The Unholy Wars and Flagrant Bigotry at the LA Times

Yesterday, the LA Times ran an opinion piece that is nothing short of appalling. The column in question was titled, "Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining". Sadly, that remarkable headline does appear to very accurately reflect the content of the column. The LA Times apparently decided, for reasons passing understanding, that it was a good idea to give Charlotte Allen the opportunity to present a ~1300-word long explanation of why she doesn't like "atheists."

Just so we're clear, that's how she presented herself - not as someone who doesn't like some, many, or most atheists, or someone who doesn't like atheists who do X, but as someone who doesn't like atheists, full stop.

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that she gives for disliking atheists is that atheists have an over-developed sense of victimhood:

First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.

That little *bang* you just heard was the sound of a multitude of spontaneously combusting irony meters.

"First off, there's Catholic victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we think the Pope's infallible."

"First off, there's Muslim victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we're Jihadist Terrorists."

"First off, there's Jewish victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in Jesus."

"First off, there's Mormon victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we've got more Scripture than they do."

Seriously, is there a mainstream newspaper in the country that would run a column that broad-brushed any religious group the way Ms. Allen did atheists? And they'd have good reason not to. Forget about the narrow-minded bigotry and willingness to insult swathes of people who don't actually fit comfortably within the caricature that's being constructed. Broad-based criticisms of entire groups are almost never the product of anything but the sloppiest of thought processes.

But let's go ahead and ignore the irony involved in slamming a group's alleged "whining" and "victimology" in a way that you would be unlikely to get away with if any other group were involved. Let's look at the substance - for lack of a better word - of her critique:

In his online "Atheist Manifesto," Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such provisions unenforceable nearly 50 years ago, but that doesn't stop atheists from bewailing that they have to hide their Godlessness from friends, relatives, employers and potential dates. One representative of the pity-poor-me school of atheism, Kathleen Goodman, writing in January for the Chronicle of Higher Education, went so far as to promote affirmative action for atheists on college campuses: specially designated, college-subsidized "safe spaces" for them to express their views.

Now, I might be blind, or Ms. Allen might be reading something different, but I just read the Atheist Manifesto, and I cant find a thing in there about clauses in the constitutions of six states. The only relevant passage I found on the problems of seeking public office addressed public opinion, not "antique" statements in old documents:

More than 50% of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70% think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious."

That assertion of Harris' is well supported by polling. In late 2007, Pew reported that 61% of those surveyed stated that they were less likely to support a candidate who did not believe in God. According to Ms. Allen, 4% of the American population identifies as atheist or agnostic, and could presumably therefore be classified as "not believing in God." According to Pew, 0.6% of the US population identifies as Muslim, 1.7% identify as Jewish, and 1.7% identify as Mormon. Americans are nowhere near as willing to say that religion would make them less likely to vote for a candidate with any of those beliefs.

It's easy to blame the public's expressed dislike of atheists on the outspokenness of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers - and, predictably enough Ms. Allen takes exactly that intellectually lazy route - but there's very little evidence that has anything to do with it. First of all, it's not like those folks are exactly household names. I'd be shocked if the four of them combined reached the 61% mark - and that's the percentage of the population who would be less likely to vote for atheists. More to the point, all of the books, websites, and incidents Allen cites are relatively recent, but in 2003 - prior to the majority of the outspoken behavior that Allen and others publicly deplore - 63% were less likely to vote for an atheist then. At worst, it would seem that Dawkins et al. haven't particularly helped public perception of atheists (which is not the same as hurting it).

Personally, I am not all that fond of the writings of any of the atheists named by Allen. I can certainly understand how someone could form a strongly negative opinion of any or all of them. But none of that excuses either Allen or the LA Times. The mildest term I can come up with for someone who is willing to use the actions of a few to justify a dislike of an entire group is "ignorant". Allen's column deserves at least that label.

I had thought that the days when major newspapers would provide a platform and a megaphone to people who have ignorant and bigoted views of religious groups were behind us. Unfortunately, the LA Times apparently disagrees.


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The article is funnier after reading your article of rebuttle. The Irony of what your saying is more apparent that way.

I have read worse articles mocking religon then this lady did ridiculing atheists. I am pretty sure that thier have been plenty of documentaries that prove that point. So, why can't she poke a stick back at the atheists?

Maybe the best thing about our society is the fact that everyone has the right to not only disagree, but to voice their opinions. If you feel that the LA Times gave this person too much of a platform, then feel free to submit your own editorial to the Times and I'm sure they will give you a forum as well.

The mainstream media is about making money, first and foremost, so it's no surprise that they will put out whatever it takes to get you to pay attention. So if they have to annoy you or offend you, then so be it. The good news for you as an atheist is that your views are sure to piss off a lot of very religious people, so you can bet the LA Times will be more than happy to keep this argument going. Nothing sells like controversy.

