Monday, October 20, 2008

A Weak Response to Harsh Bigotry

Normally, I like the work that Hemant Mehta does at his site Friendly Atheist. On a recent posting, though, he gave a response to anti-atheist bigotry typical of those who . . . for all practical purposes . . . have come to accept the idea that they are an inferior people and that the bigotry is somehow justified, for the most part.

Elizabeth Dole's "Bigot or Senate" campaign now has the backing of the Republican National Committee, who has decided to join Dole in spending to promote anti-atheist bigotry in America. (See: Friendly Atheist: National Republican Senatorial Committee Puts Out Anti-Atheist Political Ad.)

Unfortunately, after presenting the advertisement, Mehta presents a response to it that has the tone and content of somebody who seems to feel ashamed that he is an atheist, who effectively endorses the condemnation of anybody who would dare to meet with leaders of atheist organization, and merely asks not to be judged like the rest of them.

Consider this statement:

Also, to quote two representatives from American Atheists — one organization and hardly the largest atheist group in the country — is misleading. Not all atheists agree with them. Most atheists could care less about those issues.

The first question that comes to my mind in reading this statement is, "Why is this important?" Why would it matter whether the American Atheists is not the largest atheist group in the country, or whether some atheists disagree with them?

It would matter only if there was something wrong with being a member of or agreeing with the American Atheists, and that as a result it is important to put some distance between Hagan and members of this group.

Later in the essay Mehta reinforces this view by equating a hypothetical association between Hagan and leaders of the American Atheists with an association between Obama and leaders of the Weather Underground.

To say that because she associated loosely with someone who might not share the values of most Americans, she must be stopped? That’s what John McCain was doing to Barack Obama with William Ayres. It implies a much closer connection than actually exists.

However, there are important differences between the American Atheists and the Weather Underground. To the best of my knowledge, the American Atheists have never sought to use bombs or other forms of violence to achieve their objectives. They have not advocated any form of harm be done to others. Yet, Mehta sees similarities between linking one politician to one group that uses mere words and private actions to present its views to the public, and another that used bombs and other weapons to do so.

Politically, I recognize that there may be some value between putting distance between Kay Hagan and those vile atheists. People are not going to lose their anti-atheist bigotry over night, so the best thing to do in two weeks is to admit that this bigotry exists and to argue that Hagan is not, in fact, somebody who would actually consider associating with those people. However, this is a question of political practicality. Not a question of morality.

I have written a few posts about how bigotry two major effects.

It has the effect of making members of the 'in' group dominant and assertive – capable of self-confidently going forth and asserting their superiority because they believe that they are superior and have a right to such things.

It also has the effect of making members of the 'out group' docile and apologetic. They avert their eyes, lower their gaze, sit back meekly and learn to do pretty much how they are told.

This is how it is possible for a dominant group to get millions of people of the target group into railway cars, concentration camps, and gas chambers. This is how it is possible for society to exist in which the slave population greatly outnumbers the master population. It is precisely because out-group membership makes one submissive and tolerant of abuse.

Mehta’s response shows the symptoms of the second effect. It implicitly assumes that the condemnation of atheists is somehow justified – that atheists are a lesser form of life and that there is something wrong with associating with them. This makes it important to challenge any claim that such an association exists – in order to keep the target (Hagan, in this case) uncontaminated.

Militant Atheists and Uncle Tom Atheists

I want to add that I am generally supportive of Mehta’s approach to the divide between theists and atheists. This is not an argument that there should not be a friendly atheist. That view comes from a false dichotomy that says that there are only two options, the “militant atheist” or an “Uncle Tom atheist”, and that one must choose to become one or the other.

There is a third option, an option that holds no hostility towards theists in general, but that is still willing and able to resist the view that atheists should be put into a subordinate position. It is a view that imagines atheists and theists getting equal respect, and that condemns any deviance from this standard in either direction.

Mehta, in this posting, missed the target of being the friendly atheist who holds, “Let us treat each other with the equal respect that both of us have a right to,” to being the submissive atheist who holds, “I know that we are undeserving of equal respect, but could you please see that some of us are not as bad as those other atheists out there and respect us a little?”

