Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Anti-Atheist Bigotry in 2008

I have written a few posts recently concerning the work of morality. In those posts I have argued that doing the work of morality requires employing the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These tools are to be used to promote desires people generally have reason to promote (that tend to fulfill other desires), and inhibit desires people generally have reason to inhibit (that tend to thwart other desires).

Reason tells us how best to use those tools. However, reason does not actually do any moral work. Expecting reason alone to do moral work is like expecting the instructions for assembling a bicycle to assemble the bicycle. Somebody has to pick up the tools and apply them.

Recently, I saw a list of 10 events in 2008 that allegedly illustrate the persecution that Christians suffer in the United States. The list included events such as PZ Myers' alleged desecration of a Eucharist and Bill Mahar's movie Religulous. (Of course, we must realize that we are dealing with people who think that anything other than total agreement with and subservience to their will counts as 'persecution').

As an "atheist ethicist" I have been particularly concerned with the issue of anti-atheist bigotry. So, allow me to present my list of events in 2008 that illustrate the magnitude of anti-atheist bigotry in America.

(1) Science Debate 2008

Nearly 30 debates took place among Presidential candidates in 2008. Yet, it proved impossible to get the candidates to participate in an event called Science Debate 2008, devoted specifically to scientific issues. Science is what is has warned us about global warming and will provide us with the tools to respond to this crisis. Science is the tool that will give us weapons to fight off a potential Bird Flu pandemic. Science is what warns us of oncoming hurricanes and other natural disasters, creates the early warning system, and tells us how to construct our society to mitigate the harms done by these events. Yet, the candidates would not go on air and talk about science. (See: Science Has No Place in Politics)

Yet, they participated in a number of events dealing with faith, including an agreement to be interviewed by pastor Rick Warren on their religious views.

The reason, of course, is because science is seen as atheistic, and no candidate can tolerate being associated with or participating in anything that might be cast as being in conflict with issues of faith. So, that which has the potential to save us is ignored.

(2) Kieffe and Sons Auto Dealership Advertisement

In February, a San Diego Ford dealership ran an advertisement in which they boast of "offending" potential customers who so not endorse government expressions of anti-atheist bigotry. They tell any potential customers who might disagree with such policies to "sit down and shut up" merely because they are in the minority.

This is in spite of the fact that the idea that majorities may treat minorities however they like, and minorities have an obligation to "sit down and shut up" and endure that treatment, did not work out very well for other groups as diverse as Native Americans, Blacks, Irish, and Japanese-Americans, Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and countless other examples. In fact, one of the greatest moral advances of the last 250 years is the recognition that minorities do not have an obligation to sit down and shut up.

Complaints to Ford Motor Company ultimately brought pressure to bear on Kieffe and Sons to retract the ad (which had run its course anyway) and to apologize. However, immediately after the apology the owner of the company said in an interview that he really did not mean it and he stood behind the message in the advertisement.

Furthermore, the individual who put together the advertisement saw fit to defend the message he set forth in that advertisement, without any economic consequences that I am aware of to himself or the company he works for.

(3) Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Though this movie was billed as exposing some sort of conspiracy to prevent the teaching of "intelligent design" (a.k.a. Creationism) in public schools, it had all of the elements of an anti-atheist propaganda film.

How do you manufacture hatred against a group of people? One very common way is to associate the group that you want people to hate with something that they already hate (and, better yet, with something that they hate for good reason). It is an application of the technique that marketers use, attempting to associate a product with desirable ends such as sex and public approval and acclaim. The tactic is to invite the audience to transfer its sentiments towards the one thing to the "product" that the marketer is trying to sell – whether it is anti-atheist bigotry, or a car.

Ben Stein filled his movie with images of Hitler, Stalin, mushroom clouds, and gas chambers, in order to evoke harsh sentiments in his audience. His film then invited the audience to transfer this fear and hatred to his target group – atheists and 'evolutionists' who he claimed were ultimately the group responsible for these horrors. He, and those who backed the film, then toured the country to present this hate-mongering to audiences that were particularly susceptible to the message, as well as to legislators and school children.

(4) Monique Davis' Rant in the Illinois Legislature

Representative Monique Davis shouted at an atheist giving testimony to an atheist Rob Sherman giving testimony before her committee

This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it's dangerous . . . for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! . . . I am fed up! Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!

Ultimately, she apologized to Sherman (though not to any other atheist). However, she did not apologize for what she said. She apologized for raising her voice. Her "apology" effectively was a claim that, even though she believed and stood by the content of her rant, the volume of her voice as she spoke should have been 15 decibels less than it was.

Furthermore, she made these statements during a session of the Illinois legislator, while sitting in a legislative chamber, and while acting as a member of that legislature. However, the Illinois legislature did not take a single step to reprimand or discipline her for her outburst.

Another dimension of this insult was the fact that she blamed her outburst on the fact that she had just heard about a school shooting. This gives rise to the question about the connections that might exist between hearing news of a school shooting and the claim, "It is dangerous for children to even know that your philosophy exists!" It is not uncommon for people anti-atheist bigots to blame atheists for every act of violence that takes place in a school, and this connection falls dangerously close to expressing that bigotry.

(5) Mitt Romney: Atheists Unfit to Lead

Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney gave a campaign speech where he was accosted by a member of the audience who condemned Romney for being a Mormon. Romney answered

Let me -- let me offer just a thought, and that is, one of the great things about this great land is we have people of different faiths and different persuasions. And I'm convinced that the nation -- that the nation does need -- the nation does need to have people of different faiths, but we need to have a person of faith lead the country.

And he got a standing ovation for this.

