Framing Science

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 “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 this discussion here.)

Yet is atheism really a civil rights issue? The answer is a resounding “No.” In a column at Free Inquiry magazine, DJ Grothe, vice president for public outreach at the Center for Inquiry, lays out the case against atheism as a civil rights issue, and argues as I do, that atheists don’t face a civil rights battle but rather a public image problem. (To Grothe’s argument, I would add that this image problem is only made worse by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign.)

Comments

  1. #1 ERV
    June 28, 2007

    He said, safe and sound on the East Coast. “Those silly atheists in Oklahoma are making it all up– the harassment, losing their jobs, getting kicked out of apartments. What a bunch of liars.”

    **VOMIT**

  2. #2 Austin Cline
    June 28, 2007

    Ah, I see you are using that ever-popular framing tactic of only presenting one side. Unfortunately, this is also one of the less honest tactics in framing. If you had chosen a more fair approach, you’d have linked to Eddie Tabash’s response:

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/tabash_24_4.htm

    I actually agree more with Grothe and Dacey (yes, there were two authors), but when I wrote about the issue I made sure I linked to and quoted both sides:

    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/073451.htm

    I also pointed out why I think Tabash had a legitimate argument. It may not be technically correct to use the label “civil rights movement,” but given the widespread distrust, dislike, bigotry, and even discrimination, it’s not at all difficult to understand why people would be drawn to it.

  3. #3 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 28, 2007

    ERV,
    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.

  4. #4 justawriter
    June 28, 2007

    One

  5. #5 Brian Thompson
    June 28, 2007

    I agree that the atheism problem is more of a public image problem than a civil rights problem. The difference between atheism and the civil rights battles of the twentieth century is that atheists already have the same rights as theists – at least in the US. That does not mean that sometimes those civil rights are violated because the individual is atheist.

  6. #6 justawriter
    June 28, 2007

    Two

    With cites from a dozen states.

  7. #7 ZacharySmith
    June 28, 2007

    I would say that atheism is a civil rights issue in the sense that atheists, and other unpopular, non-mainstream groups (homosexuals and Wiccans, to name just a couple) must be vigilant against attempts by the likes of George W and his base to reduce us to second class citizens.

    I would hope that ensuring Constitutional prohibtions against endorsement should be enough for this.

    As for public image, yes, there is no doubt that atheists have a poor image in most peoples’ minds. However, this is not due (at least not entirely) to the atheists themselves. Atheists have been vilified and stereotyped in knee-jerk fashion for who knows how long. Yet when was the last time an atheist flew a plane into a building, or blew himself up in a crowded market, or wished damnation and suffering upon a homosexual?

    The religious have felt free to condemn atheism since the dawn of time. It’s about time that religious claims were subjected to critical examination and the self-contradictions and dubious origins of the Bible and other sacred texts revealed.

    Why should atheists be the ones who always defer and make nice? Every Sunday morning, pastors hold no punches in their condemnation of atheists. I applaud Dawkins and Hitchens for not mincing words and calling “bullshit” when they see it.

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 28, 2007

    Atheists have the same civil rights as theists, a very different situation from the historical examples of women, blacks, or today, gays. There will always be cases of discrimination that need to be guarded against and watchdogged, but to argue that atheists are the new suffragists or akin to those who battled segregation is just a wrong headed way to justify sophomoric attacks and complaints that only do further damage to the public image of atheists.

  9. #9 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 28, 2007

    Zachary,
    This is just more of the same black & white rhetoric that inaccurately paints *all* religious Americans and leaders as hostile to non-believers.

    You wrote:
    Every Sunday morning, pastors hold no punches in their condemnation of atheists. I applaud Dawkins and Hitchens for not mincing words and calling “bullshit” when they see it.

  10. #10 justawriter
    June 28, 2007
  11. #11 Z
    June 28, 2007

    Matt –

    You have a point, I was too sweeping in my rhetoric. I agree that certainly not all religious leaders are hostile to non-believers.

    However, I think you’d agree that some very well-known and influential religious leaders are indeed hostile to non-belief (and things that they wrongly interpret as stemming from non-belief, such as evolution). The late Jerry Falwell comes to mind. And I’m sure that there are at least a couple small town pastors out there doing the same.

    Perhaps I am wrong as I probably do not follow things as closely as I should, but it seems to me that Dawkins (Hitchens maybe less so) are more civil in their engagement of believers than say, Falwell or Pat Robertson are when they engage non-believers.

  12. #12 Erp
    June 28, 2007

    Acceptance of atheistic people is mostly a public relations problem in the US (different matter in Indonesia and some other countries); however, there are some civil rights issues though those are usually shared with members of various minority religions (attempts to have government directed prayers in public schools, government funded faith-based programs that require or encourage participants or employees to belong to a particular faith(s)).

    Some State Constitutions have various bits discriminating against atheists.

    http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/StateConstitutions.htm

    these are probably moot due to various Supreme Court rulings. However it was only 13 years ago the South Carolina Supreme Court had to tell the South Carolina government it couldn’t require someone to swear by God in order to be a notary public (Silverman vs Gov. Carroll A. Campbell and Secretary of State Jim Miles).

    ERV was probably referring in particular to a case in Oklahoma involving the Smalkowski family. http://www.jewsonfirst.org/06b/smalkowski.html

  13. #13 Renee
    June 28, 2007

    It is not a civil rights issue. However, I understand why people think it is.

    Why? Because “whites only” admittance to privately owned restaurants and the refusal to hire black workers at private companies wasn’t a civil rights issue either.

    Discrimination against people by other people is not a civil rights issue. Discrimination entrenched in law or in government agencies IS, however. But we’ve been calling so many things civil rights issues that aren’t for such a long time that we’ve forgotten what it actually means.

  14. #14 Corey
    June 28, 2007

    I appreciate a civil forum to debate this.

    I disagree with Nisbet that Atheism is not an civil rights issue. I would agree if we had this conversation in Canada, or in the US ten years ago. But today it is becoming one. I see the trajectory aimed towards an increasingly worsening prejudice in this country against Atheists, and I think we should all try to reverse this trend.

    Don’t be blinded to the erosion of a group’s civil rights under the assumption that progress on these issues is always in a forward direction. Religiosity in this country is increasing, it is becoming far more beligerent than it has been in the past, and it is eroding the rights and freedoms of Atheists.

    When I moved from Ontario, Canada to Houston, Texas, I went from being a comfortable Atheist enjoying debate with believers and non-believers alike, to a condition of fear. I never mention at work or in “polite company” that I don’t believe in god. The reaction is swift. Business relationships wither and disappear. Friendships are strained. Invitations dry up.

    It’s not from me shouting from the rooftops either. It’s simple things like answering the question: “Which church do you go to?”

    So long as this nation’s president and his staff can open their daily business with prayer, they are excluding Atheists from their clique. So long as businessmen can and do decide they don’t trust me enough anymore based only on my religious beliefs, I am being discriminated against. So long as the president of my company is a devout churchgoer and so long as his employees indirectly pressure me to attend his church to progress in my career, this is a civil rights issue. These subtle things are exactly what blacks, women, gays and other groups have battled for so long to stop.

    It’s very easy to sit safe and sound in your majority social group and claim the discrimination doesn’t exist. Maybe you can sit in the ivory tower where Atheists are commonplace and claim nothing is wrong.

    You have to live on the other side to know this claim is false.

  15. #15 ERV
    June 28, 2007

    Erp, for one example, yes. Discrimination against atheists was also profiled on a local (KFOR) news station not too long ago– The video might still be up. Examples such as threats to loved ones, pets, self, losing jobs, etc.

    Im having trouble imagining this only occurs in Oklahoma.

  16. #16 Corey
    June 28, 2007

    Renee,

    Perhaps there is a difference between freedom from discrimination and civil rights. However, when the one begins to erode you tend to lose the other too.

    I use the two terms interchangeably because I consider them ultimately to be manifestations of the same prejudice.

  17. #17 Science Avenger
    June 28, 2007

    The reason there aren’t as many public issues with discrimination against atheists as one might think given the common ministerial rhetoric out there (nice job of moving the goalposts there Matt), seems rather obvious: it is easy to hide, and we all learn rather early on that we should.

    We are not like blacks in that one can’t tell we are atheists by looking at us, and we are not like homosexuals in that we have no public meeting places bashers can go to find us.

    But when you have a slobbering football coach scream threateningly at you when he notices you aren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer with everyone else, when you have a good friend stop talking to you just for asking that she not prosyletize in emails, when your good friend is told to leave her uncle’s house and never return because she told him she was an atheist, when your girlfriend says “you aren’t an atheist” with the same tone that she might say “you aren’t a bad person”, when your mother apologizes for you to family and tells them you really aren’t an atheist, when your wife has to explain to your otherwise intelligent inlaws that you do not in fact eat babies, you learn to just shut up about it. The president claiming you can’t be a good citizen (as Bush Sr. did) certainly doesn’t help matters any, nor does the fact that you were portrayed as the hero in popular entertainment 0% up until recently when the figure has spiked up to a scary 5% or so. This has an effect on people’s views.

    It’s not complicated reasoning really. If friends and family are willing to ostracize you over your atheism, what might people who don’t give a rats ass about you do? Most of us would rather not find out. In that way, the best analogy is probably to people with HIV. They too are demonized beyond reason, but you don’t hear a lot of cases of people being discriminated against for it because they can choose not to tell anyone, and stay hidden.

    Now have at the semantic argument over whether or not bigotry agaist atheists qualifies as a civil rights issue if you choose. I do not. The reality of the discrimination is enough for me to make it an issue worthy of addressing in our society.

  18. #18 Mecha
    June 28, 2007

    Time to disagree with everyone slightly.

    I have a tough time believing that you can effectively argue that it’s not at least partly a civil rights issue, based upon the fact that you could use the same ‘Everyone has all the same rights’ argument against women at this point, and yet you seem to accept women as a discriminated/civil rights concerned class (based on, apparently, the evidence of the pay discrepancies, among other things.) There is a norm, in the US, just like being straight, or white, that involves being Christian. And others have linked laws and behaviors of varying degrees that support that (although not to the same degree, which I’ll get to in a second.) The argument that you link is also not a compelling argument _against_ that very common base of discrimination (The ‘You weren’t discriminated against like black people’ argument is never really a fair one to make, and is mainly dismissive), and I imagine you could effectively substitute any number of not-very-discriminated-against groups in it and have it read about the same. So I’m not seeing why it’s convincing. Now, if you’re going to argue that ‘discrimination’ does not mean ‘civil rights’ in all cases, that’s different, and neither the article nor you go into that in detail. (I think Renee brings this up quite clearly: confluence of civil rights and discrimination.)

    _However_, that does not necessarily mean that 1) The injustice is the same (common metaphor fallacy, on both sides), which is a problem for everyone involved in dealing with it 2) The radical frame is necessarily a good idea. I am all in with anger against injustice. But the radical frame seems to me to be an attack frame, beyond what feminists or black rights minded types would typically assert. Perhaps this is what you’re seeing in your framing analysis.

    To show this, I’ll compare feminism to ‘radical atheism.’ The standard feminist phrasing of the problem is ‘It’s not you, it’s the patriarchy’ because the power is not with the person’s beliefs in singular (although there is a problem with believing that women are worse than men), it’s with the power structure that perpetuates it. The radical atheist (slash science) phrasings I can find say, ‘It _is_ you. If you believe in religion, you are our enemy, inherently wrong.’ It does not take much reading of, say, PZ, to see him make it clear that anything that isn’t atheism is ‘wrong’. That is not a view that allows for anything but atheism, which is not the same as someone who believes in equality, but isn’t atheist. At least, that is how I perceive it, and the problem with it.

    I have absolutely no doubt there are atheists that do not believe that (considering that people on Scienceblogs would classify me as atheist) but they are not the ones I am considering in the ‘radical atheist’ mindset.

    Thoughts?

    -Mecha

  19. #19 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 28, 2007

    ScienceAvenger,

    You wrote:
    The reality of the discrimination is enough for me to make it an issue worthy of addressing in our society.

    Which is exactly my point. 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.)

  20. #20 CCP
    June 28, 2007

    Oooooh…NOW I understand what “framing” is. It’s when you do something like follow every use of the word “atheist” with the phrase “sophomoric attacks.”

    I was already an atheist as a freshman, however.

  21. #21 iRobot
    June 28, 2007

    If it takes discrimination against people by the government, than it IS an issue of civil rights. Anyone remember the Bush office of faith based religion only funding. Think they would give any money to a non-religious group?

  22. #22 Austin Cline
    June 28, 2007

    Ah, I see you are using that ever-popular framing tactic of only presenting one side. Unfortunately, this is also one of the more sophomoric tactics in framing. If you had chosen a more fair approach, you’d have linked to Eddie Tabash’s response:

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/tabash_24_4.htm

    I actually agree more with Grothe and Dacey (yes, there were two authors), but when I wrote about the issue I made sure I linked to and quoted both sides:

    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/073451.htm

    I also pointed out why I think Tabash had a legitimate argument. It may not be technically correct to use the label “civil rights movement,” but given the widespread distrust, dislike, bigotry, and even discrimination, it’s not at all difficult to understand why people would be drawn to it.

  23. #23 Corey
    June 28, 2007

    Nisbet,

    Why should Atheists have to explicitly offer “a positive vision of what it means to live life without religion”? In reference to your earlier post about Atheists and charitable giving, perhaps we are already doing a lot in much better ways, it’s just not evident.

    If you live a life of science, you tend to believe in empirical evidence, no? Doesn’t the evidence indicate (I’m thinking economics here) that being a self-interested actor in our economy provides the most to the general welfare? An income transfer can’t hold a candle to technological progress and a growing economy in terms of pulling the poor out of poverty. That’s evidence. So why should I waste my time giving food to the poor when I could be working?

    I think the larger problem is that many people lacking in the big-picture view obtained through hard study think that some outwardly visible act is more important than a longer-term quiet progress. Therein lies the problem. Many Athiests have made that heavy investment in study and reasoning to arrive at their beliefs. Have all the Christians out there discriminating against us done the same? Pffft.

