At last, I get it. I understand what “framing” is. It’s pandering to the status quo, the petty conventions, and the bigotry of the majority. It means don’t rock the boat, don’t be different, don’t stand up for your beliefs. It means CONFORM. You will get other people to support you if you just abandon your principles and adopt theirs. That’s the clear message I get from Matt Nisbet now.

Forget it. If this is “framing,” it’s useless—it’s a tool for opposing change.

The first thing that Nisbet and DJ Grothe do is pummel a straw man for a bit. Atheism is not a civil rights issue, they say, it’s a public image problem, and therefore these “New Atheists” are all wrong. They are incorrect. It’s both a civil rights issue and a public image problem (with the latter by far the most important aspect), and the assertive campaigns by atheists — this is more a matter of new tactics rather than any kind of new atheism — are exactly what is right.

The commenters there have done a fine job of handing Nisbet and Grothe their asses on this one, with links to lots of instances of the problem of atheism as a civil rights issue. There are unconstitutional laws on the books in several states that in principle preclude atheists for running for any office; that is a civil rights issue. We have schools that try to make our kids take a loyalty oath which includes acknowledging a nonexistent god; that is a civil rights issue. We have government support of ridiculous “faith-based” charities that exclude secular institutions; that is a civil rights issue. We have widespread bigotry against atheists that is encouraged by authorities — try living in the rural midwest if you think there aren’t such situations going on all the time.

Grothe’s article is particularly annoying in this regard. He’s resting his argument on the fact that atheists haven’t suffered comparable harm to minorities and women, and yes, we already know this. We aren’t being lynched or imprisoned in our own homes, we’re just being metaphorically kicked in the shins every day. The fact that injustices are small does not change the fact that they are injustices, nor does the fact that there are greater crimes being committed mean that the littler ones should be ignored. Grothe’s litany of greater problems is nothing but a demand for passivity from atheists.

However, far from being the paramount focus of modern atheism, atheists have treated civil rights violations simply on a case-by-case basis. It’s there, all right, but we don’t have a simple, sweeping case of legal discrimination that has to be dealt with; we aren’t denied the right to vote, we aren’t told to sit at the back of the bus, there aren’t many laws that overtly discriminate against non-believers, and the main legal issue we have to deal with are pervasive attempts (some successful) to get the government to endorse religious belief. We know all this; nobody has complained that atheists are oppressed anywhere near as badly as minorities or women. No one is demanding legal redress in the form of something analogous to the Civil Rights Act or universal suffrage. So really, Nisbet’s argument begins with a lie, a false claim that we are making a big deal out of one view of the issue … which greatly simplifies his job of dismissing it.

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

That is complete bullshit. Neither of those two writers are making any kind of argument about civil rights. In the entirety of The God Delusion, Dawkins mentions civil rights precisely once, in the context of fundamentalist Christians who insist that discriminating against homosexuals is their civil right. Here it is.

The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar
Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discrimination against homosexuals and other groups,
has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century:
‘Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be

Seriously, that’s it. I searched the whole book for discussions of law and legal arguments, and they simply aren’t there — it is not a book that takes a position on atheism as a civil right or argues that we need to modify our laws or fight for the right to disbelieve in the courts. Nisbet begins his whole argument with a gross misrepresentation. Dawkins’ book is entirely about raising consciousness, about providing a useful rational framework for arguing against theism, and motivating atheists to stand up and be counted — to make themselves known and to be proud of their ideas and heritage. And this makes Nisbet’s and Grothe’s suggestion particularly ironic and clueless.

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.)

