Sunday, April 13, 2008

Atheists, Protests, and Responses to Comments

Note: The contents of these recent posts are closely related to an earlier post I had written on The Culpability of the Moderates, which examines Martin Luther King's protest of the moderates of his age who also thought that inaction was better than action.

Do you want to know what is really wrong with The God Delusion and The End of Faith and those other new atheist works?

The problem is that they are books. You see, Christians use books. They fill their books with all sorts of myths and superstitions – and in some cases outright lies. We certainly do not want it to appear that we are like Christians. So, clearly, it is objectionable for atheists to present their ideas using this medium known as ‘books’. It would be unseemly. We want people to think of us as being above books.

Absurd, right?

Books are tools used in communication. Books themselves are not to be judged by whether or not there are people who have filled them with lies and propaganda, with sloppy thinking, or with hate-motivated bigotry. Each book is to be judged on its own merits – on what ideas the author was trying to communicate, and on how well they were communicated.

I bring this up because some people have written in protest of atheists protesting the abuses that they have been subject to in this country. By this I refer to abuses such as a Pledge that says that those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ are, in the eyes of this government, equivalent to those who do not support a nation ‘with liberty and justice for all’. I am speaking about a President stating that no atheist is qualified to be President, and a sitting legislator asserting that atheism is a philosophy of destruction and ‘it is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists’. I am talking about signs on the money and going up in public buildings and classrooms across the country that say, “If you do not trust in God, then do not think of yourself as one of us.”

I have suggested that atheists have not only a right but a duty to protest these abuses, because failure to do so means giving consent to teaching the next generation that atheism is something to be ashamed of – that atheists are not and cannot be good people. To give our consent to the teaching of this bigotry (and silence does imply consent) is itself a contemptible act.

In response, some have protested that atheists should not engage in protests because this is what the Christians do.

The solution isn't to get whiny. That's the tool of our enemies.

We shouldn’t write books. Books are the tool of our enemies.

Well, there is a distinction between ‘get whiny’ and ‘write books’ in that ‘get whiny’ is a derogatory and demeaning term whereas ‘write books’ is morally neutral. Certainly, one cannot find a quote in my blog posting where I advocated ‘get whiny’. I would not advocate such a thing.

So, how about responding to what I did, in fact, advocate, which was to state – in a loud and confident voice – that a President has no moral right to exclude atheists from the post of judgeship because he does not believe that our rights come from God. What I advocated was to emphatically deny that schools have any right to teach children – children who are atheists, children who will become atheists, children who are the classmates of atheists, and children who will become co-workers, neighbors, bosses, and voters, that an atheist is no better than a person who opposes liberty and justice for all, and that a person who fails to trust in God is not good enough to be counted one of us.

If you fight fire with fire, you end up with a bigger fire. We shouldn't fight ignorant shouters with shouts, we should fight them with quiet words.

We should not fight lying or superstitious books with books. We should used whispered words instead. No?

A protest, like a book, is a tool for communication. The content of a protest, like the content of a book, is not to be judged simply by the fact that it is a protest (or a book). It is to be judged by its actual content – by the truth of what the speakers actually say. What distinguishes the type of shouting that I have in mind from ‘ignorant shouting’ is the fact that what I advocate shouting is not ignorant.

No President has the right to exclude atheists from the job of federal judge. If this is shouted, clearly, from the courthouse steps, it is not an ignorant shout. It is a true claim.

Words alone are not the only parts of communication that carry meaning. We also communicate meaning through tone, inflection, and body language. Smile, as your spouse walks through the door, and, handing her a flower, smile and say, “You are late.” Compare this to, for example, standing there with fists clenched and shouting, “You are late!” Identical words, in these cases, have entirely different meanings, because we do not use words alone to communicate meaning.

In fact, if you were furious at your spouse for being late, yet you greeted your spouse with a smile and a gift while playfully saying, 'You are late', you would be guilty of lying - because you are communicating something that is manifestly untrue

Similarly, the silence we hear when a President says that no atheist is fit to be a judge, or when a seated legislature says that atheism is a philosophy of destruction and "it is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists" is a lie. Because the moral truth of the matter requires outrage.