    My very religious father-in-law can look down his nose at me because I don’t go to church and don’t give nickels to beggars, but I have evidence that his work as a mechanical engineer and my work as a software developer has done far more over time than any public faux-altruistic display of charity ever will. I respect him for his hard work. I want to be respected for my hard work. I want to have a sensible conversation about the best way to help the poor. But he won’t invest the time the determine – from evidence – what that best way is… he just knows… because he’s had it handed down from on high.

    You can call this caustic and say it’s not in my best interests as an Atheist to be so ornery, but I answer that it’s expressely because I’ve invested the time to rationally arrive at my beliefs that I do NOT wish to participate in this feel-good piecemeal charity. And of course, now I can’t be trusted by any proper Christian.

  24. #24 justawriter
    June 28, 2007
  25. #25 Thomas Robey
    June 28, 2007

    Mecha,

    Thank you for your insightful characterization of radical atheism. Every time I (a Christian) read Dawkins or PZ, I DO think they are saying to me, “It _is_ you. If you believe in religion, you are our enemy.” If this is what they say, but then demand equality and fair treatment, then it seems they are employing some of the same divisive tactics that Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians use.

    I think that Atheists do need to improve their image, and as several folks have told me recently, moderate Christians need to increase their interactions with others. Reasonable people (Atheists and Christians and whoever) tend to enjoy conversations with other reasonable people.

    A little work on both sides (say the ‘moderate’ Christians and the ‘moderate’ atheists) would go a long way. It is easy for both sides to be characterized/caricatured by their extremist spokesmen. It will be more rewarding when the people actually willing to talk without ‘winning’ find each other.

  26. #26 toegazer
    June 28, 2007

    Isn’t image the issue for any civil rights fight? A group needs to rise above the public perception of their difference formt he mainstream and be seen as individuals. Unfortunately the public only sees the offended athiest not the thoughtful tolerant majority.

  27. #27 justawriter
    June 28, 2007

    Well, I made sure to locate a few concrete examples before I popped off. I wouldn’t want to be accused of not having specifics.

    I would say the weakness of the argument being presented is that discrimination against atheists is part of the larger history of religious discrimination in the U.S. If atheists face fewer challenges than other disfavored groups, I freely give credit to those who challenged established religious discrimination since 1789. At one time, catholics, jews and atheists were all denied the right to hold public office, among other statutory and economic insults. I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that if atheism is not a civil rights issue then religious discrimination is not a civil rights issue. It is a a reductio ad absurdum situation.

    Remnants of these historical attitude still exist. I think the second link I provided shows pretty convincingly that de jure discrimination does exist in at least the area of family. You can have your children taken away from you in some jurisdictions primarily on the grounds that you don’t believe in god, at least in some jurisdictions. Eh, might be a problem to some people.

  28. #28 Science Avenger
    June 29, 2007

    Matt – I find the relationship between your characterization of what the new atheists are saying and the reality to be tenuous at best. I go into more detail on my blog.

    Corey – fabulous stuff.

    The biggest problem atheists have is somewhat self-imposed. By hiding it in our own self-interests, we allow the lying preachers who paint us as monsters to supply the image of who we are. We should be as public as we can within whatever constraints our lives place on us. I for instance, blog under a pseudonym because I work for a Christian company, and yes, there would be reprisals if my atheism were known. But in my personal life, I treat it as any other fact about myself, and talk about it as appropriate.

    Be prepared, however, to discover bigotries in your friends and family you never knew was there. It can be quite illuminating.

  29. #29 chips
    June 29, 2007

    I don’t think politicians or anyone should make a big deal about what you believe. So what if you are atheist in America. You have a right to that. Just don’t be one of those narrow-minded atheists, who dismisses anything remotley religious. Remeber based on a religion’s history, well the not the religion, the people that follow the religion, their actions have proven every religion to have its faults.

  30. #30 Ahcuah
    June 29, 2007

    Five. (PDF)

    If you are a theist, you get a right of conscience that requires a compelling government interest to be infringed. If you are a non-theist, tough luck. How can that not be a civil rights issue?

    I also love the way Nisbet is just ignoring the examples.

  31. #31 Leni
    June 29, 2007

    Matthew Nisbett wrote:

    Which is exactly my point. 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.

    I suppose it’s Dawkins fault that millions of Christians believe people who don’t accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior are going to hell? And that if he would only just be quiet (or at least “nicer”), all of us other atheists would suddenly find the world a friendly, welcoming place of tolerance and decency?

    I also find your attempts to minimize discrimmination both disheartening and disgusting. Instead of just admitting that it sometimes happens in the context of civil rights (you have examples posted right here in this thread) you say it’s all just an image problem that atheists are primarily responsible for. Is this the same image problem that, say, American Muslims or feminists have?

    You wrote:

    On occasion, atheists are discriminated against because they have a public image problem…

    You admit that it occurs but dismiss it as a public image problem, completely ignoring the role of religious believers as the ones responsible for their discrimminatory actions and beliefs.

    Does anyone wonder why Dawkins and Harris sometimes say that liberal religious belief and believers give tacit support to the bigotry of fundamentalists?

    Last, I just want to point something out. Religious liberty is by definition a civil rights issue. For all of us.

  32. #32 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    Corey writes:

    Doesn’t the evidence indicate (I’m thinking economics here) that being a self-interested actor in our economy provides the most to the general welfare? An income transfer can’t hold a candle to technological progress and a growing economy in terms of pulling the poor out of poverty. That’s evidence. So why should I waste my time giving food to the poor when I could be working?

    No, that’s not evidence at all. That’s a rhetorical claim with a huge amount amount of evidence pushing back against it. It’s also a perfect example of why atheists have an image problem: atheism does not entail any collection of beliefs, positive or negative, about how to act in the world as an ethical agent. Yet, Corey is trying to connect atheism to a certain position with respect to charity. The most one can say is Corey is an atheist and not a humanist. That’s not a positive description.

    More here.

  33. #33 Mark UK
    June 29, 2007

    I would say that in the US there are a lot of negative feelings towards atheists. It is hard to imagine a president being elected who is an atheist. Yet is that because people hate atheists or because people like to vote for people they think have the same values, religion, etc?
    To the best of my knowledge Karl Rove has admitted to being non religious. It’s not like he hasn’t made a career for himself.

    Atheists need to speak out and start forming influence groups. If 10% or so of the population is atheist than that is a sizeable group. Time to start using that power.

  34. #34 MartinM
    June 29, 2007

    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.

    Nice frame. A ‘public image problem’ is easy to lay at the feet of those who are being portrayed unfairly, if you don’t actually engage your brain long enough to work through the concept.

    After all, most discrimination involves a ‘public image problem.’ Slavery? Whites saw other races as fundamentally inferior, even sub-human; might just be considered a ‘public image problem.’ Sexism? I don’t see how the common perception of women as airheads who were simply incapable of studying anything complicated like basic maths and science could be anything but a ‘public image problem.’ How about the Holocaust? The perception that Jews were responsible for all the ills of German society certainly sounds like a ‘public image problem.’

    Of course, in most contexts, these ‘public image problems’ are usually described by a more familiar term – bigotry. But in that frame, it’s patently obvious where the blame lies, and it isn’t with the victims. So if you want to shift the blame, you need to switch the frame, to something nice and neutral-sounding, like ‘public image problem.’ Neat trick.

  35. #35 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    June 29, 2007

    Oh, Man, I don’t even know where to begin here. I read Jason Rosenhouse’s entry before I came here and that has put me in “fighting” mode.

    The truth is that it is more acceptable socially to have some religion, no matter how out of the mainstream, than to have none at all. Wiccans are treated with more respect than are atheists, because “at least they believe in something.” (Never mind that the Wiccan wife of the Vampire who ran for governor in Minnesota in 2006 was fired from her job at a school bus company once her religious beliefs were made public.)

    As atheists we are largely in a closet, either of self-imposition from a fear of making waves or from a fear of losing contact with our families. Those of us in politics find it best just not to talk about it at all. When I was part of a Day of Reason event at the State Capitol in May, not a single legislator would join us for the ceremony in the rotunda because of the fear that they would be associated with atheists. Doesn’t happen for gays, blacks or feminists, does it? We heard from legislators who supported our cause and were glad we were there to counter the Day of Prayer event outside (which had several legislators joining them.)

    We live largely in a world in which we have a self-imposed gag rule on our atheism, and this is an erosion of our freedoms as much as any military policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” is. Prisoners get special privileges unavailable to atheists if they belong to prayer groups. Justawriter has pointed out cases of active discrimination against atheists in child-custody cases. I dare anyone to tell the parents who have lost custody of their children because they are atheist that it isn’t a civil rights issue.

    Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books are a gift to those of us that have had to keep quiet about our beliefs because they send the important message “You are not alone.” Why would you take that away? The fact that The God Delusion has sold approximately 1 million in hardcover should tell you that Dawkins’ outspokenness on the issue is needed by a very large group of people.

    Atheists must push for acceptance, and if part of it is to present a positive face, then that is important, too. But there is no reason that we should not stand up and be counted. Nothing gets fixed that way.

    We do have a public image problem, and I think that you and people like you are as big a part of the problem as anyone else when you patronize us and tell us to “Sit down, shut up. The grown-ups are busy framing for your benefit. Leave it to us and we will make the world a happy place for atheists and everyone else.”

  36. #36 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Sorry, but he’s right. I’m sure I’ll take guff for this since I’m a theist, but… Atheism is not a civil rights issue because discrimination against atheists (an admittedly serious problem) is, unlike discrimination against other minority groups in history, not codified, legal, and enforced by the government. In every part of this country, it is illegal to discriminate based on “religion.” In MOST of the country, it is legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. A person who is attacked b/c he’s an atheist has protection under ALL existing hate crimes laws. A gay person attacked based on sexual orientation is not protected under MOST hate crimes laws. Gay people (like women and racial minorities before them) are denied freedom and equality by force of law. This is not true for atheists. All laws discriminating against atheists (while they may remain on the books) have been declared unconstitutional and are thus unenforceable.

    I won’t address the “image problem” in detail, just note that this is common amongst minorities. Until atheists “come out” en masse, you will be represented by the “worst” amongst you in many cases. Those who are loud and offensive draw more attention than the every day people quietly going about their daily lives, and are more easily remembered. As a gay person, I am all too aware of how gay people were once represented by the “worst” amongst us, like those regularly arrested for public sex.

  37. #37 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    I should point out that I don’t think this “image problem” is the fault of the minority per se, just a fact of being a minority. However, increasing visibility and drawing attention to the ordinariness of atheists, gay people, etc. is an effective tactic for countering stereotypes.

  38. #38 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,

    You admit that atheists are discriminated against and yet to do not call it a civil rights issue. I simply do not understand you thinking. You seem to be echoing the view of others here who think that because there is no statute permitting discrimination on the basis of religion then it is not a civil rights issue. What is the right to be considered for employment solely on your ability to do the job, and not on factors that do not impact that, like religious beliefs, sexual orientation, skin colour if not a civil (and human) right ? Mike in the post above yours tells us that a Wiccan was sacked for being a Wiccan (something I imagine most atheists would abhore. Certainly those who have been criticised for being too outspoken are perfectly clear about that. If only those who were calling for them to shut up were as well). That is not acceptable in any society that would consider itself civilised and enlightened.

  39. #39 Gerard Harbison
    June 29, 2007
  40. #40 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    I argue that it is not b/c these civil rights are protected under existing law for atheists, but not for gay people, for instance. You are not fighting for basic legal protections. You already have them. I’m with you on the fight against discrimination, but that is very different from the fight to actual get legal protections and equality before the law. What makes the difference is that when you are discriminated against, you have recourse to the law. When I am discriminated against as a gay person, I do not. There are few state/local laws in the and no federal laws which protect me from anti-gay discrimination. Anti-gay discrimination is thus legal. We are still fighting to be including in those laws (state, local, and federal) which are intended to ensure equality before the law. You are already included.

    In other words, there’s a difference between having your legally acknowledged civil rights violated and not having legally acknoledged civil rights.

  41. #41 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    I’m sorry, that should read “there are few state/local laws in the U.S….”

  42. #42 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Sorry again, but my spelling has suffered atrociously. “we ar still fighting to be included..” obviously not “including”. and that should be acknowledged.

  43. #44 dorid
    June 29, 2007

    Not a civil rights issue? tell that to Nicole Smalkowski!

  44. #45 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,

    The fact that discrimination on grounds of religion has been unlawful does not actually mean it is not a civil rights issue. On the contrary, it suggests that it is a civil rights issue else why have legislation to address it ? Also the fact that such laws exist does not actually end discrimination, it just makes it become more subtle. Does anyone doubt that a white male and a black female of equal talent will not have the same prospects of getting a job ?

    That you are discriminated against because of your sexuality is not acceptable and any decent society would not permit it. That the US has no such laws on a national level is a damming indictment of the US and one that needs to be address if the US wishes to be considered a rational and enlightened place.

  45. #46 Reginald Selkirk
    June 29, 2007

    Thank you for putting your title in all caps, it tips us off as to how seriously you should be taken.
    You say that atheists have the same civil rights as others, but if those rights are routinely, yes routinely, violated, then there is indeed a civil rights issue to be addressed.
    Here’s one issue in which routine bias occurs: Anti-atheist discrimination in child custody cases, as researched by Eugene Volokh.

  46. #47 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda: so are you saying Richard Dawkins is the “worst” among us? That he’s “loud and offensive”?

    And that as a gay person, you think the loud and proud pioneers who fought for your rights as well as theirs are somehow “worse” other gay people?

    Jebus. Whose side are you on?

  47. #48 Greg Laden
    June 29, 2007

    There is no doubt that atheism is a civil rights issue. I am an atheist. There is nothing wrong with that. But I am often made to feel that I have something wrong with me because of this. There are places where I should not mention it. There are times when I need to “pass” for “christian” or “spiritual.” There are many people who think that if someone is an atheist, they have number of “other things wrong with them” as well.