We have a “public image problem,” Sherlock? Good grief. Has this guy even read Dawkins and Hitchens? Their books are not legal or political guides for a civil rights movement — they are manifestos for an atheist world view. They lay out in simple arguments and good prose the atheist position — they stake out what our image is to ourselves, and help to clarify the atheist identity. They have written books that simply and plainly say “we are godless, and this is what we think,” and the hapless Nisbet has essentially replied, “Well, yeah, and that’s your whole problem right there, and you’re making it worse by making your ideas public.” With friends like these…

Atheists benefit from the fact that our difference is entirely in our brains, so as long as we silence ourselves, we can ‘pass’—it means that any civil rights problems we experience are going to be sporadic rather than unavoidable and pervasive. This is to our advantage, but it also has the unfortunate side effect that many who claim to be our friends think the best way for atheists to get what they want is to continue to be silent, and also lets them blame the atheists themselves for any problems, because they never would have occurred if only Dawkins would shut up and if those darned atheists would just stop expressing themselves. They completely miss the point that hiding our identity is not a viable solution, hasn’t worked at all, and has led to a country overrun with pious sideshow freaks who want to wage a holy war against Islam and think good science is teaching kids that the earth is 6000 years old.

Our particularly idiotic friends go further and tell us to stop fighting battles we aren’t fighting in the first place, and smugly inform us that we need to wage a public relations campaign, instead … without noticing that that is exactly what we are doing. The problem they actually have is that we are, in these last few years, running a successful public relations campaign that doesn’t compromise our principles and that is being well-received — we are being up-front and bold about our ideas, and making it clear that we are here to stay, and that we plan to grow. Perhaps Nisbet’s problem is personal: we’re doing PR without “framing” atheism as a meek and innocuous idea that is obligingly compatible with pretending that politicians relying on god’s input into their decision-making is a good plan. In fact, let’s just throw this whole “framing” idea out — we’ve got this radical idea that just telling the truth about what we believe might be a good strategy.

The funniest part of their complaints is when they start whining that the “New Atheists” are “polarizing” — which is shorthand for making the religious unhappy. Talk about missing the point — yes, we are. We want to make the Pat Robertsons of the world very, very angry, and we want to make it clear that we are opposing their lunacy every step of the way, and we want to make the religious moderates ashamed of their meekness and apathy. The alternative to polarizing is to surrender and just let the one side have their way, as they have since Reagan. Since the gutless Christian moderates have allowed the religious right to walk all over them, I think it’s about time the “New Atheists” rose up and provided some opposition. We’re proud to be polarizing when the other side is such a catastrophic collection of stupid ideas; we are not hurt or remorseful when we are accused of being militantly against religious idiocy, and that we are trying to gather more to our cause. It’s a point of honor, actually, so I’m deeply unimpressed with people so out of touch that they don’t even recognize that basic issue. The lack of polarization has been a disaster for this country.

Nisbet has convinced me. He has framed his ideas so well that I am now confident that framing is nothing but pandering to the status quo, and of absolutely no use when your goal is change. It’s a tool I can safely ignore.

Jason beat me to the punch, but we say pretty much the same things.


  1. #1 Brian W.
    June 29, 2007

    *sigh* i’m so disappointed in DJ Grothe. I was listening to the Point Of Inquiry podcast on the way to work today.

    One of the things that i’ve thought was missing from the books by Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens was that they DIDN’T touch on the civil rights arguments are much as i’d liked.

  2. #2 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007


    With regards framing being useful, in as much that if you are trying to get a message across it it sensible to look at your target audience and pitch your message accordingly, then it does make sense. However that much is also nothing new, common sense and I suspect fully understand by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. The problems come about because Nisbett, Brayton et al do not seem to understand that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris were not targeting fundamentalist or moderate theists, they were talking to atheists, telling us it is time to stand up and be counted. The fact that such calls to arms have attracted such attention is no doubt especially galling to those appeasers who’s actions seem to have achieved so little date Ok, they have won a few court cases but they do not seem to have make any inroads into the attitudes that meant their had to be such court cases in the first place.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    A little while ago, I wrote,

    I have come to hypothesize that there are the reasonable Mooney and Nisbet, who get written up in places like Brainard’s article [on the Columbia Journalism Review website], and then there are their insane twin brothers who keep trying to kick those uppity atheists back into the corner. (Similar statements about rational and bizarre twins have been made for Thomas Kuhn and Lee Smolin.) To a first approximation, if I heard some people saying what Curtis Brainard records Nisbet and Mooney as saying, my response would resemble the following:

    “Yeah, OK, we need more and better communicators. Are your claims that such-and-such technique worked in your example cases A, B, and C actually falsifiable, or are they Just-So Stories? What are your plans for funding plans X and Y, and what do you think of plan Z?”

