September 23, 2012

Post on Islamophobia Elicits Strong Reaction

I wrote a post yesterday on the subject of Islamophobia. In it, I said that I found it to be a nonsensical term because I do not see any connection between phobias and what people mean by this term. I wrote that the term reflects negative attitudes toward Islam and/or Muslims, and I suggested that we be more precise in our terminology. That is, if we are trying to convey anti-Islam sentiment or hatred of Muslims, we say so. I might call myself an anti-theist, but it would not occur to me to call myself a "theistophobe." I noted that I have a similar reaction when I hear homophobia because this too seems to be more about hatred and bigotry than fear. When I encounter someone who is an anti-gay bigot, I prefer to use that terminology as I do not assume they are driven primarily by fear.

Of all the posts I've written here, I would have rated this one as among the least likely to be controversial. And yet, the post prompted one of the strongest negative reactions I've received from another atheist blogger. I seem to have hit a nerve without knowing why. Here's how Austin Cline ( approached the subject on Twitter:

I must have screwed up big time to have prompted such a response from a fellow blogger. Austin fired off a couple more tweets.

twitter exchange
I wasn't sure what to make of this. What had I done to elicit such a strong response? Had I made "the exact same argument used by Christians for why they aren't really homophobic" in my post? Do most Christians argue that they should be called anti-gay bigots instead of homophobes? This was my point - that we should label the hatred and bigotry as hatred and bigotry and not confuse things with the phobia label.

I still wasn't sure what was going on, so I guessed that Austin might be reacting to the distinction I was drawing between fear and bigotry. I responded:

twitter exchange3
Our miscommunication here was clear. I was referring to scientific research on bigotry and prejudice as implicating more than just fear; Austin was referring to anecdotal reports and personal experience to support the role of fear. I recognize that fear is relevant; I just don't think it is the whole story. He went on:

twitter exchange4

While I think that fear is relevant to hate and bigotry, I am reasonably certain that other factors are involved as well. I'm also well aware that I'm picky when it comes to terminology. I have a difficult time turning off the scientist in me who knows the importance of precise definitions. At this point, I still wasn't sure what I had said that was so disappointing or why Austin seemed to feel so strongly about this. So I asked.

twitter exchange 5

Austin replied this morning:

twitter exchange 6

I fear I might be overly dense here, as he certainly seems to believe that he's been clear in explaining why I was wrong to write what I wrote. But I see no evidence in his tweets that my argument (i.e., we should be more precise in how we talk about hatred and bigotry) is "demonstrably wrong." I ever suggested nor would I ever suggest that what he wants to call homophobia does not exist. Again, my point was that we should call anti-gay bigotry or other forms of hate bigotry or hate and not -phobia. As I noted above, I've never heard of a Christian asking to be called a bigot instead of a homophobe.

When Austin suggested that I "revisit" my post, I don't think he's suggesting I rewrite it. I think he's saying that it wasn't clear and that I ought to clarify. I hope I've done that here. Once again, my point was that I find terms like Islamophobia and homophobia misleading because they are not phobias and are not necessarily all about fear (although fear certainly may play a role). If the goal of using them is to describe hate and bigotry directed and these groups, I would prefer labels like "bigotry" or "hate." It isn't that I somehow think these negative attitudes don't exist or aren't problematic; it is just that I'd rather be more precise in how we talk about them. That was the only argument I was making.