Telling a person, “What you are doing is wrong,” while engaged in light-hearted banter carries a different meaning than shouting, “What you are doing is wrong!” from a megaphone on a court-house steps. And it is the latter meaning, in the types of cases that I have described, is closer to the truth. Telling people that they ought not to shout their objections to this behavior is the same as saying that there are certain truths that should not be spoken. The truth that should not be spoken is the truth that you find in, “What you are doing is wrong!” shouted forcefully from the courthouse steps.

We *can't* be the extremists. We have to be the normal, rational, calm, sensible ones.

We should not portray ourselves as extremists. We should portray ourselves as the moderates we are. The people looking out for *everyone*.

Any claim that I have anywhere advocated “portraying ourselves as extremists” is an outright lie. Nowhere have I advocated extremism, and to interpret my remarks as a defense of extremism is a form of lying – of ‘bearing false witness’ against what I said in fact. It is, unfortunately, a very common tactic – if you can’t refute what a person says, then accuse them of saying something that you can refute.

What is ‘extreme’ in saying that an atheist can be perfectly well qualified to be a judge and in condemning a President (or a party) that insists that no atheist is qualified to fill that role? Indeed, there are those who would like to see this as an extremist position – but those are the very people who want to limit the people who can be judges to those who believe that our rights come from God.

Because the point is this: the existence of *one* normal, nice, ethical atheist destroys the basis of *every* religion, makes *all* priests and witch doctors liars.

Sure. In the same way that the existence of *one* normal, nice, ethical Jew can prevent the Holocaust from happening, and the existence of *one* normal, nice, ethical African makes slavery impossible, and the existence of *one* intelligent, ethical woman guarantees that women everywhere and everywhen will always have the right to vote.

Try to get the Christian majority to grant us "equal rights" and we would accept their eternal power to give and take such rights.

Certainly, in the same way that women insisting on a right to vote helped men to maintain a monopoly on political power so that women were forever subject to their political rights on the whim of men, and the way that the civil rights movement actually made blacks more subservient to and dependent on the good grace of whites.

Rather than shout at Davis, atheists need to get better at cataloguing and blogging these sort of things. It's more than a full time job.

In a sense, this is what I advocate. My argument for removing Davis from her position was never an argument that it was necessary in order to teach her to change her mind. My argument that this is necessary to teach the country that the view that atheism is a ‘philosophy of destruction’ and ‘it is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy even exists’ is a view held by contemptible people who deserve our condemnation, not our praise. It was because of a concern about what will happen when other politicians learn that Davis is actually more secure in her position, not less secure. It had to do with what children hear when they hear that Davis said this, and they heard that it came with no adverse consequences (as if it must be a perfectly legitimate thing for a person to say).

We can catalogue and blog about these things and talk about them amongst each other all we want – that will do no good. What we need to do is to present them to people who do not look at our catalogues or read our blogs – we must get these claims out where people can actually hear them. Otherwise, when a President says that no atheist is qualified to be judge, and nobody even hints that this might be a bad idea (except the group mumbling to itself in the corner – and they are the most hated group in America anyway) – then we should not be surprised to discover that more and more people have come to actually think that no atheist is qualified to be a judge.

And for those who think that reason will always triumph over truth and that people are not prone to accept false statements that saturate the community in which they live . . .

. . . look around you. Just look at the numbers of people who accept absurdities even when they do hear from those who disagree, and explain how it is sufficient to respond to absurdities by mumbling among ourselves about how absurd they are.


Anonymous said...

Am I allowed to comment just to state that "I agree" ?


Anonymous said...

OK ... I'll try to explain what I see the problem as being. I suspect you're violently agreeing with me.

You want to create and enforce a sense of symmetry. You want 'us' to react every time 'they' say something stupid about atheism. And I sympathise.

But, and this is the point I obviously wasn't expressing very well:

The media will report that as two bunches of extremists lashing out at each other.

Ordinary people - including the overwhelming majority of moderate Christians - won't identify with us, because they will come to equate 'atheism' with radical activism and troublemaking and general weird things they wouldn't dream of doing. We will be tarred with the same brush as the weird sects we're attacking.

The strategy should be to point out how crazy, immoral, illegal and awful anti-atheists are. And, separately, to promote the positive benefits of rational thought, science eduction, asking questions and reading more than one book. Particularly in schools.

Because promoting questioning and vauling evidence is the opposite of fundamentalist religion.

