Saturday, May 06, 2006

Militant Atheists

I have been spending some time browsing through some discussions on the claim that atheists are the most hated group in the nation. I find that many of the postings discuss the damage that ‘militant atheists’ are doing to the image of the population of atheists in general.

What I find particularly interesting in these discussions is the number of people who called themselves atheists or agnostics who shared this impression. They wrote to say that these ‘militant atheists’ should restrain themselves because they are the ones who are ruining the image of atheists in this country.

When fundamentalist Muslims detonate bombs all around the world and fly airplanes into (civilian) sky scrapers, and call for the execution of people whose only wrong is drawing a cartoon, people rush to assert that it would be wrong to allow these radicals to tarnish the image of all Muslims.

When the Catholic Church is found to be covering up the activities of pedophile priests we are told not to allow this to justify the condemnation of all Catholics.

However, when ‘militant atheists’ perform the heinous crime of filing lawsuits in federal court that the Constitution be obeyed, people not only allow, but encourage, their fellow citizens to take this as a sign that all atheists are evil and deserve condemnation.

This should tell us something. If blowing up civilians is not enough to tarnish the images of Muslims in this country, and covering the crime of child abuse by priests does not put Catholics near the bottom of the list, then ‘militant atheists’ are doing nothing to harm the image of atheists in general. These people are being used as scape goats -- as an excuse to support hostility that was sitting there before their names ever hit the newspapers. They are its target, not its cause.

The Militant Atheist

What is a "militant atheist?" I suspect that the term is used to conjure up the image of a person who is so repulsed by religion that he wants to drive it into the closet. He wants to create a situation where nobody is permitted to express a religious opinion where an atheist might actually happen to see or hear it – because atheists are too offended by the site to tolerate it.

This is a boogey man created to frighten children and others into giving money and political power to those few people who have best exploited this image.

I am not saying that there are no atheists that fit this description. Atheists are a diverse group and there are certain to be some atheists with views that deserve contempt. I am saying that they are rare and that have no power. More importantly, one of the reasons that they have no power is that moderate atheists do not tolerate them. These are atheists who are so familiar with the bitter taste of religious oppression that they are as opposed to serving it to others as they are to having others continue to serve this drink to them.

These are atheists who would protest 'We Trust In No God' as loudly as they would protest 'In God We Trust'; who would object to 'One Godless Nation' as loudly as they object to 'One Nation Under God'; who think that it is as inappropriate to post atheist symbols in the public square as it is to post any religious symbol.

And, yes, there is a recognized symbol for atheism.

The proper word to describe the Christian who condemns atheists for seeking the removal of religious symbols from the public square, but who would scream in protest if the public square were filled with this symbol, is 'hypocrite'

Those who speak against ‘militant atheists’ will sometimes attach this name to the likes of Michael Newdow, the ACLU, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Yet, as the examples above show, none of these individuals or groups would meet the definition of a ‘militant atheists’. They are not trying to ‘drive religion from the public square.’ They are trying to prevent people from turning the public square into a public church – from making church attendance a mandatory part of participation in civic events by having both at the same time.

Expressing Bigotry

What has happened with those who blame the ‘militant atheists’ is that they have bought into a doctrine of bigotry – a practice of “blaming the victim” for his own abuse.

Consider what we would say of a person who dared to suggest that blacks were enslaved because they refused to treat their European visitors with sufficient kindness and subordination. I can well imagine a tribal advisor telling the leader, “If we only greeted the Europeans with more open arms -- if we were friendlier towards them and lavished them with gifts -- then they would not have come here to enslave us. It is not the Europeans' fault that are brothers have been hauled away in slavery. It is our own fault."

This type of thinking -- blaming the blacks for their own enslavement -- is pathetic and insulting.

It would be just as insulting to say that the Jim Crow laws and the violence that white society used to enforce those laws in the 1950s were the result of the ‘uppity’ nature of the blacks who challenged those laws. There were those who said that if only blacks learned to accept their place than this hostility towards blacks would not exist. Yet, the very idea that blacks had a place betrayed the fact that a hostility and bigotry was already present well before any black decided to protest against it.

Finally, what would we say of the Jew who had said, "It is our fault that Hitler and the Nazis became powerful. If we had only been more generous with our money and condemned those amongst us that the Nazis said were responsible for the plight of the average Ayrian, we might have avoided this Holocaust. The Holocaust was not the fault of the Nazis; we brought it among ourselves. We are to blame.”