    But we’re good at science. A sort of natural ability.

  48. #49 Anthony Harmon
    June 29, 2007

    Austin Cline article on court discrimination against atheists in childcare cases — with citations to actual case law.

    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/256589.htm

    Time to say “uncle.”

  49. #50 Mecha
    June 29, 2007

    The amount of conflation of ideas here is _staggering_. ‘Atheism’ is a civil rights issue, but religious freedom is what everyone should care about? That means _religious freedom_ is a civil rights issue, of which Atheism is a specific group which deserves religious freedom.

    A real criticism of religion does not involve saying that Religion = Delusion (The title of The God Delusion, which automatically puts the ideas he presents in a frame of ‘religious belief = crazy people’.) A real argument towards religious freedom and civil rights does _not_ attempt to say that religion is wrong and delusional. And yet, posters say that ‘Atheism is a civil rights issue’ make sense.

    Making comparisons to black rights, womens suffrage and rights, or gay rights, _does not make it so_. Treating Atheism as the single special discriminated group that represents all religious freedom issues _does not make it so_. Please, think about what is being _said_. ‘Atheism is a civil rights issue?’ Where’s the people going ‘Being black is a civil rights issue?’ Not many people. ‘Discrimination against blacks is a civil rights issue?’ Well, there you get a hell of a lot closer to right.

    Why would you want to make Atheism out to be little more than a political movement, when it is _so much more_? Atheism is a belief. Religious freedom is a civil rights issue. Don’t mix the two up.

    -Mecha

  50. #51 Rieux
    June 29, 2007

    PZ:

    Melinda: so are you saying Richard Dawkins is the “worst” among us? That he’s “loud and offensive”?

    And that as a gay person, you think the loud and proud pioneers who fought for your rights as well as theirs are somehow “worse” other gay people?

    Indeed, Melinda even made that argument on the 38th anniversary of the Stonewall Quiet Protes…. I’m sorry, the Stonewall Riots, in which a bunch of “loud and offensive” gay folks bothered to stand up for their own dignity against majority bigotry.

    How dare those rioters be so “loud and offensive,” huh, Melinda?

  51. #52 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 29, 2007

    Greg,
    What about the atheists who are artists, poets, writers, or cultural critics? Camille Paglia comes to mind.

    Do they “follow a life of science” or a “rational” worldview?…a distinguishing characteristic that commentators at this thread imply make atheists different from religious citizens.

    And if they don’t, does their atheism have the same legitimacy as “science atheists”?

  52. #53 Duae Quartunciae
    June 29, 2007

    I’m generally known as one of the “Neville Chamberlain” atheists; a guy happy to get along with theists and not all that concerned to wipe out religion. I get into big arguments now and again with PZ Myers in particular on this matter.

    But on this occasion, I’m solidly with PZ. You’ve moved away entirely from the whole question of how to tackle science education, and are now simply complaining about atheists speaking up about being atheists.

    The stuff about civil rights is a red herring. In fact, Dawkins and Hichens have very little to say about civil rights. They are focused on substantive engagement with the basis of belief. That’s a good thing. There is a real and legitimate debate about the value of religion and the reasonableness of belief or disbelief in God; and I think Dawkins has done us a great service in increasing the visibility of unbelief. With your concerns about this being “divisive”, you seem to be wanting it all back in the box again, to get back the bad old days of a default position that we all should be respectful of religion and encourage freedom of religion expression, but should avoid saying anything about atheism because it’s “divisive”.

    Forget it. There actually are deep divisions, because there are definite propositions being made that cannot be reconciled. Some folks assert that a God exists. Some folks assert that there’s no such thing. I’m all in favour of talking about that openly; and I positively expect that this will be upsetting to many believers. I mean them no personal ill will; and indeed I am in active and friendly discussion with Christians on such matters.

    Dawkins and Hitchens don’t talk about civil rights much at all. They go straight for the meat of the matter: does God exist or not? They — and I — think there are very good reasons for confidence that no such being exists. That’s why I’m an atheist.

    This is not to say I agree with Dawkins and Hitchens on everything. But overall, they’ve helped raised the visibility of atheism and fostered a real substantive engagement on matters bearing upon the heart of belief and disbelief. That’s a good thing.

    Now when it comes to science education, I do have some differences with PZ Myers and Dawkins. But it’s more than merely a difference in “framing”… it is a genuine substantive difference on nature of religion and of science.

    I think you had some good points when you were speaking about how we can “frame” discussion that is focused on science education. But posts like this leave me with the impression that actually, it is not about correctly framing the debate on science at all. It seems to be about trying to get athiests to stop talking so loudly about their unbelief in ANY context.

    Cheers — Duae Quartunciae

  53. #54 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2007

    I don’t think Greg said that atheists can only be scientists. Are malaprops one of the tools of framing now?

    And please…Camille Paglia? She’s just evidence that some atheists can be nuts.

  54. #55 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    That there is a correlation between being a scientist and being an atheist has been well established by the evidence. The simple fact is that people who do science are far less likely to believe in a god than either the general population or those engage in other academic fields.

    Of course whether there is causality is another matter. Are atheists drawn towards science or does studying science lead people to become atheist ? I suspect both at at play.

  55. #56 Reginald Selkirk
    June 29, 2007

    Time to say “uncle.”

    No, “Framing” means never having to admit that you were wrong.

  56. #57 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    PZ,

    My personal opinion is that yes, Dawkins poorly represents the majority of atheists including people I deeply love and respect who happen to be atheists. I don’t find everything he says offensive, but I find how he says even what I agree with offensive.

    The same can be said of my opinion of your work. I agree with you on many, many things, but often find your tone offensive. I would defend to my death your right to speak, so please don’t think I’m coming to silence you.

    I do, however, reserve my right to criticize what you or Dawkins say or how you say it as that falls under my right to speak.

    However, I put “worst” in quotation marks for a reason, that reason being that “worst” would be highly subjective. Perhaps I should have put “offensive” in quotations as well. My point is that the people who are most noticeable rarely represent all of us or adequately represent the diversity of any human group.

    As for early gay activists, that’s more complicated. I’m not completely opposed to being loud and offensive on occasion and I’m more than aware that my being openly gay is offensive to many. I’m proud of what radical gay activists accomplished, but I separate them from extreme gay activists and people whose public behavior did not reflect us as a group.

    In other words, I’m offended by the fact that most attention went to those who had sex in public bathrooms rather than those who were living normal, law-abiding lives (too often in secrecy and shame). I have to acknowledge that this perpetuated stereotypes against us and that the movement to get gay people to “come out” played a vital role in countering those sterotypes. I’m offended that ACT-UP activists invaded a church during mass, pelted the archbishop with condoms, and threw the host on the ground. I’m not Catholic, nor do I have a special place in my heart for the Catholic hierarchy. But I find such tactics infantile, morally reprehensible and counterproductive. I’m also offended by those who think straight-bashing and man-hating are any more acceptable than gay-bashing and woman-hating. (And yes, stereotypical as they are, those people do exist.)

    As for the civil rights issue, I simply believe there’s a difference between a violation of civil rights which requires recourse to existing law and that which requires us to change existing laws in order to receive acknowledgment of and protection for our civil rights. I’ve written a more detailed explanation on my blog about that.

  57. #58 Rieux
    June 29, 2007

    Nisbet:

    What about the atheists who are artists, poets, writers, or cultural critics?

    I’m an atheist who has a degree in music composition, and I write (prose) for a living. The most recent hard-science course I took was twelfth-grade AP biology, many years ago. I’m not exactly frightened that Greg or any other of my peers in the “echo chamber of the Atheist Net Roots” is going to think less of me for any of that.

    All of that hardly obscures the fact that you’re getting your head handed to you in this exchange–especially with regard to the evidence of civil rights violations in which you’re being thoroughly buried.

  58. #59 craig
    June 29, 2007

    If it’s not a civil rights issue because there’s a law against it, then that means that discrimination against minorities in hiring is not a civil rights issue – there’s a law against it.

    The deliberate disenfranchisement of black voters in the south is not a civil rights issue, because it’s illegal.

    Lynching – not a civil rights issue.

    The thousands of Asian women brought into the US to be forced into sex slavery – not a civil rights issue.

    Gay marriage is no longer a matter of civil rights in Massachusetts – imagine that.

    Lets see how far we can carry this… since murder is illegal, does that mean its no longer counts as violent victimization?

  59. #60 Robert Hoitsma
    June 29, 2007

    Atheism is a civil rights issue. Try having a court mediator rule that your soon to be ex-spouse is a better parent because he resonates with her fundamentalist belief in jeebus. And if that results in home schooling, goofy religious indoctrination and parental alienation; then it’s all good, eh?

  60. #61 Jud
    June 29, 2007

    Sorry, Matt, but you absolutely missed with this one.

    As one of just a handful of Jewish kids in my grade school, I remember being the only one who didn’t rise for the Lord’s Prayer with which every school day opened in our classrooms (from kindergarten through 4th grade – that would be 1960-64). In particular, I recall my 3rd-grade teacher looking daggers at me when this happened. Her resentment extended to schoolwork: My parents related to me that at their first parent-teacher conference, she told them that since I was in 3rd grade, I should be reading at 3rd grade level – not the advanced texts I preferred. (Anyone remember Asimov’s “World of Carbon” and “World of Nitrogen”?) At least I felt somewhat protected, since even at that age I knew the school administrators were familiar with Judaism. If I’d been an atheist at that point, I’d have felt a lot less secure.

    Mike Haubrich and Greg Laden are exactly right – one doesn’t hear more about this in part because atheists feel so outnumbered. Insensitive folks (hint) may confuse this with lack of a problem.

  61. #62 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 29, 2007

    PZ,
    My point is that many atheists try to appropriate the terms “rational” and “science” to bolster their arguments and to draw a boundary between themselves and anyone (fundamentalist, moderate, or liberal) who is religious. These rhetorical terms are rarely clearly defined and usually thrown around as a way to piggyback on the cultural authority of science.

    But the question remains, what about all those “artsy” atheists? What if you arrive at your atheism through a “non-scientific” logic?

  62. #63 JD
    June 29, 2007

    I don’t think I’ve seen anyone address this in the comments – if Dawkins and Hitchens are so bad for atheism’s PR, then I gotta ask; how much better it was before their books came out? Were people treating atheists like comrades before Dawkins tricked them into thinking we’re all assholes? Wouldn’t the only evidence of bad publicity be a decrease in respect and acknowledgement of atheism? The only thing I’ve seen these books do, and what I believe was their primary goal, is to get people thinking and talking about atheism, a discussion that seemed to be severely lacking before.

    I must say though, if the best complaint against atheist activism is not against it’s ideas or intentions, but that it is loud and obnoxious(as I suspect any good activist should be), then we’re certainly doing well for ourselves.

  63. #64 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    JD,

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that Dawkins and the rest created anti-atheist sentiment only that they bolster the stereotypes upon which it is based. My solution is not to silence them, but to get the rest of you to speak up so that the ordinariness and diversity of atheists would be recognized. Come out, loud and proud. But please note that coming out with “I’m superior” probably won’t work as well as coming out with “I’m equal.”

  64. #65 MartinM
    June 29, 2007

    But the question remains, what about all those “artsy” atheists? What if you arrive at your atheism through a “non-scientific” logic?

    What of them? What of all those people who accept evolution despite not knowing a damn thing about it? Was there a point in there?

  65. #66 Boosterz
    June 29, 2007

    “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.”

    Atheists are discriminated against for the simple fact that the religious can’t come to terms with the fact that someone can objectively look at their religion and decide it’s bunk. Therefore they think that SOMETHING has to be wrong with atheists. Trying to blame this on Dawkins or Hitchens is abusrd. For one thing I’m pretty sure the religious were polarized in an us-versus-them mentality a LONG time before either Dawkins or Hitchens wrote a book. Perhaps all the genocide in the bible is Dawkins fault too?

  66. #67 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Matt,

    I realized when writing my blog post that I was falling into a semantic tangle over civil rights issues vs. civil rights movements. Discrimination of any kind is a civil rights “issue”. But there is a difference between a civil rights issue that requires a civil rights movement to gain legal acknowledgement of and protection for civil rights and civil rights issues that can be resolved through recourse to existing laws. I don’t think the atheist movement is a civil rights movement as existing laws protect you.

    My apologies to all for not being more specific before.

  67. #68 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Matthew Nesbit says that atheists call themselves “rational” when comparing their religious beliefs with theists. I get the impression he thinks this is a bad thing. I am not sure why.

    Believing things exist on faith, rather than evidence is NOT rational. I doubt Nesbit would consider people who think they have been abducted by aliens to be rational and yet theists have no more evidence than those who think that aliens are visiting trailer parks in the US, kidnapping the most credulous of the inhabitents and anally probing them. I can only conclude he is using a different meaning of the word “rational” than I am.

    I know people who are religious. Some seem to have grasped this very point and accept that there no rational basis for their belief. They do tend to the more intelligent and thoughtful of theists I know. I cannot pretend to understand why they still insist on belief in a god but they are also the type of theist who insists on pushing their world view onto others. I disagree with them but as Harris, PZ, Dawkins have pointed out, these people are NOT the problem. If all theists were like them there would be need for the call to arms for atheists.

  68. #69 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    A few points that came to mind as I read this discussion:

    1. Renee, when discrimination occurs, civil rights are lost or taken away. They may not be the same thing but they are linked. If you speak of discrimination against atheists, then it is very likely that the civil rights of those atheists are being affected negatively.

    2. Is the ability to practice your religion freely, without discrimination or interference (without harming others in the process, of course), a civil rights issue? Let’s say you are Buddhist… can you be discriminated against because you are NOT Christian? Or Catholic? If that is the case, then you can not be discriminated against for NOT practicing a particular religion… or any religion at all. The right to practice atheism is very much a civil rights issue.

