Pharyngula

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
Christian.’

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.