Friday, September 18, 2009

Subtle, with Delicate Notes of Frustration: An open letter to those who think Atheist Activism is counterproductive

I've been thinking a lot lately about the fact that atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in America. Mainly because it just feels weird to say that. Let me explain what I mean.

In general, the label of "unfaithful" has historically been used to tar a person's reputation and justify all manner of acts upon said person, from the slightly annoying (conversion attempts) to the truly despicable (torture & execution). In America, we don't really see this latter end of the spectrum very much - yeah, there was that one wacko who shotgunned his atheist roommate 'cuz he thought his roommate was the goddamned Devil, but the perpetrator was prosecuted as a criminal and received neither encouragement nor sanction from any state body (of which I am aware, at least). The hoopla and hootenanny from the Shelton family... I don't think that's intelligent enough to qualify as any kind of expression - but I kid, and here I am trying to be the Serious Big-Time Philosopher.

I tried comparing this to the suffering and persecution heaped upon other minorities in living memory, and I quickly realized that there is no comparison. Atheists get the occasional sneer, the once-in-a-while thoughtless statement of bigotry, a heaping helping of caricaturization from people I've never met, and of course a cultural undercurrent of distrust. If you ask me, this is nothing compared to lynchings, legalized beatings, Proposition 8, or the Holocaust (OMFGodwin!), to name just a few examples. Now, that's a very subjective matter, and I freely acknowledge that a great many individual atheists have been treated worse than a great many individuals of other minorities which were, in general, "more heavily discriminated against." This is for the simple fact that there is almost always more variation within groups than between groups.

What I'm trying to say here is, I recognize that maybe I've simply gotten lucky and perhaps not experienced my fair share of anti-atheist bigotry, and I can see how someone who has would perceive the situation differently than I do right now. Bearing that in mind, and in light of the social undercurrent running right against us, I don't think we have it all that bad. This is perhaps because of the fact that atheists can be truly invisible if we wish to be: nobody can read your mind (yet!), so you can hold whatever manner of private beliefs you like and none shall be the wiser to your imaginary thoughtcrimes.

Paradoxically, this could be seen as the greatest obstacle in our path. Individuals, faced with overwhelming opposition, can fake theism more convincingly than anyone could fake white, fake man, or fake straight. We infidels can blend in with the opposition, and that can make us scarier since we could be "lurking among them, woooo," and this exacerbates the problem. Stealth is easy, safe, and totally counterproductive. While the maxim that an unbeliever is an easier convert than a believer (because he doesn't have to be un-convinced of the "false god" first - like there's any other kind) paints us as argumentative targets, it at least frames our differences in a way that fosters discussion and socialization!

And so, because anti-atheist discrimination is typically so non-violent, and because atheists are so shrilly and embarrassingly painted as "bad guys" in the media for trying to claim some space in the marketplace of ideas (bus ads, anyone?), and because it's so much easier for us to remain individually silent than to organize collectively, and because tolerating intolerance is actually a genuinely important part of civilization, we take a lot of heat for being out, loud, and proud. Should we not turn the other cheek, live better than our oppressors even by their own standards, and be content with the freedom of our own minds? Surely it is better to endure what hardships one can, while not imposing hardships unnecessarily upon those less prepared for them.

But this, too, is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Why, yes, we could patiently endure the backlash from our bus ads, and apologize for inciting excitable children to embarrassing behaviors over words on a sign; and blacks could have patiently stayed at the back of the bus instead of fighting for their right to do as they please. Yes, we could patiently endure the backlash from voicing our opinions in public, and not incite the opposition to further annoying nonsense; and gays could patiently avoid holding hands or kissing in public, instead of doing as they please and fighting whoever tries to get in their way. For that matter, we could simply accept the necessity of pretending at faith if we wish to run for public office, or just stay out of the sickening mess that is American politics; and women could have scrupulously married only men with matching political views, and stayed out of the voting business. Any injustice may be met by turning the other cheek, in point of fact.

What I'm saying is that we shouldn't have to. Nobody should. While the discrimination we face tends to be less violent, easier to avoid, and just generally lower-key than that faced by other minorities, this does not excuse the discrimination. Nothing does. It well and truly does not matter how nice any set of water fountains is; either we're drinking from the same fountain or we're not, and that's what counts, The End.

