May 24, 2009

Anti-Atheist Bigotry: Still Socially Acceptable in America

The Los Angeles Times building as seen from Gr...Image via Wikipedia
I'm not sure why I've held off in posting about Charlotte Allen's bigoted tirade against atheists in the LA Times. I started to do so several times before becoming so enraged about the latest Catholic child abuse scandal that I forgot about it. It isn't so much that I find myself exhausted from confronting bigotry and the perils of religious belief (although I do certainly feel this way at times). I actually feel somewhat energized and ready to take on whatever comes next. In any case, I've held off long enough. Allen's piece is a clear example of anti-atheist bigotry, and I want this post to show exactly why this is the case.

A Valuable Example From Friendly Atheist

We'll review our definition of bigotry in a moment and see that the Allen piece fits it perfectly, but I'd like to start with an excellent teaching example from Friendly Atheist. He suggests that we replace the word "atheist" with the word "Jew" in Allen's article. By doing this, he produces the following:

Here’s why I can’t stand Jews.
  • They’re boring.
  • They keep complaining about being oppressed.
  • They keep talking about the same damn things all the time — Holocaust this and Israel that.
  • They always claim they’re victims.
  • They only constitute a small percentage of Americans — probably because they can’t win over any converts.
  • They still complain about how state Constitutions bar them from holding office — really, only six of them do — even though the Supreme Court has said those provisions are unenforceable.
  • They want affirmative action for their kind — one representative from the “pity-poor-me” school of Jews even said they need “safe spaces” at colleges!
  • They assume everyone who doesn’t agree with them is “beyond stupid.”
  • They never want to take on the serious arguments that theologians have made in favor of the Christian god.
  • Some Jews think Jesus never even existed. So what do they know?
  • They’re not rational. They’re just angry. Angry because they think the world is unfair to them. Angry that someone forced them to go to church as a child. Some Jews are so angry, they sued the government to prevent a Christian prayer from being spoken at President Obama’s inauguration. The gall!
He then points out the obvious: if Allen had written this, she would have been widely (and appropriately) condemned and likely forced to resign. He's right. A newspaper like the LA Times never would have considered publishing such an article. And yet, they deemed it perfectly acceptable for Allen to say these things about atheists.

But Does It Meet Our Definition of Bigotry?

Here was how I defined bigotry previously:

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).
With this in mind, it is fairly obvious that Allen's article drips with anti-atheist bigotry. She repeatedly refers to "atheists" without any limiting specifiers (i.e., she is making unwarranted generalizations about all atheists), and she spews one false statement after another. Saying "I can't stand atheists...because they're crashing bores" is akin to saying "I can't stand blacks...because they're lazy." In both cases, we see false statements applied in generalized fashion to all members of the groups. In both cases, we have bigotry.

The problem we are confronting here, quite clearly, is that anti-atheist bigotry remains socially acceptable in a way that other forms of bigotry are not. If this changes, it will change because of what atheists (and our allies) do. If it does not change, our apathy and inaction are to blame.

The good news is that many atheists are indeed speaking out on this subject. I hope they will continue to do so.