When Atheists talk, people listen.
Then, they tell them to shut up.
David Phillip Norris of the Twin Cities recently wrote an article for MNPost called With talk of tolerance and equality, one group is still forgotten: atheists. This was written as a reflection on the just finished and rather dramatic fight against an anti same sex marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot in Minnesota. By today’s electoral standards, the amendment was soundly defeated.
So while I’m thrilled that we can start talking about the possibility of voting “yes” instead of “no” for same-sex marriage in Minnesota, I’m still left feeling frustrated. In addition to being gay, I’m also a secular humanist. And an atheist. With candidates and party conventions making declarations about faith and belief in God, the amount of religious language used this year was alarming, but the marriage-amendment conversation was particularly loaded.
I don’t know how effective the faith-symp strategy was during that campaign, but it was a big part of it. The idea, clearly, was to show that in Minnesota, being religious does not mean being anti-gay or anti same sex marriage. This is true. In fact, not long after I moved to Minnesota, a friend of mine got married in a church. She was gay, her newly wedded spouse was gay, the ceremony was carried out in a Lutheran church by a female minister. I remember thinking, “Wow, Minnesota is progressive.”
Apparently, I had attended a completely illegal activity. The marriage was a sham, because gay marriage was not legal. But, the good people of South Minneapolis apparently chose to ignore that. Still, once “married” my friends would still not have had the rights afforded to others who happened to be in opposite sex marriages.
But I digress. Norris makes this point:
I wondered where my voice was in the conversation, where my link was on websites, and why more atheists weren’t speaking up on my behalf. In September, I attended a public forum on the amendment featuring panelists who shared their reasons for opposing it. All but one – August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists — was religious. His arguments against the amendment were so sound and appealing that I was amazed they weren’t being used in MN United’s talking points. But Berkshire was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.
I should point out that Minnesota Atheists is the only non theistic group that has provided a legal brief in a law suit being carried out here regarding same sex marriage. Apparently, as Norrris says, the whole same sex marriage debate is a discussion being had among religious people. Go read his post, it’s very good and important. Here, my intention is not to expand on his arguments, but rather, to use this opportunity to point out a different (but very much related) problem: How do non-Atheists react when an Atheists says something out loud, about Atheism or anything relate to it?
You may recall that last summer, Minnesota Atheists (and American Atheists) teamed up with the local minor league team, the Saint Paul Saints, to sponsor a ball game. The Saints have a lot of sponsored games, and they are mutual fund raising activities. They changed their name to the Mr. Paul Aints for the game, and various other adjustments were made. The Saints, or rather, Aints have a lot of fun with their games, and this game was no exception.
But, after it became known that the Saints/Aints wer teaming up with Atheists, a certain amount of fecal matter hit the air moving device. I heard but did not confirm that there was a move in the home town of the team that was to play the Saints that night to forfeit the game rather than to play in an Atheist sponsored event. A couple of local professional journalists wrote columns that were very intolerant, asking why the heck anyone would want to do something with a bunch of atheists.
To our credit, we who often speak out locally on behalf of Atheism responded cooly and calmly and pointed out to those journalists that they were doing it wrong. One approach I took was to re-write one of the journalists columns replacing mentions of “Atheists” or “Atheism” with “Jews” and “Judaism.” That shift in frame made the column look like something from Germany in the 1930s, sort of. This can be a very effective way to point out the true nature of intolerance.
So, now, let’s do something along those lines with the comments on Norris’s post. I’ve screen captured a few of them for you. Note that I did not black out names because these are all public comments on the above cited post. They are shown in order of appearance. You may need more context than I provide here, and that is why you should click through and read Norris’s original essay.
This first one is a bit grammatically flawed (looks like AutoCorrect has had its way with it) but you can get the point:
Let me rephrase:
I have often found Jews to be as dogmatic as the orthodox religious, perhaps a more palatable view (to me) is better expressed by Lutherans.
Well, to each his or her own when it comes to religion, but the author of this comment is saying that often Atheists are unpalatable, presumably not in a cannibalistic sense, but rather, in regard to the things they say. This implies that it would be better (for him) if Atheists remained silent. This, posted on an essay by an Atheists expressing a sense of not belonging and not being listened to could be translated further as:
I do wish that you had not written this post. Please shut up.
OK, let’s look at the next one:
The commenter starts out by putting words in Norris’s mouth. Norris does not say, or imply, that people of faith are not for human rights. Rather, he clearly documents that many Minnesotans of faith were very active in the pro same sex marriage movement. This first statement is also a bit of a smokescreen because he mentions that “…In fact these values are fundamental to Christianity.” So, now we have a “fact” on the table that Christians are all for human rights and equality. But, the anti same sex marriage bill was introduced by members of a very common sect of Christians and supported by many churches. The smoke is rather thin in this case. In fact, he acknowledges this in his next paragraph, but the chance to school the Atheist on how good people of faith are was not deterred by the fact that they often are not so good and that the situation is more complex.
In the third paragraph, he (as did many of the atheists in the comments) restates the mistaken assumption that Atheists are not organized. We are. But here, we see our organizations, which were mentioned explicitly in the post and illustrated with a photograph of the president of the statewide organization and everything, are being ignored. Or, more precisely, set aside. moved out of the way.
Then we are told that we are annoying. Squeaky wheels. And we are going to do it wrong by being condescending. Go read Norris’s post. It is nothing like condescending. But it was an Athiest talking, and when a Atheist whispers, many theists hear … well, at least a squeaky sound, of not something more harsh.
More precisely, we are being told that until we do it right, we will not be acknowledged.
After all this disrespect, we are told this:
The key is that atheists must respect all people and their beliefs.
And it goes beyond that. After mischaracterizing the Atheist Voice, and not even knowing that there is in fact a statewide group of organized Atheists (and many other groups) even though he was just told this, the commenter tells us he will disregard Atheists until they, Atheists, learn all about him and how he thinks and does things. And he does this in a harsh and insulting way:
…. guess what? I’m not going to give a rip about what an atheist thinks if he or she isn’t willing to even attempt to understand what my values are, where they come from and why I hold them so dear. I’m not looking to proselytize. I’m looking for real relationship with the people I’m devoting months if not years of my free time to work with on a campaign or cause. That’s how effective organizing happens.
So, “effective organizing” means ignoring the perspective and presence of an entire group of potential allies, telling them to shut up when they politely ask questions about their position at the organizing table, and insisting that they jump through hoops that you have designed for them. Huh. Didn’t know that.
The next comment is by the same person responding to an Athiest:
The response is very annoying. First, the Atheist is told he is speaking in the wrong tone. To add to the commenter’s (Greene’s) authority, he explicitly approves of a part of the comment. That was nice of him. But in telling the Atheists to shut up, essentially, and after complaining at length about how Atheists are doing it wrong, he scolds that one should not negatively label people if you want them to like you. In other words, STFU and maybe I won’t dislike you, disregard you, and set you aside. And, again, he verifies that he knows nothing about Atheists in Minnesota, even though he insists that Atheists, to be listened to, must first learn about his beliefs.
And finally, we are reminded that Atheists are not recognized because of their own failure, their own negativity. After a campaign in which theists (some, not all of them, of course) were busy being very negative to a portion of our population, and attempting to extend that negativity into the State’s Constitution:
To many, when an Atheist talks, that is a negative thing. To some, Atheists should only talk when they are not being negative.
The question I have, then, is this: If you throw a person in the mill pond and they sink to the bottom, does that mean that they were not an Atheist?