Saturday, May 10, 2008

E2.0: PZ Myers: Should I call myself an atheist?

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.”

10 comments:

Kmeson said...

I haven't watched the presentation however you seem to have presented a strong argument against the comment :

"I kinda reject the notion that we should not label ourselves as atheists. All we need to do is label ourselves as atheists and stand up in a more civil manner than we would naturally use in front of these people and have a conversation."

Which is a very different comment than the one you included. The comment included just implies that hate is harder when it has to be personal. Now P.Z. can breath fire at times and may have been more sweeping in other statements but it doesn't sound much like him to suggest that there is a silver bullet type solution. Nor does it seem in character that he suggested that people behave any more civilly than usual. Just that they be open about their non-god belief as they do it, if they are comfortable with that.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

kmeson

If a person says that all we have to do is A and we will get X, and in fact we have been doing A for 150 years and still not gotten X, it suggests that the original assertion is false.

I deny that atheists have been less civil than non-atheists over the past 150 years. So the claim that all we need to do is act civil and we will gain acceptance in the community is false.

Something more is required.

What is required is the condemnation of bigotry.

The same is true about 'opening up about their non-god belief'.

Could the Holocaust have been avoided if the Jews had simply "opened up about their non-belief in the divinity of Jesus?" Would slavery have not existed if Africans had simply open about their non-whiteness?

Bigotry just does not respond to these types of activities. Bigotry has to be actively fought.

SteveNJ said...

Regarding the statement about atheists being civil for the last 150 years and still getting a bum rap... There is the problem that most people will assume you are not an atheist unless you tell them otherwise, hence there is no positive association with atheists. My thought is that PZ Myers is suggesting that people need to know that these ordinary civil people are atheists to start breaking down the prejudice. He's just stating the obvious, that most people profess a distrust of atheists without really knowing that they know any.

Colin M said...

I feel you've ignored the important bits of the comment and focused on something that wasn't PZ's main point.

"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 think PZ's not claiming we've not been civil -- he's claiming we've not stood up. By labeling ourselves, and just being "normal folks", we can gain respect that's otherwise unachievable when atheists are just a hidden minority.

gaytheist said...

"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?"

No it does not. It assumes that for the past 150 years we haven't been standing up! We've been civil, but we've been in hiding. Theists were allowed to make us up to be demons with horns and large appetites for babies because they didn't know any Atheists. If they did know any Atheists, they didn't know who they were. Atheists are just now coming out of hiding in America and we need to CONTINUE being civil so we don't prove the theists' arguments, that we are immoral, right.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

SteveNJ and Colin M

Your hypothesi runs aground on the observation that there are groups that have not or cannot hide their identity (Jews and blacks) who where nonetheless treated with contempt by others. History tells us that a group that stands up and addresses others in a civil manner can still be treated with contempt by those in power.

Pick up any history book and you will find a constant narrative of people who are entirely undeserving of ill treatment by others, easily identified, who were nonetheless subject to ill treatment by others.

The idea that one can end mal-treatment from othes by simply standing up and saying, "Here I am" is willful blindness to these historical facts.

As if we can look at history and find no instance of people standing up and saying, "Here I am" where were still mal-treated, or no instance of societies mistreating individuals of groups who, by nature or by intention, were easily identified as members of some group that did not deserve mal-treatment.

SteveNJ said...

...150 Years

Alonzo - I agree with your comment, 100%. I was just responding to the idea that we could count the previous 150 years as being "out" and being civil. My own observations, biases and experiences lead me to believe that standing up to be counted as a civil atheist may further the cause of atheists in our country, but not improve my individual interactions with people. As with any arbitrary group, bias and stereotyping will not be easily overcome. Maybe Sam Harris's fMRI studies on belief in the brain will shed more light on the issue...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My point was in asking, "Where did this hostility come from?"

The idea that atheists need to alter their behavior is the idea that atheists are somehow "at fault" for this hostility - that atheist behavior is the cause of this hostility.

Recognizing that the bigotry is the fault of the bigot and not their victims implies that it is the bigot who needs to change his behavior, not his victims. There should be nothing wrong with the atheist who does not care enough about religious matters to get tied up with discussions about the existence of God. The atheist who simply does not talk about religion still has a right to be regarded as the moral equal of his peers who are not atheists - unless proof beyond a reasonable doubt can be brought to the contrary.

It is not his "fault" for not "standing up" that anti-atheist bigotry exists. To put the blame on him is to 'blame the victim' - to say that the bigot is somehow excused for his failure to regard the atheist as moral equals since the atheist did not stand up and identify himself as such.

The fault here rests with the bigot, not with the atheist. Do not tell me what the atheist should do differently - it is not the atheist who needs to change. It is the bigot who needs to change.

Of course, this takes somebody (not necessarily an atheist, but definitely somebody who is opposed to bigotry) standing up to condemn the bigot and demanding that his attitudes change for the better.

bpabbott said...

Alonzo: "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?"

No. My understanding is that he implies that we have not stood up and identified ourselves with atheism. Instead we've allowed the most repugnant of the agents for God to fortify an impression of us in the minds of the world's population.

Alonzo: "Like I said, unless and until somebody provides me with hard evidence suggesting that atheists are of a lower moral character than non-atheists [...]"

While unintentional, that is a strawman. It is not my understanding of PZ's position.

My understanding of PZ's position might be slanted ... it appears to be very consistent with what you argue for in the latter part of the post.

Did PZ make a specific statement that cemented your impression of his position in your mind?

Steelman said...

"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."

I think you may have taken PZ's comment a bit too literally.

I think he's saying that now that atheists are coming out, we have to demonstrate to the religious that their unfair, ignorant prejudices are unfounded. Not lose our cool, but take the moral high road, be out, be normal. I doubt he was thinking of winning over bigoted fundamentalists; they're impervious to reason or condemnation (they consider the former irrelevant in matters of faith, and the latter only strengthens their resolve).

"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."

There's a huge difference between labeling oneself as an act of self-expression, while living in a free society, and being forcibly labeled by a bigoted government for the purpose of persecution. I've met Jews who proudly wear a star of David on a chain, but would never wear that symbol if it were a government mandate.

"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."

But is that us? Because atheists already have power in this country due, in part, to the U.S. Constitution and the courts. Civil liberties are a hot button issue, and there's a dozen lawyers on every corner in addition to the ACLU. If atheists, as a group, had no money or legal rights, like those persecuted ethnicities of the past you mentioned, or the country was presently being run by Christian Dominionists, no amount of civil behavior, nor righteous indignation, would have any effect. Except to continue the beatings, perhaps.

I think PZ's comment is about this country, this time period, and this social and legal situation in which we presently live. This is an age when the biggest fear of a St. Patrick's Day marcher is not that they'll be hit by stone throwing business owners who proudly display "No Irish allowed" signs in their windows, it's that they'll be criticized in the media for not allowing the local gay rights groups to join them on the parade route.

However, I agree with you in that atheists should bark back at bigotry when necessary. Even so, Joe Public lives in a sound bite society, so I think there needs to be a somewhat balanced approach, which is what I think you were arguing for in the fourth paragraph from the bottom.