Monday, March 19, 2007

Bigotry and the Values Voter

In a recent blog, “President Wanted: Christians Only,” vjack at Atheist Revolution spoke about the bigotry involved in refusing to vote for an atheist candidate – something that approximately half of Americans said they would do.

Refuse, that is.

In that posting, vjack used a cliché in the political sphere, that they “simply want someone in office who shares their values.” This, he said, does not excuse their bigotry. However, he did not explain why it does not excuse their bigotry.

This statement has become such a political cliché that I often pass over it without thinking about it. This time, I thought about it.

The Values Voter

My first thought was, “Of course they want somebody in office who shares their values. Doesn’t everybody?”

That is to say, it is not bigotry to vote for a candidate that shares one’s values. Nor is it bigotry to refuse to vote for a candidate whose values conflict with one’s own. In this sense, every voter is a values voter.

Even the KKK member who only votes for those who would segregate the races is a values voter. He certainly wants somebody in office who shares his values. The Nazi who would support the modern contemporary of Hitler is a values voter is also searching for somebody to put into office to share his values.

This is part of what got Bush in trouble in the Middle East. Radical Muslims are values-voters as well. Only, the values that some of them vote for includes the destruction of Israel, execution of apostates, support for suicide bombings, and eradication of the infidels. They refuse to vote for anybody else.

It is not bigotry to vote for somebody who shares one’s values and against those whose values contradict one’s own values. Bigotry is not to be found in the fact that a person votes his values. It is to be found in the values that a person votes on.

Vjack did not say otherwise. I am not criticizing anything he wrote. In fact, this makes explicit what is implicit in vjack’s post.

The problem with the Christian right is not that they are values voters. It is that their values are the bigotries and prejudices of primitive tribesmen that causes its follows to engage in a number of actions harmful to others – in some cases imposing death and suffering on hundreds of millions of people. There is nothing wrong with being a values voter – we all are. The problem comes from the fact that some people’s values are quite poor.

Where is bigotry? If we are going to call a particular attitude towards a group of voters ‘bigoted’, what is it that we need to establish?

Bigotry involves treating the members of a group unjustly by attributing to its members some derogatory or denigrating property that, in fact, is not true of all of those members. An example of bigotry involves inferring a lower intelligence based on gender or on skin or hair color. (Yes, blonde jokes are a form of bigotry, and I do not condone them.)

So, in order to determine if refusing to vote for an atheist counts as bigotry, we need to know why a person is refusing to vote for an atheist.

Holding All Else Constant

Typically, the poll question asks something like, “Assuming a candidate is qualified in all other respects, would you be willing to vote for the candidate if the candidate were an atheist.”

This question asks the listener to assume that he has no other reason not to vote for a candidate. In other words, the candidate shares his values. The only reason for voting against the candidate is the fact that the candidate is an atheist. Is that enough of a reason to vote against him?

Half of the population says, “Yes.”

If we take this situation as described, then having a belief that no God exists (the definition of atheism as the term is actually used among native English speakers) is the sole criteria for judging an individual to be inferior to his neighbor. It says that if we take two people, make them identical twins in appearance and (most important) in disposition, and change only the fact that one believes that God exists and the other does not, even where both treat their neighbors with identical kindness, this belief alone is enough to judge the one person inferior to his twin.

This is bigotry. There is no basis for the negative evaluation. It is grounded on nothing but blind, unreasoned, unfounded, hatred.

Value Differences

Now, this assumes that the person taking the poll understands the question as I have described it. Chances are, he will not. He will associate ‘atheism’ with a number of other traits. Chances are, he will take the assumption – that an atheist and a theist can be otherwise equally qualified – to be inherently impossible. He will reject the assumption and answer accordingly – that he will not vote for the atheist.

However, are the traits that he is attributing to the atheist fair and accurate. Is it true that atheists have those qualities. More importantly, is it true that all atheists have those qualities – that there cannot be one in which those qualities are absent and is worth voting for?