Ms Allen is a professional conservative opinion piece writer. She has written one book that I can find. (Which did nothing to prove the existence of a historical jesus.)

Other than that she writes opinion pieces I think that are aimed to inflame readers. Maybe she's an Ann Coulter wannabe?

But as to the Times publishing the piece, you will find that they are more likely to publish items like this that their general readership will support but the moment that an item is written that criticizes any organized religion they reject it.

By NoSacredCow (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Your point seems to be that since you disagree with her, she has no right airing her views in the L.A. Times. Perhaps they should run all opinion pieces past you for appropriate levels of bigotry and ignorance.

I'm astounded at some of the comments posted here. Did you people not listen to what was said? Mike is deploring that the LA Times provided a forum for what can only be described as ignorant bigotry. Whether you agree with atheists or prefer to believe that the world is controlled by an invisible magician who can read minds, grant wishes and make you live forever, the fact is that this kind of hateful trash would not be tolerated against any other religious or ethnic group. But then we all know what kind of history religious people have when it comes to tolerance of differences in belief. For starters, how about torturing people to death for believing that a cracker is just a cracker?

@severed: Wait, what?

@Rich & hrob27-1: Note that Mike does not say "Charlotte Allen should not be allowed to publish any of her writings."

@NoSacredCow & hrob27-2: Yup.

By Annoythemouse (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

@hrob27: "The good news for you as an atheist..."

To the best of my knowledge, I've never actually identified myself as an atheist. I certainly would not do so now. Was there anything other than my willingness to object to an anti-atheist article that led you to believe that I'm an atheist?

I thought my point was actually fairly clear, but I'll state it again: Allen's piece was a critique of atheists as a group - a very broad critique that she apparently believed was justified by her opinion of a small number of outspoken atheists. Using dislike for a small number of individuals as an excuse for a blanket dislike of an entire group is bigotry.

Severed, the problem as I see it as a person who was an evangelical Christian for a couple of decades, worked for Billy Graham, have a degree in biblical studies from an evangelical college, etc., I know the great many misconceptions non-atheists have about atheists (because I sure had them), about them having no basis for being moral, or living lives without meaning, or in a state of constant fear of death, or of "never really believed in the first place," or of only pretending not to believe because they don't want to obey God, and so forth. Allen is just playing into this palpable nonsense. She's not poking something in some light-hearted, "you can dish it out but you can't take it" sort of way. She is dissembling, whether knowlingly or not. The only thing I can say in the piece's favor is that it is so clumsy and spittle-flecked that the sophisticated audience likely to read it will dismiss it out of hand.

By Greg Peterson (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Atheists can and do get elected to public office here in RI. So do gay people.

As to the atheists there's RI Rep. Edith Ajello who came out as an atheist at last years marriage equality hearing.

But then she represents the eastern side of the city of Providence, home to Brown University among other things. So it's understandable why her atheism isn't such a big deal.

I'd like to see an opinion piece deploring ID creationists or Creationism in general get published. I'm not sure why atheism is such a "safe" philosophy to rail against. Kinda pisses me off, really.

Implied by her diatribe is the tenet that it is far better to believe in the wrong god than to believe in no gods at all.

Atheists aren't a "religious group".

Good article though :)

For those who don't understand what I'm trying to say, just hear this: whether or not you believe in God or not is not the issue here. What IS the issue is whether or not you're going to sit back and put up with this kind of shit.

I for one am a Christian, and I have no problem with evolution. I support gay marriage, I'm pro-choice, and I have no moral qualms whatsoever with stem cell research. Trust me when I tell you that I have had many arguments with the same so-called Christian "conservatives" (read: haters)that you disagree with.

So understand that not every person who believes in God thinks the way these people do. But as long as you sit back on the sidelines, they will continue to foster the false belief that their form of Christianity is the only valid one, and thus keep attacking you.

So the question is this: are you going to let right-wing nutcases like Charlotte Allen push your buttons and push you around, or are you going to fight back with an op-ed piece of your OWN in the LA Times?

No matter what you may think, the Times is just like any other mainstream media outlet: they're trying to get PAID. Newspapers right now are a dying breed; they will do anything to get people to read their content. I personally think that stooping to such levels just to stay solvent is pathetic, but the instinct to survive is powerful indeed.

So now that you know this, whether you are an atheist or not (I only stated that you were such because you are clearly offended by Ms. Allen's piece, and with good reason,) use the very same platform to launch an attack of your own. Responding here on your own blogs is of little effect; you're doing what the religious conservatives do: preaching to the converted.

I'm not the type to advocate war over peace, but it's OK to fire salvos of the intellectual variety. Write to the LA Times and demand that your voice be heard. As long as they have a chance to make some money, they will be happy to give you a forum.