    Instead, I get told that if I speak what observation and inference tell me are the truth, I’m giving “creationist adversaries a boost,” and therefore I should keep my mouth shut about things I’ve known since I was a preteen bookworm.


    As I mentioned over at Jason Rosenhouse’s place, people should think back to the early days of the “framing” kerfluffle, when Coturnix divided the problem into short-term and long-term strategies. “Framing,” he said, could be useful in the short term, while bulking up the critical thinking standards and scientific literacy of the citizen body was necessary in the long term. OK?

    Now, the thing is, issues of civil liberty are inherently long-term problems. We’re talking about securing rights not just for ourselves but for our posterity. Everyone who hopes for a secular America with a well-mended wall between Church and State talks in timescales of generations. So, I can’t help but conclude that concerns of “framing” have at most secondary importance.

    Also, I personally did not reject all the gods and goddesses as born of human dreaming and then turn around to dose myself with homeopathic medicines and finger my spirit crystals. Atheism is a consequence of marrying skepticism with wonder, of learning to love truth more than preconceptions; it is not the only consequence, although it appears to be a socially significant one.

    (I’ll take it as an empirically demonstrated fact that some people, possessed of a certain honesty and moral character, can hold on to parts of their religious beliefs which they deem significant whilst accepting and even enjoying the truths uncovered by science. Why organizations can’t do this as well as individuals is another question, as is what tomorrow’s discoveries might do to such structures of belief. It’s important to remember, I believe, that not all such “moderates” take the same approach. I have a great deal more respect for the Hatfields and Chu-Carrolls of this world, however many there are, than I do for the Collinses, who typically apply the same arguments to human moral behavior that Michael Behe does to the bacterial flagellum. All these are questions which require more data to clarify, not just philosophical musings, and right now, they’re all questions for another day.)

  4. #4 cm
    June 29, 2007

    Could it be that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Stenger, PZ Myers, et al. are providing framing already? Atheism framed as smart, new, New York Times Bestseller List, clever, impassioned, articulate, engaged, blogspheric, and very very 21st century, babe.

  5. #5 Dave W
    June 29, 2007

    The issue is whether to frame or not; it’s a debate over whether to use a confrontational frame or a conformational one. Hitchens, Dawkins, are indeed framing the debate, a frame of reason v. idiocy. Grothe finds this particular frame objectionable and confrontational.

    Lakoff and others often advocate choosing frames that conform to desirable ideas of the majority, but framing does not have to mean conforming to the status quo, although many would say that to improve chances of success one should do this. That framing faith as “idiocy” is a marketing mistake–one should not antagonize those one wishes to convince.

    This argument for non-confrontation is not necessarily correct.There have been thousands of successful marketing and ad campaigns based on the idea that only losers don’t use the advertised product. The religious right certainly continually frames arguments in confrontational terms, especially among themselves–us v. the evil sinners. Such framing can be highly effective. In the case of atheism as reason v. idiocy, this confrontational framing can be especially effective as the people you are seeking to convince, the nominal theists, are not going to be especially offended, at least not once you gotten their attention with the initial shock and they start thinking about it. You’re never going to convince the hard-core faithful, so don’t worry about offending them.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007


    Not so much Neville Chamberlain as Philippe Petain or Vidkun Quisling.

    It’s interesting to ponder what the term “Philippe Pétain atheist” would imply. Pétain was the “savior of Verdun,” a hero when France fought the Germans in World War One. Then along came part two, and Pétain became a collaborator and Vichy France’s chief of state.

