Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Origins

A member of the studio audience has asked:

One thing I'm not sure of - and this seems relevant to the topic currently at hand - is the emphasis on atheism. While your atheism is far more fair and respectful than that of, say, a Hitchens or a Dawkins, I'm curious as to why you choose to make the promotion of atheism and the remonstration of theism, however mannerly their execution, your focus, instead of the argument for virtue ethics itself.

The answer is because there is a prejudice to be fought - and a prejudice that has cost me a great deal - and so I opted to put some effort into fighting it.

I have argued that there is nothing in particular significant about being an atheist ethicist. It is significant in the same way that being a black President or a hispanic Supreme Court Justice is significant. Nothing about being black makes one better qualified to be President. Yet, because of an ongoing prejudice against blacks, having a black President is an important way to battle prejudice.

There are many people who hold that the idea of an 'atheist ethicist' is a contradiction in terms. I hope that my efforts in this blog have some measure of success in combatting that prejudice.

I mentioned that bigotry against atheists has cost me. It cost me in two ways.

The first is that, when I was young (in the 5th grade and beyond), as a result of being an atheist, I was subject to a great deal of violence. At one point in Junior High, I was put in a situation where I sincerely believed I was being killed. Three students held me under water to the point where I could not hold my breath any more. I tried calling for help but, being under water, that was not effective. Yet, it was when a burst of bubbles as I screamed reached the surface that my attackers decided to let me up.

At the same time, by greatest ally and protector - the person who did the most to keep me safe even at personal risk to himself - was as much a fundamentalist as one can imagine.

The second is that I resolved at the age of 16 to leave the world better than it would have been if I had not lived. I thought that the best place to do that would be as a legislator or a judge. Yet, when I got older I discovered that atheists are not permitted to be legislators or judges in this country. So, the option that I had sought for myself was not available.

These two consequences of anti-atheist bigotry motivated me to take a particular interest in standing against anti-atheist bigotry. The course that I selected was to illustrate that an 'atheist ethicist' is not a contradiction in terms.

Somewhere, there is a child being tormented (or attending school in fear) of classmates who have learned bigotry and hatred towards atheists, or who aspires to do good things in the world but whose options are limited by anti-atheist bigotry. It is for the sake of that child that I have 'atheist' in the title of this blog.

I find it particularly obnoxious that children learn this hatred towards their fellow citizens in the national motto and the national pledge of allegiance. The national motto teaches children, "If your classmate does not trust in God, then he is not a real American." The Pledge of Allegiance teaches students that, "A person who does not support a nation under God should be looked on the same way one should look upon a supporter of rebellion, tyranny, or injustice."

In short, my own government was responsible for turning my fellow citizens against me as a child, and for closing down my opportunities as an adult. I find that particularly obnoxious.

Yet, in seeing so many people around me getting the moral facts wrong, I have always worried that I would get the moral facts wrong. While this history could easily have seeded within me bigotry and hatred, I have always struggled to take a more objective view. I give no credit to the idea of basing morality on one's own feelings. That only tells the agent what the agent wants the moral truth to be. It does not tell the agent what the moral truth is in fact.

So, I am not anti-government, or anti-religious. I am decidedly anti-bigot. This includes oposition to atheist bigotry where atheists, through their actions, show that they are just as capable of unjust overgeneralization as any theist. The person who uses unjust overgeneralizations against religion might have some impact on promoting hostility towards religion. However, he gets his victory by promoting the practice of engaging in useful unjust overgeneralizations.

It is the author of unjust overgeneralizations who is the truly evil person, not the person who believes in God. A person does not have to believe in God to make unjust overgeneralizations. Daily, atheists show me that they suffer from the same moral weaknesses as theists.

The main difference is that theists assign their moral weakness to God. Then, by creating a god that they make in their own (less then morally perfect) image, they seek to justify their evil by claiming it is commanded by the God they invented.

9 comments:

Hume's Ghost said...

