Monday, March 01, 2010

Atheism and the Texas Arsons

It appears that an atheist book was discovered among the possessions of one of the people accused of setting fire to a number of chuches in Texas. This is apparently big news, because several headlines have reported this as the dominant and most important fact in the whole story.

Of course, this immediately became the headline and, for those who form opinions instantly upon reading headlines (the bulk of the population) this instantly reenforces a stereotype that atheists are inherently immoral, even dangerous.

This is the vicious circle of bigotry. Hatred filters the news to reenforce the hatred that filters the news.

As many writers have pointed out, this method of reporting betrays an attitude of bigotry on the part of those who write these headlines. The authors are either assuming a connection btween atheism and the arsons, or they are trying to profit from the public desire to buy (and buy into) anything that casts atheists in a bad light.

Both options are morally despicable.

Why is the presence of an atheist book so newsworty? Because obviously atheists are a dangerous and violent people and the atheist book must be the cause of their decision to set fires to these churches. These people are hate-mongers in that they are selling hatred to a public willing to buy that particular good. They do so for profit - the same way a fish monger profits by setting up a stand to profit from the selling of fish.

One possible explanation for the church arsons is that a pyromaniac and an otherewise lonely and vulnerable friend wanted an excuse to set some fires. They wanted a target that they could cast in their own minds as deserving of this type of treatment. They put aside concerns for the well-being of people who might be inside the buildings because their interest in the fire was more important than their interest in the well-being of other people.

Because most people are religious, people with these types of psychological problems tend to find the justification for their actions in religious scripture. This is simply a matter of playing the odds. If a person wants to see their hateful or violent acts justified, they will naturally turn to the most widely accepted forms of justificaiton within a community. In a religious community, they will tend to look for evidence of justification in religious text. If the text has passages telling them that they may aim their hatred towards homosexuals or atheists, then homosexuals and atheists become the target.

However, as atheism itself becomes more legitimate, then we can expect more and more of these people to find justification for their actions in the writings of atheists. For somebody seeking an excuse that makes his dispositions to hatred or violence seem legitimate, the widespread acceptance of the message that religion is evil and society would be better off by getting rid of it provides them with a potential target.

These are simple psychological facts. Those types of people exist and will seek justification for their actions in the dominant views of the day regardless of what those views are - regardless of whether they are theistic or atheistic, for example.

Responsible writers pay attention to these types of facts in their writing. They ask themselves if they are making claims that such a person could use, and they make sure to add reasons why no good person would make such a connection.

"The right to freedom of speech is not a right to an immunity from criticism. It is, however, a right to immunity from violence."

7 comments:

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

If someone had set fire to a number of McDonald's restaurants, and if books on vegetarianism and animal rights were found in his possession, that would be relevant -- not because of any stereotype that vegetarians are inherently immoral, but because his vegetarianism suggests a reason why he might be opposed to McDonald's and a possible motive for an otherwise baffling crime. Unless there were strong evidence for some other motive, the arson would probably be portrayed -- reasonably enough -- as a vegetarian-motivated crime.

When the target is a church rather than a fast-food joint, the perpetrator's possession of an atheist book becomes relevant for the same reason. If this were just some random crime and the press were focusing on atheism, I'd be angry, but in this case it seems completely appropriate. I think you're being a bit oversensitive.

Anonymous said...

Well, what the articles failed to mention was that three Bibles were also found in his residence.

Mikel said...

I think the problem was not that the article mentioned that the arson suspect owns "The Atheist's Way" (which I think is a good book that advocates that atheists behave decently), but that the atheist book is featured prominently in the story headlines about the arsons. When, in fact, it is only a minor detail in the actual story. I think the author of this blog is absolutely correct.

cl said...

Why is the presence of an atheist book so newsworty? Because obviously atheists are a dangerous and violent people and the atheist book must be the cause of their decision to set fires to these churches. These people are hate-mongers in that they are selling hatred to a public willing to buy that particular good. They do so for profit - the same way a fish monger profits by setting up a stand to profit from the selling of fish.

Did anyone actually say that? Or is that what you walked away with? I'm willing to bet the latter. I agree that "the media" tends to reinfornce negative stereotypes through irresponsible reporting, but I think you're overreacting, and I suspect that most atheists will. I believe the media would have done the same thing under a different context. For example, if the churches burnt had been southern Baptist and the book found had been white supremacist literature. That's actually happened before, "the media" took the same approach, and that's just the nature of "the media".

Still, that an atheist book was found at the scene of these fires is newsworthy, it suggests a possible motive, and though it may be a minor detail, reporting on it is not in itself an indication of bigotry. Rather, it's an indication of the oft-near-fanatical nature of "the media". I would reserve my accusations of bigotry for specific comments from specific people, not the fact that "the media" simply acts as it usually does.

Now that that's out of the way,

Those types of people exist and will seek justification for their actions in the dominant views of the day regardless of what those views are - regardless of whether they are theistic or atheistic, for example. Responsible writers pay attention to these types of facts in their writing. They ask themselves if they are making claims that such a person could use, and they make sure to add reasons why no good person would make such a connection.

Bravo.

supersage400 said...

Wonder how people would've reacted if they had found the gospel of the flying spaghetti monster in there. I'm sure He would demand his followers burn down churches...

CybrgnX said...

This is the perfect example of why I don't bother reading newspapers or listen to headline news.
I've never found them to be lies but their headlines always point to the sensational and usually away from the real truth. When ever I do hear or read a headline it gives me a starting point to the truth by going in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately the post is correct in that the most sensational part is told to impress the 'general' public. Yes I do make the equation ... general=ignorant.

Godless Randall said...

their headlines always point to the sensational and usually away from the real truth.

hit the nail on the head. that's exactly why i don't think we should call it bigotry. tough skin never hurt anybody lets save the bigotry callouts for real bigotry like monique davis