Thursday, April 17, 2008

Why I Care About Anti-Atheist Bigotry

I have spent a fair amount of effort these last few days asserting, strongly, that atheists need to do a better job of defending themselves. I even postponed my weekend series on the Beyond Belief 2 conference to stay on topic.

I obviously think that this is important.

At the same time, I deny that there is anything particularly virtuous in being an atheist. I consider atheism itself to be morally neutral, since neither the proposition "God exists" nor the proposition, "God does not exist" gives us any hint as to how we should behave. We have to look elsewhere for that information. When it comes to looking elsewhere, atheists have shown just as much skill at embracing foolish ideas as theists.

So, if atheism is not a virtue, then why is anti-atheist bigotry a vice?

There is one easy answer to this question.

You don't have to argue that blacks are better than whites to argue that they deserve equal treatment. And you do not need proof that women are better than men to argue that people should see men and women as political and social equals. Similarly, I do not need to argue that atheists are better than theists to argue that government practices that denigrate atheists are unfair and unjust.

Insofar as an injustice is being committed against atheists, a love of justice alone is sufficient motivation to condemn it – just as it is sufficient motivation to protest the unjust treatment of blacks and women (among others).

In addition, the attitudes that the public hold, and that the government promotes, against atheists constitute doing malicious harm to good people.

Look again at the types of statements that I am referring to.

President Bush declaring that no atheist is fit to sit as a judge in the United States, because to be a qualified judge one has to believe that our rights come from God.

A Pledge of Allegiance repeated daily in schools and at the start of civic events that say, "A person who does not favor 'one nation under God' is like a person who does not favor 'liberty and justice for all'."

A national motto that people are driven to put up in more and more places that says, "Only those who trust in God are to think of themselves as one of us."

A sign on a freeway that says, "(Why do) atheists hate America."

The message, after every act of school violence and every time that the topic of prayer in school is brought up, that, "Atheists are going to come to school and kill your children and the only way to prevent this is to fight the atheist murderers with prayer in school."

A legislator who declares, "You believe in destroying. It is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists."

A movie, opening across the country today, that will tell its audience that atheists are proto-Nazis who will bring about another holocaust if they are not held in check.

A message, that you can almost certainly find repeated somewhere every single day, that a person who does not believe in God has a problem with morality is a mortal threat to everybody's safety and happiness.

In many of these cases, the message that atheists are inherently evil comes to your children in the form of a paid 'patriotic' announcement brought to you by your very own government.

And the question is, "Why do I care?"

Other than the fact that I am one of these people who could never qualify to be a judge, is like a person who is opposed to liberty and justice for all, who is not to think of myself as being 'one of us', hates America, is responsible for every school shooting that occurs, believes in destroying, is somebody that children should not even know exists, am working to bring about the next holocaust, and has a serious problem with morality.

Why do I care?

I think about the college atheist pursuing a degree in pre-law, with an acute interest in Constitutional issues, not because he has already decided what view he wants to impose on others from the bench, but with an eye to looking at what makes one decision truly better than another, hearing that no atheist is qualified to be judge and certainly cannot expect to be appointed.

I think about the nine or ten year old student who does not really understand the world around him just yet but who knows that the government and his teacher is telling him to favor 'one nation under God,' and what this means about those other people who say that there is no God.

I think about this student's atheist classmate who hears the government telling him that the fact that this 'god' stuff doesn't make sense to him. It makes him a bad person – as bad as somebody who does not support liberty and justice for all.

I think about the atheist 100% disabled American veteran who gave so much to this country attending a ceremony to honor veterans, when somebody read a statement over the loud speaker that concluded with:

. . . once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedoms, the right to leave.

[Note: That is what happened to my father, who described his service in the military as an atheist in this letter to me.]

I think about the high school student who wants to spend his life doing good deeds and is thinking about a lifetime of public service discovering that no atheist can be elected to the legislature.

However, even this ignores another serious problem. This form of bigotry is symptomatic of another, more general problem that victimizes not only those who do not believe in God.

The bigot's way of thinking is to take their hatred for a group and to use that to evaluate the 'evidence' he might come across. It teaches people to think in terms of, "I hate these people. If these people are guilty of X then this would be a good reason to hate them. Therefore, these people must be guilty of X."

This general way of thinking not only victimizes atheists today, but has been the general way of thinking that has been responsible for the greatest atrocities in history. Slavery, the Holocaust, the near-genocide of the Native Americans, religious wars, anti-homosexual legislation in the United States, and the like follow this same pattern.