Atheists are not a persecuted minority, not even by the standards of the day. Employers can't ask about religious beliefs when interviewing, we don't have surnames that mark us out as different, or different coloured skin.

And this is the crucial point, the one that makes our case a really simple one: we are asking for the current law to be enforced.

We're not campaigning to allow atheist marriage, or equal pay, or special police protection, or special provision in the workplace. Not many of us have to live secret lives.

We have the moderate position already. We have the sympathy of the vast majority.

We will lose it if we turn it into a simple story for the media's benefit - 'those atheists are at it again, this time complaining that ... '. We'll become another pressure group like the hundred other minority groups who email every TV news channel whenever they feel they've been slighted.

And that's the danger - that we engineer a situation where we decide we're a persecuted minority and we need to spend our time defending ourselves. We're not. Most atheists have a higher than average education and income.

More to the point, atheists just get on with their lives. I'm an atheist, my life doesn't revolve around not worshipping and not praying.

Anonymous said...

'the existence of *one* normal, nice, ethical African makes slavery impossible'

That is, yes, basically how slavery was abolished. The slave trade happened away from Britain, unseen, and it was very easy to believe the reports that all Africans were brutal savages incapable of learning, little better than animals.

Then a few ex-slaves appeared in London, talked eloquently to politicians and journalists and in salons about the horrors of slavery, and a lot of people realised Africans were human beings - and started wearing medallions saying 'am I not a man and a brother'.

But this is beside the point. The situation for an atheist in present-day America, in any part of America, is absolutely nothing like an African slave in the eighteenth century or a Jew in Nazi Germany. It's so absolutely nothing like it that it's offensive to bring up the comparison.

We are calling for a return to the *default* value. America was a nation founded by Deists and atheists and scientists, using reason as the guide, setting up the government and the law expressly forbidding a religious test. People in America can believe whatever they like.

We are defending unambiguous, uncontroversial American values from extremists. We are not seeking to become an equally loud voice as those extremists. Which is handy, because it makes our job a lot easier.

Anonymous said...

... and now, books.

'We should not fight lying or superstitious books with books. We should used whispered words instead. No?'

You don't need whispered words if you've got a book. You can set down what you believe, and someone else can come along and read it and see the context. See what you're actually arguing.

Here's how shouting at Rep Davis's next meeting looks. Nineteenth item on the news, just before some skateboarding dog:

[noises of some shouting, the words can't be made out]

'And Representative Davis faced a mob of atheists today, angry with comments she made last week that they say offended her. A spokesman for Ms Davis, a devout Christian, said she meant no offence and simply spoke in support of her local church. In other news, Rover the old dog *has* learned a new trick ... '

The only message that gets across there is 'nice devout Christian lady gets shouted at by someone ... erm ... atheists, I think they said'.

Books control the message, present a fixed target. Kids can sneak a look at them in Borders or the library and get a new perspective on life. We can point at the Bible and say 'you waffle on about spirituality and timeless values, but in this bit Jesus definitely does support slavery'.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You want 'us' to react every time 'they' say something stupid about atheism. And I sympathise.

Reacting 'every time' would be a full-time job. I would suggest taking the most egregious of those comments - even just one - and reacting to it loudly.

Like the civil rights march on Selma Alabama. They did not march on every town that restricted black voting, they picked one town and made it an example.

Davis' comments, and the movie "Expelled" are two particularly public and egregious examples of anti-atheist bigotry. They should have been resonded to accordingly. Bush's statement that no atheist is qualified to be judge was another.

The media will report that as two bunches of extremists lashing out at each other.

Even if true, the media will still report that there are two bunches of people, and not just one. When one group of people can express an opinion, and nobody challenges it, then it tends to be accepted. Why not. If nobody is challenging it, it must be true.

This is particularly true for children, who accept unchallenged assertions as true, and then as adults have an increadibly difficult time thinking that they could possibly be false.

However, I would assert this is true. The media will, of course, present both sides of the debate as if they are equal, but can it actually portray anger at a public official's statement while sitting in a legislature that "yours is a philosophy of destruction" and "it is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists" as 'extremist'?

In this case, I suspect that almost nobody would have dared defend Davis' remarks at all - at least not in public - because they were that indefensible.

