Shaming the Atheists

Didn’t We Get Enough Shaming When We Were Religious?

There is no possible way to discuss deeply held beliefs without offending someone who either holds or doesn’t hold those beliefs. As a blanket statement laid on with a broad brush and as a generalization to boot, I have not been able to find a way for everyone to be happy when it comes to discussing atheism and religion. I have read and listened; I have spoken and watched. I have said nice things to people about themselves, followed with a critique of religion and then bookended with a nice thing about that person again, only to be told I am a hateful bigot and arrogant.

While I know that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, I wonder how positive “positive atheists” should continue to be, with the awareness that somewhere along the line, no matter how we try, someone is going to be offended. If I were to criticize the Catholic Church for not doing enough to root out the pedophiles in the priesthood, or the Mormon Church for putting time and effort into denying the rights of gays and lesbians to marry their partner-of-choice, or Scientologists for sending a team of volunteer ministers to Haiti to provide victims with “touch assists,” or even to complain that my daughter was told by a fellow little girl that she was “going to Hell” for sticking up her middle finger, then someone would decide that I was being intolerant of others’ religious beliefs and just another example of a militant atheist.

It seems not to matter how civil we are when we complain about religion; we atheists become “bashers” and “nasty” and “militant” for being non-believers. We are out to evangelize the believers to be non-believers, and the only way we can win is to shame other atheists.

To me, there seems to be a growing number of atheists who want to see religion destroyed. I think these people, who may have always been around, are the ones who can make the community suffer. It is difficult to form a community around what you don’t believe in and that is what atheists do. Atheists are an incredibly diverse community, however, those who participate in organizations seem to be overwhelmingly liberal politically, don’t have kids, or their kids are out of the house. Most seem to have been raised with a religion and have sought out a community because it can be difficult to, in some cases, be rejected from friends and family because you don’t happen to share the same views on theology.

I consider the writer to be a friend but I think he is wrong in this post. There is good reason that many of us would like to see religion gone, and it is religion itself, not the people who are religious, that we want to see wither and die. Religion is given too much leeway and power when determining policy in our “secular society.” Religion is used to justify prejudices, to justify destruction of childrens’ bodies in order to “protect them” from having sexual desire, to keep women hidden and out of society in order to protect society from chaos and earthquakes, to opt out of filling prescriptions by pharmacists who object to the particular treatment because of their religion’s teachings and to urge prayer when other work can and should be done.

It’s a sweeping generalization to say that dissing religion is bigotry against religious people. Are atheists actively engaged in not hiring religious people? Are we trying to prevent them from holding public office? Are we censoring them or telling them that they can’t depict our heroes in a bad light (or any light at all for that matter)? Are we telling them that they have no place in politics, nor should they even be considered citizens, let alone patriots? I don’t think so, at least not in the United States and Canada. We are telling them that they don’t have the right to use their religion’s rules as the basis of secular laws. We are telling them that it is a violation of the concept of a secular government, and that the National Day of Prayer is inconsistent with the Constitution as written and interpreted. We are telling them that they shouldn’t pretend that their religion is as valid a way of “knowing” as the scientific process of discovery and interpretation.

No matter how carefully I tread on subjects I will find myself accused of being a meanie for violating somebody’s rules, and I will be subject to some “concern” about the way that the overall atheist community is perceived by me. When I was the host of the Minnesota Atheists’ radio show “Atheists Talk,” I invited someone to listen to the show one Sunday because I was personally excited to be on the airways, but his response was not be excited for me. Instead he simply said “Well good for you but I have no interest in spending an hour listening to you bash religion.” He never listened to the show, because he had predetermined that he wouldn’t be interested in it. I cajoled and explained that this was not what the show was about, but was told to change the subject and I was disappointed that as a friend he wouldn’t even give my show a chance.

