August 1, 2008

Ending Anti-Atheist Bigotry: What You Can Do

I have been reflecting lately on what I want to do with this blog in the future. I think it would be useful to have something like a platform for which I would develop a set of objectives to pursue via Atheist Revolution. This would not force me to rigidly adhere to these objectives but could serve as a guide for letting readers know what to expect. This is not something I am going to rush. Instead, I plan to roll out various objectives gradually as they occur to me. This post signals the first such objective: ending anti-atheist bigotry.

No, I'm not suffering from the fantasy that I can single-handedly end anti-atheist bigotry. Far from it. However, I am convinced that I can and should help. I would like to outline my strategy, but before I do so, some background is necessary.

The Nature of Bigotry

In a nutshell, bigotry involves two ingredients: falsehood and unwarranted generalization. A false statement is applied to the victim of bigotry, often involving condemnation, by the bigot solely for belonging to a particular group. The bigot generalizes from an individual case (e.g., one lazy African American) to an entire group (e.g., African Americans).

A Christian who says that atheists eat babies is engaging in bigotry. The claim is false and involves the unwarranted generalization in that the claim is applied to all atheists based on their membership in the atheist category.

Saying, "I wish Jesse Jackson would shut the hell up" is not bigotry. Referring to Asian people as "gooks" and then refusing to apologize for it is bigotry. In the first case, I am expressing negative attitudes toward a single individual. In the second case, I am using a racial slur to label an entire group of people. Because the slur is negative, such a statement amounts to a condemnation of the group based on their membership in the group.

It is often said that bigotry is based on ignorance. The lack of factual information can lead one to make false claims without realizing they are false, and poor reasoning ability can lead one to make generalizations without realizing that they are unjustified.

Recognizing Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Saying something negative about an atheist or expressing disagreement with atheism in general does not constitute anti-atheist bigotry. What I look for in identifying bigotry, regardless of the target, is the combination of falsehood and unwarranted generalization.

Suppose a Christian says that her god has been such an important part of her life that she does not understand how atheists can be fulfilled without believing in her god. This may be silly, but it is not bigotry. But suppose this same Christian says that atheists are immoral because they do not believe in her god. Now we're talking bigotry.

The point worth making here is that just because you or I do not like a statement does not make it bigoted. Look for the false claim which is generalized to the entire group on the basis of group membership. Examples of anti-atheist bigotry are unfortunately easy to find (see the Monique Davis case for a particularly disturbing example).

What About Bigoted Atheists?

I recognize that identifying bigotry can become problematic when we start talking about religion. When a Christian accuses Muslims of worshiping a "false god," is this evidence of bigotry? Not necessarily. After all, the Christian is making a factually correct statement here. But as soon as the Christian begins threatening hell, damnation, and issuing moral condemnation, he or she enters the domain of the bigot. Of course, the god of Islam is no less false than that of Christianity. Both Muslims and Christians worship false (in the sense of being nonexistent) gods. But does saying so make me a bigot? Not if I am also stating a fact.

Where atheists can and do enter the territory of bigotry is when we start condemning Christians simply for being Christian (e.g., "Christians are stupid."). Bigotry involves the condemnation of entire groups of people on the basis of their membership in that group. Atheists are certainly not immune from making this mistake too. We would do well to remember that there are plenty of Christians who are good people.

Ending Anti-Atheist Bigotry

In order to end anti-atheist bigotry, we need to do the following:

  • Root it out wherever it occurs and label it bigotry. When we encounter anti-atheist bigotry, we must call it what it is - bigotry. Most of the time, I believe that the anti-atheist bigot does not perceive his or her statements as bigotry. We must point this out.
  • Use our numbers effectively. Whenever expressions of anti-atheist bigotry occur in the media, we are likely to need numbers to make our point. One or two comments is unlikely to change anyone's mind, but 20-30 might for many smaller media outlets. Obviously, this requires organization and communication. This is yet another reason why we need to get organized. In the meantime, social media can be helpful.
  • Adopt a stance of educator. Unless it is obvious that the bigot is deliberately attacking atheists and has a track record for doing so, I suggest that those responding to anti-atheist bigotry assume that this is unintentional bigotry and assume the role of educator. Explain why the statements were inaccurate, hurtful, or otherwise inappropriate, but refrain from heated counter attacks. I think this is likely to be a more effective approach for the unintentional bigots.
  • Model reason. I hope this is obvious to most, but we cannot resort to bigotry against the religious if we are serious about ending bigotry against atheists. We must demonstrate what reason and tolerance look like.
If you want to see atheist equality, it is imperative that we end anti-atheist bigotry. Working against anti-atheist bigotry will be one of my core objectives here, and I hope you will join me in doing what you can to oppose it as well.

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