November 4, 2013

Assertive Atheism in the Face of Christian Ignorance and Bigotry

Penn Jillette
Cover of Penn Jillette
I hope everybody had a great JesusWeen. I was surprised to discover that the local Wal-Mart does not sell bags of Christian bibles in the Halloween candy aisle for distribution to the neighborhood children. Thanks for ruining my JesusWeen, Wal-Mart! Oh well. November is here now, and I suppose it is time to move on and leave all the fun behind. Next up on our list of annual holiday themed subjects will be the garbage about how atheists cannot be thankful on Thanksgiving because we have no gods to thank. I suppose the Christians who insist on making this silly claim every year are incapable of experiencing feelings of gratitude toward their fellow humans. How incredibly sad for them! But this is not a Thanksgiving post, and we have most of November for addressing such things.

In this post, I'd like to address a topic about which I have been thinking a great deal lately: patience. And by patience, I am really thinking of how patient atheists have been with religious believers when it comes to the ignorance and bigotry that frequently comes our way. This is particularly true for those who represent the public face of our community to the news media. We have taken great pains to be civil, to be polite, and even to be respectful when met with ignorant statements made about atheism and about atheists. We have smiled in the face of these statements and sought to provide what might be described as firm but gentle correction. For the most part, I think this has been successful. I doubt we've changed many minds in the media, but I imagine some in the audience have questioned their preconceived notions about us.

Here's the thing - I am incredibly tired of being patient and seeing others be so patient. I recognize that I say this as someone who is incredibly impatient by nature, something I've long recognized as a flaw of my character. And yet, I cannot help myself from wondering how much longer we are going to play this game. At what point will we collectively say that it is time for the gloves to come off and for us to begin hitting back (verbally, of course) when it comes to persistent ignorance despite years of respectful correction and anti-atheist bigotry?

Let me give you a specific example of what I'd like to see more of from atheists who interact with the news media. Penn Jillette recently appeared on a morning news show to plug his book, Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday!, and encountered considerable ignorance from anchor Robin Baumgarten. When she suggested that the title of Jillette's book had an angry undertone, he did not merely smile and brush past the comment; he called her on it. Here's the video (if you have trouble seeing it here, you can also try this link).



I've never been a fan of Jillette, but he did exactly what I would love to see more of from atheists who appear in the media: he did not let ignorant comments slide but turned up the heat on the person making them. Best of all, he managed to do this in an assertive manner without seeming overly hostile. This is what someone who is confident and self-assured but who is also no longer willing to put up with nonsense might look like.

At some point, I think it is fair for atheists in the U.S. to expect that most our Christian neighbors can set aside their ignorance and bigotry. And if they do not, then I think we need to be increasingly comfortable calling them out for it in the moment like Jillette did in this interview. Are we at this point yet? I certainly hope so.

H/T to Friendly Atheist

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