My dismay comes from an observation that those who don’t like the New Atheists are behaving in the same manner towards them as they accuse the New Atheists of behaving towards the religious, and as the Grassroots Skeptic puts it:

Almost nobody is going to be able to respond to a perceived attack in any positive way. They’re bound to get defensive, or to respond with an attack of their own. If you’ve ever made the argument that some institution or individual was in some way bad for the skeptical movement, ask yourself honestly: did you phrase your assertion in a way that had any hope of persuading your newfound nemesis to take a step back and consider adjusting his or her methods? Or did you grow a big ol’ pair of Internet cojones, call him or her something awful that you’d never say in real life, and enjoy the momentary adrenalin rush you got from stirring the pot with the bitchy stick?

Last November PZ Myers agreed to “debate” Jerry Bergman on whether or not Intelligent Design should be taught in school. During the “debate” Bergman frequently used his own slides to counter a point that Myers was making while Myers was speaking. I found that action to be very rude. I wasn’t as upset over the content of Bergman’s slides, I was angry that while the other person was speaking Bergman was trying to distract the audience from what Myers was saying. During the debate Myers respected the time limits, attacked his opponents presentation methods and conclusions and expressed dismay that Bergman had not even approached the subject of the debate. At no time was Myers rude to Bergman personally, but only to his ideas. And yet, in the comments submitted following the debate people wrote that Myers was the rude and dismissive one. For people who have a set idea that is not gained by reason, any sort of approach that attacks that set idea no matter how nicely done may be considered “rude.”

There are rules we must follow in order to have civil debate, and violating those rules raises concern.

Someone expressed concern that at Minnesota Atheist meetings there was too much religion-bashing going on, and because of that as, she told a friend of mine, she wasn’t going to go back to any more meetings. What I have a hard time with is understanding why someone would go to a meeting at which atheists gather under a banner of atheism and not expect there to be any sort of talk against religion. I think it would be similar to objecting to people bashing Miller Beer at the Surly Brewery, or Apple at a Microsoft Picnic, or contact lenses at a gathering of Lasik Surgeons or Democrats at a Republican Convention. As in “I am for lower taxes and squashing education but those Republicans are so anti-Democrat that I can’t stand to be around them.” I need to ask, “What do you expect?”

There are so many secular groups and organizations to join and have fun and never even discuss religion in any context, positive or negative. Perhaps a bowling league, or a weekly cribbage club may suit you instead of an atheist group. Our community includes people who have been religious and are now disgusted at the effects that an overriding religious tenor to society has on our daily lives and want to be part of a group that recognizes that disgust and gives them an outlet to vent their frustration in a friendly environment. If, as atheists, our only desire and goal should be to be accepted as part of the larger community then our best strategy is perhaps to return to the closet and never say nothin’ about not believing.

Yes, that would be the best way for all of us to “just get along.”

Or we could also stop trying to shame vocal atheists and recognize that some people have a reason to be angry at religion.

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16 Responses to “Shaming the Atheists”

  1. May 6th, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Leo says:

    Mike, there are very few atheists (who aren’t named Chris Mooney) who have a problem with vocal atheists. Nor is there a problem with criticism of religion. Where I personally see a problem emerging is that some (not all, but a sizable portion of) atheists are engaging in the same sort of othering and (sometimes) outright bigotry that we detest in religious believers. Winning battles against religion has become their raison d’etre. Furthermore, they wish to take their war into places where it isn’t wanted or needed.

    For instance, I was reproached by some atheists for suggesting that we work with Americans United For Separation of Church and State. Their reasoning was that AU’s executive director is the Reverend Barry Lynn and sometimes they fight for the rights of other religious believers to practice their faith.

    Another time I was verbally attacked for simply posting a notice of Blog Against Theocracy, including their standard blurb which says in part, “This is not a bashing of religion – peeps can believe what they choose, however they choose — but it is a reminder that the Government should keep out of religion, and Religion should keep out of the government.” I was berated because I thought it was possible to write in favor of church-state separation without attacking someone else’s religious beliefs; that it’s possible to sometimes work with religious believers on issues of common concern.

    Sometimes the enemy is us.

  2. May 6th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    NewEnglandBob says:

    Well said, Mike. There does seem to be a lot of hypocrites around.
    .

