Perhaps not what you’d think.
This is not about appeasement. It is about not being a racist slob.
Imagine a firing squad run by a relatively benevolent government (that happens to have not yet gotten rid of the death penalty). The squad consist of a dozen soldiers assigned to the duty. While most soldiers accept the assignment to the firing squad out of a sense of duty and a general cultural belief that it is appropriate, it is possible but unusual to object and get out of it. So there is a modicum of personal reflection involved. A soldier asked to join the firing squad considers the moral or ethical framework of the legal system, considers the legitimacy of the state’s claim as the sole purveyor of intentional death, considers the fact that an execution always follows a lengthy process of investigation, deliberation, appeal, and consideration of mitigating factors, and so on. When a given member of the firing squad pulls the trigger to participate in the killing of the condemned, he or she does so with a clear conscience, and a studied indifference to the particular case. In other words, the executioner does not feel differently about killing one condemned vs. another because in all cases the same process has been followed and there is never any moral or ethical ambiguity as to whether or not this should be done. Individuals prone to having such thoughts of ambiguity generally get off the firing squad. The rest, they just pull the trigger as a matter of duty, though certainly recognizing the great weight of the job they have to do.
Or do they?
What if a certain soldier happens to be assigned to take part in the execution of a person who happens to be the person who raped, tortured, and brutally murdered his wife. There are probably HR policy rules in place to avoid such a circumstance, but this is a thought experiment so let’s allow it. In this case, the person might feel something other than professional indifference when he pulls the trigger. He might feel a sense of revenge, or vengeance, or relief, or closure. Or it just might feel really good to put a chunk of lead in the brain of this particular condemned individual.
In a perfectly civilized society, the soldier should not feel this. The soldier should understand that a personal emotional reaction is inappropriate, and that justice is the civil replacement for revenge. But the humans that inhabit my thought experiment are just regular humans. It would be impossible for a normal person in this position to not have a reaction of some kind that is something other than professional indifference in this circumstance.
Now, suppose a more general case of a non-standard personal reaction. Suppose a regular member of this busy firing squad happens to really hate a certain kind of criminal. Now, all the soldiers feel the same indignation about people doing really bad things that everyone else feels, but I’m talking about someone with an obsession. This is a person who, if she did not have a job on the firing squad that allowed her to occasionally participate in the killing of, say, bank robbers who kill people during the course of robberies, or people who kill old people, or any other category of killer, that she would be out there on her own killing such individuals when she found them. But since she gets to do it legally and as part of her line of work, that never happens. She is satisfied that one in six or so of those she shoots in the line of duty happen to be her ideal victim. She is the serial killer’s version of a fox assigned to guard the hen house.
Now, shift the framework for a person’s homicidal desires. Imagine that the soldier on the firing squad simply despises a certain kind of person. Protestants. Blonds. Africans. Jews. People with freckles. There is an ethic/racial/physical category of person that our focal soldier hates, irrationally, and in private life would not give the time of day to, may harass on occasion, and if the person is a pathologically bad person, kill now and then. Recreationally, as opposed to professionally.
Obviously, I’ve tried to describe a spectrum of non-indifferent responses to killing in a legal and condoned, even necessary setting. Across this spectrum, the shooter has something else going on … the killing is valid, legal, and when he pulls the trigger there is nothing that separates what he is doing from what anyone else on the firing squad is doing. What he is doing is normal, even respected (somebody’s go to do it). But, the individual under consideration has something else going on. Consciously, or perhaps not entirely consciously.
A person could be a serial killer and not even know it. A person could develop a distaste for a certain kind of person, let it become quite pathological, psychopathic in fact, and since the desire is satisfied at work under legitimate circumstances, never actually become the kind of private serial killer he or she might otherwise become. One could even imagine that a person who would have never developed a taste for killing, or a specific dislike for a certain category of person, or a combined distaste and thus killing of a certain category, develops such a taste because of his or her job on the firing squad.
(There is actually a movie that seems to explore this effect, which I remember mainly because the main character manages to survive by using flintknapping skills learned during his special forces training, and thus is able to make a weapon out of some chunks of glass or rock he finds while hiding in the forest. In that case, a person is trained to kill killers and, in Bourne Identity fashion, shifts to killing deer hunters in the Northwest Woods of the U.S. But I digress.)
Now, imagine a hypothetical blog that is very popular among atheists. Let’s call it Blastula, because it is run by a developmental biologist at a small university campus in, say, Lake Wikiwookie Wisconsin. The conversations that make up the threads on Blastula are often about atheism, and tend to be down on religion. Over time, Blastual actually becomes one of the all too rare places on the internet where atheists can feel comfortable being atheists, criticizing religion and religiosity, and promoting ways of thinking that are explicit non-religious.
Now, if you asked Professor SP Simpson, the professor who runs Blastula, what he thought about killing religious people because of their religion, he’d tell you to buzz off. He does not condone violence of any kind. “Live and let live. Even though they are obviously wrong,” is the kind of thing he might say. He, and as far as one can tell by reading the blog, his commenters condemn violence generally and have very negative things to say about genocide, holocaust, that sort of thing.
Nonetheless, the commenters on this hypothetical blog are in some ways like the members of the firing squad. They are busily blasting the religious, creationist, holier than thou, annoying trolls who show up on Blastula, or other blogs, or who run absurd web sites, and so on. They are uniform and consistent in their disdain for religion. They dislike Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, all of it, equally and see no need for any of it. It is the desire of the Blastulistas to see religion … all religion … just dry up and blow away.
One of the things we learn as progressive liberal rational people is that there are certain language constructs that have specific meaning or side effects that some people feel should be avoided. We may argue over whether the term “shrew” or “hysterical” is sexist, or if calling Barack Obama “articulate” is racist, but we have a sense of the fact that certain language constructs just may be better avoided lest they offend.
Even the hard nosed Blastulistas recognize this and many of them even recognize this in relation to religion. Seriously offensive terms like “kyke” or “raghead” are not used on Blastula, or if they are, the users are corrected or admonished, and if they persist, they are thrown off the site.
My question for you is this, dear reader: Is it possible for a certain kind of reaction to religion to be inappropriate but to blend into the background of a Blastula-like context, like the hidden intentions and thoughts of a serial killer on a firing squad, perhaps to become visible when the conversation shifts to a different context? Again, like the serial killer taking his work home with him.
All religions are suspect, most of the rhetoric that comes from religious sources is bullshit. We all know this. But are there cases where people of a given religion/ethic group, like Muslims or Jews, are denigrated in a way that amounts to inappropriate prejudiced action or verbiage, where atheists should actually stand with them rather than against them? Is the ultimate atheist activism … anti religious activism … a genocide of all members of some religion? No, of course not. But are there shades of prejudice that are inappropriate that reside hidden in the atheist rhetoric that only appear when that rhetoric is taken out of context but not adjusted for that new context?
I expect an atheist activist to question all of the rhetoric that comes from religious sources. But when the information is about violence done to members of a particular religious group, that questioning starts to look a lot like anti-Xism. If the group is a Jewish support organization cataloging anti-Jewish activities, the automatic questioning of the validity of what the group says may very well be antisemitism. Jews are widely attacked and denigrated as a culture. Organizations have sprung up in defense of Jews who are attacked, and many of these organizations have established reasonable reputations and provide a valuable service to mitigate the effects of prejudice. An antisemite would try to discredit such an organization. An atheist activist would question any religious source of information.
And there is an area of overlap between the two that is a little uncomfortable. Isn’t there?