    3. On a personal note, my husband and I are atheist and agnostic, respectively. As such we are raising our kids without religion, though we discuss the various religions with them. My 7 year old is the vocal type and easily volunteered that he is non-religious when the topic came up with his friends (all strongly religious) at school. The other boys spent the next few month pestering him continuously with comments and questions such as: “Why don’t you believe in God?” “Don’t you know you are going to hell?” “Only bad people don’t believe in God.” He dealt with it as well as he could but eventually I had to approach his teacher to ask for his help. His response? “This is not something I can talk about directly with the boys. But I can start a classroom discussion on treating everyone fairly.” Now, do you think those boys made the connection between the “fairness” discussion and their own behavior? Nope. Not at all and the badgering and bullying continued. I just can’t help but wonder if my son had been Jewish or Muslim or Hindu if the teacher would have been so reticent about stepping in and stopping the behavior. So as a Mom of a angry, embattled 7 year old boy, please don’t you dare tell me that this is not an issue of civil rights.

  69. #70 Derek James
    June 29, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet wrote:

    “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.)”

    I don’t think these agendas are mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to continually and repeatedly point out the irrationality of religious belief. But once you’re done ripping the religious account of morality and meaning to shreds, and the persuaded reader buys your argument, from where are they expected to derive meaning and morality? It’s as if this batch of writers is ripping up the believers bible, with no positive value system to replace it. Presumably the new atheistic convert is simply supposed to figure it out on their own.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect high-profile atheists to put forth a constructive account of their source of meaning and morality, a basis of secular values. Since atheism is essentially a clean landscape, swept free of antiquated religious ideologies, secular thinkers need to do the hard work of building up a system that stands as a viable alternative.

    If there are shared values, then that can lead to organization. If those values are idiosyncratic, then we really have nothing positive in common (but I don’t think that’s the case).

    A positive secular value system would go a long way in improving the perception of secular members of society.

  70. #71 ben
    June 29, 2007

    Bloody hell. With “scientists” like this, who needs religion?

  71. #72 Matt Dillahunty
    June 29, 2007

    I had a conversation with DJ about this very issue a month or so ago, while he was in Austin. He agreed that individuals can and have faced civil rights violations because of their atheism and his objection (as I understand it) was that the broad-based labeling of atheism as a “civil rights issue” was overreaching, perceived as innaccurate and, therefore, potentially damaging.

    Essentially, it gives the impression that atheists are overtly being denied rights because of their atheism in the same way that previous groups were denied rights – which isn’t clearly the case. Atheists face overt and covert threats to (as opposed to legally sanctioned denial of) their rights and active discrimination because of their atheism.

    It would be nice if we could remove the anti-godless language that appears in the Constitution of many States – but these laws currently have no teeth. Will that be the case forever? I have no idea…

    However, I’m an atheist – and one of the more vocal ones. Between the TV show, podcasts and essays, I suspect that Matthew would consider much of what I do to be “sophomoric attacks”. In any given week, the same comment from me might be praised for being a passionate defense of reason or a viscious polemic. One caller will express amazement at the patience I exhibit while the other will consider me hostile and mean.

    None of my comments are based on the rallying cry that atheism is a civil rights issue. Instead, my “sophomoric attacks” are rational challenges to religious claims and the actions of religious individuals and groups that threaten church-state separation, denigrate science, and place the education and welfare of current and future generations at risk.

    While our civil rights aren’t necessarily being legally denied – they are being threatened and sometimes the threat is legislative. While it may be inaccurate to claim that atheism is a civil rights issue, that is only because it draws comparisons to more serious civil rights issues from our past – and not because these concerns about our rights aren’t valid.

  72. #73 J Daley
    June 29, 2007

    This is such a load of horseshit. Atheists are a mistrusted, reviled minority in this country who in many situations have as difficult a time “coming out” in public as do members of any other marginalized group that would rather not keep their mouths shut in the face of bigotry but still had better think twice about it.

    Way to ignore justawriter’s (and others’) instances of clear civil rights violations against atheists, instead of admitting that your position is untenable. Wanna argue about whether those are civil rights violations? Okay. You’re wrong. Dead wrong. A civil right is a personal right that the civil state can grant and protect to its citizens. This includes: civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination. Not just discrimination by the state, but discrimination by individuals or businesses as well.

    Anybody who says otherwise either doesn’t understand the meaning of civil rights or is deliberately obfuscating the problem.

    And frankly, you all sound just like hizzoner Richard J. Daley who politely told Dr. King, when he came to Chicago, that his grievances weren’t civil rights issues and that Chicago’s blacks had no problems. King later got a brick in the head from a white racist in Cicero, and said Chicago was harder to fight than Birmingham, because at least in the South they were up front about the fact that they were denying you your civil fucking rights.

  73. #74 Matthew C. Nisbet
    June 29, 2007

    Matt Dillahunty,

    Nope. I’m not saying rational is a bad thing, I’m saying people throw it around so much that it has no meaning. Instead, “rational” and “science” are used by atheists as frame devices to exert authority.

    How many atheists have systematically studied the world religions, philosophy, and science, deliberated the pros and cons of religion, and arrived at non-belief?

    Atheists, like everyone else, are cognitive misers. Meaning they adopt their opinions based on heuristics and short cuts. These can be opinion-leader cues like those provided by Dawkins or for emotional reasons.

    There’s also many boundary considerations in making the “atheism is scientific and rational” claim. Are there “scientific atheists” and “humanistic atheists”? A two cultures of atheism? And if there are alternative routes to atheism than “living a life of science,” does atheism lose some of its rhetorical legitimacy?

    On that matter, is Dawkins God Delusion a work of science, a literary essay, and/or a philosophical work? The topic is debated in an exchange of letters in this week’s edition of Science.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/316/5833/1843

  74. #75 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    Matt said:

    “Atheists, like everyone else, are cognitive misers. Meaning they adopt their opinions based on heuristics and short cuts. These can be opinion-leader cues like those provided by Dawkins or for emotional reasons.”

    Any supporting evidence for this?

    Please don’t lump us all in like that. If anything, atheists and agnostics are not the mindless followers you paint them to be, which is precisely why they are atheists and agnostics to begin with and not toeing the line on any particular religious faith.

    Keep in mind that the religious right is terrified about its faithful attending our country’s colleges and universities, those so-called shelters of leftist immorality. Why? Because when young people start taking classes and learning about the world, many leave behind the religion of their youth and experiment with other ideas and philosophies. They start to think and reason. Thought is the birth of atheism and agnosticism… not blind, thoughtless goose-stepping.

    You said:

    “How many atheists have systematically studied the world religions, philosophy, and science, deliberated the pros and cons of religion, and arrived at non-belief?”

    I did. That’s exactly how I got here through my college education, exploring religious, philosophy and science classes, as did my father, mother, sister, husband, brother-in-law, cousin, etc. You get the idea. And I think you will get a lot of posts from others who did indeed arrive at non-belief through this route.

  75. #76 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet,

    I am pretty sure that you will find atheists are more aware of what various religions believe, and know more about science as a group than religious groups will be. The data in the US makes this pretty clear in fact. Some 40-50% of people in the US think the earth is a few thousand years old. In other words they basically know no science. That 40-50% correlates strongly with evangelical Christian belief. In fact from what I have seen of atheists they seem to know more about Christianity than many Christians. When to creationists I have had to correct them not on the flaws in their argument (although I do that) but on what their own argument actually is. So whilst you are correct in saying that atheists base their beliefs on the views of others, knowledge after all is a cumalative process, I think you will find that atheists as a group think more about their beliefs than do theists.

    The data is also very clear that the more education a person has had the less likely they are to believe in a god, and if they do the less likely they are to hold fundamentalist views. In other words atheists as a group tend to be more highly qualified and intelligent than the general population.

    As to the nature of “The God Delusion”, surely is all of those ? I fail to see the problem.

  76. #77 Rieux
    June 29, 2007

    Dillahunty:

    Atheists face overt and covert threats to (as opposed to legally sanctioned denial of) their rights….

    Wrong.

    Volokh, Volokh, Volokh. How many times do his findings need to be cited on this thread (this makes at least four; I’ve lost count) before people will read the damn things?

    The 70+ court decisions he cites are “legally sanctioned denial[s] of” nonbelievers’ rights, folks. Denials by judges. “Overt” denials. In spades.

    And the trend won’t stop until an appeals court notices that it blatantly violates the Constitution. (Which happens to be exactly the same status as DOMA and related bans on gay marriage, Melinda–a similarity that calls very much into question your attempts to paint the varieties of discrimination as differing in kind. Within the U.S., at least, the fundamental legal problem with governmental discrimination against gays and governmental discrimination against atheists is exactly the same: both of them violate the Constitution. But until appellate courts recognize that, we will both continue to be discriminated against.)

  77. #78 Greg Peterson
    June 29, 2007

    I came by my atheism through a difficult, often painful journey. I have a degree in biblical studies (which included plenty of comparative religion classes) from a respected evangelical college, loved my faith and my church community, and had absolutely no reason to want to rock the boat or alienate my friends and family, including my two children. It was a matter of integrity for me to admit, after about 7 years of trying to find a way to maintain my Christian faith, that it was not possible to do so and be intellectually honest. The Bible made me a non-Christian; science of philosophy took me the rest of the way into atheism. My college roommate followed a very similar trajectory, after growing up Mennonite in a largely Amish community where rejection of faith leads to literal shunning. I don’t think our stories are especially uncommon. So please don’t ask asinine rhetorical questions like “How many atheists have systematically studied the world religions, philosophy, and science, deliberated the pros and cons of religion, and arrived at non-belief?” The point of a rhetorical question is to the answer in advance. I don’t think you know that any more than you know a lot of things, as this post unfortunately attests.

  78. #79 GodlessHeathen
    June 29, 2007

    It is a civil rights problem in many states, such as Texas: The Bill of Rights of the Texas Constitution (Article I, Section 4) allows people to be excluded from holding office on religious grounds. An official may be “excluded from holding office” if she/he does not “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

    Arkansas Constitution, Article 19 Section 1 of the 1874 constitution:
    “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”

    Maryland’s Bill of Rights, Article 36:nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come. And Article 37:
    No religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.

    Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania have similar articles.

  79. #80 yoshi
    June 29, 2007

    First off – I disagree with Nisbet. When you can be fired or denied housing because you are an atheist or gay (i am both) then yes – it is a civil rights issue.

    Second – PZ’s comment:

    And that as a gay person, you think the loud and proud pioneers who fought for your rights as well as theirs are somehow “worse” other gay people?

    While I have great respect for early pioneers – it should be noted that we are winning equal rights and benefits because more and more people are seeing us raise children, attend church, work with them – in other words being normal and quiet law abiding folk. Does that mean we shall just shut up? Hell no.

    First off – I disagree with Nisbet

  80. #81 sailor
    June 29, 2007

    “Atheism is not a civil rights issue because……..In every part of this country, it is illegal to discriminate based on “religion.”
    Atheism is not a religion, at least one member of the current supreme court has offered a verbal and off the record opinion that while atheists have rights, they may not have the same rights as those that hold a religion. In othr words you get the same rights whatever your religion, but not necessarly if you do not have one.

  81. #82 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda writes:

    My solution is not to silence them, but to get the rest of you to speak up so that the ordinariness and diversity of atheists would be recognized. Come out, loud and proud. But please note that coming out with “I’m superior” probably won’t work as well as coming out with “I’m equal.”

    Well said!

    To the extent there is a public conversation about atheism it usually takes place between people who are ardent adherents — either a shouting match between a die-hard evangelical Christian and a die-hard atheist or a discussion within a group of like-minded atheists like those in the comments section of Pharyngula. In both cases, the “I’m superior” attitude comes through loud and clear from the atheist side. Sure, it does from rabid Christians too. The thing is, most of us are not rabid about our atheism or our religion so the whole shebang looks silly.

    Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. usually draw no distinctions about the variety of religious belief. It’s just all wrong-headed and bad. The most nuanced I recall them being is to acknowledge that some religious beliefs are not quite as bad as others.

    The same comes from many religious people who fail to see or acknowledge the variety of atheist beliefs. But that’s understandable. Atheism is a very simple position statement, not a movement, not a social organization. Atheists are not a cohesive group, nor is atheism itself condusive to forming one as much as ardent atheists would wish it otherwise.

    Matt is right on: let’s find something positive and constructive to get behind. “Humanism” says so much more than “atheism.” “Naturalism” as expressed by The Center for Naturalism does too.

  82. #83 daenku32
    June 29, 2007

    Does this mean ‘civil rights’ is passé in the US?

    Vast majority of religions in the US condemn atheism. The most liberal ones say we have a place in limbo, elysian fields, etc. Not a single one is willing to consider atheism as at least equal.

  83. #84 Leni
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda Barton wrote:

    But please note that coming out with “I’m superior” probably won’t work as well as coming out with “I’m equal.”

    How about “I’m equal but my ideas are superior”?

  84. #85 J Daley
    June 29, 2007

    Sweet. So we’ll be playing baseball for eternity? Awesome.

  85. #86 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Rieux,

    I’ve read the information to which you linked and I agree that these are violations of civil rights. My point is still that there is legal recourse for overturning these decisions based on existing law and Supreme Court precedent. In the case of gay people, this is rarely if ever the case. I’m not trying to downplay the need to get the government to enforce existing law, but I don’t think that requires a civil rights movement per se.

    Sailor,

    I put “religion” in quotes for that very reason. Whatever one Supreme Court justice says off the record is irrelevant. Standing Supreme Court precedent (see Torcaso v. Watkins, 1961) protects atheists under “religion” clauses of existing laws.

  86. #87 J Daley
    June 29, 2007

    Damn HTML tags.

    Elysian fields

  87. #88 Christophe Thill
    June 29, 2007

    For all the respect I have for Matt Nisbett, I must say that this time, he’s just wrong.

    I’m writing from a secular, European country (France, namely) where a strong version of the principle of separation of Church and state, called “laïcité”, is a founding principle of the republic. It states that, in order to protect religious freedom for all religions, the State cannot embrace or favor one of them. It means that all civil servants, and officials of any kind, must make a total distinction between their private and professional life. Privately, they can do whatever they want. On duty, they cannot show their affiliation (or lack thereof) to any religion. You’ll never see policemen wearing a Sikh turban (as they may do in the UK), nurses with an Islamic veil, or bus conductors checking your ticket with a cross prominetly pinned on their lapel.