    I am not fond of the Churchill and Chamberlain label-tossing, partly because they’re disgustingly over-the-top and partly because, as Orac has pointed out, one can make a good case that Chamberlain’s gotten a bad rap. (If speakers of British English use “Chamberlain” in a generic sense, as synonymous with “appeaser” without regard to historical niceties, then it’s not so big a deal — or at least understandable for Dawkins to use the phrase — but I have no confirmation of such a dialect-related claim.) Still, if Chris Mooney backs Nisbet on this, then it’ll be difficult not to look back at The Republican War on Science and sadly whisper, “Encore après Pétain. . . .

  7. #7 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007


    I have often found the claims that Dawkins is a problem because he antagonises moderate religious people to be a laughable. If Dawkins was quite as polarising as his critics claim why would moderates be willing to engage with him ? How come Anglican clergy will appear alongside him on discussion panels ? How come he was able to sign a letter to The Times calling for the government to ensure creationism/ID was not taught in state-funded schools in the UK and for his co-signatories to be leading figures in the major religions in the UK ? I doubt any of those agree with Dawkins on religion but I suspect they would not deny his arguments are worth of addressing. I also suspect that on issues about how people should be treated there would be far more agreement than between the moderates and their fundamentalist co-believers.

  8. #8 plunge
    June 29, 2007

    “manifestos for an atheist world view. ”

    The problem I have here is the difference between “an” atheist worldview and the “the” atheist worldview. Theists commonly, almost instinctively, see Dawkins and Hitchens and others as propounding the latter, which fucks up all my work in promoting the idea that the former is the proper understanding of things, since us not believing in god is not something that makes me have all the same opinions as Richard Dawkins. We both don’t live in Ulster either: that doesn’t mean we meet for tea every afternoon.

  9. #9 Glen Davidson
    June 29, 2007

    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 e

    I can’t remember hearing this previously.

    As I recall, mostly it’s been “framed” as an evidence issue. Nisbet failed this one spectacularly by that standard.


    What’s this that came out of my ass? Why, it’s the truth.

    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.

    Attacks on sophomoric and polarizing religion are turned into attacks upon the religious themselves, in this bozo’s clumsy hands. OK, so maybe some of the latter happens as well, but again if Nisbet cared about evidence he’d note that it isn’t frequent, and the examples he gave in that context do not support his otherwise unevidenced claims.

    Classic Nisbet garbage.

    Glen D

  10. #10 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Glen Davidson:

    Attacks on sophomoric and polarizing religion are turned into attacks upon the religious themselves, in this bozo’s clumsy hands. OK, so maybe some of the latter happens as well, but again if Nisbet cared about evidence he’d note that it isn’t frequent, and the examples he gave in that context do not support his otherwise unevidenced claims.

    I’ve noticed that many of the writers who don’t go to Myersian extremes in criticizing religion itself are damn willing and eager to critizize specific religious groups and individuals who do stupid things because of their religious beliefs. To me, the latter sounds hostile indeed.

  11. #11 nal
    June 29, 2007

    A tactic of the religious right is to attack their opponent’s strength and claim it is a weakness. The PR campaign of atheists is going great, so they claim it isn’t going well. Dawkins is an excellent advocate, so they claim he’s harming the atheist cause. Since their supporters don’t access opposing opinions, they don’t know any different. These kind of articles are for their followers consumption.

  12. #12 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    Blake Stacey said;

    “I’ve noticed that many of the writers who don’t go to Myersian extremes in criticizing religion itself are damn willing and eager to critizize specific religious groups and individuals who do stupid things because of their religious beliefs. To me, the latter sounds hostile indeed.”

    Quite right. I am sure that a particular blogger here at ScienceBlogs comes to mind for both us here. He is highly critical of Dawkins, accusing him of polarising opinion and driving away moderate theists. The same blogger is highly vocal in condemming anti-gay bigotry from religious groups, including the Catholic church. At the same time he will hold up Catholics as an example of how you can religious and still accept evolution. He often cites Ken Miller in this regard. I have no idea what Miller’s personal views on homosexuality are but there is no doubt that he belongs to a church that is active in trying to deny gays human and civil rights.