With respect to religion, it might be possible to claim that one will not vote for a member of a particular religion on the grounds that the religion advances objectionable values. If a religion says, "Kill all unbelievers," defining ‘unbeliever’ as anybody who disagrees with the interpretation of holy text provided by the religious leader, then this alone would be reason enough not to vote for a member of that religion.

However, atheism is value-neutral. Anybody who asserts that atheists must necessarily hold certain values, and that those values make the person unqualified to be President, is making an unjust attribution. Atheism has as much to say about value as heleocentrism does. It is a belief about what exists, a belief that is not inherently in conflict with any value claim.

An atheist can even believe that serving God is the ultimate value. Such an atheist will be filled with regret over the fact that this value can never be realized. He will be like the person who thinks that the ultimate value is in having a raising her own biological child, who discovers that she is sterile and will never be able to realize this value. However, this belief that a particular value will not be realized is different from holding that the state would not have value.

By way of comparison, theists and atheists may disagree on where trees come from. Yet, they need not (probably would not) disagree on the height, weight, shape, or color of a tree. Similarly, an atheist and a theist can disagree on where values come from without disagreeing on what has value.

More importantly, an atheist’s values can more closely match the values of any theist than an opposing religion whose values are fixed by their interpretation of scripture. In other words, it should be easier to imagine an atheist agreeing with the voter on matters of value than to imagine a follower of a different religion sharing the voter’s values. If the voter cannot see this – if the voter falsely (unfairly, unjustly, immorally) attributes to the atheist values that are far alien from her own, this is bigotry.

Statistical Reasons

The reason not to vote for an atheist might be based on a false belief in what atheists value. People might hold the belief that atheists value sautéing kittens on an open grill and skinning toddlers alive in a bath of salt water. Of course, these attitudes are clearly bigoted.

Even if, statistically, an atheist neighbor was more of a threat than a theist neighbor, it is the essence of bigotry to blame a person for wrongs committed by others. This would not be an excuse against holding that the best atheists are as fit for public service as the best theists. This, too, would be bigotry – like refusing to vote for a black candidate because, statistically, the per-capita crime rate for blacks is higher than it is for whites.

There is no way to account for this attitude towards atheists other than as an unfair and unjust attribution of negative value to a person merely because he does not believe in God. That is to say, there is nothing to be found in these poll results but unvarnished bigotry.

Where Bigotry Comes From

I hold that the biggest cause of anti-atheist sentiment rests in the policy of having children pledge every day to regard all who are not 'under God' or who do not trust in God that they are not true Americans. This indoctrination into a culture of hate helps most children to become bastions of hate who cannot accept an atheist as American.

I continue to hold that there can be no real progress in the status of atheists until good people demand that the government cease teaching the lesson 'atheists are evil'

Indeed, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto themselves are bigoted. They both make the unfair and immoral attribution to all who are not under God or trust in God as being anti-American. A national motto of 'one white nation', based on the fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were all white and obviously wanted this to be a white nation, would be no less immoral.

Of course, this is hate's vicious cycle. The Pledge and the motto were modified in the 1950s as an act of hatred - an act motivated by a desire to teach all citizens, but particularly children, to hate those not under God or who do not trust in God. Ultimately, they wanted to promote hated of Marxists, but used the opportunity to teach a more general hate.

And, you know what?

It works.


BlackSun said...

I agree with your argument about bigotry. It makes perfect sense.

Considering your previous posts about people using heuristics to make judgments about what is true, and absorbing values from the culture around them: Is it not true that this acceptance of bigotry and teaching of bigoted values in the name of god-belief is wrong?

Is it not especially so because it works so well?

Can we not hold those who teach children these values accountable?

In that case, it seems your previous comparison of believing parents who teach bigotry and creationism to parents who (unknowingly) poison their children falls apart.

I maintain that this form of bigotry should be made conscious, and greeted with universal social opprobrium with regard to the raising of children.

It follows that you should acknowledge that it is a form of child abuse. Maybe it's a stretch to call it a mental illness because of its current widespread social acceptability. But at what point do we cross that threshold?