Atheists are not a persecuted minority

Like hell. Name one group excluded from holding elected office or other offices of public trust (such as judgeships) as effectively as atheists are. And where judges are elected the possibility of athests being judges, the situation is worse.

You can read My father's own account of discrimination in the military, which by several accounts, is worse today (though there is now some organized opposition by

And though blatant discrimination against atheists is illegal, prejudice colors the way we see people causing us to form interpretations of events that conform to the way we prejudge their competence, honesty, and integrity. Claiming that these prejudices do not adversely affect atheists' social and employment situations is naive.

A teacher who is hostile to atheists is not going to lower the grade of the student's paper 'because he is an atheist', but because of his prejudice can easily (and in some cases almost certainly does) see the paper as worse than it would have been otherwise.

(I would like to see some studies on this. Hand out sample papers to teachers with a student bio on the front. Same picture, same information, except include in the description the student's involvement in church vs. atheist organizations, and see what types of grades the papers get. Do the same with potential employees - send out resumes that are identical in all respects except one version shows involvement in church groups and the other shows involvement in atheist groups, and see how that affects employment.)

In addition, faith-based legislation makes sure that, even though atheists are not given a break in the taxes that they pay, that money is used to provide more employement opportunities to religious Americans than atheists, because the money goes to organizations that discriminate against atheists in their hiring practices.

There is a national pledge that equates not favoring 'one nation under God' with 'not favoring liberty and justice for all' and a motto that says, 'If you do not trust in God you are not one of us'. These, in themselves, represent blatant discrimination.

we're a persecuted minority and we need to spend our time defending ourselves. We're not. Most atheists have a higher than average education and income.

Atheists enjoy higher than average education because education tends to weaken a person's belief in God. This is no proof of a lack of discrimination. As for 'income' - except for academic institutions, this depends on the atheist's ability to hide his atheism from his fellow employees and employers, thus sidestepping discrimination. A lack of discrimination means that one does not have to hide.

More to the point, atheists just get on with their lives. I'm an atheist, my life doesn't revolve around not worshipping and not praying.

Well, then, I can assume that you have no interest in running for public office or in being appointed to a position of public trust such as a position as a judge, that you are not in the military, that you do not work for one of the majority of bosses to hold that atheists are inherently less trustworthy than any other group in America or handing in homework to a highschool teacher with the same attitudes, or that you do not solicit business from individuals or companies who view religious affiliation as a sign of honesty, never wanted to be a scout leader, are not seeking employment in any of the businesses that receive federal money but which may discriminate against employees on matters of religious belief.

And I have not even spoken about how these negative messages convince people not to become atheists in the first place, because (particularly to a young child) the message, 'atheists are bad people' means 'I certainly do not want to become one of them'. So, they simply learn important (lifelong) skills on how to filter what they see and hear so that they do not become 'bad people'.

Anonymous said...

I'm British, I run a mid-sized company in America. I see a lot of crazy religion here, and some extremely unconvincing displays of faith from politicians - reminiscent of them putting on a baseball cap of whichever local sports team they have where they're visiting today. It looks barking mad to an outsider.

The thing is ... it looks barking mad to most Americans. It's not the *atheists* who are shamed into silence, it's the moderate Christians. Why don't *they* say anything? Because religious extremists have spent thirty years building up the belief that it's all about 'faith'.

The fundies have been swing voters in two tight elections. They aren't this time. And that's all the difference in the world. Not just that, the Republicans sat literally *cringeing* at televised debates where two candidates argued whether Satan was Jesus' brother. That was the watershed moment, when they realised the fundies were far more harm than good.

Honestly, that thing Obama said at the weekend, which, paraphrased went 'dumb people turn to religion when they lose confidence' ... I wouldn't be surprised if the dust settled and more people agreed with him than argued.

'And I have not even spoken about how these negative messages convince people not to become atheists in the first place'

But ... what you're advocating won't help. It will set up an 'us or them', where 'us' = Christians and 'them' = atheists. And the *problem* is that the sensible Christians identify with the nutter ones.

Sit a moderate, mainstream American down with Richard Dawkins, they will agree on absolutely everything except one thing. Sit them down with Ted Haggard and you wouldn't be able to tell they were from the same planet. Most Christians don't go anywhere near believing in Adam and Eve or the Rapture.