  3. May 6th, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Crystal D. says:

    I just think that when we’re organizing meet ups, we can’t decide what people decide to talk about or how they decide to say things. Also, I know for a fact that people discuss these matters when they feel they are amongst friends, and I think that says a lot for building a community.

    One of my husband’s friends once told me “We don’t discuss religion, politics or anything that could upset anyone with friends or family.” Oh fun, you sit around talking about the weather then. Oh wait, no, that has the potential to piss people off, too… Silent gatherings of friends and family… I get worried when I hear these kinds of things- what have I said wrong? Have I offended you but you’re not telling me? Now do I have to worry about everything I say to you? Or every link I share? Or anything that I like or think is funny? This is not how I like to live my life.

  4. May 6th, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    MadScientist says:

    Ah, the “evil godless people” schtick – and the religiotards call *us* bigots. We’re just supposed to shut up and “respect” their lies. Let’s see …. boobs cause earthquakes, woman is inferior to man, fags and lesbians are evil … oh, religion is such a wonderful thing! It’s comical how religions decry self-righteousness – any yet so many religions are nothing but self-righteous.

  5. May 6th, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Iain Davidson says:

    I am sure (now–I was not always thus) that it is futile to attack religion. Dan Dennett describes the process and reaction very well in his book “Breaking the spell”, which is the best of the noughties god books. If I understand it correctly, he is really saying that if we want to counter the evils that religions often bring with them we really need to understand them, and particularly the strength they gain from opposition.
    My personal view is that we should react towards them as if they were just another lobby group, another club that brings comfort and benefits from membership. Attacking people for belonging to Rotary is absurd.

  6. May 6th, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Heather says:

    I thought being self-righteous was the whole point. If you aren’t, why have religion? It might be too narrow a view, since when I was religious I was also self-righteous, but I’ve never met someone who was religious who wasn’t self-righteous. Just, not all are totally obnoxious about it.

  7. May 6th, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I experience that too, Heather and I am not surprised when I do, but I would rather not get it from fellow atheists.

  8. May 6th, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Paul S. says:

    I can only give my own, which is probably worth about as much as you’re paying for it, but I would probably have a much more positive view of atheism and atheists if it was not for two things that especially get to me:

    1. The implicit assumption that seems to lie behind most atheist arguments that religion is either the result of sheer stupidity or intellectual laziness, when there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that either of those assumptions is true.

    2. Atheists pointing out the worst abuses done by people in the name of religion, and somehow jumping to the conclusion that religion is directly responsible for those abuses. Blaming Christianity itself for the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or the recent child abuse scandals makes about as much sense as blaming atheism by itself for the Soviet gulags. I’ve seen a lot of atheists rightly call BS when their opponents make the “atheism always leads to totalitarian dictatorship” argument, but they don’t seem aware that a lot of their own arguments are just as flimsy.

  9. May 6th, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Iain, if the local fundies kept to themselves as nicely as the local Rotarians, I might agree with you. This happens to be the time of year when evolution is being taught in some of the local school biology classes. It is religions people who are explicitly, intentionally, trying to interfere with other people’s education because they disagree with their beliefs.

  10. May 7th, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Scotlyn says:

    I think a quote of Michael Nugent’s is apt for this discussion (he is the chair of Atheist Ireland, which is currently engaged in a campaign for a referendum to remove references to blasphemy from our constitution). I am paraphrasing, but he said, “Our constitution must protect people from harm, but never ideas from scrutiny.” Perhaps the education system (there used to be a thing called a “civics” class?) is one place where people might learn to distinguish correctly between unlawful harm to their persons and perfectly legitimate scrutiny of their ideas.

