Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Newt Gingrich on Atheists in America

Here is a statement that deserves an immediate, loud, and hostile response.

"I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

This is from Newt Gingrich, who wants to be President of the United States.

(See: CNN: Gingrich fears 'atheist country ... dominated by radical Islamists')

One's first impression is to laugh at this statement.

A secular atheist country dominated by radical Islamists?

We really have to question the sanity of such a person - for reasons that are too obvious to mention.

But, while shaking our collective heads in mocking disbelief, we must remember that this is one of the leading contenders to become President.

We have another reason for speculating why he might have said such a thing. Recently, several Republican Presidential candidates gave speeches to a conservative gathering in Iowa.

Haley Barbour (R) and Newt Gingrich (R) were politely and well received, but it's Bachmann who really fired them up with criticisms of the administration, an artful weaving of audience response, and backing up her points with a litany of "statistics."

(See MSNBC: Bachmann: 'I am an Iowan')

A couple of days after that happened, we see Gingrich attacking atheists and linking them to Islamic fundamentalists. And, at the same time, he links atheism with being anti-American. An atheist, apparently, does not understand what it means to be an American. You simply cannot be an atheist and, at the same time, understand what it means to be an American.

And he makes a well calculated emotional appeal by attaching these sentiments to an apparent concern for the future of young children. Can you imagine these cute and innocent children growing up in a country with secular atheists? It's enough to make you gag.

It doesn't matter that it makes no sense. What matters is that it is politically useful. It is something that may persuade one highly irrational and bigoted part of the population reason to support Gingrich's campaign, but give others no reason to oppose it because they simply ignore it.

Which is a part of the problem.

Let Gingrich or any other political candidate claim that by the time their grand children are his age they will be "in a Jewish community" and the Anti-Defamation league and their allies will end that candidate's Presidential ambitions before the week was out.

Gingrich did not even qualify his contempt for atheists – the way he qualified his contempt for Islam by adding ‘fundamentalists’. Whereas Islamic fundamentalists worry him, all atheists worry him, without exception or qualification.

However, he says this about atheists and it is barely worth mentioning in the news. Those who favor this message will repeat it to their friends and associates - those who are opposed will likely not even hear about it.

Part of the reason is that the atheist community has no organization to pay attention and to tackle events such as this - have no way to send the word out to the various atheist and anti-discrimination organizations (including the Anti-Defamation League).

His success in this strategy will only encourage others while it teaches its audience a wide lesson that looking down on atheists is acceptable, right, and proper. It contributes to a hostility towards atheists by building a community in which these values are accepted, but which go unchallenged in society at large.

Whereas widespread and public objections to these types of claims will help to discourage other candidates from taking the same path, while teaching the public at large that this type of bigotry is unacceptable in the public at large, and particularly among Presidential candidates.


mikespeir said...

Cut him some slack. It's not easy to fit "atheists" and "radical Islamists" into the same sound bite. Granted, he did it a little clumsily, but the attempt is pretty much required.

Martin Freedman said...

His was quite an astounding statement!

I recall it was in 1999 when I was running news alerts on various atheists topics that I first discovered the most bizarre, outrageous and wildly inaccurate (although that is often an understatement) anti-atheist bigotry in (what I thought were) respectable USA news outlets.Most of those claims were in the light of the then forthcoming 2000 USA elections. I would see the equivalent of this at least once a day but was then unfamiliar with the USA political and pundit landscape.

This is one of the main reasons I became interested in the blog- sphere, in order to find out how people were responding to this rubbish and how it was able to occur in the first place. In particular my interest was to keep an eye on such rubbish coming to the UK, but we are doing very well with our own but different rubbish as it happens.

12 years later nothing has changed, your analysis makes all too much sense and it is the still the case that for all the growth of online atheistic and secular networks and "communities" (they overlap but are not the same) that there is not even an informally co-ordinated way of dealing with this. 12 years later no change!!!!

All this writing and criticism by maybe 2 or 3 hundred people, maybe a couple of thousand commenters and maybe 20 or 30 odd thousand lurkers (consider how many are signed up as Brights worldwide). Maybe that is why. Just a drop in the ocean?

(I do not include you in this BTW you are an exception to the rule in terms of your original analysis - there are others who do that too - but specifically IMV you are virtually the only one who has made a rational case for prioritising what is important - at least that is the way it appears to me as a UK citizen, but former USA resident).

So I suppose my main point is that in over now 12 years of monitoring this it appears not a thing has changed, indeed it appears to be getting worse. Is this all due to the old trope about herding cats or do people not take these candidates seriously because they are appear to blatantly stupid. Newt Gingrich whatever else his vices are, is no way as stupid as Palin or Bachman (or ma I wrong about that?)

Or should we all have to re-read (or read for the first time) psychologist Bob Altemeyer's "The Right Wing Authoritarians" to remind us of what is possible?

Incidentally (or maybe not) one of my many aborted projects was to perform a desirist-based critique/review of that book and see what results (I have no preconceptions over a conclusion). I think that might be very relevant given the future USA elections. And what is going on there should be a concern to citizens everywhere not just the USA, considering it is, for now, the only global super-power and if the USA elects someone who because of their appeal to stupidity and bigotry, no-one - who actually thinks - is going to have much if any (cough) faith in his (or her) ability to lead that country well.

Maybe we should all re-watch Dr Strangelove too ;-)

Eric Noren said...

If it makes you feel any better, conservatives and Republicans in general are not backing Newt as much as they did in 2008. He's hard to take seriously anymore, so the odds that he'll actually win the nomination and defeat Obama are very slim.

Mike Gage said...

I don't think that does make me feel better unless I could see a clear frontrunner and verify they do not share his opinions. Unfortunately, not many candidates would be willing to stick up for atheists. And that goes for both sides - atheism is bad politics in the US.

Matthew Fuller said...

Most politicians can get away with obviously biased comments because they can gain power through them.

We don't necessarily need more atheists to fight bias. We need more people who care about reason, science, and objective evidence. Instrumentally, the easiest way to win the culture war is to do something great that distinguishes atheists -- something that would be hard for a dedicated christian or muslim to dedicate his or her life towards.

Thanks for the info though. I will pass it along to my skeptics group at UTD.