I have spent a fair amount of effort these last few days asserting, strongly, that atheists need to do a better job of defending themselves. I even postponed my weekend series on the Beyond Belief 2 conference to stay on topic.
I obviously think that this is important.
At the same time, I deny that there is anything particularly virtuous in being an atheist. I consider atheism itself to be morally neutral, since neither the proposition "God exists" nor the proposition, "God does not exist" gives us any hint as to how we should behave. We have to look elsewhere for that information. When it comes to looking elsewhere, atheists have shown just as much skill at embracing foolish ideas as theists.
So, if atheism is not a virtue, then why is anti-atheist bigotry a vice?
There is one easy answer to this question.
You don't have to argue that blacks are better than whites to argue that they deserve equal treatment. And you do not need proof that women are better than men to argue that people should see men and women as political and social equals. Similarly, I do not need to argue that atheists are better than theists to argue that government practices that denigrate atheists are unfair and unjust.
Insofar as an injustice is being committed against atheists, a love of justice alone is sufficient motivation to condemn it – just as it is sufficient motivation to protest the unjust treatment of blacks and women (among others).
In addition, the attitudes that the public hold, and that the government promotes, against atheists constitute doing malicious harm to good people.
Look again at the types of statements that I am referring to.
President Bush declaring that no atheist is fit to sit as a judge in the United States, because to be a qualified judge one has to believe that our rights come from God.
A Pledge of Allegiance repeated daily in schools and at the start of civic events that say, "A person who does not favor 'one nation under God' is like a person who does not favor 'liberty and justice for all'."
A national motto that people are driven to put up in more and more places that says, "Only those who trust in God are to think of themselves as one of us."
A sign on a freeway that says, "(Why do) atheists hate America."
The message, after every act of school violence and every time that the topic of prayer in school is brought up, that, "Atheists are going to come to school and kill your children and the only way to prevent this is to fight the atheist murderers with prayer in school."
A legislator who declares, "You believe in destroying. It is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists."
A movie, opening across the country today, that will tell its audience that atheists are proto-Nazis who will bring about another holocaust if they are not held in check.
A message, that you can almost certainly find repeated somewhere every single day, that a person who does not believe in God has a problem with morality is a mortal threat to everybody's safety and happiness.
In many of these cases, the message that atheists are inherently evil comes to your children in the form of a paid 'patriotic' announcement brought to you by your very own government.
And the question is, "Why do I care?"
Other than the fact that I am one of these people who could never qualify to be a judge, is like a person who is opposed to liberty and justice for all, who is not to think of myself as being 'one of us', hates America, is responsible for every school shooting that occurs, believes in destroying, is somebody that children should not even know exists, am working to bring about the next holocaust, and has a serious problem with morality.
Why do I care?
I think about the college atheist pursuing a degree in pre-law, with an acute interest in Constitutional issues, not because he has already decided what view he wants to impose on others from the bench, but with an eye to looking at what makes one decision truly better than another, hearing that no atheist is qualified to be judge and certainly cannot expect to be appointed.
I think about the nine or ten year old student who does not really understand the world around him just yet but who knows that the government and his teacher is telling him to favor 'one nation under God,' and what this means about those other people who say that there is no God.
I think about this student's atheist classmate who hears the government telling him that the fact that this 'god' stuff doesn't make sense to him. It makes him a bad person – as bad as somebody who does not support liberty and justice for all.
I think about the atheist 100% disabled American veteran who gave so much to this country attending a ceremony to honor veterans, when somebody read a statement over the loud speaker that concluded with:
. . . once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedoms, the right to leave.
[Note: That is what happened to my father, who described his service in the military as an atheist in this letter to me.]
I think about the high school student who wants to spend his life doing good deeds and is thinking about a lifetime of public service discovering that no atheist can be elected to the legislature.
However, even this ignores another serious problem. This form of bigotry is symptomatic of another, more general problem that victimizes not only those who do not believe in God.
The bigot's way of thinking is to take their hatred for a group and to use that to evaluate the 'evidence' he might come across. It teaches people to think in terms of, "I hate these people. If these people are guilty of X then this would be a good reason to hate them. Therefore, these people must be guilty of X."
This general way of thinking not only victimizes atheists today, but has been the general way of thinking that has been responsible for the greatest atrocities in history. Slavery, the Holocaust, the near-genocide of the Native Americans, religious wars, anti-homosexual legislation in the United States, and the like follow this same pattern.
"I want to hate these people. To hate these people I need an excuse. I can use X as an excuse. Therefore, I accept X."
This general tendency, this 'bigot's way of thinking' is what I actually care about.
It is a specific instance of what got us into a needless war in Iraq – a war that destroyed resources and lives that would have otherwise been available to do something constructive about the world's problems.
"I need to believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. If these are chemical weapons vehicles then Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, these must be chemical weapons vehicles."
"I need to believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. If an aide to Saddam Hussein met with one of the hijackers in Europe than Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. Therefore, one of Saddam Hussein’s aids met with one of the hijackers in Europe."
Or, "It would be bad for business if carbon dioxide contributed to global warming. If the sun was responsible for global warming then we do not need to worry about carbon dioxide. Therefore, the sun is responsible for global warming."
Or, "I have to believe that God is responsible for human life. If these components of life were irreducibly complex then we would have to make room for God in the creation of human life. Therefore, these components of life are irreducibly complex."
We see this way of thinking all around us, and it is so incredibly destructive. It costs so many lives and brings about so much suffering that a person concerned with saving lives and preventing suffering cannot help but care whenever he sees evidence of this kind of thinking.
I do not think that there is anything particularly virtuous about being an atheist. However, it is quite clear that there is something particularly vicious about being somebody whose hatred drives him to accept malicious falsehoods about other people and who then lobbies the government into teaching these malicious falsehoods to the next generation. There is something particularly vicious about being a person who is so consumed by hatred that the one thing he finds most intolerable is the idea that the government might stop delivering this message of hate to young children, and that the next generation might not grow up with the hatred that the bigot wants that generation to have.
I can imagine a generation of children growing up without learning this particular bigotry. I think about a generation that gets a different lesson – that it is wrong to begin with an attitude of hate and then grab onto whatever beliefs one can find that gives one's hate the mere illusion of legitimacy.
I think about such a world and I can't help but think that it would be a better place.
I was quite angry last week at the tame (and lame) response to Davis' comments. It simply reinforced all of the other negative messages that people hear about atheists. It simply aggrivated all of the other situations that I described above. She should have lost her job over that. We should have sent a message to the people of this country - to the children of this country - how wrong it is to be a bigot like Ms. Davis. Instead, they learned that the view that atheists "believe in destroying" isn't a horrible message at all. Which, at least, is consistent with all of the other messages that children hear on this subject.
It really is time to demand that the country change the message. The next generation will have reason to thank us if we do.