His strategy was easy to understand. "Hey, c'mon man, we should not be fighting among ourselves. Instead of fighting each other, you and I should come together so that we can make a joint stand against them - where them are people who are not people of faith." He got a standing ovation for his expression of bigotry and hate-mongering.

(6) Mitt Romney "Freedom requires religion."

A couple of months after his first expression of anti-atheist hate mongering, Mitt Romney was getting enough grief on the fact that he was a Mormon that he decided he needed to give a major speech on the role of religion and politics. The heart of his speech was captured in the statement, "Freedom requires religion."

Apparently, he thinks that atheists can neither maintain nor even contribute to the maintenance of a free society. Where we find atheism, we find tyranny, and where we find freedom, we must find a religious people establishing and maintaining that freedom.

(7) North Carolina Senate Campaign

Late in the North Carolina Senate campaign, incumbent Elizabeth Dole accused her opponent, Kate Hagen, of associating with atheists and with, perhaps, being an atheist. Hagen had attended a fundraising dinner in Massachusetts among prominent figures in that state (including Ted Kennedy).. One of the attendees was Woody Kaplan -- who is an advisor to the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. Kaplan was not there representing any organization and made no contribution in the name of any group. Yet, his presence was considered sufficient case to brand Hagan with the political crime of being friendly to atheists.

Hagen responded to these accusations by bringing out her religious bona-fides. She further made the counter-accusation that there was probably nothing a political candidate could do than to accuse her opponent of being an atheist. In fact, Dole’s accusation was considered so horrendous that it was considered worthy of a lawsuit. Of all of the claims that one candidate made against another in the course of the 2008 elections, the one claim that is considered worthy of a lawsuit was the accusation of being friendly towards, or perhaps being, an atheist.

(8) Obama's Inter-Faith Gathering

Obama opened his convention with an interfaith gathering – a gathering of people from a number of religions and faith-based ideologies. It was an event built on the premise that "Democrats are people of faith" (suggesting, of course, that if one is not a person of faith one should consider this an invitation not to speak of oneself as a Democrat and to "honor the diverse faith tradition within the Democratic Party."

The real problem is not that such an event took place. The real problem is that, throughout the entire campaign, and even into the transition, in spite of significant efforts to reach out to people of faith, Obama has said and done practically nothing to acknowledge that people without faith even exist. He has not met with any atheist leaders, nor has he held an event in which atheists were invited to sit at the table with "people of faith" when matters of religion were discussed.

There is a question as to whether this is a matter of personal belief or political expedience. However, both options are compatible with putting this on the list of examples of anti-atheist bigotry in 2008.

(9) In God We Trust

There is scarcely a better example of bigotry in the world than a drive to put up signs in schools and public buildings that say, "We officially declare that any who belong to that group should not consider themselves one of us." In this case, the signs say, "In God We Trust" (or "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us."). In 2008, the drive to post as widely as possible – and particularly where children gather and where government business is conducted that "we denounce anybody who does not trust in God" continued.

In particular, this year, the organization "In God We Trust – America" devoted a considerable amount of effort to have city governments and school rooms prominently display this message of exclusion and ostracism.

(10) The pledge of allegiance

The number one example of anti-atheist bigotry in the United States is the widespread use of the assertion that any who do not support a nation under God are the patriotic and moral equivalent of those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. A constant struggle exists to demand that all Americans – and, in particular, those who hold public office, show respect for the idea that there are four great evils that no good America could ever find acceptable - atheism, rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all.


Here, then, are ten events that took place in 2008 exhibiting anti-atheist bigotry in America. They represent 10 events in which we should have seen orders of magnitude more “moral work” being done than we saw in fact.

The reason for demanding this moral work is not for the sake of atheists themselves. The moral demand comes from any love of justice – of the principle that law-abiding citizens of any government deserve the equal respect of that government and of their fellow citizens.


Dan Gilbert said...

Great list! I give it 10 stars, 1 for each point it raised my blood pressure. LOL!

PersonalFailure said...

yeah, i remember all of that live. it made me mad then, and it makes me mad now.

just to get back at them, i cross out "god" on my paper money and write "gay". i do trust gays, the ones i'm friends with, anyway.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I did not include the Eldora shootings in this because the shootings were not deemed tolerable by the society at large. All of the items on my list are not only instances of anti-atheist bigotry, but they illustrate society's tolerance for and approval of that bigotry.

Anonymous said...

You should check out :

Anonymous said...

Interested - the first half of that post is based on a gross misunderstanding, and the second half of that post didn't even make any sense. It's author has obviously never read any in-depth arguements either for or against theism. And regardless, the linked post had nothing to do with the topic at hand. I'm not sure what that had to do with anything.

Anonymous said...

What I would like to see is a nation that actually uses logic and reason as the primary tenets of its decision-making processes. I think scientists and rational minds can make more informed and less destructive decisions than most theists would admit. I wish some of the secular groups would pool resources and force the hand of some of these weak-willed politicans. Churches have been doing it for years, and its only reasonable that we should push back.

Jairo Mejia said...

Atheists and Gnostics are right in most of their thinking

It has been common among religious believers to look with misgiving to atheists and Gnostics, and to think that they are mistaken; however, in many instances the opposite is the truth; some religious beliefs are not just irrelevant, but baseless. The “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by Gnostics and atheists: the Existence itself, “All-That-Is.” If something is there, that is God. Look at the book “Christianity Reformed From ist Roots - A life centered in God” ( I am confident that some of your friends will be relieved of the illusion, as I did myself.

Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University
Retired Episcopal Priest
Carmel Valley, California