    So you can imagine how I feel whenever I read about how things are in the US, mandatory swearing on the Bible for instance.

    So, why do I think that M. Nisbett is wrong? Because a “public image” problem can sometimes turn into a full “civil rights” problem. And it happens when the person who has a bad image of atheists is some sort of official, with the power to turn their opinion into action and (for instance) to refuse an atheist for jury duty. Yes, discrimination happens when a law treats some category of people differently. But it also happens when no law punishes a differential treatment.

  88. #89 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Leni,

    I think you get at the crux of the problem. A minority of atheists, who get lots of public attention, do not make the distinction between ideas of one sort being “superior” (which still doesn’t make all ideas that an atheist has superior) and being superior as a human being. I’ve seen many proclaim the innate inability of religious people to think or act with reason PERIOD, which would mean that religious people lack a fundamental quality of humanity, reason. The flipside is that atheists are “rational” not that atheism is rational. This would mean that atheists are lacking a fundamental quality of humanity, irrationality. One becomes subhuman, the other superhuman. Can you see why we’d find that offensive?

  89. #90 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    LCR:

    So as a Mom of a angry, embattled 7 year old boy, please don’t you dare tell me that this is not an issue of civil rights.

    I sympathize with your plight and the situation your son is in, but is this about civil rights or civility? Many kids, and adults for that matter, are the victims of cruel teasing and bullying. Is that by definition a violation of civil rights? It’s certainly wrong and more than a fit subject for the educational system to address (your son’s teacher is way off the mark, see his boss about it), but the difficult issue is when to make something a matter law.

    Obsesity, fashion choices, speech impediments, disfigurement, mental retardation, even simply being poor bring attacks and discriminatory behavior from others. When does this become a civil rights issue? I don’t have an answer but expect it lies in how visible the discrimination is and how powerful the victimized group. That as a society we are so tolerant of some forms of discrimination and abuse yet so outraged by others is appalling.

  90. #91 Rieux
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda wrote to me:

    I’ve read the [Volokh child-custody] information to which you linked and I agree that these are violations of civil rights. My point is still that there is legal recourse for overturning these decisions based on existing law and Supreme Court precedent.

    And what I’ve been trying to get across is that you are specifically mistaken about this. There is no statute barring discrimination against atheists in custody disputes. There is no “Supreme Court precendent” barring discrimination against atheists in custody disputes. You refer to “legal recourse” that we atheists have in this matter, but what I’m trying to tell you is that concrete law to protect us only exists in your imagination.

    In the case of gay people, this is rarely if ever the case.

    Well, you do have Lawrence v. Texas, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, and various states’ non-discrimination laws, which ain’t chicken feed–but I certainly agree that the U.S. needs a lot more legal protection for GLBT people.

    I’m just trying to point out that your “legal recourse” for trying to marry your partner and my “legal recourse” for trying to retain custody of my children in a (theoretical) divorce from my Christian opposite-sex spouse are exactly the same. In both cases, our only hope is to stomp into an appeals court and point at the First Amendment (and analogous state-constitutional provisions), the Fourteenth Amendment (ditto), and the Full Faith and Credit Clause of Article IV, Section 1. Unless you are in Massachusetts, neither one of us has any “existing law and Supreme Court precedent” that, in terms, protects our rights.

    I’m not trying to downplay the need to get the government to enforce existing law….

    No, you’re failing to notice that in the cases Volokh has cited there is no “existing law” that explicitly prevents this particular variety of disgusting discrimination against nonbelievers. Atheist parents are just as vulnerable to bigotry in custody disputes as gay parents (thousands of whom, as you no doubt know, have had their children taken away from them by in-laws or ex-partners) are.

    So we really are in the same legal boat, Melinda.

  91. #92 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,

    Believing in a god is not a rational position. Theist who are honest will admit this. That does not mean that theists are irrational on all matters, but it does mean that on at least one matter that is (presumably) of importance to them they are e. The mainstream religions also allow for the possibility of divine intervention. Again that is not a rational position to take. Now if that is all most religious people thought and did there would not be a problem, or at least there would not be the same problem. However in the US (and Eastern Europe but far less so in Western Europe) this not the situation. In the US there are religious groups who seek to deny the rights they have (such as being allowed to marry) to others who do not share their faith. Pretty much the same religious groups also want it taught that the earth is a mere 6000 years old. As an atheist do I feel superior to such people ? You bet I do. Tolerance and acceptance of reason are simply better than intolerance and blind faith. Not all views are equally valid and deserving of respect. The earth quite simply is not a few thousand years old, it is a few billion and as far as I am concerned those who would claim otherwise are inferior. Inferior in their use of reason, inferior in their knowledge of science and inferior in how they think other people should be treated.

  92. #93 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    Matt Penfold,

    As an atheist do I feel superior to such people ? You bet I do. Tolerance and acceptance of reason are simply better than intolerance and blind faith. Not all views are equally valid and deserving of respect.

    However, tolerance and acceptance of reason are not necessarily entailed by atheism although they are by humanism and Uniterianism and many other -isms. So you are feeling superior for the wrong reason which is ironic given your position on rationality.

  93. #94 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Trifinar,

    I am atheist in part because I reject the intolerance and ignorance preached by so many religious people.

  94. #95 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    In the spirit of “practice what you preach” (a locution that seems fitting in this context), see this post by Tom Clark who as I recall is/was a student of Dan Dennett’s. The subtitle of his Memeing Naturalism blog is “Occasional explorations of science-based, humanistic naturalism and its implications, with a focus on current news and commentary.” The Center for Naturalism of which he’s a part along with people like Dennett and Brian Lieter is all about presenting the positive aspects of naturalism rather than the anti-religion frame of atheism — and does so without pulling punches.

  95. #96 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Matt,

    What I believe is this. Let’s concede that atheism results from a superior rational position (although that is highly suspect since some people can and do arrive at atheism for reasons that have nothing to do with reason).
    These people you talk about may have an inferior position when it comes to the theism/atheism question but a far superior position rationally when it comes to economics, personal relationships, politics, social issues, etc. To feel superior in a general sense based solely on their and your relative positions on a single issue (or complex of related issues) would, therefore, be highly irrational and intolerant.

  96. #97 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Trinifar,

    The arguments that would be employed against the more moderate theists are not the same arguments used against the fundamentalists. Dawkins writes in “The God Delusion” that if religions were like the moderate branch of the Anglicans he would be have written the book he did. I have said I consider myself superior to those would let their religious views discriminate against others and seek to destroy science education. I do not consider myself superior to the moderate theist, who is willing to concede they might just be wrong about their being a god (like I will admit I could be wrong and god might exist). I disagree with them, but they are not same as the fundamentalists and do not need to be dealt with in the same way.

  97. #98 Jason
    June 29, 2007

    Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. usually draw no distinctions about the variety of religious belief. It’s just all wrong-headed and bad. The most nuanced I recall them being is to acknowledge that some religious beliefs are not quite as bad as others.

    Not sure about Hitchens, but Dawkins definitely acknowledges that some religious beliefs are much worse than others.

    But keep whacking at those strawmen of yours, Trinifar. Talk about a lack of nuance.

  98. #99 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,

    Such people may well have a excellent grasp of those subjects, and when they demonstrate that I revise my view of them. They would however start at a disadvantage, and the more fundamentalist their beliefs the greater that disadvantage. Thus I give Ken Miller plenty of credence on biological matters but none at all to Kent Hovind. To be honest anything who is dumb enough to think the earth is a few thousand years old is probably not worth listening to on anything and it will be up to them to show they are. Try asking youself this: What would your opinion be of someone who thought New York and Los Angeles were only a few feet apart ?

  99. #100 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    I think the NY/LA thing goes too far as comparisons go, since that is far more in keeping with what one can experinence/know in a definite sense than the age of the earth (which is based on evidence that is in itself confusing to most people). However, I know people who fall for all sorts of things I consider silly or downright stupid, like losing weight without proper diet and exercise, “happily ever after”, someone out there for everyone, the American dream, everything working out for the best etc. I don’t think I have the right to deny them a fair shot without considering them as a whole person.

  100. #101 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,

    Many people may have a problem understanding the science that tells us how old the earth us. That is because they have not been taught science very well.

    I do not regard all theist as having the same intellectual flaws. I may think the Archbishop of Canterbury to be mistaken about the existance of god but he is not a stupid man. I think Kent Hovind is also mistaken but I really do consider him stupid, if not insane. The Archbishop has said many things about how society ought be run that I agree with, for example he refused to oppose same sex marriage in the UK and has knowingly allowed gays to become priests. He has also spoken out against the war in Iraq. In otherwords his actions have meant he has respect from me. Those fundamentalists who saw the war in Iraq as way to fight Islam have none.

  101. #102 Cory Simmons
    June 29, 2007

    Matt:

    “How many atheists have systematically studied the world religions, philosophy, and science, deliberated the pros and cons of religion, and arrived at non-belief?”

    So I take it you’ve systematically studied all of the evidence that Transformers really do exist, deliberated on the validity of this evidence, and arrived at non-belief of the existence of real-life Transformers?

  102. #103 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    Trinifar asks:

    “I sympathize with your plight and the situation your son is in, but is this about civil rights or civility?”

    And I repeat my question: Would you even be asking this if it were a case of a group of children from one religion harassing and badgering a child from another religion… with the school brushing it off and essentially ignoring it? Would I had received the same response from the teacher? I’m betting “no”.

    Atheism and agnostism are not religions, I grant that, but they are options in the religious realm and therefore apply when you speak of religious choices and religious freedom. Just as you can choose to observe Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, you can also choose the category of “None of the Above”. Religious intolerance is an issue of an impingement of someone’s rights, their right to choose how, or how not, to worship. No one can be attacked or discriminated against because of their choice of religion, OR because they choose NOT to follow a particular religion. That applies directly to atheism and agnosticm.

  103. #104 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    I have to disagree with you on the war thing. I’m completely opposed to the Iraq war and have been since before it started. But I try to take into account that many people who supported it were misled by sources they trusted and didn’t have the educational background necessary to come to an informed decision. As for respect, I try to offer all people a certain level of respect just for being human. Beyond that, they have to earn it. (Notice I said “try.” I’m not always successful. Some people are pretty good at provoking the worst in us.)

  104. #105 bernarda
    June 29, 2007

    Since you seem to be this dumb, why would anyone frequent this blog. Thanks for showing that not all atheist are intelligent, some are even underachievers.

  105. #106 M.
    June 29, 2007

    Just to add another voice to the “are you ******* kidding me?” choir.

    This article is wrong on many levels. First, Dawkins has not presented atheism as a civil rights issue. Creating a strawman from Dawkins’ position and tearing it down seems to be something of a repeating theme among the “science-framing” crowd.

    Second, the claim is demonstrably wrong. Atheists have had to deal with the “bad public image” for centuries; this is not an issue of Dawkins et al. affecting the public opinion. Even a *cursory* examination of the attitudes, court cases, and criminal records from the last century shows that animosity of religious section of the population towards the atheists is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something produced by “outspoken atheists”.

    In fact, not just rights violations, but physical danger and injury was often offered to atheists who *were* quiet and respectful towards their religious neighbours.

    Being quiet is not a policy that works. Should we be quiet when a creationist asserts that “science shows” a 6000-year old Earth? No? But we should just shut up when he asserts that we are all immoral criminals because we don’t have a “moral center” derived from religion?

  106. #107 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    Trinifar,

    Rereading my post, I realize that I was not clear on this point: It is not the actions of the children that concern me most. I live in a very religious community and I am not surprised that children act that way. Kids can be vicious when encountering those different from them… as can their parents, as I can attest to from personal experience. That said, I think it is horrible that we consider this relatively “normal” behavior. That doesn’t speak well for us as a society, does it?

    My main concern is the response of the teacher. As a public school employee, he represents the attitudes of the state. Through his relative inaction, he was tolerating religious discrimination in the form of bullying behavior on the part of the boys. That is the real problem here and where it steps over the line from being an issue of “civility”, as you so benignly put it, to an issue of civil rights.

  107. #108 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    LCR,

    If your child has been bullied and the school has refused to protect them per their legal obligations, I encourage you to sue them. Your child, like every child, has a right to a safe educational environment.

    I can tell you as a gay person, that I was in the position of being bullied with the “grown ups” doing nothing about it. I also saw an atheist friend harassed about not standing up for the pledge. (I stood up for her, but few did.) I think the fact that the school did nothing hurt more than the abuse itself. I wish I’d had the gumption to sue then, but I probably would have failed anyway since it was Louisiana. (The whole gay people not protected under the law thing kind of sucks. The Louisiana legislature voted down an anti-bullying statute b/c it would have protected gay teens.)

    Nonetheless, you have great legal standing to get action on this. Hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her child.

  108. #109 Encolpius
    June 29, 2007

    “What if you arrive at your atheism through a “non-scientific” logic?” — Nisbet

    “…arrive at atheism for reasons that have nothing to do with reason.” — Melinda

    When, in discussions, people appeal to things like non-reason reasons and non-logical logic, I, for one, tend to wonder if there’s any point trying to talk to them at all.

  109. #110 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Well as I understand it in the US there seems to be the view that in school the concepts of freedom of speech are more important that providing an atmosphere where learning can take place with some children feeling they are the subjects of the hatred of others. It seems wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “God hates fags” to school is protected by law.

    It must be a cultural thing but that just amazes me.

  110. #111 llewelly
    June 29, 2007

    When it comes to atheism, you, Nisbet, have shown you are even less interested in framing than PZ is. You’ve abandoned framing in favor of spin.

  111. #112 Booker
    June 29, 2007

    I’m sure that Salman Rushdie will be comforted to know that atheism is not a civil rights issue. One less thing for him to worry about.

