Quiet down the atheists

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?

More like this

Myles Spicer in particular doesn't seem to me to deserve the scorn you are giving him. Anyone who is paying attention knows it is a fact that some atheists sound quite dogmatic. Your rephrasing of his statement using Jews instead of atheists doesn't succeed in convincing me that he is a horrible bigot, because it is also a simple fact that there are plenty of dogmatic Jews out there. He certainly didn't tell you to shut up, at least in the quoted text; he only indicated that if you speak with the assumption that what you believe is 100% certain to be true, he will view you as dogmatic, and based on the dictionary definition that's fair enough. Moreover, it sounds like he either is an agnostic himself or has sympathy for that viewpoint and might be inclined to move towards it. When you pile on to denounce him for preferring an attitude of humility and uncertainty - basically, for not being dogmatic enough - you're driving away people who ought to be your allies.


I find your stance to be so unpalatable that I cannot even consider your opinion. Sorry.

Offensive, isn't it? We don't even need to bring religion into it. This kind of statement is just plain degrading, no matter who you are.

arxs1 - That does sound offensive, yes - assuming I'm not promoting some view that most reasonable people would reject out of hand - but again, that's not what Mr. Spicer actually said. At most, he implied that he was more willing to consider [adopting] opinions of uncertainty than opinions of dogmatic certainty that he doesn't already share. I'm sure many people feel the same. The "degrading" formulation you present actually pretty well represents statements made by some atheists, who will tell religious people that their beliefs are 100% certain to be wrong and that they're stupid and irrational for holding them. That sort of opinion is not going to be very palatable to them, understandably, nor to many of their agnostic or potentially agnostic loved ones. Likewise, I imagine that you personally would find a universalist religious view more palatable than the view of someone expressing great certainty that you were bound for hell.

Jane, I'm sure he is not a horrible bigot. That's you saying that, not me. My purpose in the word substation is to make people realize that what they are saying about atheists would be unacceptable if said about anyone else, and the larger point here is that our society in general seems to not notice this at all (or, in some cases, obviously, actively supports the denigration of atheists and atheism).

Also worth noting: How often does one hear non-Atheists with any voice out there talking about preachers as dogmatic? I think right now we are hearing some pretty awful things form major accepted mainstream leaders in the christian community about Newtown. Who is calling them out and in what manner?

Trust me, atheists complain about each other quite a bit, I think quite a bit more than christians complain about other christians.

Jane: Indeed, consider the difference between an atheist telling a religious person that there is no scientific or material evidence whatsoever for their beliefs, even in strident terms, and a religious person telling an atheist that they will burn in hell for not accepting Jesus as our savior.

But I don't see this quote as something that would be unacceptable if said about anybody else; either formulation is a reasonable statement of fact. And there's a difference between saying "there's no physical evidence whatsoever that there's any god" - which might not offend people of faith, who sometimes like to say faith is belief without evidence - and saying that there is definitely no god and that the religious believer is therefore stupid and crazy. You've heard such dogmatic statements, I'm sure, and they are unpalatable not only to religious people but to people like me, an unbeliever who has friends and colleagues who combine intelligence and scientific productivity with devout religious faith.

Yes, on balance atheists in America get more abuse than they dish out, because they are a small and somewhat oppressed minority. (At least they haven't been subjected to mass roundups in the past 12 years or so.) It's understandable if they become sensitive to hostile rhetoric, but complaining about trivialities does not serve their cause, especially when they themselves are seen to use equally hostile rhetoric. Practically speaking, if you're trying either to gain converts or to win the favor of members of the majority population, this is not an effective approach.

First, I find your staunch, principled defense of a complete stranger commendable. I can't disagree with you on any particular point. I think Greg is just standing up for the atheists when they are treated with a good helping of contempt and disregard. Which is nice, because like you said we do appear to be a somewhat oppressed minority.
As far as the messy business of friendly-fire against temperate agnostics and religious fury caused by abrasive hardline atheists goes... well that is messy business and any time one ideology battles against another, with weapons or words, things are probably going to get messy. I don't condone that, but I for one am glad that Greg is willing to take the time to fight that fight anyway, messy as it may be.

Jane, thanks for the advice. That is, thanks for suggesting that we shut up, or at least, change our rhetoric to meet your specific requirements. We'll try to do better next time.

Greg - When atheists make claims that are falsified by the listener's own experience (e.g. that all religious people are stupid and irrational, if some of the smartest people we know are religious), they can't complain if they are pigeonholed next to the purveyors of other dogmas that the listener knows to be false. Would you actually want to see agnosticism embraced by the masses? If so, heaping abuse on those who don't already share all of your beliefs is counterproductive. Sometimes you give the impression that you would prefer orthodox atheism to remain the purview of a tiny minority who can sit up on an alleged intellectual mountaintop and sneer down at everyone else.

Jane, which atheists in this conversation have done what you claim? And, do two wrongs make a right?

But thanks, you did provide a great example of telling atheists who were speaking in normal voices to shut up and stop screaming.

No, I didn't tell you to shut up - I didn't even tell the screaming namecallers to shut up - I just point out that open hostility or contempt towards people one claims to want to recruit to one's cause does not make sense. You wouldn't take up an offer to visit the church of a minister who told you that he knew you were an evil scumbag because you weren't already a member. And I don't understand why you would bring up the idea of "two wrongs making a right", as it is precisely my point that they do not, i.e., the fact that some monotheists insult and belittle atheists does not make the reverse behavior either polite or productive.

Jane, you are very wrong in your proclamation that atheists are a small minority group. Atheists, in fact, have a larger population in America than African-Americans. To affirm: there are more atheists in America than almost every other ethnicity. I believe we are long overdue our voice in the political arena.

By Adam Brandt (not verified) on 01 Jan 2014 #permalink

LOL, didn't notice this was from 2012! Ha ha just ignore me.

By Adam Brandt (not verified) on 01 Jan 2014 #permalink

Well not much has changed since 2012, which was actually just barely over a year ago anyway!