Saturday, December 31, 2005

The "Atheist" Ethicist

I spent the day with my spousal unit, so I did not have time to think deep thoughts or to write deep wrotes.

I do, however, have some shallow thoughts that have been sitting around in my mind for a while.

One of the questions that keeps getting quested in my mind is, "What has been the impact of calling this blog what I did? What has been the impact of calling myself an atheist ethicist?

I certainly did not need to. Atheism itself has nothing to do with ethics. Calling myself a "heliocentrist ethicist" would have had just as much relevance. Or a "Tyrannosaurus Rex was a scavenger ethicist". There simply is no ethics specifically associated with atheism.

So, why put atheist in the title?

There are reasons not to do so. By putting the word atheist in the title, I have definitely reduced my potential readership.

Heck, one of the things that I will bet good money will happen with some of what I write is that a lot of people will simply dismiss it on the assumption that no atheist cannot have anything useful to say about ethics. Many (a majority?) of the population thinks that "atheist" and "ethics" go together like "round" and "square" or "married" and "bachelor." If the title has the word "atheist" in it, the postings cannot possibly have anything useful to say about ethics.

Independent of this concern, there are also people who simply do not want to be associated with anything associated with atheism. Almost nobody in my extended family knows that I write this blog. Nobody that I work with knows about this.

My friends know. Heck, they would not be friends if I could not be honest with them about what I believe and what I do about those beliefs. So, in fact, a person does not earn the title "friend" unless they know. Others are acquaintances.

Now, many of my co-workers know that I have an interest in politics and that I write about it. They are also passively aware of the fact that I am an atheist. But, none of them know about this blog.


It is all noble and wonderful to give up food, clothing, and shelter for the sake of a principle. However, the same income that pays for my food, clothing, and shelter also pays for this computer and the internet connection that allows me to write.

Now, I'm not saying that somebody is going to go, "You're an atheist; therefore, you're fired." Discrimination is more seditious and underhanded than that. Typically, the bigot is not even aware of his prejudice.

Rather, it's, "I'm not prejudiced against atheists. Your beliefs are your own business." However, the next time something turns up missing at work, the question is, "I wonder if that atheist had anything to do with it. I've always wondered how an atheist can have any morals if he does not believe in God. If something turns up missing, I have to look at the most likely suspects. Christians know that it is wrong to steal. But, atheists, what do they go on?"

Or, the atheist makes a mistake at work that causes a few people a few minutes of inconvenience, while the Christian in the next cubical misses a deadline on a vital proposal. The attitude, however, is that, "The atheist screwed up. He simply does not care about the quality of his work. That's what type of people they are -- only interested in themselves. Whereas, I'm sure that what the Christian did was an accident. After all, he is a Christian, so obviously he understands and respects his moral duties. That’s just the way Christians are."

Then, one day, the boss summons the atheist into his office and says, "There seems to be some tension between you and others in the staff. This is not a good working environment. Plus, your work just is not at the level that we would like to see here. Therefore, we are letting you go."

The thought process is not "atheist; therefore, fired." It's more like "atheist; therefore, suspicion as to his moral character; therefore, interpreting events in ways that conform to one's preconceived notions that atheists have a poor character; therefore, if we need to get rid of people, let's put the atheist on the list."

The same is true of the atheist student who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher is not going to say, “He does not stand for the Pledge; therefore, this paper gets an F.” Well, most teachers won't. It will be, “This paper came from an atheist. Atheists are inherently irresponsible and self-centered. Besides, somebody who does not realize that there is a God obviously has something mentally wrong with him. He can't see a truth that sits right in front of him. Yep, here it is, evidence that this student merely threw this paper together without giving the subject any real thought. Therefore; C-.”

That's how prejudice works.

Recognizing this, I recognize that putting the word "atheist" in my title means that many potential readers will simply skim past this blog, and others who may be interested will only do their reading when others are not aware of what they are doing. They will either print the essay so that they can read it later, or read it with the mouse cursor hovering over the minimize button in case somebody comes by.

This won't be true of everybody, mind you. Some live and work in a more tolerant environment than others. Some have a level of control over their situation that they do not need to worry about what others might think. Some have not experienced just how much they can lose.

I learned my lesson in Junior High. One particular example involved being held underwater by classmates who wanted to "baptize" me. They held me under at the city swimming pool to the point that I realized that I could not hold my breath much longer. I remember thinking, "If I scream, I will have no air, and when I breathe in again after I scream, there will be nothing but water." It is amazing how quickly the brain works at time. I had no other option really. I could only hold my breath for a few seconds more anyway. So, I screamed. Nothing but bubbles -- very silent bubbles -- of course. I remember being very disappointed that even I could barely hear my own voice, so nobody else was going to hear me either. So, that was it, no more air. However, when my tormentors saw the bubbles, they let me up.

This was not the only violence I suffered because I dared say that I did not believe in God. It was, however, the most frightening. And, I learned my lesson. "If you want to have food, clothing, shelter . . . and air to breathe . . . be careful who learns that you are an atheist."