The reason, I hold, is because this is the type of behavior that bigotry teaches to members of the out group. He simply fell into the natural state for out-group members; the docile, submissive, compliance with the attitude that ‘you are inferior and unworthy’.

The proper response to the video from the Republican National Committee is not to condemn the advertisement for attempting to link Hagan to bad atheists - because, in fact, none of the people represented in the video are bad atheists. They are atheists – and, in the mind of the bigot, all atheists are bad atheists. We should not be assuming that this association between ‘atheist’ and ‘bad’ is necessarily or even often true.

In fact, this is the association that we should be challenging.

All that Needs to be Said

The Republican National Committee's video is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1930s linking a candidate to Jews (particularly in Europe). It is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1950s linking a candidate to blacks. It is a video that plays off of bigotry and prejudice. It is, in fact, an advertisement for bigotry – and endorsement of prejudice.

Certainly, if (when) bigots make associations that are worthy of contempt – such as when they link atheists such as myself to Stalin and Mao Tse Tung – it is legitimate to point out that these associations are illegitimate, and being used by bigot to sew fear and hatred. Here, it is important to argue that the associations do not stand – that there are a lot of atheists who do not agree with the policies of those leaders or their groups.

However, this response assumes that there is something worthy of condemnation in those people and those groups. Which, in the case of Stalin and Mao, happens to be true.

When Mehta made the arguments that he made, using the same arguments against the idea of an association with American Atheists and those who wish to see 'under God' removed from the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' removed as the national motto, this argument only has value under the assumption that 'American Atheists' and those opposed to 'under God' are like Stalin and Mao.

For all practical purposes, it assumes that comparisons between atheist leaders to Stalin and Mao, and between atheist organizations and the Weather Underground, are legitimate.

Which they are not. This is a legitimacy that should not be granted or assumed.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

I realize this is way off topic for this post, but I recently came across this article, and I'd be very curious to see your thoughts on it in a future post.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to speak for Alonzo, but I assume he'd react to it the same way he'd react to news articles such as
this one
this one

Which is to shake one's head sadly and conceed that some people will believe absolutely anything. Next thing you know we'll have "reputable" news stories about virgin births.

David Weddle said...

I'm a NC resident who has been angered by these mailings. I've sent a few notes to the NC GOP. I received yet another mailing to this same issue yesterday. The note below was sent to the NC GOP as my response.


Hagan pamphlets concerning Godless American PAC

I'm at a loss. I'm so frustrated and tired of being used as a punching bag by the NC GOP in the reelection campaign for Elizabeth Dole. I just received another flier concerning gay marriage. A quick flip open and it is revealed the gay marriage issue is just a ruse. The message quickly morphs into the Godless American PAC message once again (and one on which I have previously commented).

I'd like to respond, but eloquence fails me. Alonzo Fyfe sums it up better than I can. In a recent posting, he states: "[This] is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1930s linking a candidate to Jews (particularly in Europe). It is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1950s linking a candidate to blacks. It is [advertising] that plays off of bigotry and prejudice. It is, in fact, an advertisement for bigotry – and endorsement of prejudice." (

To reinforce an earlier note I sent to your organization, there are economic positions the Republican Party takes on which we will both agree. I cannot, however, stand the social rhetoric wafting up from the Republican organization. Look, if you are the Christian party, make it clear; change your name as such. The specific context will at least allow me to ground the rhetoric in understanding.

I cannot and will not stand idly by and allow this message to go unaddressed. I will share my distaste with my friends and family. While I do not expect and do not plan to take on the issue of specific belief, I will make it a point to demonstrate the inherent hypocrisy in the message and the blatant bigotry that your organization continues to foment.

I will demonstrate this hypocrisy by challenging those that I know to reconcile these Godless American PAC messages with your party platform statement: "We consider discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion, creed, disability, or national origin to be immoral, and we will strongly enforce anti-discrimination statutes. We ask all to join us in rejecting the forces of hatred and bigotry and in denouncing all who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, or religious intolerance." (

Here I am, denouncing those who practice religious intolerance.