Mike the Mad Biologist

It’s Not Like the Suffragists At All

Yesterday, PZ and Amanda both argued that a model for the acceptance of atheists should be the suffragist movement. I think that’s the wrong model: the appropriate model is the mainstreaming of Jews into American society.

Overall, despite an incident in Delaware, Jews have entered mainstream society quite well: if polls are to be believed, we are less likely to be discriminated against electorally than evangelicals (although maybe that’s just a respect for our innate business acumen). But around sixty to seventy years ago, that wasn’t the case. Jews were routinely discriminated against, and it was legal. Anti-Semitic housing covenants were routine, as well as redlining. There were quotas at most universities that allowed only a certain percentage (usually, quite small) of Jews to be admitted. And there was plenty of informal discrimination to boot. So, from a historical perspective, atheists are farther along the curve (this is a good thing–I don’t believe in discrimination).

But here’s some advice about what worked for us Jews; I offer this as someone who really does want atheists to be accepted in U.S. society:

1) Form political organizations to defend atheists. Maybe the Atheist Defense League… nope, that acronym is taken. How about the Atheist Civil Liberties Union….erm. Joking aside, form the organizations, fund them, and when necessary, seek legal redress.

2) Economic integration. Since atheists are disproportionately college-educated, that one is taken care off.

3)Find geographic regions where you will be openly accepted. Once there are regions where being an atheist is accepted (e.g., doesn’t affect your ability to run for office), acceptance will spread.

4) Demand equality, but do so politely. Yes, the Mad Biologist is saying that. And it does contradict what PZ and Amanda are saying. If one demands equality, people will like that. If one tells people how stupid their religious beliefs are, one is feeding into existing prejudices. Does anyone think that Jews weren’t furious when they were told they couldn’t buy a house in a certain neighborhood? Or crudely slandered? Of course we were. Don’t get angry, just sue and work the political system.

For the last thirty years or so, fundamentalists have been telling other people how non-fundamentalists are not good people, and now they are less popular than Jews, and deservedly so, because when you tell people they’re immoral and foolish based on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), they tend not to like you. Also, keep in mind that the theopolitical conservatives will always oppose you because they hate everybody. Don’t use them as a guidepost of acceptance; you’ll never win them over (their issues have as much to do with authoritarianism as dogma).

Anyway, I offer this with sincerity: my freedom is threatened when atheists are discriminated against and not fully accepted into society.

Comments

  1. #1 Science Avenger
    April 22, 2007

    The problem that has always plagued atheists in pursing the kinds of reasonable recommendations you make is the lack of lifestyle unification issues other groups have. Jews for example have numerous bonding points: ceremonies to attend/perform, food to eat or not eat, hats to wear, and a detailed philosophy to discuss. All atheists have is “don’t believe in gods”, and that’s not much to rally around. It is also the most direct refutation to the clam that atheism is a religion. It doesn’t walk like that duck.

    If one tells people how stupid their religious beliefs are, one is feeding into existing prejudices.

    I agree with regard to broad brushing all religious beliefs that way. However, there is nothing prejudicial about calling “stupid”, or “ignorant” if you prefer, beliefs that fly in the face of hard evidence, such as the 6,000 year old earth, or even a flat one. A suggestion that atheists should keep their opinions of these issues to themselves, even when strongly backed by the facts, would itself be prejudicial against atheists.

  2. #2 writerdd
    April 22, 2007

    I don’t think I quite agree with you on all points here, but that will require more thought. But thank you for posting a thoughtful message with positive and constructive suggestions of what to do, rather than just griping and whining about something you disagree with, as many other bloggers seem to love to do.

  3. #3 ERV
    April 22, 2007

    3)Find geographic regions where you will be openly accepted. Once there are regions where being an atheist is accepted (e.g., doesn’t affect your ability to run for office), acceptance will spread.

    hehehe This one makes me giggle just because I get the feeling, in my current location, that Jews are only tolerated because theyre needed for the Apocalypse.

    4) Demand equality, but do so politely.

    As usual, I think the happy medium is the right answer. Sometimes being polite and discreet is appropriate– talk to a church crowd about how evolution is necessary for my cancer research, then casually mention Im an atheist if anyone asks about my personal faith.
    But you need to be prepared to use words as daggers when it is necessary. There is a difference between being polite and being a pushover.

  4. #4 Thought Provoker
    April 22, 2007

    Hi Mike – and if the US motto was “in Christ we trust”?

    The 1st amendment? Oh, this isn’t “respecting the establishment of religion” because the Supreme Court ruled “Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of religious exercise.”

    Yea, right. Maybe if we say “Pretty please”

  5. #5 Amanda Marcotte
    April 22, 2007

    Fair enough. My main concern is visibility. Atheists are hated because we’re not visible.