  13. #13 Loren Michael
    June 29, 2007

    I think there is somewhat of a problem with the whole enterprise, thought I’m not certain it could be construed as a problem with framing, per se.

    The problem with focusing on religion and offering only “atheism” and “secularism” as alternatives is that people can point to, say, communism and declare, “hey, that’s secularism, right? That’s a secular ideology, right? Maoism was an atheistic ideology, right?” and they would, barring some uncommon usages of secularism and atheism that I haven’t come across, be correct.

    A better, more inclusive, more incisive, and more damaging message is to expound on the virtues of reason and skepticism, which is anathema to a great many things beyond religion. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have all touched on this, so it’s not as thought it’s an entirely blind spot for them, but they still cast all of their arguments as being explicitly anti-religious. The books, The God Delusion, An End of Faith, God is not Great, they can’t shake religion as being the motivator, and they lock themselves into GOD=BAD/NO GOD=GOOD, which can be brushed aside with a casual bodycount of secular inhumanities of the 20th century, whether legitimately invited or not. There are just as many immature, ill-conceived, and illogical means to come to the conclusion that there isn’t a god as there is to come to the conclusion that there is.

    Religion is bad, yes. But it’s bad because it’s a symptom of a problem that leads to innumerable other problems as well, and to frame the debate as exclusively religion and non-religion binds the hands of the person who really should be tackling the larger problem.

  14. #14 D.J. Grothe
    June 29, 2007

    PZ: Atheists certainly should not surrender, and should never cease being uncompromising on the issues. Rather than surrender, we should work to more effectively win over the culture. But I think that we can only do do so by promoting alternatives to the religious and supernatural worldviews that so plague society, rather than only attacking religion. I think Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and others would agree. Dawkins et. al. do a magnificent job of rallying atheists, and in pronouncing far and wide that it is perfectly sensible to be an atheist. But to win over the culture, more is needed than merely to attack religion and “faith-heads,” making it seem like just a pitched battle between the smart atheists and the dumb religionists. (I think that Hitchens does this beautifully in the end of God is Not Great, calling for a “New Enlightenment.”)

    I should admit that I am just as much an angry atheist as I hunch you are. But speaking strategically, we should also just admit that our moral indignation, our anger, is not on par with those who marched on Washington in 1963 to end public school segregation, and for legal protection against police brutality, and to make it illegal to racially discriminate in public and private hiring, and the like. Our indignation is not about how oppressed we are in society, but about how wrong we think society is to believe destructive nonsense. Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities. The same goes for many Christian activists who are these days talking about Christians themselves being the last oppressed minority in America. Both are wrong. Being popular is not a civil right. It is our job to make atheism and secularism more popular, and wrapping ourselves as a “movement” in the cloak of being an oppressed minority whose civil rights are under attack won’t do that trick.

    As we concluded that first piece on this topic in Free Inquiry:

    “We [as atheists] do have to stand up and fight. However, we are fighting not for our civil rights, but for our intellectual integrity and moral dignity. Incredible analogies with the plight of the truly repressed will further neither cause.”

  15. #15 Scholar
    June 29, 2007


    * Richard Dawkins – Evolutionary Biologist/Author
    * Daniel Dennett – Philosopher
    * Sam Harris – Author
    * Christopher Hitchens – Author
    * Julia Sweeney – Actress/Writer/Monologist
    * Eugenie Scott – National Center for Science Education
    * Matthew Chapman – Author, Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson
    * Edward Tabash – Lawyer and Atheist/Secular Humanist
    * Pastor Deacon Fred – Landover Baptist Church
    * Shannon Cherry – owner of Cherry Communications
    * Lori Lipman Brown – freethought’s first Washington lobbyist and Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America
    * Rick Wingrove – The Assertive Atheist, Capitol Hill Representative for American Atheists
    * Mike Estes – Atheist Coalition of San Diego, civil rights expert
    * Dale McGowan – Author
    * August Brunsman – Secular Student Alliance
    * Neil Polzin – Secular Student Alliance
    * Janice Rael – Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia
    * Dave Silverman – American Atheists