"The first is that, when I was young (in the 5th grade and beyond), as a result of being an atheist, I was subject to a great deal of violence. At one point in Junior High, I was put in a situation where I sincerely believed I was being killed. Three students held me under water to the point where I could not hold my breath any more. I tried calling for help but, being under water, that was not effective. Yet, it was when a burst of bubbles as I screamed reached the surface that my attackers decided to let me up."

Wow. I didn't realize that. That sounds horrific. I grew up in the Deep South, heart of the Bible Belt, yet the worst I ever got was being teased.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

It is not worth dwelling on.

However, one note that I would like to add is that I can easily see a group of atheist teenagers emboldened to the point of doing the same thing to a Christian child if precautions are not taken to focus one's rhetoric rather precisely.

I have no intention of writing anything that contributes to that outcome either.

Michael Maddox said...

Alonzo:

I am deeply saddened to hear your story. Having lived my entire life between San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., arguably the two most liberal havens in the country, I can tell you unequivocally that there are areas in this country with a very, very strong non-religious majority, also including many who will identify as "Christian" for sake of appearances or whatever reason (such as my parents and some friends and their families), but for whom religion plays absolutely no part whatsoever in their lives.

I watched the Obama inauguration at U.C. Berkeley on a jumbotron in the middle of campus among thousands of gathered students. When the president mentioned "nonbelievers," the crowd went absolutely insane with applause.

I don't think there is any shame whatsoever in leaving your hometown if you are facing undue discrimination still to this day. Perhaps you should keep the option on the table, though I obviously don't know the extent of your situation.

anton said...

I never experienced any grief from other students. Teachers were another story as many of them used the classroom as another pulpit! After this experience, I learned that in order to get higher grades, I had to make certain that my "work" in no way confronted theist beliefs. This experience helped me in my career.

I am disappointed,however, that four major projects I managed to execute in my lifetime were "atheist" inspired, successful projects that were "appropriated" by the religious as "Christian projects". In the struggles that ensued, I had to deal with a lot of "Christians" while atheist allies were conspicuous by their absence. Some of them went so far as to claim to me that "God had to have a hand in their creation! A true atheist never could have created them!"

I know I have had a positive influence on several aspects of our world, but, as I start my fifth, I have no thoughts of being joined by other atheists and have recruited a few Christian "leaders" to make it happen. It is easier keeping there "religions" out of the project because they realize they would end up competing with each other, than recruiting other atheists. The project will happen, but, once again, it won't satisfy my original objective which was to create some good in the name of "atheism"!

I accept the fact that religion must be absent from most "good works" . . . and that includes "atheism"!

Inquisitive Atheist said...

"Yet, when I got older I discovered that atheists are not permitted to be legislators or judges in this country."

I'm from Canada so my knowledge of the American legal system is fairly limited, is this statement true in principle (i.e. is there a law against it)? Or only in practice? I know that no 'outed' atheist would ever be nominated to the Supreme Court, etc.

esemplastic said...

Wow, I guess that does explain a lot. I'm so sorry that happened to you. Was this in the Bible Belt, in a small town? That's just unbelievable.

I definitely understand where you're coming from now. I'm frankly amazed that you can be so equable about the matter.

(And frankly, I can't believe some of the rationalizations I'm hearing from some of these other bloggers. Atheist kids would do the same thing? Maybe in a society where the majority were atheists and there was stigma attached to theism, but not in the real world.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Inquisitive Atheist

The principle that atheists are filtered out of almost all elected and judicial appointments is true in practice. There are some explicit laws (and Constitutional provisions) barring atheists from government positions, but they are not enforceable.

Emu Sam said...

"Atheist kids would do the same thing? Maybe in a society where the majority were atheists and there was stigma attached to theism, but not in the real world."

And we want to keep it that way even as atheism becomes a majority belief and there is a stigma against large-scale magical thinking.

Hume's Ghost said...

"I have no intention of writing anything that contributes to that outcome either."

Right