    Truth told, as someone dwelling in a red state where there is still hostility to Jews—though not in my community, but in the larger state, yes—the lack of Jewish visibility has allowed anti-Semiticism, if passive anti-Semiticism, to continue. That’s why there was a lot of Jewish humor on “Seinfeld” that always oddly skirted actually using any explicit references to the religion or the people, because even in the 90s, there was this sense that people would flip of the TV if they were confronted with “insulting” visibility. It’s gotten a lot better since then,, but visibility is so key. I think it’s good to call out Dawkins and Harris for some intellectual laziness, but on the whole, I think they are good because they simply allow the possibility in public that disbelief is something available. Visibility is the first step.

  6. #6 cfrost
    April 22, 2007

    2) Economic integration. Since atheists are disproportionately college-educated, that one is taken care off.

    In some ways thatís part of the problem. Atheists are often perceived as elitists, waving their diplomas and credit cards in the faces of people who make their living getting their hands dirty. Amazingly, the James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons, have persuaded millions that atheists are amoral plutocrats. Pointing out that that isnít difficult when youíve already convinced them that the apocalypse is at hand doesnít help. I have no answer to this, as religion is made to order for a society in which social/economic mobility is difficult. In an America where class division is constantly widening atheists are faced with not being able offer real immediate hope to people who need it. Telling people that the straw theyíre clinging to is useless will never sit well. Atheists need to ally visibly with those people of faith who are willing to help make the US an economic democracy. If you have nothing better to look forward to than another forty years of working the night shift at seven-eleven, heaven starts to look pretty good.

  7. #7 J. J. Ramsey
    April 22, 2007

    Ok, your local blockhead is here. (That will make more sense if you look at the comments of Marcotte’s blog.)

    “Atheists are hated because we’re not visible.”

    True, but that’s only half the story. Atheists are also hated because people think that atheists are arrogant, immoral, philistine, and even–believe it or not–intellectually dishonest. (If you don’t believe me on that last one, take a look at the justifications for calling atheists “fundamentalists.”) If the visible atheists appear to confirm the stereotypes about atheists, that doesn’t help. Indeed, even if atheists only kinda-sorta fit the stereotype, people applying the usual cognitive shortcuts will mentally fill in the blanks and treat them as if they did fit the stereotype. Dawkins is Exhibit A here. There needs to be an active effort to buck the stereotypes, to cause some cognitive dissonance between what people expect of atheists and what they actually see. Just getting meaner won’t accomplish this.

    Imagine if Dawkins had finished up his premise by writing this:

    “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! After all, faith is belief without evidence, and no evidence could possibly sway a religious reader, right? No. If you are religious and are bothering to read this book at all, you know that is an exaggeration at best and slander at worst….”

    I don’t know how I’d finish out the rest of that, but already I’ve recast it so that Dawkins has sent the message, “I’m not going to insult your intelligence or your friends’ intelligence.” The above would play at least somewhat better with the “Ship-of-Fools” crowd.

  8. #8 Dan S.
    April 22, 2007

    Yesterday, PZ and Amanda both argued that a model for the acceptance of atheists should be the suffragist movement. I think that’s the wrong model . . .

    Ok, interesting, interesting, but why is it the wrong model? Numbers? Sociocultural position?

    Another issue is what counts as “politeness”. I don’t have the details on hand – that would require going inside, on this beautiful spring afternoon – but I know one of the early attempts to protest public school nativity plays and such was met by outrage by many Christians and frantic calls for moderation by some Jews (‘don’t make them angry!’).

    Additionally, it would seem -that one of the causes of the increasing social unacceptability of antisemitism in postWWII America was public knowledge of the Holocaust – not just a horrifying example of where it could lead, but one perpetrated by our enemies. I’d prefer if we could avoid that.

    But visibility is definitely very important.

  9. #9 razib
    April 22, 2007

    So, from a historical perspective, atheists are farther along the curve (this is a good thing–I don’t believe in discrimination).

    way farther along. the analogy has its uses, but jews are a people (at least by the time the reform movement repealed their rejection of the nationhood element of judaism in the 19th century). atheists are not a people. we are a opinion, and one opinion at that. even an analogy to socialism doesn’t work because socialism is not just a negation, it is a proactive movement which also attempted to foster civil society through its own associations.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    April 22, 2007

    “Another issue is what counts as ‘politeness’.”

    Indeed, and politeness is being confused with passivity and mincing of words. Here, again, the example of MLK is instructive. I read the Letter from Birmingham Jail all the way through, and it is a fascinating piece of work. King does not mince words and he takes a strong stand, but he is not abusive or belittling or nasty. Even when he criticizes–and he offers plenty of criticism–the tone is that of appealing to his audience’s better angels, as if to say, “Come on, you know better than this, you can do better than this.”