  112. #113 Mag
    June 29, 2007

    Melinda,
    How about being told all the time that you are flat wrong and therefore going to be punished and burn forever in hell ?
    How about that look of commiseration on a friends face, asking you how you can live such an empty life, and telling you they will pray so you find what you are missing ?
    How about your own mother telling you that you must be an atheist just because it is easier (aka you are just lazy), and you haven’t made the effort to look for God, but if you would just try, you would see how wrong you are ?

    Sorry, I have seen much more of the looking down and superiority coming the other way, and I am being told that I must not upset people by discussing their religion, while they feel free proselytising it with not even a thought for asking me whether I feel ok with that.

    And just to be precise : I personally was confronted to all these examples, and all this came from liberal, educated, catholics, the last persons I would call extremist.

  113. #114 Anonymous
    June 29, 2007

    To call atheism a civil rights issue at this point is premature; census trends had a small increase in atheist/agnostic/irreligious people, and it increased further and continues to especially after their questionnaire finally dropped the loaded religion question that had plagued it since its inception.

    As for the subject of qualifying and even trying to set a parallel to past serious civil rights injustices, the few (and far between) notable social injustices against atheists that many people and groups face throughout the daily vicissitudes of life: get over it. Atheists aren’t being spit on in public, forced to sit on the back of the bus, or being denied an education. Hell, you’re even guaranteed a secular education and if that’s not good enough there’s always private schools.

    So you can’t get a cup of coffee at the local Mormon girl’s cafe if you’re atheist. So what? You had the good sense to support a local community entrepreneur’s dream rather than a corporate competitor, and they tossed you out on your secular ass. Big deal, that’s the right of a private business, and it’s the right of the exiled “irreligious” consumer to take their business elsewhere.

    There are no signs that say ‘NO ATHEISTS’ or ‘ATHEIST WATER FOUNTAIN,’ no effigies of atheists being burned, hung or beaten, and here’s an actual realistic example: no late night comedy sketches or mainstream television or other media source habitually chastises and alienates atheists.

    That isn’t to say it will never get to that point, or worse, but until the internment camps open up (if you were asleep during history class, this is a Japanese internment camp/census abuse reference) I’ll keep checking my “irreligious” box whenever the census comes out.

    I feel your article, Nisbet, was poorly written because it firstly does not acknowledge the fact that atheists being discriminated against, however minor and non-violent thus far, has been a subject of recent news, and you also use the most flamboyant and militant figureheads of the atheist “platform” to help ease and strengthen your myopic and disconnected cultural views.

    God bless.

  114. #115 daenku32
    June 29, 2007

    But the question remains, what about all those “artsy” atheists? What if you arrive at your atheism through a “non-scientific” logic?
    Why would anyone need an excuse to be an atheist. It’s the belief that demands an excuse, not the unbelief. It’s the belief that is being packaged, marketed, and sold. Since there are no inherently secular reasons to believe, why should someone have to buy it?

  115. #116 Baratos
    June 29, 2007

    ATHEISM IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE

    YES IT IS.
    I noticed that your position has already been demolished to my satifaction, so I decided to go with a simpler response.

  116. #117 Inoculated Mind
    June 29, 2007

    Mike says:

    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.

    Justawriter provides 4 examples. No response.
    Ahcuah provides a fifth, and says:

    I also love the way Nisbet is just ignoring the examples.

    Speaking before you think – an example of bad framing, don’t you think? I have not yet watched the presentations on Framing, although I surely want to get some ideas from it and understand it. The anti-atheist aftertaste that one of the articles gave me has delayed me, and I think it is only because of how highly I think of Chris Mooney that I will take the time to learn about it.

    There is no such thing as atheist bashing, when you agree with the atheist-bashers. You know that there are people that deny that racial and sexual discrimination still happen?

    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.

    Damn those uppity atheists! If they’d only shut up and keep their ideas to themselves… Let’s call them “militant” and blame the victims!

    I don’t know what else to say here, because your comments speak for themselves. I hardly needed to satirize them.

  117. #118 craig
    June 29, 2007

    What if you are an atheist who never “arrived at” atheism?
    I realize that some people do have to make a journey to get there, but they’re just arriving back at where they started.

    All babies are born atheists. I “arrived at” my atheism the same way I arrived at not having syphilis. The same way I arrived at not being a block of cheddar cheese.

    I never contracted syphilis, and I never caught religion. I remember being 4 years old and being told about Jesus Christ for the first time, and wondering why some “old people” still believed in fairy tales. I was not raised with any instruction about religion, for or against. I just learned through my own observation early on that some people inexplicably believed in crazy things, just as I realized that some people couldn’t read as well as I could.

    It’s a little annoying to see some assert that a person is somehow unreasonable in being an atheist without having closely examined religions. Not so. When a large idea is clearly silly and illogical, you don’t need to study all of the details to see that.

    If I start telling you that I am last living member of a thousand-year dynasty of shape-shifting cat-people, you don’t need to study my genealogy to know that I’m a nutcase.

  118. #119 Melinda Barton
    June 29, 2007

    Mag, I converted to Judaism in the Deep South. I know from personal experience that what you’re talking about is done to many religious minorities not just atheists. I’ll refrain from citing all of the crap I’ve taken for my decision from family members, co-workers, perfect strangers, etc. Therefore, I don’t consider it a specifically atheist issue.

    Encolpius and Craig,

    I think what Nisbet and I are both getting at is that (while some people may be raised as atheists or simply never acquire religious beliefs) many people do in fact “become” atheists for a lot of reasons (not in the cognitive sense, Encolpius), not all of them rational. Not every person who converts from theism to atheism is someone who made a rational assessment of the evidence or lack thereof for G-d or the value of theistic belief systems. Some made the change based on personal, emotional, and psychological motivations either entirely or in part. This has no bearing on the merit of atheism as a philosophical position, it is simply a statement of fact. The jump from “Atheism is a rational position.” to “Atheists are rational.” or “Atheists are more rational than theists.” is thus highly questionable.

  119. #120 Trinifar
    June 29, 2007

    LCR,

    Through [the teacher's] relative inaction, he was tolerating religious discrimination in the form of bullying behavior on the part of the boys. That is the real problem here and where it steps over the line from being an issue of “civility”, as you so benignly put it, to an issue of civil rights.

    Bullying behavior is often dismissed as inconsequential, something kids just need to learn to handle, even by some parents whose kids are being bullied. And I agree with you 100% that this state of affairs doesn’t speak well of us as a society since bullying is just another word for domination and victimizing. Schools especially should not tolerate it. I’ve read there is some effort in the UK in this regard.

    So, is the problem that your son is being bullied or that he’s being bullied for not being religious? I think it is the former. If a kid is fat and being bullied for being fat, that’s no more or less of a problem than your son’s. Yet no one is going to bat for civil rights being extended to fat people.

    I think the same reasoning applies to civil rights generally. Some groups have been so bullied (blacks, gays, women, etc.) that they’ve been able to get the force of law on their side to some extent. Others who have less power or visibility are still seeking some form of redress. Being bullied/dominated/victimized is always wrong but who is standing up for the stupid, the fat, the ugly, the short (aside from Randy Newman), etc.? When they have civil rights protection under the law I think we can make a case for atheists getting it too. I’m just tired of doing this one group at a time. And I suspect atheists in general are better educated, wealthier, and more powerful than most groups in American society — which is why Nisbet is quite right when he says they (we) have an image problem. It’s hard to get worked up over atheism discrimination when so many other more pressing issues compete for attention.

  120. #121 J. J. Ramsey
    June 29, 2007

    “First, Dawkins has not presented atheism as a civil rights issue.”

    PZ Myers and Larry Moran both did, however, liken atheism to the suffrage movement and used that as an excuse for a “mean” approach that confuses railing against “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faints at the sight of monkeys” for candid criticism of religion.

  121. #122 Rieux
    June 30, 2007

    Ramsey:

    PZ Myers and Larry Moran both did, however, liken atheism to the suffrage movement and used that as an excuse for a “mean” approach that confuses railing against “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faints at the sight of monkeys” for candid criticism of religion.

    Aww, J.J., you’re just bitter at how thoroughly PZ and Larry handed you your ass in that discussion. ‘The suffragettes weren’t so rude…‘, etc. Heh!

    Quoth the Morris prof:

    Every social movement — and I’d add the labor movement and the struggle for civil rights as equally strong examples — that tries to break the bonds of mindless convention and tradition and that defies established privilege gets accused of being rude and worse, much worse, and there are always weak apologists for the status quo who use that pathetic etiquette excuse to try and silence the revolutionaries. Successful revolutionaries ignore the admonitions about which fork to use for their salad because they care only to grab the steak knife as they launch themselves over the table.

    Atheists are calm and mild-mannered, even leaders of the New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett — no doubt because our oppression is minor compared to that of women, racial minorities, and labor — but we’re still getting these ridiculous claims that we’re too “rude”. They won’t stop until we’re completely silent, and there’s no point in compromise, so these faint-hearted enablers of superstition are going to have to excuse us if we ever so politely request that they go fuck themselves, beg pardon, and please, use a rolled-up copy of the Republican party platform to do it, if you don’t mind, thank you in advance.

  122. #123 LCR
    June 30, 2007

    Trinifar asks:

    “So, is the problem that your son is being bullied or that he’s being bullied for not being religious? I think it is the former.”

    Then you are not only wrong, you are once again missing the point. Yes my child was being bullied. No argument there. I am asking whether or not the response from the teacher would have been different if the bullying had been against a child BECAUSE OF HIS RELIGION. If a Jewish child were bullied because of his faith at the hands of some Muslim children, would the teacher have given his “fairness” talk… or would he have been more pro-active in his response. If his actions would have been different from his response to my son’s difficulties, then we have a problem here, COMPLETELY unrelated to your average bullying.

    By equating atheism (a choice) with physical characteristics (short, fat, etc.) which are for the most part not a choice, you are suggesting that that this form of bullying doesn’t carry the same seriousness as does bullying against a “real” religion. I am suggesting that this mindset is a problem in and of itself.

    All forms of worship are a choice, including the choice not to worship. They should all receive equal standing in the eyes of the law when it comes to protection of individual rights. I do not doubt that my child was bullied. I do question whether or not the response from his teacher offered him protection of his religious freedoms EQUAL to that which his religious friends would have received under parallel circumstances.

  123. #124 idahogie
    June 30, 2007

    atheists need to focus on offering a positive vision of what it means to live life without religion

    Really? What have atheists been doing up until now? Eating babies and disrupting social events?

    Atheists have always offered a positive vision. We quietly lived our lives morally and sanely. We offered fact-based and rational arguments for public policies. We tolerated religious beliefs and outward religious expression in others. What else would you have us do? Form a network of UU-like institutions that meet on Sundays and do good works (only without the spirituality)?

    Honestly, I don’t think that what we have been doing has had very much impact – and it certainly hasn’t mitigated atheism’s ‘bad press’ problem. I think a little offence is exactly what atheism needs. I say, “Go Dawkins, go Hitchens, go Harris, go PZ!”

  124. #125 ben
    June 30, 2007

    Nisbet’s all-caps assertion followed by his steadfast resfual to engage any of the voluminous counterexamples provided is the most pathetic performance I’ve ever seen on scienceblogs.

    I hadn’t noticed Nisbet’s blog until PZ pointed me to this post, and I certainly won’t be back.

  125. #126 J. J. Ramsey
    June 30, 2007

    Rieux: “Aww, J.J., you’re just bitter at how thoroughly PZ and Larry handed you your ass in that discussion. ‘The suffragettes weren’t so rude…’, etc. Heh!”

    Nah. In the actual discussion, I retracted my errors pretty quick and moved on, while Myers kept going on his excluded middle canard where one is either nasty or silent. I noticed that you didn’t link to the actual discussion.

  126. #127 Leni
    June 30, 2007

    Melinda wrote:

    I argue that it is not b/c these civil rights are protected under existing law for atheists, but not for gay people, for instance. You are not fighting for basic legal protections. You already have them. I’m with you on the fight against discrimination, but that is very different from the fight to actual get legal protections and equality before the law. What makes the difference is that when you are discriminated against, you have recourse to the law. When I am discriminated against as a gay person, I do not.

    And when that changes, you probably won’t be hearing any petty arguments from atheists about how gay equality ceased being a civil rights issue because they think Dan Savage is an obnoxious, uppity fag.

  127. #128 Dominion
    June 30, 2007

    -I refer you to Grothe’s column. Care to offer evidence for Your claim?-

    Wow, here is a science blog I won’t be visiting very often. I really have to admire the way Mr. Nisbet has completely ignored the evidance which he demands in his very first reply in this comment thread. Intellectual dishonesty abounds here apparently. Damn shame.

  128. #129 Leni
    June 30, 2007

    Melinda wrote:

    I think you get at the crux of the problem. A minority of atheists, who get lots of public attention, do not make the distinction between ideas of one sort being “superior” (which still doesn’t make all ideas that an atheist has superior) and being superior as a human being.

    snip.

    Can you see why we’d find that offensive?

    I can see why you’d find it offensive, but to be honest, I’ve never actually seen this argument made and I am inclined to think that it exists solely in the minds of theists. After all, I only hear it from them.

    Even if this was an actual argument that someone made, so what? You admit right in the post that it’s a minority, at best (and probably a single individual). So why then forge ahead and construct an argument for why this means atheists have an image problem, despite the fact that you know very well this has nothing to do with atheists in general?

    Why don’t we just call this what it is: stereotyping. Image problem is just another way of saying “I don’t like atheists because I don’t like Dawkins.”

    The only thing that bothers me is that Nesbit here seems to think that this justifies discrimmination. Can you imagine someone making this argument:

    Racial equality is not a civil rights issue, and there is no such thing as race-bashing. Besides, when it does happen (even though I just said it doesn’t), it’s because Malcolm X is a big old meanie and white people don’t like him.

    Can you see why that might be offensive to some people?

    I do not for the life of me know why you are trying to dignify this stinking pile of dung of an argument. If I were you, I’d back off and just let it lie. Let Nesbit clean up his own mess.

    One last thing: Gay people do not have in image problem because of a few cruisers. Gay people have an “image problem” because we live in a culture where the mistreatment of them is the norm. Arrests of gays and lesbians were a symptom of the “image problem”, not a cause of it.