  11. May 7th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Iain Davidson says:

    Greg, the fact about the timing of the teaching of evolution was one I did not know. It is still the case that insofar as religious people are going to listen to people challenging what they know on the grounds that it is just belief. There are comforts people get from religion that cannot be challenged simply by telling them they are wrong, and they are partly the same comforts from being a member of Rotary. So proselytising atheism will not work because it is not a club which offers those comforts, even though not believing in gods makes more sense. And as for influencing the teaching of evolution, I would have thought that it would be more successful among non-fundamentalists NOT to point to the incompatibility between religion and evolution. There are many scientists who maintain a quiet religious belief. For me, the really strong point we have to offer as anthropologists is the universal existence of origin myths many of which would not bear scrutiny in any way (think of Greek myths). So the general case is that people want stories of origins and these can be replaced within cultures, just as the Greek gods are not now generally worshipped (I think). So I would think the way to go is to emphasise the mythical nature of Genesis–an entirely respectable thing for it to be at the time when there was no scientific knowledge. I just think, and I think that Dennett shows, that most religions thrive on persecution so it is counter productive.

  12. May 7th, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    I don’t think proselytising atheism has any real value, but that isn’t the same thing as fighting religion, or more exactly, doing battle (and I use metaphor fairly non-specifically) with certain forces, as it were.

    Yesterday, a teacher I know was challenged in class regarding the age of the earth by students who wanted to know where Adam and Eve fit into the story. Today, one of those students showed up with a “Jesus” tee-shirt. Parents of some of the students have harassed this teacher at school conferences. The process of covering the topic of evolution in that high school is a veritable nightmare.

    It’s a fight they started, and we have to finish it. We’ve pretty much won in the courts but school administrators are not yet sufficiently on bard that science teachers still feel, realistically, that if they do stand up FOR evolution too strongly they can be fired. That wil change, though.

  13. May 7th, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    OMG, there’s a story that just came up on the news. Some baby in Minnetonka has diaper rash, and the parents want answers!!!!!!

  14. May 7th, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Heather says:

    That’s easy: keep the baby’s bottom drier and cleaner. After all, cleanliness is next to….

  15. May 8th, 2010 at 7:39 am

    DuckPhup says:

    People who don’t know how to think properly tend to regard ‘belief’ as a sort of one-size-fits-all thing… but it isn’t. Belief is one of those concepts that has subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) context-based qualitative differences in nuance of meaning. For example, the statements “I believe in God” and “I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow” are not even remotely similar in their essence, and in their implications.

    In the context of religion, ‘belief’ is the ILLUSION of knowledge… a lame and pathetic substitute for ACTUAL knowledge (or the intellectually-honest admission that actual knowledge is unavailable or inaccessible). Such ‘belief’ is initiated and sustained by ‘faith’ (wishful, magical thinking)… a lame and pathetic substitute for facts, evidence, logic and reason.

    The answer that one gives to the question “Do you believe in God” is a 95% (my estimate) accurate indicator of whether one is capable of ‘critical thinking’, or not. I only claim 95% accuracy (it’s probably higher) because there are obvious anomalies (or aberrations, I guess) in the person of folks like Michael Collins and Ken Miller, who seem to have the ability to employ critical thinking in the lab… and then (paradoxically) check-in their brains at the church door.

    Why is that ‘rule-of-thumb’ so accurate? Because ‘critical thinking’ is NOT an innate human ability… even though the Dunning-Kruger effect leads us to (erroneously) think that it is… and there are TWO important variables (at least) that figure into the ‘equation’. First, one must possess the intellectual ability to DO critical thinking… an ability which my personal experience suggests does not even kick-in until somewhere in the 2nd deviation above ‘normal’ on the IQ Bell Curve. But even THAT is not enough; you’ve got to LEARN how to do it. Presuming that one has the intellectual potential, the only reasonably sure path to learning critical thinking skills is an advanced degree in one of the ‘hard’ (as opposed to ‘fuzzy’) sciences. It’s possible to get an advanced degree in some scientific disciplines and STILL never even have heard of ‘critical thinking’.

    In other words… apart from an advanced degree in one of the ‘hard’ sciences… anyone who manages to acquire critical thinking skills does so IN SPITE OF his education, not BECAUSE of it.