  11. #11 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 22, 2007

    You seem to be talking about what it takes to integrate atheists into society. The big debate that Paul and Matt and Chris and so in is engaging is about how to deal with ignorance of science and public advocacy of pseudoscientific nonsense. These are very different objectives.

    Paul is not trying to integrate atheism. He wants religion disintegrated.

    One reason people talk past each other in these matters is that they have different basic aims. Framing does not address that; it is not an issue of framing.

    Cheers — Chris

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    April 22, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart: “Paul is not trying to integrate atheism. He wants religion disintegrated.”

    Maybe, but he does write this:

    The goal isn’t to be able to coexist with other members of society by being unobtrusive and hiding our beliefs. It’s to be known by those beliefs; just like modern Lutherans don’t freak out and suspect the other guy is grinding baby’s bones in the shed behind the house when they find out he’s Catholic, we should want everyone to think simply, “Huh, OK, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t go to church and doesn’t believe in my god” when they meet an atheist, and they shouldn’t even mentally qualify it with “I hope my daughter never marries one of them.”

  13. #13 stogoe
    April 23, 2007

    Yeah, how’s that whole peaceful integration going for you? I mean, if you’re honest with yourself.

  14. #14 DragonScholar
    April 23, 2007

    I think you’re making a good point here – the right model is appropriate if people are to deal with bias against atheists. And the important word IS integration – the idea atheists are Part of Us.

    The MLK issue, as noted, is an important one – standing strong and being critical doesn’t mean, simply, you have to be a jerk. You can appeal to people’s better nature and ideals – and you also have to cope with the fact that some obnoxious and judgemental jerks will always be there, so you don’t sculpt your behavior to the jerks. You also build on thinks you have in common.

    With atheists being recognized as regular people (which, heck, they are), it’s important NOT to come off as pompous, separate, elitist, etc. The religious right and conservative commentators, who are always glad to find new enemies, will lie about you anyway. It takes effort not to give them new ammo.

    And effort is what it’s going to take to succeed.

  15. #15 Coin
    April 23, 2007

    “The goal isn’t to be able to coexist with other members of society by being unobtrusive and hiding our beliefs. It’s to be known by those beliefs”

    This, of course, assumes that all atheists have the same beliefs.

    I for one do not want to be known by the views of PZ Myers.

  16. #16 stogoe
    April 23, 2007

    So, then, get your own blog, and attract people who want to listen. Be a different sort of atheist, and scream it through the Tubes, if you want. Heck, the FriendlyAtheist did it. Why can’t you?

  17. #17 Edward
    April 23, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey said: “Atheists are also hated because people think that atheists are arrogant, immoral, philistine, and even–believe it or not–intellectually dishonest. (If you don’t believe me on that last one, take a look at the justifications for calling atheists “fundamentalists.”)”

    Well, I’ve said that SOME atheists are fundamentalists, but I try not to hate anyone, and I certainly don’t think atheists, as a group, are all of those things. Some atheists are some of those things, just as some theists are, and I don’t think being an atheist or theist has anything to do with whether someone is immoral, etc.

    I’m guessing that J.J. is referring to the definition I think I gave here previously:

    A fundamentalist is someone who thinks they do not believe any myths.

    I suppose you could think of that in terms of intellectual honesty, but that isn’t exactly the point.

    In any case, discrimination against atheists is wrong, but I think there is a more comparable example of what can result from this type of discrimination than those that have been given so far: the discrimination suffered by communists in the McCarthy era.

  18. #18 PZ Myers
    April 24, 2007

    I am all for the productive proposals you made. Let’s do them! But let’s also have some of us assertive atheists do our thing, too. It’s all part of the Big Picture.

    Chris isn’t quite right. I don’t want to disintegrate theism, since it’s not something in my power to do (and even if it were, I wouldn’t do it). I want theism to disintegrate on its own, with people waking up to the foolishness of belief in the supernatural and walking away from it. Part of that plan requires a strong alternative and vigorous criticism — passivity won’t do it.

    The comparison with Jewish integration is interesting, but it has some pieces in there that you’ve skipped over. One is victimhood: the oppression Jews experienced was not something anyone with even a hint of empathy could overlook after WWII. That is not something we want to emulate, I assure you. Another is Zionism and the emergence of Israel as one bunch of tough-as-nails hombres. I vividly remember some of my horribly anti-semitic relatives being thoroughly gobsmacked by the ’67 and ’73 wars, and condescending to offer some grudging respect to the Israelis. That’s also not something atheists want to emulate, I hope, but it’s of a piece with my assertion that not being a doormat is good strategy.

    You’re also making the mistake (same as some other people around here) that I’m making a comparison between the situations of atheists and feminists. I’m not at all. This was a narrower point about tactics. Being rude often works. I’m not saying it’s all we have to do, but it’s an essential step — if we can’t even speak up strongly for ourselves, we can’t expect anyone else to do it for us.

