In the wake of the Reason Rally, atheists are experiencing some of the brute and unpleasant facts of living in a culture dominated by media where members of the press are so steeped in prejudice that they cannot see through it.
Much of the coverage of the Reason Rally contains distortions and misrepresentations.
Much of it is deliberate. We have bigots eager to paint their target group in the worst possible light. Unfortunately, this group controls whole networks of media and have direct access to large portions of the population whom they can infect directly with their bigotry. They can easily control the public attitude by being the first and the loudest with their interpretation of events.
That is a fact of the real world, and we are fools if we do not recognize this fact and act accordingly.
However, much of this bigotry is not so deliberate. These are distortions and misrepresentations created by people who have a habit of listening to the first group without question, and who have simply absorbed a culture's bigotry.
If you think about it, many of the people who cheered Hitler from 1930 to 1942 were average, decent people. Many of those who supported slavery before 1860 and in the halls of Congress and the press were otherwise decent people. Many of our founding fathers whom we view as heroes had many admirable qualities - but they could not even imagine giving women the right to vote. Many of these people were substantially indistinguishable from your best friend - except for the bigotry they absorbed from their culture.
I would like to draw your attention to an article, Atheism's New Dogmatism.
I am referring to this article to illustrate some of the elements that identify the author as an anti-atheist bigot. It is not the best or purist example of anti-atheist bigotry. It is, actually, the first one I came across this morning after having decided to write on this topic.
In this article, I am going to look at examples of bigotry, defined as making of derogatory generalizations across whole groups. (Note: In my next post, I will talk about another common distortion - interpreting Richard Dawkins as claiming that atheists should ridicule the religious.)
We find an example of derogatory overgeneralizations here:
This spirit of ridicule and contempt for religion was present in the crowd before Dawkins’ address. Photographs of the rally showed participants carrying placards saying “Not sure if Christian or just very stupid”, and “So many Christians, so few lions”.
I view the "Lions" comment as abhorrent. Ultimately, it is no different than walking around with a sign that says, "So many Jews, so few gas chambers." The latter sign, if it had shown up, would have been brought down immediately by popular demand - as it should have been. This sign should have met with a similar response. It is, for all practical purposes, the same concept applied to a different group.
Of course, my objections to that message - objections that I am sure that others share - do not count. They are not to be mentioned. The bigot cherry-picks his data, selecting those observations that support their bigotry while ignoring anything that seems in conflict with it. The sign supports that prejudice, so the bigot focuses on it as proof that his bigotry is well founded. My blog does not support that prejudice. Rather than refer to it as counter-evidence to the first group, its existence is ignored, so that atheists can be painted as consisting solely of people of that type.
An unfortunate fact of the real world is that the bigot will always find the evidence that supports his bigotry. There is always a "bottom 10 percent". If you get rid of the bottom 10 percent, you only create a new bottom 10 percent. You will always have a "worst set" that the bigot can focus on in order to paint the whole group in unflattering colors.
This is not to say that the bottom 10 percent cannot be condemned. They should be. However, the claim that, "You are to blame for the bigotry that we all suffer from" is not an appropriate condemnation. If not for them, the bigot will find somebody else to represent the poor qualities they want to assign to the whole group. In a sufficiently large group, they will be always that the bigot can fit into that role.
The sign that says that all Christians are "very stupid" also conflicts with the message that I persistently give in this blog. That message, just like this post here, consistently objects to derogatory overgeneralizations - even when the guilty person is an atheist. It is simply not true that all Christians are "very stupid". If we are going to be a group that ridicules absurd beliefs such as trans-substantiation, then we should also be ready and willing to ridicule beliefs such as the one expressed on that sign.
It is particularly ironic that the bigots make this move against the Reason Rally in light of the presence at the rally of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the famous group that claims that American soldiers deserve to die because they fight for a nation that shows more tolerance for gays than their interpretation of scripture permits.
The anti-atheist bigot has in this an immediate reminder of the moral wrong in painting a whole group with the brush of its least attractive members. However, in a display of pure hypocrisy, they conveniently ignore that lesson. Bigots do not like to follow lines of reasoning that call their bigotry into question.
Another distortion that found its way into the press was the claim that Richard Dawkins told the people to ridicule believers. Though many readers of this blog will already know the truth of the matter, I will put it in its moral context tomorrow.
As a final note, as somebody who knows how the bigot's mind works, I expected something like this. I think it would have been useful to have somebody on the stage anticipating the "nutpicking" remarks about to come out in the press. Perhaps a public participation event - a contest - in which people in the audience are invited to guess the various distortions and misrepresentations about to appear in the press the next time a similar gathering is planned - like "Rock Beyond Belief" at Fort Bragg. You know that similar distortions and misrepresentations will be made of that event.