At what point do we place hearing the voice of god or Jesus in the same category as just "hearing voices?"

What has to happen before we can say that miseducating children about god-belief is ethically and objectively wrong--in the same way we now hold that teaching racism is wrong?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Lots of questions here.

It is quite consistent to hold that teaching children creationism is wrong and should be stopped, and that it is not child abuse to do so.

For years teachers taught children that people in the days of Columbus thought the world was flat and that Columbus sought to prove that the world was round. This is what they were taught, and they took it to be true. It turns out, this was not true. Yet, those teachers who taught this false-belief to children cannot be condemned for their actions. They simply did not know any better.

I would not call all of those countless teachers "child abusers" because they taught a false belief that they had little reason to reject.

The reason that I reject the attribution of "abuser" to those who teach God-belief to children is that "abuser" implies either an intent to harm or a disregard for the harm done to children. Many parents who teach god-belief to their children, like those teachers who continued the Columbus myth, simply do not have this property. Asserting that they have this negative quality when it is not true is mistaken.

And, yet, this does not deny the value of starting to get the facts straight. The fact that something is not abuse does not imply that it is not wrong. Abuse is a particularly egregious form of wrong - it is not the only type of wrong that exists.

You asked (in a different context, but it applies here), "At what point do we cross the threshold?"

It is at the point where it is reasonable to believe that a parent has intentionally harmed a child or shown disregard for harms done to a child. Once you make this case, you have proved "abuse".

I would say that it would have to be made on a case-by-case basis. In dealing with any specific person, it may be possible to make the case, "You simply do not care that you might be doing harm." If this is the best explanation of the person's behavior, then the charge is legitimate.

Making this negative attribution to all of the members of a group, when it is not true of all members, would count as bigotry.

Miseducating children about god-belief is objectively wrong. It is, however, immoral only if it shows a defect in the desires of the individual. Miseducating children about Columbus is objectively wrong. Yet, it does not make those teachers evil unless and until we can show that a given teacher simply did not care about the truth.

Anonymous said...

All other things being equal, people generally select the more familiar option.
More than half Americans are theists of some sort; hence it is only natural that more than half will chose a theist over an atheist. A sign of bigotry would be if they would choose a less competent theist over a more competent atheist. I fear the trouble is they would.

BlackSun said...


I see your point about the flat-earth belief. But what if there were teachers who were still teaching flat earth in the age of satellites, moon missions, photographs of the globe, and GPS systems? Wouldn't that count as reckless disregard for the facts?

I can see that existence of god is not so easily disproved as the flat-earth theory. But young-earth creationism can be.

So maybe we can agree that teaching children to believe in some kind of god or 'spirituality' is not necessarily child abuse, but teaching creationism and other discredited facts is?

Hellbound Alleee said...

I agree, mostly. However, I object to calling this "values-voting," because they are NOT values. Values are things we hope to gain and keep. Hating gays, therefore, is not a value.

Now that I think about it, we did a whole show about this over a year ago.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


On the issue of teaching young-earth creationism, I would agree. The ability to be able to adequately explain to a student why this is nonsense should, at this day and age, be a job requirement.

I argued as much in a previous blog on Neil Degrasse Tyson's view on intelligent design - that we should be teaching creationism and intelligent design in school, and we should be teaching students why intelligent people reject these views so that we can get them behind us and move on.

At this point, I would argue that filling a child's head with false beliefs that reasonable people can be expected to know will reduce the child's ability to understand and interact with the real world is a type of abuse.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

hellbound Alleee:

I take the term 'value' to be a value-neutral word in that it refers to both positive and negative values, the same way that 'number' refers to positive and negative numbers.

In philosophy, I studied value theory. This was not just a study of what was good. It was also a study of what was bad. We did not use 'value theory' only for good and 'some-other-name theory' for what was bad.

Anonymous said...


I think you use the term "hate" too easily. I know good people who don't "hate" anyone, but are told every Sunday that good morality comes from God, and honestly believe that without God you would have no reason to be moral.
They are guilty of false beliefs, but not necessarily of hate.