  16. #16 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2007

    Of course. But now your job is to find atheists who claim that they suffer as much as blacks under slavery or women before suffrage, or even as much as either of those groups now. It’s just not a case we’re making, and it’s not a case that you’ll find in either Dawkins’ or Hitchens’ books.

    It does not help to demonize atheists for things they haven’t done.

  17. #17 Matt Penfold
    June 29, 2007

    D.J Grothe,

    I am not aware of these atheist activists who put discrimination against atheists on a par with the discrimination faced by blacks, gays etc. PZ explicitly states that he does not see the discrimination as being at that level.

    However posters here, and elsewhere, have provided evidence of discrimination against atheists. Of course atheists are not the only group who face discrimination based on their religious views. Since Sept 11th many Muslims in both the US and Europe have faced discrimination because of their religion. I do not find discriminating against a Muslim anymore acceptble that discriminating against an atheist, and I doubt you do, or PZ, or Dawkins, or any of the other atheists who have been so vocal of late. What we need to ask is this: Is discriminating against someone based on their religious views acceptable ? And to me the answer is an emphatic NO.

  18. #18 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Glen Davidson (#36):

    Well said. I could probably have been more clear.

    Matt Penfold (#38):

    Also well said!

    Loren Michael (#39):

    A better, more inclusive, more incisive, and more damaging message is to expound on the virtues of reason and skepticism, which is anathema to a great many things beyond religion. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have all touched on this, so it’s not as thought it’s an entirely blind spot for them, but they still cast all of their arguments as being explicitly anti-religious.

    I’m glad you’ve raised this point. (Compare my comment #11.) In my judgment, DDH&H have done a pretty good job forcing the issue into discussion; what needs to happen next is not a retreat, but rather a broadening of emphasis.

    You know, given how much Chopra sounds like Egnor, a book which does for neuroscience what Victor Stenger’s Failed Hypothesis does for physics and cosmology might be a good idea.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    Coturnix (#56):

    Remember, MLK was also upset about the behavior of “moderates.” Read Letter from Birmingham Jail:

    I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

    Furthermore, the “good cop, bad cop” model would work much better if the “good cop” were not trying to kick the “bad cop” into silence. See, there’s a point here which I’m not sure people are getting, because I haven’t received much feedback about it: it’s a bad oversimplification to assume that there is only one kind of “moderate”. (Comment #11, above.) Some kinds will be better suited to playing the “good cop” role than others.

  20. #20 LCR
    June 29, 2007

    Does anyone else feel that this is related to the issue of visibility? I haven’t gone through all of the comments on all of the related blogs, so forgive me if this has been mentioned, but atheists and agnostics are not an obvious group. We don’t walk around with big “A”‘s on our foreheads. And, until recently, we weren’t all that vocal.

    Racial discrimination was blatant and easy to recognize (relatively) because of obvious differences in appearance between the victim and the discriminator.

    Discrimination against homosexuals went virtually unnoticed and certainly unpunished while homosexuals themselves kept quietly to themselves. It wasn’t until they became more vocal and open about their sexuality that discrimination against them became “visible”. Its not that discrimination against them didn’t exist prior to this… but it wasn’t apparent to our social conscience.