    On top of that, we’re faced with ‘Christian’ colleges and universities, and so-called ‘Christian Academies’ and home schooling, which all CLAIM to teach ‘critical thinking’. There’s a problem, though; they DEFINE ‘critical thinking’ as the intellectual process of reconciling facts and evidence… both scientific and historical… with scripture. In other words, if the facts don’t support scripture, and they cannot be bent, folded, spindled and mutilated to the point of creating the ILLUSION that they conform to scripture… they are ignored, or rejected out-of-hand. The phrase ‘classical Christian education’ is code for that process.

    Now this… religious ‘belief’ simply cannot withstand the glaring light of reason, logic and critical thinking… it just evaporates… poof (although ‘poof’ can sometimes take years). So… in light of the above… it can reasonably be said that around 85% of adult Americans have NEVER APPLIED reason, logic and critical thinking to their religious ‘beliefs’.

    Why not?

    Because they CAN’T.

    OK… now we get to the pertinent comment. There’s something that happens to non-critical thinkers when they ‘believe’ something (religious) that defines their reality. Their ‘beliefs’ (the ILLUSION of knowledge) get internalized and incorporated into their ‘self-description’… and any criticism of those ‘beliefs’ is irrationally perceived as a personal insult, or an actual attack upon the ‘self’, very little different from a ‘physical’ attack, and (more often than not) elicits a defensive, ego-based response.

    So, how can we ‘reason’ with someone whose world-view… whose sense of ‘reality’… depends directly from the myths, superstitions, fairy-tales and fantastical delusions of an ignorant gaggle of Bronze Age fishermen and peripatetic, militant, marauding, murdering, genocidal goat-herders?

    Easy… we can’t.

    *** “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” ~ Jonathan Swift ***

  16. May 8th, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Norm says:

    One thing I have learned in the many conversations I have had with theists over the years is that the human brain is extremely adept at compartmentalization. Having met many intelligent people who describe themselves as religious to varying degrees, I will disagree with any blanket characterization of self-described religious people as stupid, but I have noticed that most of them are either unable or unwilling to apply the same standards they use for evaluating claims they encounter in everyday life to those they encounter in a religious context. I think part of this has to do with the heinous practice of indoctrinating children. By instilling the concept of eternal punishment at an age when most children are barely able to tie their own shoes, much less think independently and question authority, most religious systems are able to effectively insure themselves from any sort of critical examination even after children do develop those abilities. This, along with the well-researched and documented effects of the positive influence that being part of a strong community has on most people’s lives, constitute the main reasons why I think why religions have stuck around for as long as they have even in an age where most of their factual claims can be refuted without much effort.

    While I will still get involved in the occasional debate with a theist, I have realized that because of the strong barriers they have built to insulate their beliefs from any reasoned criticism (how else does an idea as malignant as Original Sin still get propagated and defended?), it is nigh useless to directly question them. The best that I think we can hope to do is to illustrate that it is possible to reap the benefits of being part of a strong community without the necessity of adhering to and (in most cases) promoting a set of ideas that make no sense after even the most cursory reasoned analysis.

    As someone who was raised in a strongly religious environment, and who continues to witness the negative effects of religious belief among both my immediate and extended family, I am grateful for the outlet that atheist communities give me to occasionally let fly a good old-fashioned rant against all things religious, even though I know it is better to use the scalpel than the hammer, so in a sense I disagree with the writer of the first post that Mike references. As long as there are people who have been scarred by religious upbringings, atheist communities must continue to provide them with a forum where they can vent their anger and share their stories in a non-judgmental and supportive setting. However, I am not going to berate the writer simply because we disagree on this particular point. I do agree with the writer that too much negativity sometimes does poison the well and works against the maintenance of the strong communities we need to be working hard to build.

    One point the writer mentions is that most atheist communities are made up of members who either have no children, or whose children are grown. This is definitely true in much of my experience with organized atheist and humanist groups, but it is starting to change (I have a 9-month old son) and is something that needs to continue if we are to ever gain any headway against the prevalence of religious ideas in our culture. The more progress we can make in stopping the indoctrination of children, the more we can look forward to a day when religion no longer holds so many people in thrall.

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