about prejudice is how it affects people subconsciously, and how it is possible to find bigotry in people who consciously would condemn it.)
Also, to say that Zahn should have had an atheist – or at least a competent defender of atheists – in her panel is not entirely consistent with the format for the show. The show involves bringing in panelists who will speak on all of the issues that will be discussed – from Senator Joseph Biden’s comment on Senator Barack Obama, to the weight of candidates, to the Super Bowl, to atheist discrimination. I believe that she was as surprised as anybody to discover that she did not have an articulate defender of the atheists in her panel.
We can see this if we look at the comments that Zahn herself made during the broadcast. Right away, when she saw what was going on, she asked, “Are any of you going to defend them here tonight?” She asserted the right to free speech, love thy neighbor, and challenged the claim that atheists were imposing their beliefs on other people.
However, she did not lead the discussion, nor did she do more than impose a few scattered comments and questions.
It is also important to note that the segment was broadcast under the banner, “Why do atheists inspire such hatred?” This question is as bigoted as asking, “What did blacks do to inspire the Europeans/Americans to enslave them?” or “Why did the Jews inspire the holocaust?” This is an inexcusable account of blaming the victim. It literally begs the panel to answer the question by pointing out what the atheists are doing that make them deserving of this type of treatment.
The situation on this episode is pretty much the same as one would expect if somebody had assembled three white men in 1920 and asked them to describe the plight of the blacks. Those comments would inevitably be racist, and yet nobody in the panel and most of the audience would be unable to recognize them as such.
For all of these reasons, Paula Zahn’s interview symbolizes what atheists have to put up with in America today, and it symbolizes what people of good moral character should find intolerable.
However, there is still one important thing missing from this symbol. It does not have (or it has not yet been identified with) a clearly defined objective.
Eliminating taxation without representation, abolishing slavery, and ending segregation were all clearly defined objectives – something that clearly defines what those who are involved in the protest are fighting for, and what those on the other side are fighting against.
The broadcast does define an objective. In the news portion that preceded the discussion, correspondent Gelia Gallagher interviewed Ryan Anderson with the religious journal “First Things”. He said, “Part of the public persona and the public image of atheism is what's presented by people suing to remove ‘In God We Trust’" from the coins or God phrase in the pledge of allegiance. And when that militant atheism becomes kind of like the public image of atheism, I think that gives rise to a lot of discontent with atheism.”
Hunter herself started her protest with, “I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take ‘In God We Trust’ off of our dollars? Are we going to not say ‘one nation under God?’ When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?”
The correct answer is to say, “We are not.”
Zahn mentioned the survey that suggested that atheists are the least popular group in the country. She told her panelists, “What I find so interesting is when you look at the statistics, that they were the most hated of all the minorities.”
The one person defending atheists to this point disputed the statistics – which makes him ill qualified to be our defender in this forum. He does not even know what the facts are. Though, Zahn’s characterization is not entirely accurate either.
The poll actually rated atheists as lowest, not in terms of most hated, but in terms of sharing the poll taker’s vision of American society. That is to say, atheists, more than any other group, are considered outside of and even anti-American.
Where did they get this idea? Where would anybody ever hear somebody say that being an atheist is the same as being anti-American?
They get it from a Pledge of Allegiance that literally equates being “under God” with sharing American values and with refusing to be “under God” with having no allegiance to the United States or to the principles of liberty and justice for all.
They get it from a national motto that those who trust in God are “we” who are truly American, and by implication that those who do not trust in God are “they”.
Every day in schools across the country teachers get up in front of the class and not only tell their students that atheists are not loyal Americans and do not pledge themselves to liberty and justice for all, but they require that their students repeat these accusations every day. They get the message every time they look at a coin and read that “we” trust in God. So, who when asked who does not share their values as Americans, the only sensible answer is to say that it is “they” who do not trust in God who do not share their values as Americans.
Interestingly, Austin Cline presents us with a post titled, “Karen Hunter Defends Anti-Atheist Bigotry and Comments”. In it, he quotes Hunter as saying,
You choose to be an atheist. I didn't choose to be black. I have never seen a sign that read: Christians Only.
The claim that one chooses to be an atheist only makes sense if one admits that the treatment that atheists receive is denigrating and derogatory. This statement says, “It is okay to denigrate you because you choose to be who you are, but it is not okay to denigrate me because I did not choose to be who I am.” However, it is permissible to denigrate people whose first name begins with J because a person’s first name is a matter of choice?
And what would the moral case be if race became a matter of choice? What if a black person could take a pill and become white? Who would accept the argument that it is permissible to treat any black person who does not take the pill in a denigrating and derogatory matter because race, now, is a matter of choice?
Choice is irrelevant.
However, more importantly, I have, in fact, seen signs that read, “Christians Only.”
Putting “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is no different than hanging a sign that says, “Those who are Under God Only”. A national motto of “In God We Trust” says, “Those who Trust In God Only.”
There is no moral difference between psychologically dividing this nation between those who are “Under God” or who trust in God and those who do not, and physically dividing a restaurant or a bus into a “white” section and a “colored” section. Every school child knows that students who sit out the Pledge of Allegiance are sitting in the psychological equivalent of the “colored” section of the classroom and of American culture.
There are those who protest the idea of making this an objective because it will make the “white” (“Under God”) people angry.
Of course they will be angry. They are being accused of injustice. They are being told to give up a position of power and authority over others – that they can no longer denigrate and belittle others. Of course they are going to be angry. That is how they maintain their power – by attacking (snarling, growling, and biting) at those who they sense as stepping out of bounds and challenging their position.
Imagine the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s saying, “We know that the whites are never going to grant us equality, and demanding it only makes them mad. So, we should shut up about equality and accept whatever they seem happy to give to us.”
Those who defend the Pledge and the national motto defend religious segregation on the basis of religion. Those who refuse to oppose them refuse to oppose religious segregation. Those who fight for their removal fight against religious segregation.
When those who defend the Pledge and the Motto say that the opponents of religious segregation are anti-Christian, ask them whether they think that the protests against racial segregation were anti-White.
In the Paula Zahn piece on atheism, Hunter asserted that atheists “need to shut up.” Certainly, her life would be much easier and much more comfortable if atheists would quietly walk to the back of the cultural bus where they belong.
Sorry, but, no. I will not move to the back of the cultural bus.
And I will not shut up.