  129. #130 Robin Edgar
    June 30, 2007

    I think that in certain cases where discrimination against atheists occurs that atheism can indeed be a civil rights issue. The flip side of that coin however is that it is equally a civil rights issue when intolerant and abusive atheists discriminate against and/or harass religious people. . . Richard Dawkins and his ilk are walking a rather thin line in that regard AFAIAC. I thank God that Richard Dawkins does not have the political power and influence of a commissar in the Stalinist U.S.S.R. or Mao’s China for instance. . .

    There is no question that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other fundamentalist atheist are promoting an ever more militant “us versus them” rhetoric (as you put it) and are engaging in sophomoric and polarizing attacks on religious people of all nations, not just Americans by any means. It should be obvious to atheists that their image problem is only made worse by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign. Just as moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus etc. have a responsibility to reel in their own militant fundamentalists who promote intolerance and bigotry so do moderate atheists. I am glad to see that there are some moderate atheists who are seeing the light and beginning to speak out against the obvious intolerance of dogmatic fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens et al.

  130. #131 Melinda Barton
    June 30, 2007

    Leni,

    I’ve seen that argument made both implicitly and explicitly in a lot of atheist blogs/publications.

    From the Agitated Atheist (theagitatedatheist.blogspot.com): And we are usually smarter and morally superior than you religious kooks. That’s right – look it up in your Bibles if you can read.

    From “Church of Reality” (www.churchofreality.org): One of the reasons we Realists don’t believe in God is that we seem to have a superior sense of morality than Theists do. This is an example of our superior discernment. Why do Atheists get it on the Torture issue and Theists don’t? Perhaps it’s because your deity is fiction. However, we want to give you all the chance to prove us wrong. So why don’t you all pray about this and let us know what you come up with.

    From Paul Kurtz in Free Inquiry, Vol 19, Summer 1999: Curiously, only 6% to 8% of the American population may be classified as unbelievers.(10) Can we give an account of why this is so and why American society seems to be anomalous, at least in comparison with Western Europe? Interestingly, some 60% of American scientists, and 93% of so-called elite scientists according to a recent poll, are classified as unbelievers. Why does this happen? Are there cognitive factors primarily at work? Or are disbelievers anomalous – lacking the genetic disposition? Or, on the contrary, do they represent an advanced form of the evolution of the species?

    “The world holds two classes of men: intelligent men without religion, and religious men without intelligence.”
    ……….Abu’l-Ala-Al-Ma’arri

    “A believer is not a thinker and a thinker is not a believer.”
    ……….Marian Noel Sherman, M.D. Interview, Daily Colonist, c. 1969

    “What I don’t like about bible thumpers, or any cult for that matter, is the arrogance exhibited with impunity by them as they perform their socially accepted public displays of schizophrenic indulgence with the goal of influencing weak-minded individuals, mostly young impressionable children, to join in activities that brainwash them into thinking a certain way so as to restrict their ability to freely reason, to police their own thoughts and become willing slaves, to not take responsibility for their own actions, and to be unquestioningly subservient to the will of a silent invisible entity whose thoughts and wishes are supposedly passed down through the overly exaggerated, un-provable, inconsistent, babblings of an old book that can only be deciphered correctly by someone who claims to be in direct contact with this entity, and who is undoubtedly either the most schizophrenic, or the most deviant member of the group. I see religion, all religion, as evil, and its minions as zombies.”
    ………. Steve Pinkston

  131. #132 DavidSewell
    June 30, 2007

    Ahcuah above writes, If you are a theist, you get a right of conscience that requires a compelling government interest to be infringed. If you are a non-theist, tough luck. How can that not be a civil rights issue?

    This was in reference to a court case that found against a non-theist who claimed a spiritual justification for refusing to cut his hair, despite his employer’s dress code. Ahcuah is disturbed because the non-theist is not provided the same right of conscience as the theist in this case.

    Frankly, I’d turn that around and argue that the common-sense reading is that a non-theist doesn’t have the same right as a theist to argue for an exemption from this kind of rule of behavior. I’d say that in this case we accord the religious believer something of the exceptional rights we accord the disabled. Or to put it more plainly: consider religious belief as a form of disability, and the preferential treatment makes sense.

    We don’t say to a quadriplegic “find some way to get up the stairs to your job”; instead in the US, the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that employers accomodate the special needs of the employee who *can’t* get up the stairs. Likewise, an employer is expected to honor an Orthodox Jew’s need to refrain from work on the Sabbath because he *can’t* work on the Sabbath owing to a belief system that is quite arguably analogous to a psychic disability.

    I realize the analogy isn’t perfect, and there’s a real problem distinguishing between a genuine deep-seated position of conscience on the part of a non-theist (such as pacifism) and a symbolic gesture such as hair length. But I do think it’s a useful perspective to see allowances for religious belief and accommodation to needs of the disabled as similar phenomena in a democratic civil society.

  132. #133 Melinda Barton
    June 30, 2007

    Furthermore, you insist on try to fit my arguments into a “blame the victim” mold no matter how much you have to twist them for them to fit.

    I’m not saying that gay people having sex in public CAUSED homophobia. What I’m saying is this: In the absence of positive images of gay people and the absence of people being willing to be openly gay, these images bolstered homophobia by reinforcing stereotypes (not creating them). This is the whole purpose for the decision to have “coming out” play a vital role in the gay rights movement. Positive/neutral images of gay people and the presence of openly gay people have countered the stereotypes, robbing them of their power to sway most people. Some people still hold to them, but we’ve been able to dramatically alter public perceptions of gay people.

    As far as Dan Savage and that petty nonsense: When we are fully equal before the law and there aren’t thousands of rights denied us based on our sexual orientation or dozens of state and federal laws that exclude us from equal citizenship, we won’t need a gay rights movement any longer, only a commitment on the part of post-movement gay people to preserve what the movement achieved and to apply our legally acknowledged civil rights whenever/wherever necessary.

  133. #134 Leni
    June 30, 2007

    Funny. I’ve never actually heard of any of these people or blogs. I suppose these are the atheists who get all the publicity that you referred to earlier?

    Listen, I am not going to say that atheists never say stupid or rude things. Of course they do, but these aren’t arguments for atheism, they are insults and one very harsh and not totally inaccurate criticism of religion. If you are going to argue that atheists have a bad rap because some atheists sometimes insult people, then you need to explain why this is not true for other groups. Like Christians, for example. (It’s funny how the only people who have these image problems are also minorities, don’t you think?)

    Every group has members who insult others. Should we start posting examples of black people saying unkind about white people so we can justify claiming they are to blame for their “image problem”?

    Way to go ignoring the actual substance of my post, though.

    Maybe you can come back with a rousing tale about how the flamboyant, noticeable, unsavory gay people were to blame for the laws in Leviticus.

  134. #135 Melinda Barton
    June 30, 2007

    Leni,

    All I can say is, go back to school and gain some reading comprehension. You continue to assert that I’ve argued something that I haven’t despite the fact that you have it in black and white.

    Secondly, if you actually had any substance, I’d address it. Since you don’t, I’ll go find someone who does.

  135. #136 Leni
    June 30, 2007

    Melinda wrote:

    I’m not saying that gay people having sex in public CAUSED homophobia.What I’m saying is this: In the absence of positive images of gay people and the absence of people being willing to be openly gay, these images bolstered homophobia by reinforcing stereotypes (not creating them).

    And I’m saying your argument is akin to saying that a glass of water poured in the ocean bolstered a nearby tidal wave. The fact that some gays “bolster” the stereotypes is so trivial that I do not understand why you would even bring it up, except to bolster Nesbit’s ill-conceived claim that discrimmination against atheists results from “image problems”, which does in fact blame the victim.

    Further, in the presense of positive images, many gay people (and atheists for that matter) still fit the stereotypes. So what? Coming out or admitting who you are is an act of personal conscious and liberty that should not, in my mind, be contingent in any way to what the oppressing majority approves of. It’s fine if it does, but I don’t see any reason why it should necessarily be.

    As far as Dan Savage and that petty nonsense:
    When we are fully equal before the law and there aren’t thousands of rights denied us based on our sexual orientation or dozens of state and federal laws that exclude us from equal citizenship, we won’t need a gay rights movement any longer, only a commitment on the part of post-movement gay people to preserve what the movement achieved and to apply our legally acknowledged civil rights whenever/wherever necessary.

    Well at least your consistant.

    I simply disagree. The only thing that will change about the movement is that one of their goals will have been met. Civil liberties are one goal, equality in our day to day lives is another. The gay rights movement will not suddenly become the “commitment to preserving past achievements for gays” movement on the magic day that the laws change. The activists will not pack their bags and leave, to be replaced by other activists with different goals.

    More damning yet is the fact that the movement is global. I have civil liberties, yes, but atheists in other places might not. I expect and want atheist movement leaders to acknowledge that, especially since we have equal rights here. I expect them to acknowledge, speak out against, and when possible work toward remedying the mistreatment of atheists and other religious minorities everywhere, and for the most part they do.

    And I would hope that the American LBGT rights movement will not stop civil rights advocacy abroad when the laws denying their civil liberties are overturned here.

    Last, I’m going to quote Jason Rosenhouse, because he makes a really good point:

    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.

  136. #137 Trinifar
    June 30, 2007

    LCR,

    I am asking whether or not the response from the teacher would have been different if the bullying had been against a child BECAUSE OF HIS RELIGION. …If his actions would have been different from his response to my son’s difficulties, then we have a problem here, COMPLETELY unrelated to your average bullying.

    I hear you. I just think the teacher is wrong not to counter all bullying no matter what its motivation and don’t think any notion of “average bullying” is useful.

    By equating atheism (a choice) with physical characteristics (short, fat, etc.) which are for the most part not a choice, you are suggesting that that this form of bullying doesn’t carry the same seriousness as does bullying against a “real” religion. I am suggesting that this mindset is a problem in and of itself.

    I’m merely suggesting all bullying has equal seriousness. Is it worse to bully someone over religion/lack-of-religion or because of some physical characteristic? I think your position with respect to your son’s teacher and the local eductional system is much stronger if you focus on the bullying and their failure to address it rather than what is motivating the bullying. Otherwise you put yourself in a position of saying some bullying is okay.

    It may be useful to ask if they are looking the other way in your son’s case because of his non-religious beliefs. If they are, you have an additional complaint, but the primary problem is the bullying. It’s like a lynching. The primary problem is the murder, but murder is something everyone today agrees is always wrong. That’s not the case with bullying; some people think it’s to some extent okay.

    However, if it helps to play the civil rights card to get the system to support common decent behavior among its students, go for it.

  137. #138 Leni
    June 30, 2007

    Melinda wrote:

    You continue to assert that I’ve argued something that I haven’t despite the fact that you have it in black and white.

    If you don’t want to be called out for supporting Nesbit’s lame remarks then maybe you should take your own advice and come out loud against them instead of contributing to the problem.

  138. #139 Melinda Barton
    June 30, 2007

    Leni,

    One last time just for S&G. Sterotypes perpetuate the idea that ALL people in X group are a certain way. If the only people in X group that are visible fit the stereotype, the stereotype is reinforced. If, on the other hand, members of X group “come out” and demonstrate visibly the diversity of their community, they counter the stereotype. A person outside of X group now knows that they know members of X group personally and that they are perhaps different in some ways but alike in all the ones that count. Yes some members of X group will still fit the sterotype, but it will be obvious that it is a stereotype and not an accurate reflection of all members of X group. The stereotypes start to lose their power. As discrimination is often justified based on stereotypes, support for discrimination diminishes.

    Early gay rights leaders knew this, that’s why they chose “coming out” as a centerpiece for radical gay activism. Civil rights leaders knew this, that’s part of why they chose to counteract stereotypes of African-Americans as violent with a pacifist movement.

    Martin Luther King refused to march with any group that destroyed property or acted violently, because he knew that such acts would be counterproductive. They would reinforce rather than challenge the stereotype.

    The images of lunch counter sit ins would not have been nearly as powerful as symbols of the civil rights struggle if those young men and women had fought back physically or started screaming and yelling. Their power to move and to bolster support for civil rights came from the conscious dignity with which these young men and women comported themselves.

    There used to be a saying in the closeted, underground gay movement: If we all turned purple, it would change everything. If gay people turned purple, people would see that gay people were doctors, lawyers, nurses, actors, police officers, teachers, students, etc. Just average people going about their lives.

    We couldn’t turn purple so we came out. The destruction of gay sterotypes and the fight to improve the images of gay people made for public consumption has been a huge part of gaining support for gay rights.

    None of this makes stereotypes anything but what they are, stupid. It doesn’t make us responsible for our own victimization. It doesn’t negate the seriousness of discrimination or oppression. It is a realistic assessment of how the world works and helps us determine what tactics will be productive in any struggle for freedom and equality.

    We may disagree on whether American atheists need a full-scale civil rights movement, but either way, these tactics work either for eliminating a “public image” problem or as a vital part of a civil rights movement.

    Finally, the end of the “movement” I predicted was for American gay people, it had nothing to do with our obligations as human beings (gay, straight or bi) to fight for the rights of those in other countries. An American civil rights movement is specifically targeted at gaining rights for people in America based on American law and ideals. What we do for people in other countries will not be part of our civil rights movement, but instead would be supporting their civil rights movement.

  139. #140 Skeptical
    June 30, 2007

    (To Grothe’s argument, I would add that this image problem is only made worse by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign.)

    This is a scienceblog. Please provide evidence to this claim.

  140. #141 Anonymous
    July 1, 2007

    Unforttunately you make some very unwarranted and totally inaccurate assumptions about atheists. As the majority of atheists I know were at one time believers in one of the major religions. They, like me, either became atheists on actually examining their religion closely, which often also led them to examine the others, or became one as the result of comparative religion studies. Which, better than anything, displays the myriad contradictions in all of them. Those that weren’t originally believers and might ostensibly be thought atheist from the get go, generally had agnostic or atheist parents. Most of these have studied the various major religions to some degree, usually at the behest of parents wanting their children to have a rounded education, only to conclude that they had been right in their non belief all along.