    Could this apply to atheism as well? Until recently (and I’m speaking solely of the U.S. as I understand it is different in other countries), atheists and agnostics had experienced sufficient social pressure to simply keep quiet about their non-belief. There was little benefit and plenty of harm in being open about it, and if a trait is difficult to see, it receives less negative reaction to it in the form of discrimination. Now, more and more non-believers are “coming out” and openly discussing their lack of beliefs and their opposition to religion. As we become more conspicuous, more vocal, more of a “threat” to the moral order of things (said with sarcasm), I think we will see the opposition respond by pushing back harder. As a result, I think we will cross that imaginary line, as we did with homosexuality, where we go from an “acceptable” amount of “uncivil” behavior against a few rare individuals to blatant, recognizable discrimination against a particular group of people. I think people like Dawkins and Harris and PZ Myers are helping us work toward this point and people like Matt Nezbit are refusing to learn from our history…or he is choosing to be blind to it.

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    June 30, 2007

    There are a few things being blurred here.

    As I said in the article above, I do agree completely that atheists face nowhere near the opression of women, gays, and minorities; if the authorities you quote were trying to say that they were just as severely afflicted as those groups, then I would certainly repudiate their statements. It just isn’t true. However, while our problems are lesser in almost every particular, that doesn’t mean they are non-existent, or that no comparisons can be drawn to other struggles for equality. If that were the case, then everyone pales in comparison to the black struggle for civil rights, and women and gays should just sit down and be quiet. They haven’t been enslaved and they’ve had far fewer lynchings, after all!

    Now in my earlier discussion of this issue, I drew a very narrow and specific comparison, that we ought to look at what tactics were effective in, for instance, the suffragette movement. It wasn’t to claim that we had to fight for the right to vote, for instance, although a few loons reacted as if that were suggesting. It was purely a matter of tactics: do other groups fighting for recognition or equality need a “militant” faction? And of course they do, and of course there is furious infighting from the more conservative elements.

    So I agree with you on the important stuff. The civil rights thing is a small part of the battle (but not a negligible one) and we are primarily engaged in a public relations campaign. Where I disagree strongly with Nisbet is that I think the loud and proud and ornery and uppity and militant and whatever atheists are absolutely indispensable — far from harming the cause, as he claims, the rest of you might as well go home and sit on your thumbs without people like Dawkins and Hitchens out there to breathe fire for us all, and without us joining in the vigorous fray.

  22. #22 RamblinDude
    June 30, 2007

    It’s interesting, and rather comforting, that I needed to explain what I meant by- ‘actually militant’. Atheists, people who aren’t screwed up in the head with irrationality, or enslaved by superstitious dogma, are a rather nonviolent lot. We just don’t think in terms of Armageddon, or live in fear of ‘GOD’S HOLY AND BLOODY WRATH!’

    I grew up with that bullshit. I remember feeling the fear gnaw at me when the preachers would ask us to come forward, after their sermons of fire and brimstone, and give our hearts and minds and souls to Jesus. If we didn’t we were doomed to spend all of eternity in hell!

    As far as militancy goes, all of our protestations are rather pleasant in comparison to the real meanies. Flip through channels on any Sunday morning and you see who the real ‘ranters’ and fear mongers are. It’s not atheists who are trying to hypnotize people with an endless drone of violent images and aggressive bombast. Hitchen’s, for all his ‘militancy’, is a model of reasonable dialogue compared with Jimmy Swaggart and his ilk.

    And you are quite right that Christians see Atheists as morally bad. They see us as Satan’s pawns. They can handle other religions, after all, they worship the ‘real’ god, and when he gets jealous you better watch out! But we induce genuine fear and consternation in them because…we don’t worship anything!

    They have been so brainwashed into believing in the sanctity of subservience, that, in their eyes, atheists are the ultimate sinners. They live by the code that those who refuse to acknowledge the ‘Creator of the Universe’ will surely incur HIS wrath and bring doom upon everyone. Sigh…I wish I was exaggerating and being melodramatic.

    I applaud the efforts of P.Z. and Dawkins and Hitchens and all the other ‘militant’ atheists who make people feel uncomfortable with their iconoclastic message that we don’t want to be enslaved and, therefore, we don’t want to enslave anybody else. We just want to explore the universe with intellectual freedom and an open mind–and that is anathema to the fundies.

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