We need to be sitting down with the moderates and saying 'neither of us what religious fundamentalists to destroy America'. We have so much common ground, and it's that that the fundies are encroaching on.

I agree with a lot of what you say. The thing is *so do a lot of Christians*. Honestly, the best thing I think atheists could do is a tour of some moderate churches, explaining the fundie threat, demonstrating we have far more in common than they've been told.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


But ... what you're advocating won't help. It will set up an 'us or them', where 'us' = Christians and 'them' = atheists.

That is not at all the 'us' and 'them' that I am talking about.

I took on many of these ideas in the book, "A Perspective on the Pledge". That book examines the issue of "one nation under God" by examining a pledge of allegiance to "one white nation".

That was not a story about "us" blacks versus "them" whites - but a story about "us" people who think that governments ought not to denigrate and demean law-abiding citizens vers "them" who are advocates of denigrating and demeaning statements about those who do not believe in God.

In the story, two white characters take up the protest against a pledge of allegiance to one black nation.

In America, you don't have to give up belief in God to believe that the government has no right to declare atheists deserve the equal respect and consideration of their government as any other law-abiding citizen.

Putting the debate in terms of "us" atheists versus "them" Christians is just another way of distorting - and thereby avoiding - the real issue.

Anonymous said...

'Putting the debate in terms of "us" atheists versus "them" Christians is just another way of distorting - and thereby avoiding - the real issue.'

OK ... for me the issue is far more to do with the encroachment of Christian extremism on everyday life than atheist rights.

That's the thing that's causing the damage and eroding my rights.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I hold that the term 'Christian' is far too broad a term to make generalizations.

I think that we can draw a valuable lesson from the worship of the goddess Justitia - the ancient Roman goddess of Justice (stolen, like most Roman gods, from the Greeks).

We have statues of Justitia and symbols of Justitia all over our courtrooms and law centers. She is typically depicted as holding a set of scales and a sword and wearing a blindfold. The scales are her symbol - much like the Christian cross.

We have her symbols all over our courtroom and I see no reason to protest this.

Christianity also may evolve in to something where we can adorn improtant government functions with statues of Jesus and the Christian cross. However, before this can happen, Christianity has to transcend religion and stand for something of secular significance like justice.

Perhaps, someday, the symbols of Christianity will become the symbol for kindness and charity, and thus be as fitting for a government Department of Human Services as the symbols of Justitas are for the Department of Justice.

Perhaps some people who call themsevles Christians have already reached this point, and are no more theocratic than those who call themselves 'just'.

The point is, I see no more fall for a conflict between "us" atheists and "them" Christians than I do for a conflict between "us" atheists and "them" Justitians.

On the other hand, I see a great deal of cause to condemn the types of statements that I have written about this past week, from Bush's declaration that no atheist is fit to be a judge, to the Pledge of Allegiance's declaration that those who do not support "one nation under God" are like those who do not support "liberty and justice for all," to Davis' statement that "You believe in destroying."

We can clearly attack these statements without attacking all of Christianity, particularly since many Christians (if atheists actually spoke up to the point where they could hear the reasons for it) would agree that these types of claims, coming from the government and government officials against law-abiding citizens - are morally objectionable.

Anonymous said...

'Perhaps, someday, the symbols of Christianity will become the symbol for kindness and charity'

Indeed - I don't recoil from the Red Cross. Or, indeed, the crosses in the British flag. And I don't have a problem with four of the Commandments.

And I absolutely agree about the definition of 'Christian' being too broad to be useful. And Christians love their internecine conflicts.

It's nice to pin these things down just so they don't pull the 'oh, you're right that's a crazy thing to believe, but that's what Lutherans do, and we're Northern Lutheran' trick.

For me, the problem is revealed faith. If you think you are, or you've talked to, someone who's actually *met* Jesus, or that you're going to meet him before the end of this year, then ... well, there's no reasoning with you. You are textbook insane.

Charred Atheist said...

Honestly, I think every Atheist should have two things, a published book and regularly updated blog. With the rise of citizen journalism in the last few years having a majority of the collective internet "voice" being our own would do a lot to help further our cause. It would help the rest of the world realize we don't eat children or commune with the devil. You have no idea how often I hear crap like that when I visit my family in the south..