"I want to hate these people. To hate these people I need an excuse. I can use X as an excuse. Therefore, I accept X."

This general tendency, this 'bigot's way of thinking' is what I actually care about.

It is a specific instance of what got us into a needless war in Iraq – a war that destroyed resources and lives that would have otherwise been available to do something constructive about the world's problems.

"I need to believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. If these are chemical weapons vehicles then Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, these must be chemical weapons vehicles."

"I need to believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. If an aide to Saddam Hussein met with one of the hijackers in Europe than Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. Therefore, one of Saddam Hussein’s aids met with one of the hijackers in Europe."

Or, "It would be bad for business if carbon dioxide contributed to global warming. If the sun was responsible for global warming then we do not need to worry about carbon dioxide. Therefore, the sun is responsible for global warming."

Or, "I have to believe that God is responsible for human life. If these components of life were irreducibly complex then we would have to make room for God in the creation of human life. Therefore, these components of life are irreducibly complex."

We see this way of thinking all around us, and it is so incredibly destructive. It costs so many lives and brings about so much suffering that a person concerned with saving lives and preventing suffering cannot help but care whenever he sees evidence of this kind of thinking.

I do not think that there is anything particularly virtuous about being an atheist. However, it is quite clear that there is something particularly vicious about being somebody whose hatred drives him to accept malicious falsehoods about other people and who then lobbies the government into teaching these malicious falsehoods to the next generation. There is something particularly vicious about being a person who is so consumed by hatred that the one thing he finds most intolerable is the idea that the government might stop delivering this message of hate to young children, and that the next generation might not grow up with the hatred that the bigot wants that generation to have.

I can imagine a generation of children growing up without learning this particular bigotry. I think about a generation that gets a different lesson – that it is wrong to begin with an attitude of hate and then grab onto whatever beliefs one can find that gives one's hate the mere illusion of legitimacy.

I think about such a world and I can't help but think that it would be a better place.

I was quite angry last week at the tame (and lame) response to Davis' comments. It simply reinforced all of the other negative messages that people hear about atheists. It simply aggrivated all of the other situations that I described above. She should have lost her job over that. We should have sent a message to the people of this country - to the children of this country - how wrong it is to be a bigot like Ms. Davis. Instead, they learned that the view that atheists "believe in destroying" isn't a horrible message at all. Which, at least, is consistent with all of the other messages that children hear on this subject.

It really is time to demand that the country change the message. The next generation will have reason to thank us if we do.


Anonymous said...

There's a difference, though, between 'can't run for office' and 'wouldn't win if they did'.

There's nothing in law stopping atheists from running for public office. He wouldn't win. In most places in America, a middle-aged white Protestant man will win.

But the problem isn't the law, it's the voters.

And I think this is a very, very important distinction you don't always make.

It makes the problem *worse* in a lot of ways, of course.

Martin Freedman said...


But the problem isn't the law, it's the voters.
And this is where campaigning against anti-atheist bigotry will help.

Voters in other countries, such as in Europe, with a nominal religious majority have voted in members of other religions or, quite explicitly, no religion. (There are members of the BHA and/ the NSS who are elected MPs in the UK) This is because there is pretty much, at present, no anti-atheist bigotry in the UK (it has other problems though).

So by stopping further ant-atheist bigotry US voters would eventually see there is no issue with voting atheist into power. This is blatantly not the case at the moment.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I wrote under the assumption that the problem with anti-atheist bigotry is that there are anti-atheist bigots. The problem is 'people'. Even where we blame the problem on 'the law' it is the case that 'the people' make the law and are responsible for it.

We have one generation of anti-atheist bigots creating another generation of anti-atheist bigots using the Pledge of Allegiance, the national motto, declarations that atheists hate America and are working towards the next great holocaust, and the way to prevent your child from being shot in school is to introduce prayer in school and exercise the atheists out of it.

Yes, the campaign against anti-atheist bigotry has to be a campaign against anti-atheist bigots.

This includes a campaign against creating another generation of anti-atheist bigots by getting the anti-atheist bigotry lesson books removed from the nation's schools.

dbonfitto said...

"...introduce prayer in school and exercise the atheists out of it."

Is that anything like "Drop and give me 10 Hail Marys!" or is it a more aerobic "Sweatin' for Jesus?"

Ah, you mean "Get me an old priest and a young priest." Right. Still, morning calisthenics aren't a bad idea if we're looking for an alternative to prayer.

Fantastic blog. Amusing typos. Rock on Alonzo.