I think of those events when I think about the demand that there be a "patriotic exercise" -- saying the Pledge -- in public schools. We did not say the Pledge when I went to school. If we had – if I had been forced to either stand and say something others knew I did not believe, or sit and draw attention to my beliefs in a ceremony designed to communicate the idea that "those who are not 'under God' are not true Americans . . . I shudder at the thought.

So, way back before the beginning of recorded blogestry (last August), I wondered about whether to include the word 'atheist' in my title -- knowing how many potential readers will respond to that fact. I thought about how this would hamper those who might share my writings with others -- because some people are not going to like the idea of forwarding something from an atheist to their friends and family, even if they think the content has merit and I am discussing something that has nothing to do with religion.

Would I not do better by hiding the atheism, and simply going with the ethics?

But, then again, the main reason I wanted to write this blog was to expose some of the wrongs that I found in society. Some of those wrongs concern the unfair an unjust treatment that atheists endure. Some of those wrongs are embodied in the fact that I have to think twice about putting the word "atheist" in my blog title. If I was going to write a log dedicated to identifying and addressing moral problems, that was one moral problem in need of addressing.

Maybe there was another Jr. High School student out there who could avoid some horror by having somebody somewhere write something that defended the idea that atheists are not inherently amoral.

So, I went to Google and typed the words “atheist ethicist” into the search engine.

I got exactly two hits.

Obviously, it is true that people almost never see the words “atheist” and “ethicist” together. It also meant that I had a title that I could call my own, and I would not be stepping on anybody else’s namespace. And I started writing.

Yet, I still wonder, from time to time, what would things be like today if I had decided against putting “atheist’ in the title?


Anonymous said...

I suppose one way to find out would be to start a parallel blog with the same content. Blogger's free, after all. You might have to censor a few (like this one) but it ought to work as an experiment.

Shivaji said...

Good post.. got me a little worried--but I guess its much easier to be an atheist in India. Check out my blog ChutneySpears

Anonymous said...

Hey, there alonzo.

My girflriend teaches highschool where they do say the pledge. The pledge is, by supreme court decision, optional for all students. Yet students who don't stand up are looked upon with some suspiscion by other students. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with God, though. It has to do with America being good and great, and anyone not willing to bow down before that flag is suspect as someone who doesn't like hamburgers or ice cream.

This year she is in a more progressive surburban school, so most of the teachers are savvy to the ways of the fascist mind. However, last year she was teaching at an inner city school where they discussed during a staff meeting, "what to do about these kids who won't say the pledge."

I would just be wary of linking pledge-resistance exclusively to atheism, or pledge-support exclusively to theists. I do see a pretty big overlap in styles of thinking (free thinking individuality vs. slavish devotion of god or country), but the issues of pledge-resistance are not precisely synonymous with atheism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Oz: Ultimately, given the amount of work involved, and the fact that SOMEBODY would link me to atheism eventually, I do not think I could successfully develop an atheist-free ethics site. I email some of my articles around in an atheist-free context. I tend to get a good reaction, but I do not know what that reaction would be if they knew of my atheism. I have had more than one person suggest that I should have become a priest.

Shivaji: I have been doing a fair amount of reading about religous pluralism in India. Boelf is right -- there have been stories about some horrendous religious violence in India. Yet, as I understand it, the government is tremendously secular, with Muslims and Hindus both equally likely to hold high political office.

I think that India has an advantage over the United States, where we have one dominant religion with a virtual lock on political power. As India prospers, more and more people will see that religious tolerance is essential to your success -- essential to working together for the benefit of India. In the U.S., we are at far more risk of a tyranny of the majority.

I read your objections to "religious moderates". I would consider these "religious appeasers". There is another type of "moderate" -- the person who simply says, "We are going to ignore religious reasons and focus on secular reasons." They treat all religions as equal as well -- equally irrelevant.

I wish you luck.

inkadu: The link that I am drawing on is that between including "under God" in the Pledge and religiosity -- a link that I think is fairly solid.

However, you are right. If "under God" is removed, there would still be an issue of harrassment of those who do not say the pledge. Indeed, some atheist children may join the harrassers, because they would then "belong" and have the same psychological disposition to brand non-participants as outsiders.

Boelf: Actually, my experience is that a huge majority of moral discussion does not involve religious conversation. Consider, for example, the debate on Bush's surveillance that has dominated my postings recently. People do not even expect religion to play a role in this discussion -- it is being discussed almost entirely on secular grounds.

Your claims are certainly true with regard to topics such as homosexuality, pornography, abortion, capital punishment, and intelligent design in science classes. However, issues such as space development, campaign finance reform, climate change, drilling in ANWR, and torture (just to name some of the tipics I have discussed recently) tend not to involve religious concepts.

Anonymous said...

As a swede, I guess I have a bit of trouble realizing the bigotry one can have to endure as an american out-of-the-closet atheist.
But still, is Alonzo Fyfe an pseudonym? Cause if anyone googles your real name, anyone with half a brain will understand that you're an unbeliever.
But then again, maybe people don't google their acquaintances. But bosses tend to do when you're on a job interview. At least they do here :)

Just a heads up if it by chance hadn't crossed your mind yet. Great site by the way, I'm humbled by the insane amount of well written articles you pump out. It's like 2 pages per day, all excellent. That's pretty unprecedented compared to other blogs. Cheers.