May 13, 2009

Opposing Anti-Atheist Bigotry While Mocking the Religious

There has long been disagreement among atheists about how best to balance our criticism of religion with our desire to end anti-atheist bigotry. On the surface, it seems like we are trying to have it both ways (i.e., we get to criticize religion but you can't insult atheism without being called a bigot). Yet, we do not have to dig far beneath the surface to expose this as a false dichotomy.

Are Atheists Trying to Have it Both Ways?

The crux of the matter was recently summarized by a commenter, Eric, on Paul Fidalgo's blog as follows:
I especially enjoy how the author cries about being persecuted for his beliefs while calling Kirk Cameron a loon out of the other side of his mouth. Listening to the Atheist community whine about how they are treated rings kind of hollow after reading internet message boards where they relentlessly attack christian beliefs. The whole thing makes me want to go back to church, but they're just saying the same stupid stuff about atheists.
Essentially, Paul was taken to task for expressing opposition to anti-atheist bigotry while criticizing Kirk Cameron's idiocy. However, Eric also raised the larger and more important question of how atheists can oppose bigotry directed at themselves while apparently engaging in the same directed at Christian beliefs.

Paul acknowledged Eric's point and took a swipe at those of us who regularly make a point out of mocking absurd beliefs, Christian or otherwise:
Point taken. Indeed, I'm pretty wary of the mock-the-Christians genre of atheist blog posts myself (not that I am totally innocent of this).
He then made an important distinction between criticizing one's beliefs and "outright persecution or dehumanization." He correctly notes that there is a world of difference between his reference to Kirk Cameron as a "loon" and what Cameron and other Christian extremists seek to accomplish.

However, Paul then loses me completely when he says,
So perhaps it's not fair to call him a loon, or (hypothetically) malicious, deceptive, or stupid.
Paul has been criticized for this post. Personally, I see pointing out the problems associated with irrational belief to be both a right and a responsibility. When Cameron introduces gibberish into the discourse, he deserves to be called on it. Paul agrees with this but says that the line should be drawn at mockery. I'd argue that if the statements warrant mockery, they should receive it.

Regardless, it seems that atheists are saying that they should be immune to mockery while the religious are fair game. But is this really what atheists are saying?

Understanding Bigotry

Remember that bigotry involves two components: falsehood and unwarranted generalization. Describing Kirk Cameron as a "loon" is not a generalization at all (I'd argue that it is also not a falsehood, but let's set that aside for now). On the other hand, statements along the lines of "All Christians are..." necessarily involve a generalization.

Take this for a test drive.
Christians are self-righteous morons.
Here we have an untrue generalization and thus bigotry.
Vjack is an arrogant imbecile who should not be allowed to blog at all.
I may not like this, but it is not a generalization of any sort and thus does not qualify as bigotry. Criticism? Sure. Personal insult? Absolutely. But not bigotry.

If we in the atheist community are saying that we should not be criticized, then we are certainly trying to have it both ways because we have been very critical of Christian beliefs. However, this is not at all what I see us doing. I see us opposing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination. What I do not see us doing, at least not most of us, is engaging in anti-Christian bigotry or discrimination.

But Atheists Should Be Nicer

This is an entirely different statement with little actual relevance to the present discussion. I suspect that some atheists would agree with this statement. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've been told something about flies, honey, and vinegar. Frankly, I don't care for any of these things. But seriously, this is a different discussion and not one that should be mixed up with terms such as "bigotry" or "discrimination."