So to those who advocate quiet tolerance of theistic bigotry, to those who say atheists should let theists go their way and not worry too much about being able to go ours, to those who think that the only good atheist is a self-effacing atheist, I say: You are not our friends. You may wish to be our friends, and that's wonderful, but you are acting like our enemies because you are telling us to lie down and submit, you are telling us to restrain our efforts for social change, you are telling us to use our greatest strengths directly against our most deeply held values. I say, to Hell with that, and shame on you for offering!

But wait - perhaps I am being a bit presumptuous for assuming that you, the General Reader, have thought out the implications of your exhortations as thoroughly as I have. Maybe you honestly didn't see it that way, and maybe we've been talking past each other. Well, I have to say that I am hurt that the above chain of reasoning is not intuitively obvious to you, but I do believe in exercising individual patience with other individuals in order to find common ground. After all, we're all people, and people fuck up & hurt each other from time to time. That sucks, but we have to live with it. How can we move gracefully forward from here, together?

Well, it's like this: we don't want to forcefully remove religion from people's heads, we don't want to take their gods away from them, we just want to have our own elbow room like everyone else. We are willing to let the believers continue to think and express whatever they like, provided they extend to us the exact same courtesy and in all the same ways. Right now, they do not. There is a social asymmetry, and that is the root of our complaint, that is where the bigotry is. It's subtler than many other forms of bigotry, and while that makes it easier to live with, it makes it all the more frustrating when we hear that we ought to live with it. I mean, I'd rather live with this than with Jim Crow laws for atheists, to be sure! But what I'm saying is that a free society and an unrestricted marketplace of ideas entails that neither of these injustices should be an option. We should not have to settle for this. And we don't want to, so we're not gonna.

So if you think that the morals of religion are better than those available to atheists, fine. Go on and disagree with us. If you think that the benefits of religion outweigh its costs, fine. Go on and disagree with us. If you think that religion enriches the human experience instead of warping and stunting it, fine. Go on and disagree with us. We can disagree on these things; it's OK, I promise. In fact, because I like you so much for even trying to give good advice, dear General Reader, I will even go so far as to double-promise. We can get along just fine without getting our way on these issues, no matter how long the disagreement goes, just as long as there is a social symmetry that allows us to breathe freely in an environment of vigorous debate and intense disagreement. We're really OK with this! But if we ourselves aren't also being afforded these very important courtesies, if we are being told to sit down and shut up, if we are told that who we are is just too much for some to tolerate and that's our bad, if we are told that we're better off pandering to the delusions of superiority that so often occur as a side effect of the God-smack, if we aren't also double-promised by the opposition that it's OK for us to disagree with them, then we're not getting along. And that's just not cool. And when you're not cool, then nobody's going to listen to what you want to say.

So help us get our two scoops of justice as swiftly and satisfyingly as possible, or get out of the way, or accept that we won't take anything you say seriously; because we aren't interested in entertaining the opinions of people who have neither constructive suggestions nor even passive support. Pro tip: telling us that it is counterproductive to be who we are and speak our minds openly and honestly is tantamount to telling us that openly and flagrantly defying injustice does not combat injustice. Or like saying that condoms exacerbate the spread of HIV. It's false, and it's so blatantly false that it's an insult.


Typhinius said...

Ok, this ties in really well to the post I just left on the BRA post. I agree with every single damn thing you just said...however, I think you didn't touch on an important part of the issue. Basically, I'm referring to people like me. People who are atheists, but don't really identify themselves as an atheist because they feel like it is a nearly useless category. Sure I'm an atheist, but that's just because I don't believe in God. I have no statistics to back this up, but seeing how unorganized atheists are as a "group" suggests to me that there are a lot of people like me out there who are atheists, but don't "organize" with other atheists.

All that said, writing that has been making me rethink my position a little bit. Since society is discriminating against atheists, that by itself may be reason enough to identify with other atheists, not because I necessarily share any values with other atheists, but for self-preservation. for thought

D said...

Couldn't see England 'cuz I was standing in Trafalgar Square.

My response to your other comment more or less expressed the identical frustrations you expressed in yours here. (Try diagramming that sentence, [my third-grade English teacher]!) Those of us who "band together" as atheists are only able to do so as a reaction to the discrimination.

I think that websites like Daylight Atheism will be outlived by religion at large (at least, I seriously doubt that Adam Lee, the author, will outlive his usefulness in this respect). I have another post coming up that ties it all together rather nicely. The basic idea is that, as activists, we're behaving as a social conscience. We shouldn't have to, but this is what's going on, so we have to go a little bit overboard to set things right (rather than behaving as we would in a perfect world).