Anonymous said...

'This is because there is pretty much, at present, no anti-atheist bigotry in the UK'

Just the opposite. We're over the God fad in the UK and any theists seeking high office are treated with scorn and hatred.

America's always been a couple of generations behind on the moral issues. You'll get there.

Martin Freedman said...


Just the opposite. We're over the God fad in the UK and any theists seeking high office are treated with scorn and hatred.

I have not had time to read matthew's article - to busy replying to comments here :-) - but as I noted there are many different issues in the UK, one main one being many double standards still in favor of religion.

As for politicians and religion well there is no bigotry one way or another, for now and lets hope that does not change. There are known theist in government, apart from the CofE bishops! ;-). others they don't deliberately publicize it. It should not be a political issue - unless one's beliefs get in the way of doing one's job.To repesent the citizens of their constituency and/or country regardless of their personal beliefs

Anonymous said...

Truth is good, falsity is bad.

So there's a virtue in being right about the way the universe is, and vice in being wrong.

We live in an atheistic universe, so atheists believe in something true, so we're better - in that one aspect - than theists.

Clearly theists would wish to move some words around that sentence.

But on a day to day, practical basis, obviously I agree with you. Belief or lack of belief in gods as an abstract is morally neutral.

Are there people who believe in gods who then don't do anything about it? One of the many reasons I'm an atheist is that the implications of gods existing would mean I would, logically, have to dedicate every single thought and action to Their service. Are there, in the real world, people who go 'God definitely exists [shrug]'?

I think instead of an abstract debate, we need to trumpet the achievements of atheism, explain the benefits. Not the intangible ones.

If there's a disaster and a hundred million Christians go to church and pray and one atheist donates one drop of blood or donates one cent to the relief fund, that atheist has, inarguably, done infinitely more than all those Christians put together.

Tell a Christian that, they'll start whingeing. They'll talk about souls and angels and hope and 'miracles' (definition: God kills a thousand people for every one miraculous survivor) blah blah. People reading this, try it out on a Christian message board.

There's an absolute debate-stopping argument: yeah, but the churches organise blood drives and collect millions for charity.

Christians never make that argument. Because modern American Christianity has all but forgotten the good works stuff in favour of 'a personal relationship with Jesus' where 'what Jesus would do' coincides with what a fat middleaged middle class Republican would do to preserve and improve their standard of living.

The killer app for religion *ought* to be that it creates armies of Jedi Knights, dedicated to selfless lives of service, at peace with themselves, building a better, fairer society.

Instead of, say, the exact opposite of that.

Atheism needs to occupy this territory. It needs to emphasise the scientific, educational, medical, environmental, law enforcement aspects (creationists don't believe in evolution ... they would convict a criminal on DNA evidence).

Fundamentalists believe what the Bible tells them, that it is the duty of humanity to 'terrorise' animals (that's the actual word). They're ours to do what we want with, and the vicious, limited, bronze age view of the world is that means hunt and torture and skin and experiment upon and drive extinct for sport.

Richard Dawkins' view, that DNA proves that we're virtually the same as the higher primates and not all that different from any living creature (and certainly no animal), leads to the opposite conclusion: that we can learn from animals, that we should cherish and protect them.

That's not a case of moral neutrality. That's a case where Christians are wrong and evil and the atheist is right and good. And, crucially, most moderate Christians would agree.

Atheism needs to explain how selfless it is. How we don't waste time praying, we [fill in the blank].

The problem is that people - atheists and theists - tend to concentrate on the blank.

dbonfitto said...

Atheism needs to explain how selfless it is. How we don't waste time praying, we [fill in the blank].

Perhaps exercise is a good blank filler. Just to hedge our bets against those Jedi Knights, right? Better to have a bunch of trim, healthy, and strong non-believers at the ready than the tired, paunchy, out-of-breath, and middle-aged atheists we've got now. A non-religion of sexy super-humans!

As it is, the real answer for the BLANK is probably: blog. (Will we be known for our amazing finger-strength and manual dexterity?"

Anonymous said...

This is the attitude that drove me to become out and an activist in the first place... I also encourage all people who feel strongly about it to do the same. It is important that we let the public know that we exist and are not going to move to another country. :)

Anonymous said...

Atheists are just as bigoted as any person of any faith. All people are bigots in some manner and will always be in protective stance of their own beliefs or lack thereof.
There is bigotry against Christians (which atheists seem to vent against the most..and seems to be the reason for their organization) bigotry against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Join the crowd and get over it.