I thought I should probably jump in to the ongoing dispute over whether atheism is a civil rights issue, prompted by Matt Nisbet’s post on the subject a few days ago, which was itself prompted by an article in Free Inquiry. Let me set some ground rules for this post. First, I am going to group together not only atheists but also agnostics, deists and every other type of non-believers for the purpose of this post because I think they are all viewed as essentially the same from the standpoint of the kind of people who are likely to look down upon such things and engage in some form of discrimination or civil rights violations. Second, I am going to distinguish between civil rights or legal violations and the more common cultural disapproval of skeptics of all kinds; while they may have the same root, they function differently and one has potential legal solutions while the second does not.
The first thing that jumped out at me about Nisbet’s post was his first comment. After someone pointed out that some atheists have been treated horribly, to the point of being hounded out of town, in places all over the country, Matt essentially dismissed the whole idea that atheists had ever been so treated:
I refer you to Grothe’s column. Care to offer evidence for your claim?
To our knowledge, there is no such thing as “atheist bashing.” If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.
The last part is a quote from Grothe’s column. I can only say that Grothe is abysmally ignorant if he really believes that there is no such thing as atheist-bashing. All he has to do is talk to the plaintiffs in practically any church/state lawsuit filed in the last century. He will find that each of them, almost without exception, received harassing and threatening phone calls, emails, letters and comments. Here’s a recent example that involved not atheists but a Jewish family who was challenging Christian prayers being offered in the schools there.
This goes back a long, long way. The families that filed lawsuits to end the mandatory pledge of allegiance, forced prayer in schools and other forms of Christian hegemony almost invariably received death threats and required police protection. Their homes were vandalized (one had dog feces smeared all over their porch), they were told that if they didn’t leave town “something bad might happen.”
In some cases the harassment has been so bad that the courts have allowed suits to be filed anonymously, as in Doe v Santa Fe (which still didn’t stop the harassment; they simply went after anyone they thought might be involved, including a Baptist family that literally had to get up and leave the church after being pointed out by their own pastor during a sermon). Even a Federal judge, himself a Christian, came in for the same treatment in the Dover trial. To pretend that such harassment does not go on is folly.
Grothe spends a great deal of time in his column listing the ways that atheists don’t suffer the way that women, blacks and gays in the past have suffered. He’s right, of course, but he is beating up a straw man; no one that I am aware of, including the most militant atheists, has ever claimed that atheists suffer the kind of discrimination that those groups have suffered. But that hardly means that they don’t endure any discrimination at all.
Grothe and Nisbet both point to hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and argue that their vehemently anti-religious rhetoric feeds the very discrimination and mistreatment that they are complaining about. Nisbet writes:
On occasion, atheists are discriminated against because they have a public image problem, and the Dawkins/Hitchens’ PR campaign, by radicalizing a movement of attacks and complaints, only makes this public image problem worse, generating more discrimination.
Which also gets at a point I made in an earlier post this week: Instead of mobilizing a movement of sophomoric attacks and complaints that paints as black all religious Americans, atheists need to focus on offering a positive vision of what it means to live life without religion; both in the popular entertainment media but also as leaders who span divides in our communities, (instead of just generating further polarization.)
And Jason Rosenhouse responds:
Atheists don’t face a public image problem because of the books of Dawkins and Hitchens. They face a public image problem because of the bigotry and ignorance of so many religious people. Not all religious people, certainly, as the strawman version of their arguments would have you believe. But a much higher percentage than people like Matthew care to admit. You do not break through such bigotry by polite discussion. You break through it by being loud and vigorous. That’s one of the lessons you learn from the civil rights struggles of the past. Social progress is not made when the downtrodden ask politely for their just due. That women, blacks and gays faced greater oppression than what atheists face today does not alter that fact.
Matthew’s comment that such discrimination as exists against atheists is caused in part by the writings of Dawkins and Hitchens is nothing more than plain, vanilla blaming the victim. (And it’s unsubstantiated to boot). It is an old cliche that gets trotted out every time a minority group starts getting a bit too vocal. The argument conjures up preposterous images of large numbers of non-bigots going over to the dark side when the victims of discrimination start rhetorically attacking the bigots. It is to laugh.
Let me try and navigate my way between these two positions. Obviously, my readers know that I have often taken issue with the more extreme anti-religious rhetoric of Dawkins, Myers and others. I do believe that such rhetoric, calling all religious believers either stupid or deluded, is false and that it undermines our ability to work with reasonable Christians on a range of issues. But this does not, of course, mean that such rhetoric justifies, in any way, the mistreatment of non-believers and skeptics.
Where Nisbet is wrong, I think, is in not separating the really hardcore anti-atheists – the ones who are likely to engage in discrimination and harassment – and the much larger body of Christian believers who do not have an inherent dislike of atheists (disagreement need not be hostility) but who are likely to be pushed more toward a fearful and negative reaction if they see, for example, that PZ Myers has called for the “obliteration” of religion from the planet.
The real nuts will hate atheists without such rhetoric. They hate and fear all non-Christians as a matter of presumption and there is likely nothing that could persuade them otherwise. But for a more moderate, reasonable Christian who just doesn’t understand why anyone would be an atheist, likely because they’ve never known any, seeing militant pronouncements like that is certainly going to reinforce their fears of atheists rather than help reduce them. I think Jason is flat wrong to say that such rhetoric is not part of the “public image problem” of atheists. Such statements are amplified through the megaphone of the religious right’s media outlets specifically for the purpose of damaging that public image – and it works.
But here is where I make a distinction between actual acts of harassment and discrimination and negative cultural attitudes toward atheism. While the kind of militant rhetoric I object to does, I believe, help reinforce negative attitudes toward atheists, it is not a cause of harassment and discrimination for the reason I stated above, because those who would engage in such harassment would do so regardless. It is atheists themselves that they hate and fear and no amount of nice rhetoric would change that.
To make an analogy to the struggle for civil rights for blacks, the most militant elements of the black community did not achieve much of anything for that struggle. Those who were calling for “death to whitey” were not the ones who helped affect change; indeed, I would argue that they undermined that struggle by giving ammunition to those in opposition and reinforcing the fears of those moderates on the other side who might have been swayed by more reasonable engagement.
I think the same thing happens with this issue. The most strident voices do reinforce the worst stereotypes pushed by the other side and I do think this undermines our ability to win hearts and minds. You simply aren’t going to convince the vast body of Christian believers that they shouldn’t be afraid of you or opposed to you while you’re accusing them of child abuse for raising their children in their faith and calling for the obliteration of religion. If you actually believe that, fine; but don’t pretend that saying those things actually helps the cultural standing of non-believers.
But again, let’s also not pretend that this is the cause, or even a cause, of anti-atheist harassment. Those who would actually engage in discrimination and harassment against atheists don’t need any such inducement. Like the hardcore bigots who saw blacks as sub-human, there is nothing that’s going to convince them. The only solution for such behavior is serious law enforcement, something that is unfortunately lacking in many places around the country.
So to no one’s surprise, I think the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. I do think we have problems with extremist rhetoric from some camps in the non-believing community, but I think it is absurd to point to such rhetoric as a cause or justification for anti-atheist harassment and bullying. I think it’s even more absurd to pretend that such harassment does not go on. As anyone who has followed the inevitable threats that follow virtually any attempt to challenge Christian hegemony over the last century can tell you, such harassment is very real and all-too common.