  19. #19 Godless McHeathenpants
    April 24, 2007

    An interesting (to me) point no one here has mentioned.

    When you tell someone that you are an atheist, what they hear (from what I have gathered from argument postmortems I have conducted) is along the lines of “Everything you believe and cherish is wrong, all your loved ones aren’t in heaven, I am in immoral monster who needs to have no control over his actions because I think I can not be punished for eternity, you have wasted you life, you are nothing more than a monkey or a bag of meat, I watch CNN, I hate god and everyone who believes in him, something bad happened to me and I am angry at god about it, tell me more about Jesus.”
    Which end of the spectrum they draw from is apparent from their reaction.

    Red face, anger, loud disagreement/denouncement = first half.

    Incredulity, astonishment = some from either side

    Pity, condescension, offering a Chick Tract or invite to pray with/attend church with = latter part

    It boils down to “How dare you not automatically agree with my personal interpretation of the Bible, the truth of which is even obvious to the small children relentlessly indoctrinated by my church/cult/family? You must do everything I secretly fantasize about doing if I knew I wouldn’t be tortured for eternity by my all loving, all merciful creator.”

    I’ve been called arrogant for saying I was an atheist. How dare I deny god when I can’t explain every single aspect of the universe, how it works and how it happened. Don’t I know Jesus personally died for my sins. Because obviously the only alternative to complete and total knowledge of everything explainable to someone with no scientific knowledge or interest is Bronze Age mythology.

    I have no problem with people believing anything that choose to. Many of my friends are religious or spiritual, some are even fundies. My rising anger is about being stereotyped. I have been an atheist since I was a teen, but only openly for about 5 years. It caused quite an uproar, let me say. Some people still don’t speak to me, or have become much less friendly. Which is why I think our situation is closer to that of gays. We engage in behavior that is distasteful to a large segment of the public (thinking rationally about the origin and nature of existence), we comprise a sizable minority who is easily plastered with a broad and defaming caricature (hates Christians, wants to ban Easter, xmas or religion all together, has no moral gps, etc), we can not easily be identified by sight (so our numbers are undervalued), and people only hear negative stereotypes from the pulpit.

    Maybe we should have parades? Can I help hold the Dawkins balloon?

    GMH

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    April 24, 2007

    Edward: “I’m guessing that J.J. is referring to the definition I think I gave here previously: A fundamentalist is someone who thinks they do not believe any myths.”

    Actually, I hadn’t seen that definition before outside of this thread. However, it’s not too far off from my line of thinking.

    PZ Myers: “You’re also making the mistake (same as some other people around here) that I’m making a comparison between the situations of atheists and feminists. I’m not at all. This was a narrower point about tactics.”

    The problem is that what tactics are appropriate depends a lot on the situations. As an exaggerated example, if the situation is that people think you are a slob, a bad tactic of convincing people otherwise is to stop shaving and showering.

  21. #21 olvlzl, no ism, no ist
    April 26, 2007

    Yea, right. Maybe if we say “Pretty please”

    Posted by: Thought Provoker

    You make a common mistake by thinking that the first amendment protections apply to the general public. They don’t, they apply to government actions. If the government discriminates or oppresses you can use it to get relief but there is no way to use them to, for example, get someone from your minority group elected to public office. That, and I know you’re not going to like hearing this but that doesn’t make it any less true,… that will take acceptance by at least a simple majority of the voters, most of whom will not be members of your minority group. While invective might be temporarily satisfying, it is a sure loser in even the short run. I can guarantee you that it will not get what you say you want.

    Why is it that so many people think common sense friendliness is demeaning?

  22. #22 Thought Provoker
    April 28, 2007

    Hi olvlzl,

    You wrote…

    You make a common mistake by thinking that the first amendment protections apply to the general public. They don’t, they apply to government actions.

    And you make a common mistake by reading what you want to read rather than what was written.

    I was talking about government actions. Specifically the 1956 government action of declaring “In God we Trust” our national motto. I am also talking about the government action in the form of the Supreme Court choosing to be negligent in performing their duty of protecting a minority group from the tyranny of a majority suffering from the Red Scare.

    It is these types of government actions that enables people (like former President G. H. Bush) to righteously claim Atheists shouldn’t consider themselves citizens.

    So, I ask you…

    Do you really think it will do us any good to go back to the government and ask them to, “pretty please”, uphold the constitution of the United States? You know, the part that prohibits the government from respecting the establishment of religion (not “a religion” but “religion”).

  23. I don’t think I quite agree with you on all points here, but that will require more thought. But thank you for posting a thoughtful message with positive and constructive suggestions of what to do, rather than just griping and whining about something you disagree with, as many other bloggers seem to love to do

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