My SciBling Matthew Nisbet says no. I think he really means it, since he put the title of his post in all caps.
One of the common claims that has been amplified by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that “atheism is a civil rights issue.” (For an example, see the comments section of this recent post.)
This false spin serves as a very effective frame device for radicalizing a base of atheists into an ever more militant &dquo;us versus them” rhetoric, an interpretation that is used to justify sophomoric and polarizing attacks on religious Americans.
Indeed, “atheism is a civil rights issue” is a familiar catchphrase that comes up in the feeding frenzy of complaints and insults that typify the echo chamber of the Atheist Net Roots, including several of the sites here at Scienceblogs.com.
See the original for links.
Matthew goes on to link to this column from Free Inquiry, in which writers D.J. Grothe and Austin Dacey argue for a No answer to the question in the title of this post.
There is much to reply to here. Nisbett has a lot of nerve putting “atheism is a civil rights issue,” in quotes and then describing it as a catchphrase used by members of some ill-defined Atheist Net Roots. None of the links Nisbett provides show atheists saying any such thing.
Instead, in both Nisbett’s post and the Grothe/Dacey essay, the objection seems to be to atheists comparing the struggle for social acceptance of their views to the civil rights struggles of women, blacks and homosexuals. This is a far different issue. The only argument against this comparison seems to be that the level of oppression and discrimination faced by those groups was far greater than what atheists face today.
This is true, denied by nobody, and is totally irrelevant to the point of the comparison. The question isn’t whether there are groups in American society who have greater reason than atheists to feel aggrieved. The issue is simply whether atheists have anything to learn from the struggles for acceptance of those other groups. The answer, it seems to me, is an obvious yes. In each of those cases a despised minority was able, over a period of many years, to attain a position in society of far greater visibility and equality. Atheists also face a situation where open hostility towards them is considered acceptable, and in many parts of the country face outright bigotry when their views become known. Of course atheists have something to learn from the civil rights struggles in the past.
When you actually examine the tactics used by those movements, you find that they did not follow the path recommended to atheists by people like Matthew. He aims his ire at Dawkins and Hitchens for their sophomoric and polarizing criticisms of religion, and for fomenting a militant us vs. them mentality among theri supporters. In a comment to his post he 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.)
This is so foolish and poorly reasoned it’s hard to know where to begin. Let us begin with the observation that “us vs. them” is, regrettably, an accurate characterization of the facts. The “them” in this case is not all religious people. It is, instead, the distressingly large percentage of religious people who are openly contemptuous of atheism, who have no problem with chipping away at the separation of church and state, who endorse balancing evolution with ID or creationism in public schools, who would have their own blinkered view of morality imposed on scientific research or on people’s personal sexual habits, and who generally believe that their religious views have some relevance in setting public policy. You will not win these people over by talking about the beatuies of atheism or by being polite in your writing. And they are not some small minority you can work around by appealing to the reason and good will of people on the fence. They are people to whom you must raise your voice, to make it clear to them they will not have thigns their own way.
One of Matthew’s commenters pointed out to him that it is very easy to dismiss the troubles atheists face when you live in Washington D.C. I suspect most of the religious people Matthew encounters come from the reasonable wing of theistic belief. I spent most of my formative years on the East Coast, and during that time I tended to make the same arguments Matthew makes here. But I have also lived in places like Pocatello, Idaho and Manhattan, Kansas, and my views on this matter are no longer so conciliatory.
Moving on, we should note that Dawkins and Hitchens have merely written books presenting their views, and have spoken publicly about those books. There is nothing even slightly militant about any of this. There are no calls for violence, no calls for the government to step in and do anything, and no suggestion that any weapon other than reason be employed in the fight against religion and superstition.
But this is still too much for Matthew. In his world vigorous criticism of religion only contributes to the public image problem faced by atheists. The problem with this argument is that the writings of “the New Atheists” are, as the phrase suggests, new. The state of affairs in which atheists are a despised minority, in which it is effectively impossible for a known atheist to be elected to public office, and in which open bigotry towards them is societally acceptable is the one that existed before they arrived on the scene. In other words, it was during all those years when atheists were playing nicey nice that their marginaliztion reached epidemic proportions.
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 attcking the bigots. It is to laugh.
So if Dawkins, Hitchens and the others do not hurt the cause, do they actually help? I believe they do. It is a tiny percentage of the population that will ever make direct contact either with the writing or the public presentations of these people. Instead, their ideas enter the public consciousness when other media outlets start covering the success of their books. In the last few years virtually every major magazine, newspaper and television news show has done segments discussing the resurgence of atheism. You can’t tell me this publicity is a bad thing. You can’t mainstream an idea by never talking about it.
Imagine a child raised in a fundamentalist community walking into a bookstore and seeing books by Dawkins or Hitchens. Or hearing atheism discussed on television. Do you think his reaction will be a sober consideration of their arguments, a finding that they are too snide, and a resolution to hate atheists all the more? Or will his reaction be an awareness that there are more opinions on these subjects than he has been led to believe? It is precisely this sort of casual exposure to non-Christian ideas that fundamentalists fear, and they are right to be afraid of it.
There is, of course, much more to say, but we’ll save that for future posts. This one has gone on long enough.