October 8, 2014

The Atheists Who Would Silence You

Freethought
Freethought (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In continuing on with a recent theme, let's talk about the people who want to shut you up. Who are these people who not only do not like what you have to say but want to stop you from saying it? Many of them are religious believers, so we can start with them.

The religious extremists want to make it a crime to say what you say: blasphemy. They are willing to punish you for insulting their sacred cows. Depending on the country in which you live, the sort of punishment they have in mind could involve taking your life. It may be an exercise of state power, or it may take the form of mob violence.

The religious liberals and moderates also want to silence you, but they have a different approach for doing so. Instead of resorting to violence, their preferred form of punishment involves inflicting damage (or threatening to inflict damage) on your reputation, status, relationships, or standing in the community. Relying on the long tradition of religious privilege, they use public shaming and social disapproval to keep you in line. Speaking out against their sacred cows is impolite, improper, and brings a variety of social sanctions. If you do not conform, you will be demonized. Think you are immune to social disapproval? Maybe you are one of the lucky few. In that case, they may work to get you fired, chase your customers away, turn your neighbors against you, spread rumors about your family members, and so on. There is plenty they can do to make your life more difficult even if you do not happen to care what they think of you.

When religious believers use the methods described above to silence dissent, they do so with a clear conscience. They are right and you are wrong, not in a factual sense but in a moral sense. Their cause is just, and you are an agent of evil. The religious extremists who sentence you to death do not lose any sleep over their decision, and neither do the religious moderates who spread malicious rumors about you in the workplace. Their acts are righteous, imbued with the power of their religious convictions. You could have joined them; the fact that you didn't is proof of how wicked you are.

But it isn't just the religious believers who want to silence you. As strange as it sounds, some of those who want to silence you are atheists. And sadly, they rely on a secular version of the processes the religious liberals and moderates use to punish you and to justify their actions. They claim offense, blame you for causing the offense, and then bring to bear tremendous social pressures aimed at silencing you. Failure to conform will be met with an intentional process of marginalization. Like the religious liberals and moderates, these atheists will attempt to damage your reputation, status, and standing (e.g., public encouragement of widespread shunning, labeling you a "psychopath" or an "MRA" when you dare to express viewpoints contrary to their own). They too will lean heavily on public shaming and social disapproval. And if you do not bend to their will, they too will try to harm your livelihood, turn others against you, and so on.

What I find most remarkable about this isn't that atheists are capable of behaving every bit as badly as religious believers or that some atheists would seek to crush the free expression of ideas while simultaneously claiming to represent freethought. No, such things no longer surprise me like they once did. The part I find most interesting is how closely the manner in which these atheists justify their behavior resembles what the religious believers do. The atheists who want to silence you are every bit as convinced that their cause is righteous and that you are morally wrong. They tell you that you must pick sides, but theirs is the only acceptable choice. If you do not pick it, they will demonize and depersonalize you (e.g., you are now a misogynist, a "dudebro," a "chill girl") in order to justify their treatment of you. By equating your dissent with "harassment" and applying these labels to you, they feel entitled to punish you without having to worry about the hypocrisy of their acts.

When the religious believer seeking to silence you tells you that your refusal to hold your tongue makes you a bad person, you laugh it off. You recognize how ridiculous this is, and while you may respect the right of the religious believer to his or her beliefs, you are not going to let yourself be silenced by this absurd notion that the beliefs themselves deserve so much respect that they are off limits to criticism or disagreement. And yet, when the atheist seeking to silence you tells you that your refusal to refrain from criticizing his or her bad ideas makes you "a misogynist" or "one of my harassers," you may feel the need to justify yourself in ways you never would to the religious believer. Perhaps this is unnecessary.

Atheists who seek to stifle the expression of dissent and disagreement in the public forum of the Internet have not only divorced themselves from the skeptical movement; they have divorced themselves from freethought itself. By joining those religious believers who seek to protect their cherished beliefs from criticism and who treat people poorly for daring to express disagreement, they have abandoned freethought and allied themselves with the forces of repression. They have become the agents of intolerance they claim to oppose.

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