Monday, January 30, 2006

Dale Reich's Caricature of Atheists

Note: This evening, I sent the following to Mr. Dale Reich and the Milwaukee Journal:

On January 29th, the Dale Reich posted an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal online under the title, “If you're going to be an atheist, at least get it right

The article has all of the qualities of a KKK member putting on black face, then claiming that he is going to consider what it must be like to be an African-American. He then gives a bigoted caricature of a black person. Finally, when he recognizes that not all black people actually act the way he portrays them, he insists that they “get it right.”

Reich starts with claiming that he is going to “put on the robes of disbelief” because he “wanted to see how I looked and felt without my lifelong commitment to Christianity.” He did not like what he saw. This is because he saw a caricature, just like the KKK member putting on black face.

He could not understand how an atheist “friend” could want to do the right thing. He reports on a conversation with one of his atheist “friends.” The atheist had stopped to help some stranded motorist, and Reich could not understand why an atheist would do that. According to Reich, without God an atheist has no reason to do anything for others. He has reason to be concerned only with himself.

This is an old caricature that is as bigoted and tired as putting on black face and starting to tap dance -- only Reich's caricature is far more denigrating and malicious. Reich wants his audience not just to laugh at atheists, he wants his audience to fear and hate atheists. These are bigoted words that are all too common among those who want to get others to share their hatred for people they do not understand.

Why does an atheist stop to help a stranded motorist? Because he wants to. He is not trying to buy a ticket to heaven. He is not cowering in fear at the prospects of going to hell. He sees some people that he can help, and he stops to help them, for no reason other than the fact that he wants to do so.

Reich cannot understand this. He looks at people who help others without the possibility of reward or punishment, and he is confused. The message that Reich is giving can be paraphrased.

“How can they do this? How can these atheist-creatures actually show kindness towards others – help others when he meets others in need – if they do not think that God will reward them, or punish them if they do not? These atheists must be insane, because a sane person only helps people to benefit himself, or to avoid being harmed.”

This is the point at which Reich realizes his black-face caricature of the atheist does not represent the way that atheists actually behave. This is where he places the blame on the atheist, for failing to match the bigoted image he has created in his own mind. He does not dare question the legitimacy of his prejudice – it is beyond dispute. So, it is the atheist’s fault that the atheists are not the selfish, heartless creatures that exist in his imagination.

I see a motorist on the side of the road. I see somebody whose existence is entirely taken up between the time he is born, and the time he will die. There is no afterlife where he will eventually get to live in perpetual bliss. This is the only life he will have, and I see that the life is filled with anguish.

So, I offer him a hand. I do so because I enjoy it. I enjoy playing computer games. I enjoy watching a good movie. I enjoy playing with my cat. However, none of these bring me more pleasure than knowing that I have helped somebody else.

I also know that my well-being depends on living in a society where others are kind towards me. I have reason to make kindness a universal standard, and to make cruelty an object of universal condemnation. I no more need to believe in God to know the value of kindness and the threat of cruelty than I need to believe in God to know the pain of putting my hand on a hot stove, or the pleasure of . . . well, of knowing that I have made the world a little better, a little safer, for others.

Reich wants reason to look down on me. He wants reason to view me with contempt and scorn. Therefore, he invents a caricature of atheism that he can detest with a good conscience, and then he stuffs me and others like me into this mold. When he discovers we do not fit, he does not think that the problem is with the mold he has created. Somehow, it is my fault that I am not the person he can comfortably detest and scorn.

I am sorry, Mr. Reich, that I do not match your caricature. I am afraid I do not have time for that. Life is far too short.


Anonymous said...

There was little in the way of caricature in his article. Perhaps you're being a little oversensitive? He was simply pointing out that atheists have no reason to do anything they don't want to do. He was not denying that they do good. On the contrary, he was saying that they do but that they don't have any good reason.

In fact, you agree with him! "Why does an atheist stop to help a stranded motorist? Because he wants to." But if he doesn't? You recognize that for an atheist the impulse must come from within. (That's a double-edged sword. Perhaps, as you imply, it's more meaningful than if one does it for browny points. But if it isn't internal, then it's non-existant.) The religious don't claim that atheists are immoral. They claim that they are amoral. There is no objective morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is difficult to fine-tune sensitivity to the appropriate number of decimal places. Whether overstated or understated, I am more inclined to investigate the question of whether I am wrong or right.

What if the atheist does not want to stop to help the stranded motorist? Then he will not do so. However, it is still reasonable for other atheists to condemn him for it -- or even to punish him -- because we have reason not to want to live in a society filled with such people. We have reason to prefer a society filled with people who will help others. So, we have reason to use condemnation and punishment against those who will not.

As for the assertion that religious people like those that Reich typifies claim that atheists are amoral, not immoral, because there is no objective morality, conflating two views.

From the point of view of such religious people, atheists are immoral. The religious person holds that there is an objective morality, and atheists have no reason to follow it. They claim that the atheist must deny the existence of objective morality, but that is not a view that they share, and not a part of the framework from which they make their judgments.

The framework from which they judge atheists is one in which an objective morality exists, and within which atheists are immoral.

That is their view.

Also, I accept that morality is objective, so a defense that takes the form, "I cannot be immoral because objective morality does not exist -- I can only be amoral" is not available.

Anonymous said...

When I read this peice I realized that he makes himself out to be just as bad as the cartacutureization he made of atheists. THe author of that piece without admiting it says that the only reason he does good at all is because of fear of punishment if he does not. So in effect in all of his good actions are done out of selfishness. THis is not moral this is a bold faced lie.

Martin said...

So, has Reich responded?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Not yet.

Anonymous said...

I agree with dan doel. It is truly strange to hear certain Christians (I was going to say "theists," but I actually have only heard this from some Christians) say that, if God wasn't around to tell us what is right and what is wrong, then we'd have no reason at all to act in any way other than in pursuit of our own interests -- without the slightest thought for the welfare of others.

Of course, in saying this, these Christians utterly divorce the effects of our acts have on others from determining their "rightness" or "wrongness." A wrong (immoral)act is not wrong because it may harm someone. Indeed, that has absolutely nothing to do with it being wrong. Instead, a wrong act is wrong only because it happens to appear on a list of acts God has arbitrarily declared to be wrong.

Morality, as presented by such Christians, is thus reduced to mere obedience.

Anonymous said...

And that is why I don't believe that there is any redeeming quality to their religion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement is an overgeneralization of a type that crosses the line into bigotry.

It is as difficult to find any one quality that is true of all Christians (other than the defining characteristic that Christ was a prophet), as it is to find one quality that is true of all atheists (other than the defining characteristic of a belief that no Gods exist).

It is a part of Mr. Reich's moral failing that he says speaks about all atheists without recognizing these distinctions. It would be a mistake to copy that failing.

Anonymous said...

Personally, it seems that "because I want to" is really the only valid reason to do something. Of course, you have to take that statement in the broadest sense, to avoid oversimplifying. But really, avoiding hellfire is only one way of saying "becuase I want to". Or doing something becuase it helps build the kind of world you want to live in, is also saying "because I want to". In my opinion, the latter is a better reason than the former, because it's deeper. But then again, that's a reflection of my values -- I think deeper reasons are better than shallow reasons.

The nice thing (and difficult thing) about not being tied to a religion is that you get to work through all of these issues and build your own ethical framework. For what it's worth, objectivism, as described in Atlas Shrugged, really makes a lot of sense to me. We *should* act in our self-interest if we are to be healthy. Its (perhaps) fatal weakness is that Rand completely ignores our animal (organic) nature. I don't think it's possible to be completely rational, at this point in our evolution.