These arguments are not only unreasonable, they are morally depraved in their own right. They exonerate evil and shift the blame onto its victims.

Victims Blaming Themselves

It is not all that difficult – it is not even all that uncommon – to get victims to blame themselves for the abuse they are made to suffer.

Those who deal with abused spouses and children are familiar with abusers who claim, “I love you, but you make me so mad sometimes. Why do you make me so angry? If you will just do what I tell you then none of this will happen.”

Some spouses and children believe these claims. They blame themselves, and find themselves in an abusive situation they cannot think of escaping. With every abuse, they remind themselves that, "I must truly be a bad person to have brought something like this on."

It is a horrible mental trap to get into. However, I can see no better account of atheists and agnostics who blame the ‘militant atheists’ for the fact that atheists are the most hated group in America.

The blame rests on the shoulders, not on those who are the victims of hate, but those who market in hate – those who seek greater power for themselves by doing harm to others.

A Challenge

If anybody wants evidence that it is not the 'militant atheist' who is responsible for this hatred, I offer this test.

Suggest, for example, that we modify the Pledge of Allegiance. Instead of saying 'under God', we remove these words and allow each person to freely add,whenever they say the Pledge, the words, 'So help me God' or whatever phrase they want. This compromise would sidestep the objection that we are trying to remove mention of God from the public square. What we are removing is a phrase that equates those who are not ‘under God’ to those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.

I suspect that those who condemn ‘militant atheists’ and blame them for the plight of all atheists would reject this proposal. This is because their hatred has nothing to do with 'militant atheists' trying to remove God from the public square. It has everything to do with religious bigots wanting to insist that our national rituals continue to express the sentiment that those who do not share their religious beliefs are to be considered inferior.

The 'militant atheists' line is just a convenient excuse. The concept of the 'militant atheist' plays the same role in the denigration of atheists as the concept of the 'uppity nigger' played in the defense of racism.


vjack said...

Great post. I really enjoyed it. The version of the militant atheist myth which I have heard most often has been about how we atheists should do a better job in picking our battles. Thus, the suit over the pledge shouldn't have been brought because even a victory would be trivial and it generates bad publicity. While I disagree with this perspective, it seems to be a common one. Like you point out, these attitudes can be found among atheists as well as the superstitious.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I view the Pledge to be one of the most important battles to fight.

The Pledge is nothing but a promise to hate.

The word 'indivisible' tells children to hate those who would rebel and split the country.

The words 'with liberty and justice at all' teach children that they are to hate tyranny and injustice.

Congress added the words 'under God' to the pledge because they wanted to teach children to hate atheists as they learn to hate rebels, tyrants, and criminals.

Of course, they were trying to teach children to hate communism. They voted in favor of teaching children to hate atheists.

This Pledge has had its desired effect. Telling the students to recite this pledge is no different than telling them that children with blue eyes are better than those with brown eyes, or those with light-colored skin are better than those with dark-colored skin.

The real reason why atheists are the most hated group in America is because they are told, every day, to stand, face the flag, put their hand over their heart, and swear an oath that they will grow up to hate those who are not "under God" as much as they are to hate rebels, tyrants, and criminals.

Anonymous said...

At first glance I though "a promise to hate" may be a bit strong, but try the following thought experiment:

Replace the phrase "one nation, under god" with:

"one nation, white"
"one nation, heterosexual"

and it becomes quite clear that it *is* bigotry - a statement that excludes some people, intentionally or otherwise. Personally I'm not that attached to the conspiracy-theory interpretation - I think it could just as easily have been thoughtless.

But then, I was pretty young when I realized it was idiotic to pledge allegiance to a flag, and discovered that if you just stood there, nobody really noticed. (The flaws in this approach didn't occur to me until much later.) Somewhat older before I decided I wouldn't pledge it to the republic either, but to the principles the republic was based on. It's a subtle point, but a very important one - specifically, what do you do if the republic abandons its principles?

Anonymous said...

I support removing "under God" from the Pledge for the same reasons you mention, but the problem is if we win, will it just lead to a constitutional amendment enshrining that same bigotry into the Pledge more permanently?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let them seek an amendment.

The debate in the Senate and the House and the state legislatures needed to get it passed would provide a perfect opportunity to debate the issue.

Even if it passes -- recall that slavery was once written into the Constitution. It got repealed.