Monday, August 25, 2008

Responding to Bigotry

I received a comment from an anonymous member of the studio audience this morning that I think expresses a common set of sentiments, so I want to address them.

Look, I am an outspoken atheist activist. I agree with what you say, but this is one of those years when we simply (I hate to say it) need to bite our tongues and understand that the Dems are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

The conclusion, in this case, does not follow from the premises.

We live in an anti-atheist culture where a majority of the population have anti-atheist sentiments. A majority of the culture admits to being hostile to atheists and, we can expect, this a non-trivial number who like to view themselves as fair and open-minded while, in fact (in their actions) they are still prejudice.

This is true of racism where many people who claim not to be racist – people who are quite vocal in their opposition to racism – will still make assumptions consistent with racial stereotypes when their guard is down.

Given these facts, it would practically be impossible for the Atheist community to do any harm to the Democratic Party by expressing its opinion. In fact, it would probably help the Democratic Party since the majority of the people want a President that shares their anti-atheist bigotry. There is perhaps no better way to tell the bulk of the people, “This is somebody you want in the White House than for the atheist community to raise its voice n protest against that candidate.

I think that it’s an arrogant conceit, or a significant break from reality, to think that atheists have any power to shame the Democratic Party into making any kind of concessions – to the point of costing itself elections.

And if we want even the CHANCE of equal treatment, the Dems MUST win the election.

This is also inconsistent. If we want even a chance of equal treatment, we must change society itself so that no candidate can get elected who does not give atheists equal treatment. As long as we live in a society where the only way to get elected is to denigrate, insult, and alienate the atheists in the population, then any rational atheist should expect only to be denigrated, insulted, and alienated.

Equal treatment requires equal respect.

Look, Obama had atheist parents. Even if he really is a believing Christian, he doesn't hate atheists (and I'd bet that McCain is the same, but he will be forever beholden to the RRR for his victory if he wins).

What Obama hates or not is not relevant. Political campaigns involve taking polls and telling the people what the people want to hear. If the people want to hear anti-atheist rhetoric, then anybody seeking public office must make a choice. “Either I give the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire, or I am wasting my time running for public office.” In this type of society, the candidates that will win are those who will give the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire.

Given this choice, it does not matter (much) what Obama likes or dislikes. He knows the value of giving the people the anti-atheist rhetoric they desire, and he has proven his willingness to do so.

There is an interesting psychological aspect to all of this. People do not like to think of themselves as liars. So, what they tend to do in these types of situations, is to actually embrace and internalize the ‘convenient fiction’. So, Obama becomes the type of person the people want him to be. He makes anti-atheist claims. He is applauded for it. He likes the feel of the applause. He makes more claims (even more hostile to the last). He hears louder applause. All the while he tells himself, “This is what I really believe.” Without actually seeing where he is going.

Now, AFTER the election is a different story, if Obama wins. If we are NOT given a fully equal place at the table, we need to go absolutely BALLISTIC, even to the extent of creating a third party---a voting block of 8 to 14% of the electorate.

How is this going to happen? If Obama wins the election and gets into office on the back of body of anti-atheist bigotry (like this assumption that atheists have nothing of value to contribute to a discussion of morality and the public good), then this is the power base that he must appeal to in order to preserve his leadership. If he immediately starts to alienate those people, he weakens his own ability to make effective change. His supporters start to abandon him.

Besides, once he gets elected, his first job is to start running for the next election. Which means he must immediately start doing the things that got him elected in this election. There is, as a matter of fact, no such thing as “after the election.” We are always in a position of being “before the (next) election.”

I wish we were currently more politically powerful and could make all sorts of demands of these candidates, but, until we organize as a voting block, with a respectable and credible spokesperson, we are not.

I do not believe in the power of wishes. I believe in the power of plans. “Wait until next year” is a plan that never gets anywhere. Because, next year, there will be yet another reason to wait until the year after that, and then it is all too easy to wait until the year after that.

At this point, I want to stress a key point here.

My position is not ‘pro-atheist’. I see no reason to care whether a person believes that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is either true or false. Neither option has any moral significance.

What I am arguing for is taking a position against bigotry – a position that a person can (and should) take regardless of their views about the existence of God.

I write a lot about anti-atheist bigotry because (1) as an atheist, it affects me more than other types of bigotry so I have more of a personal interest in the issue, and (2) it is among the most widely accepted and practiced forms of bigotry in the United States today (so one of the forms most in need of people to stand up against it.)

However, my opposition does not come from the fact that these statements are anti-atheist. My opposition comes from the fact that it is bigotry, and bigotry is not something to be tolerated.

I have had both private emails and public comments from Christians and other religious people who say that they agree with me. They affirm their belief in God, then add that people who do not share their beliefs still have a right to equal respect and equal consideration from their government. They oppose anti-atheist bigotry for the same reason that many white people oppose segregation and other forms of racism, and for the same reason that many males oppose sexism, and for the reason that many Christians oppose bigotry against Jews and Muslims.

There is nothing that I write that a fair and just Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whatever cannot agree with. Or, at least, that is what I am for. Because what I write about is fairness and justice, not about religious (or non-religious) doctrines.

There is no reason why an anti-bigot must keep his mouth shut. An anti-bigot should feel free to raise his voice against examples of bigotry whenever and wherever he finds it. Failure to do so means handing power to the bigot.

And when bigots get power, it is absurd to think that somehow they are going to kindly hand any portion of that power over to those they are bigoted against. It is even more absurd to think that kindness and submission among those the population is bigoted against will somehow convince them to give up that power.


Anonymous said...

The best form of argument against anti-atheist bigotry is to reduce it to its component element -- bigotry.

One might conclude after reading this post that we have been shown no options for changing society, after being told that fundamental societal change is the only way to avoid being victims of bigotry. In fact, the easiest road to significant change is to see bigotry against atheists for exactly what it is, and to make it plain and irreducible to anyone concerned with moral issues. Activism is less valuable than that which is self-evident.

anton said...


Belief, or non-belief in Gods is the most obvious difference and helps focus the opposing arguments because it is an "easy" target.

Would "morality" not be a more productive issue to focus on in these political debates? It would take an admission by Atheists that many of their practices are not moral, but, if the fundy's, extremists, religious right types were forced into identical declarations, they wouldn't be so smug about their alleged superior moral character. The only unfortunate side effect is that US America would have to decide if it was a moral nation . . . and do something about the immoralities!

From this foreigner's point of view, US America has been side-stepping any questions about its morality as it seeks out even worse examples of morality to wage war against. What happens if US America runs out of bad guys?

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I was just curious about your source that the majority of the culture "admits to being hostile to atheists."

What do you mean by hostile? And what evidence do you have that the majority of the American(?) culture is hostile towards atheists?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


A majority of Americans report that they would not vote for an atheist candidate. They report tht they would be opposed to having their child marry an atheist. They report that atheists are untrustoworty.

A number of surveys have reported these results (or results like them). Of these, one of the most significant modern examples, Atheists Are Distrusted, was reported in the American Socialogical Review in 2006.