    Conversely, my experience of discusing religion with believers, both in society in general and while working in a voluntary capacity for decades with various xtian organisations, is that I usually had a much greater understanding of their xtianity, including their bible, than the majority of the believers did.

    Thus it is the believer as a rule, who is cognitively lazy and not the atheist, who with few exceptions have usually come to their atheism through a great deal of congitive effort. But hey, you have been wrong about almost everything else in this post so why should I be surprised that you are wrong on this also.

  141. #142 Leni
    July 2, 2007

    Martin Luther King refused to march with any group that destroyed property or acted violently, because he knew that such acts would be counterproductive. They would reinforce rather than challenge the stereotype.

    Good for him. Why is this relevant to current atheist movements (the ones that get all the press, remember?), which are neither violent nor destructive of property?

    They say things theists don’t like, they don’t threaten to harm people or destroy property. Overblown much?

    But it’s interesting… do you think MLKJR also refused to align himself with fellow activists because they said things white racists didn’t like?

    We may disagree on whether American atheists need a full-scale civil rights movement…

    We might, but since I never actually argued that American atheists need a full scale civil rights movement you wouldn’t know either way, would you?

    And way to go with the straw man. Jesus. I actually said the exact opposite of that. (Ok well Jason Rosenhouse did, but it’s still there in my post in quotes with a link and pretty freaking hard to miss.)

    In any case, this bull about a bad images is about as ripe as it gets coming from someone fanning the fumes of Nesbit’s turd pile of an argument.

  142. #143 Melinda Barton
    July 2, 2007

    Leni,

    Once again, the point actually sails right over your head. What grade did you finish? I suggest you take a course in sociology or communications theory or political science. Or maybe just finish high school? Perhaps then you can carry on a decent debate without reverting to sophomoric scatalogical descriptions like “fanning the fumes of Nesbit’s turd pile of an argument.”

    It’s strange that I’m “supposed” to take atheists seriously as intellectuals, but I must be honest, you (although not you alone) are absolutely proof positive of the inaccuracy of the stereotype that atheists are highly intelligent.

  143. #144 David Koepsell
    July 2, 2007

    Sorry, Matt, I like you but you’re just wrong. The history of the U.S. is replete with denials of atheists’ rights to vote, to provide testimony in court, to hold public office, and other basic civil rights violations directly akin to those suffered by other minorities. Such denials were systematic and legally sanctioned even well into the 20th century. Grothe and Dacey didn’t look at the evidence, and didn’t do their research. I have, and other scholars have. I sent you a copy of my article on this. I hope you read it and see how you erred. Anyone who wants a detailed history of civil rights issues and legal cases relating to atheism can email me at dkoepsell@centerforinquiry.net

  144. #146 RationalDeist
    July 2, 2007

    David Koepsell: As I said elsewhere when you said the same thing as above:

    Of course it was legally allowable to violate the civil rights against atheists until way back in 1961, and that was obviously wrong (thank God it was legally corrected) but the point I get from at least what Grothe/Dacey are saying is that atheists were not in a wholesale way denied their basic civil rights like blacks, women or gays have been. Who in the world can disagree with this? Grothe/Dacey propose different ways of advancing the atheist position in society than by waging an all-out civil rights struggle. This feeding-frenzy at SciBlogs is about things the writers never actually said. Has anyone read their original articles in Free Inquirer? It appears not.

    Some of you actually seem to believe that atheists need Marches on Washington, and a massive civil rights movement all their own. But atheists do not suffer massive poverty and lack of opportunity because of violations to their civil rights, like it could be said blacks do. Atheists are not routinely bashed, like gays are, nor are they kept from family visitations at end of life scenarios. Atheists do not make a fraction of what believers make in the workforce, like women do compared to men.

    Atheists do not face laws that focus on their discrimination on par with blacks, women or gays and they are actually protected by the exact laws that make discrimination based on religion belief illegal. This is not to say their rights dont need defending, especially with the current makeup of the Court. It is only to say that they dont need a movement focused on securing their civil rights (which is what people like Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, says they need. See the comments over at Pharyngula.) Again, it appears no one has even read the original Grothe/Dacey essays.

  145. #147 David Koepsell
    July 2, 2007

    Trinifar,

    But you make the same mistake Nisbet/Grothe/Dacey make, the evidence is that atheists WERE wholesale denied those same civil rights. The laws of dozens of states, (until 1961) denied the franchise explicitly to those who denied the existence of god, or didn’t believe in a divine system of rewwards or punishments. Moreover, the same class of people could not testify in court, and could not hold public office. This was in the constitutions of those states, and in laws as well. Moreover, in courts around this country, even now, a person’s lack of belief can be used to deny them custody, and this hasn’t been overturned as unconstitutional. I have no faith that this SCOTUS would. So, on the EVIDENCE, the argument fails. I have read those essays, and they failed to convince because they ignored the evidence. As for the point that we have a public image issue, this is true, and stands despite the error of the outrageous title. Now, let’s confront both issues honestly. I think that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris have done much for free-thinkers by allowing hundreds of thousands to feel empowered and less alone…. many of them write to me saying that they subscribe to our magazine, Free Inquiry, because of those books. These folks delivered excellent, cogent, reasoned arguments in their books, and I think have enabled us to get some much needed attention, and thereby improve our public image. Suddenly, people are seeing that their atheist neighbors have been there all along, and have been pretty decent people even though they were once “in the closet” and now they are able to be “out.”

    Let’s not be Manichean here. Nisbet/Grothe/Dacey are wrong, on the weight of the legal and historical evidence, when they say that atheism is not a civil rights issue, but their main point should not be lost. We now have a great opportunity, thanks to Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris to improve our public image, but let’s get clear on our history and the real dangers that lurk in this new Supreme Court, lest we get blindsided.

  146. #148 RationalDeist
    July 2, 2007

    Rosenhouse said:

    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.

    Of course, atheists have lots to learn from the struggles for acceptance of the other groups, and this is exactly what Dacey and Grothe have said many times, except to also point out that many atheist leaders have in fact argued that the level of oppression and discrimination faced by racial and sexual minorities is just what atheists face today, which the authors argue is not only false, but a counter-productive strategy.

    Yet again it appears like no one actually read their original articles before opining angrily. When/if you do, you will all agree with them like I do. (Even PZ finally said he agreed with them in a comment). Stop misrepresenting their position just so you can be angry atheists.

  147. #149 Pete
    July 3, 2007

    In one of the earliest comments to this post, Matthew said:

    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.

    I know I’m going back a long way here Matthew, but what about the campaign to prevent Bertrand Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York in the early 1940′s?

  148. #151 PZ Myers
    July 3, 2007

    Yet again it appears like no one actually read their original articles before opining angrily. When/if you do, you will all agree with them like I do. (Even PZ finally said he agreed with them in a comment).

    What? No. Isaid from the very beginning that our first priority is the public image of atheists, and that civil rights was a case-by-case situation — a real problem, but as a whole, not our biggest. I completely disagree with their premise that there is no civil rights problem here.

    If you’re going to whine that other people are not reading the articles, you might do better to avoid making the same mistake yourself.

  149. #152 Leni
    July 3, 2007

    Melinda,

    Your argument didn’t go over my head. It was a long post of pedantic irrelevent crap about being gay that I dismissed because it wasn’t germane to this discussion.

    And now you’ve reverted to accusing me of not going to school? Good job Melinda. Real original. Still feel like arguing that rude atheists hurt the cause, LOL?

    I guess you’ve moved on to a more demonstrative approach.

  150. #153 Leni
    July 3, 2007

    Oh, Melinda and I almost forgot:

    It’s strange that I’m “supposed” to take gay people seriously as intellectuals, but I must be honest, you (although not you alone) are absolutely proof positive of the inaccuracy of the stereotype that gay people are highly intelligent.

    Way to go there with the bigoted insults and bad stereotypes (that don’t exist, by the way). They’re really helping your case.

  151. #154 Melinda Barton
    July 3, 2007

    It wasn’t about “being gay”, it was about the use of strategies that challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them, using the gay and civil rights movements as examples. The “framing” involved in such tactics was very much to the topic of this discussion and this blog.

    As for the insult, I didn’t say all atheists are unintelligent, which would have been bigoted and wholly untrue. I said that you are proof that not ALL atheists are highly intelligent, which is not bigoted as it does not reflect an adverse opinion of all atheists, just one. I may be wrong about your intelligence and your education. If so, I apologize. But if you “frame” yourself with sophomoric insults and scatalogical descriptions, that is how you will be percieved.

    You should familiarize yourself with stereotypes a bit more before you go judging which ones exist and which don’t. This one is quite common. One of the quotes I gave above referred to atheists’ “superior discernment.”

    As for your opinion on my intelligence, I can either accept your opinion or Mensa’s. I pick Mensa.

    Finally, before you go assuming that I’m an anti-atheist bigot, you might actually question how bigoted that assumption is.

    In fact, my favorite aunt was an atheist until her death at the age of 45. We often had fun with the religious fundamentalists who knocked at her door. When she got tired of them, I’d go out quoting scripture about how un-Christian they were being. Then we can add my friend Vanessa in high school, whom I defended when people jumped on her for not standing for the pledge. Then, there are my friends Nicole, Rob, Anna, and Angela (who’s now moved into the agnostic camp). More than one of these people have slept in my home and eaten at my table. Two of them have traveled across the country to do so.

    You might also want to familiarize myself with my work, where I’ve defended atheists from bigotry and condemned anti-atheist discrimination on multiple occasions.

  152. #155 Melinda Barton
    July 3, 2007

    Excuse me, that should read “You might also want to familiarize YOURself…” My self is already familiar with it.

  153. #156 Trinifar
    July 3, 2007

    PZ:

    I said from the very beginning that our first priority is the public image of atheists, and that civil rights was a case-by-case situation — a real problem, but as a whole, not our biggest.

    So how about some bridge-building between you and Nisbet and Grothe or just you and Nisbet if you want to keep it in the ScienceBlogs family? I wonder if it is possible to see free thinkers who come from different points of view find an area of commonality and build something useful on it — even go so far as to co-author a short article. How about a general subject like “Atheism and Community” or “Atheism and the Media” or “Why Atheism Needs a Think Tank” or “Why We Piss Each Other Off”? Anything will do. The point is to do something jointly.

    I’m wondering if the three of you (or four if you count Dacey who has been absent in the blog discussion but co-author of the paper that started it all) are able to show some leadership in order to push our agenda along?

    I volunteer as editor/proofreader/what-ever-gofer-you-need to help make something like this happen.

  154. #157 TTT
    July 5, 2007

    What is Nisbet’s problem? He demanded evidence of atheist-bashing, and upon being given 7 examples he’s silently gone to ground. It’s embarassing to look at. And this from someone who counsels other people on how to behave to improve their public image?

  155. #158 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 5, 2007

    TTT,
    I would say that this has been a healthy debate with lots of anecdotal data to review on how various people define and interpret the specific issue and the New Atheist movement generally. Rest assured, I will have future posts on the topic and lots more to come.

  156. #159 Lisa Smith
    July 6, 2007

    Grothe, wrote his article in 2004 but it wasn’t the only thoughts put forth on the subject in the Free Inquiry. The Grothe Free Inquiry article was followed in a latter issue by two letters. One titled Atheism is Indeed a Civil Rights Issue by Eddie Tabash a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Secular Humanism and the second letter titled Discrimination Against Atheists The Facts by Margret Downey, then founder of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network in 1993 as well as founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and a member of the Thomas Paine Memorial Committee and currently director of the Atheist Alliance.
    I think directing readers to Tabash and Downey’s letters would help broaden this discussion. Downey does a pretty good job with anecdotal evidence that does seem to imply a trend and I believe Tabash does and excellent job explaining how prejudicial treatment occurs in a way that is clearly a civil rights violation

    Lisa

  157. #160 Leni
    July 7, 2007

    Melinda wrote:

    As for your opinion on my intelligence, I can either accept your opinion or Mensa’s. I pick Mensa.

    First of all: Oh. no. Not the dread MENSA member. Ooohh scary. What are you going to do? Wave your card around menacingly?

    Isn’t there a Godwin-like rule about this one? There should be. Pretty much anyone who boasts being a member of MENSA is a card-carrying jackass.

    Second: My remarks about your intelligence? Let’s get something straight here, lady. Those were your words mocking my intelligence. Or rather, those were your words mocking my “education”- which we all know supercedes intelligence. All I did was repeat them back to you.

    I said that you are proof that not ALL atheists are highly intelligent, which is not bigoted as it does not reflect an adverse opinion of all atheists, just one. I may be wrong about your intelligence and your education. If so, I apologize.

    Oh gee. How “big” of you. It only reflects just one adverse opinion.

    So if I say to an Asian “you are much dumber that I expected” that means I really am being nice? Complimenting the Asian people on their delightful ability to be smarter than everyone else?

    You are really on a roll, aren’t you, you bitch.

    Are you going to tell us that all black people are good athletes next?

  158. #161 jason
    July 10, 2007

    Hurry up and comment already Nisbet. You’ve had plenty of time to read the facts, particularly those provided by David Koepsell (you better have read the material he provided you). You are wrong and your position is untenable. Come out, come out, where ever you are…poor, misguided child.

  159. #162 George
    September 16, 2007

    One of the common claims that has been amplified by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that “atheism is a civil rights issue.”

    Where do Dawkins and Hitchens say this? How “common” is this claim?

  160. #163 Jack Walsh
    June 9, 2008

    Sophomoric attacks? Read some of the articles on http://www.daylightatheism.org/. Atheists have well thought out, reasonable arguments, unlike the ‘then where did we come from’ and ‘the universe is too awesome to NOT be created by someone’ arguments that make me vomit.

  161. #164 Islam Concept
    June 12, 2010

    Its a good point.I’ve read the information to which you linked and I agree that these are violations of civil rights

  162. #165 Islam Concept
    June 12, 2010

    Its a good point.I’ve read the information to which you linked and I agree that these are violations of civil rights

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