This is the 36th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
The last three presentations at Beyond Belief 2.0 had to do with whether people should call themselves atheists. It started with Sam Harris’ presentation where he discussed an earlier speech to the Atheist Alliance International, where he suggested doing away with that ‘A’ word. It continued through Jeff Hawins' presentation on selling atheism through atheist entrepreneurship – and the ‘atheist’ brand name simply carries too much negative baggage to be useful.
So, at the end of the conference, Beyond Belief 2.0 host Roger Bingham called upon Atheist blogger PZ Myers in the audience for some comments on what it is like being an open, uncloseted atheist.
On the off chance that a reader might not know Myers, he is the author of one of the more popular atheist blogs Pharyngula. In his (very conservative) home town he is known as the village atheists, but reports that he is not treated with any hostility. In fact, people complement him on his civility.
They think that I am one of the most courteous savages they ever met.
He went on to say that atheists should go ahead and label themselves as atheists.
I kinda reject the notion that we should not label ourselves as atheists. What we need to do is label ourselves as atheists and stand up in a civil manner in front of these people and have a conversation.
I pointedly reject this point of view.
I also reject the view that atheists should ‘change their name’ or treat the label of being an ‘atheist’ as something to be ashamed of – something that we should run from. I do not see this as a dilemma between abandoning the term ‘atheism’ or accepting the term under Myers’ terms. Rather, I support a third alternative, that I will get to later.
I have a question for Mr. Myers. If all we need to do is to stand up in a civil manner in front of these people and all of our problems will disappear, doesn’t this assume that for the past 150 years we have not been civil?
We have two options. Either atheists have been civil (or at least displaying the normal distribution of civility that we would find in the rest of the population), or atheists have for some reason spent the last 150 years being far less civil than non-atheists.
If atheists have displayed the normal range of civility over the past 150 years, yet people still have this negative view of atheist, then this suggests that the hostility towards atheists is not at all linked to our civility. If we display the normal human range of civility and others still hate us, then is it our obligation to be more civil than non-atheists just to be regarded as equal?
This is neither fair nor just.
The other result, of course, is that atheists have engaged in behavior that has been far worse, on average, than that of non-atheists and, as such, we have brought this hostility down upon ourselves. Yet, I want to see some evidence that this is the case. I want to see some proof that the negative view of atheists that has over half of the population refusing to vote for an atheist candidate is somehow the atheists’ fault.
In fact, Myers himself is expressing anti-atheist bigotry with these remarks. Myers himself is making judgments based on the false assumptions that atheists, overall, are a worse class of people compared to non-atheists, and if atheists would just improve their behavior and act like everybody else, we could be accepted in the community.
It doesn’t matter that Myers is an atheist himself. There is a great deal of evidence that shows how the victims of prejudice can adopt the attitudes of the bigots that dominate their society. In a racist community, the way in which the culture teaches white people to look down on blacks can also have the effect of causing black people to look down on (other) blacks. Cultural norms that see women incapable of holding positions of leadership can infect women to the degree that they, too, will only support a male leader.
And atheists, who see nothing wrong with atheism, can still harbor deep (and unconscious) sentiments that atheists tend to be people of low moral character and it is this low moral character that is responsible for their poor standing in the community.
Like I said, unless and until somebody provides me with hard evidence suggesting that atheists are of a lower moral character than non-atheists, and that hostility towards atheists are directly linked to this low moral character, I am going to assume – as all fair and just people should assume – that atheists are no different from non-atheists in these matters. I am going to follow the moral dictum of assuming that people are innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under this assumption, recommending that atheists can solve their image problem by becoming more civil is not only unfounded, it is a sign of bigotry. It is an even more pathetic form of bigotry when it is spoken by an atheist against other atheists.
I want to stress, I do not think that Myers intended to insult other atheists. What I am suggesting is that he has unconsciously adopted some anti-atheist bigotry that has worked its way into his subconscious and comes out (unintentionally) in the attitudes he adopts towards his fellow atheists. He has absorbed out of his community shades of the idea that atheists are responsible for their own poor social standing. He has adopted these attitudes without thinking about them – the way many of us adopt attitudes towards others.
We can imagine a member of the Jewish community in Germany in 1930s telling his fellow Jews, “What we need to do is label ourselves as atheists and stand up in a civil manner in front of these people and have a conversation. If we do this, then the Nazi menace will disappear.”
No, it will not.
Nor should we think that walking around with a scarlet ‘A’ on our clothes will end this bigotry. In Nazi Germany, the government required Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. This had no effect on diminishing the anti-Semitism in Germany. Instead, the Nazis simply made their victims more visible targets. If America’s government were to require that atheists in America wear a scarlet A the way that German Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David, this would seem to represent a major success for the ‘Out’ campaign that promotes this type of symbolism. Yet, in this comparison, we see that the symbol counts for nothing.
Nor can we abandon the name ‘Atheist’. Using the term (or not) is not even our choice.
Following the example above, we can imagine a Jew suggesting in 1930, “Perhaps we should abandon the term ‘Jew’. It has such negative connotations. Perhaps, in order to help us become more widely accepted in the German community, we should call ourselves something else – something like ‘Pre-Christians’ perhaps.
Do you really think that this would have done any good? The community targeting them would have continued to call them ‘Jews’ and would have continued to use them as a scapegoat for everything that was wrong with the community. If the community had decided to adopt the label ‘pre-Christians’ they would have done so only by sticking the same negative connotations on the new term that the old term carried.
Atheists do need to continue to use the term ‘atheist’. We need to identify ourselves as atheists and stand up and act in a civil manner. However, in addition to this, the one other thing that atheists must do if the rest is to have any effect is that atheists must get indignant over the insults and attitudes that people harbor towards atheists.
The anti-atheist bigot does not deserve our civility. The anti-atheist bigot deserves our condemnation and contempt. When the Christian writer says that there can be no morality without God and that without belief in an afterlife the atheist is at risk of raping, robbing, and murdering others with wild abandon, it is entirely inappropriate to give a civil response. The moral person does not answer, “I beg to differ with my most esteemed colleague on these matters. The evidence does not in fact support the conclusion that an atheist, who is not bound by religious morality, is at risk of performing these evils.”
The moral person says, “Mr. Smith, in declaring that his religion gives him special knowledge of and motivation to abide by moral truth, has just shown us that his religion instead has made him a hate-mongering bigot. He has just shown himself to be content to promote hatred and hostility towards others based on no evidence whatsoever, but based on the ‘faith’ that his religion alone glorifies the individual who condemns others who do not share his beliefs without any just cause to do so.”
When news anchors, bloggers, newspaper columnists, and politicians learn this lesson, then we may see a change in the attitudes towards atheists. History gives us more than enough examples of people who were, in all things, no less ‘human’ than their neighbor in civility and courtesy, still being subjected to the harshest bigotry and hatred. History gives us more than enough reason to scoff at the individual who says that all we need to do is to “stand up in a civil manner in front of these people and have a conversation.”