Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dealing with New Atheist Bigotry: Some Basic Steps

Teacher and student? New Atheists’ non-stop bigotry toward religious people was bound to lead to no good: Richard Dawkins and Chapel Hill murder suspect Craig Hicks

“Christian moron”, “religitard”, “sky fairy”, “medieval superstition”, “imaginary sky friend”--these are just a few of the words that get spat in one’s direction these days if one acknowledges one is a Christian.

It didn’t use to be like this, back, say, before Sam Harris published The End of Faith in 2004 and effectively launched the New Atheist Movement. Harris, Richard Dawkins, a few other writers and a gaggle of comedians all soon joined up in gleeful support of insulting religious people. Educated citizens were no longer to be civil toward those who didn’t recognize the truth Harris and Dawkins spoke. The New Atheists’ policy of confrontation and insult supposedly had a good purpose besides: it would snap people of faith out of their “silly nonsense”.

A handful of popular books and a lot of TED talks later, the protocol has shifted between atheists and people of faith. Specifically: the former must go out of their way to demean the latter (there are a handful of useful terms and soundbites for doing this) and the latter are to retreat to the margins of society, eventually to disappear.

Though there are signs that the New Atheist dog has had its day, there is also contrary evidence that the movement and its methods continue to gain support among the partly educated. So while most professional philosophers, sociologists and scientists now reject Harris’ and Dawkins’ extremist cultural thinking outright, many “bookish” members of the public continue to take their cues from these New Atheists. And various entrenched New Atheist ideas--that religion is something society must “get over”, that people of faith are at fault for the world’s wars, that religious people are brainwashed and inherently reactionary--these continue to spread like wildfire over the Internet and in the “liberal” press at large.

Such rabid anti-religious proselytizing has its risks. If religion, as the New Atheist leaders have insisted, is at the root of most of our evils, then it won’t take long before many of the their followers start believing that religious people themselves are evil. And should be gotten rid of.

This has happened in history before of course, both during the French Revolution and later under many of the communist regimes. People of faith were persecuted, imprisoned and often executed because of a dominant ideology that claimed to serve Reason and Progress. To have faith, during these periods of political terror, was seen as something inherently “outdated”, part of a backward “past” that we were all “moving beyond”.

Sound familiar? As a Catholic who blogs frequently, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told in recent years that my thinking on this or that subject was “outdated”, that I should “grow up” or “get over it” because society is now “moving beyond that”.

I often have to point out in reply that at age 49 I’m pretty grown up, that I’ve spent a lifetime of study, living in different cultures, and that in fact I used to be an atheist--but learned better.

I said that anti-religious indoctrination of the New Atheist sort had its risks. Last week in North Carolina a man nearly my age, Craig Hicks, a militant New Atheist, murdered three Muslim neighbors he’d previously argued with over parking. The Muslim sisters he killed had told their father on previous occasions that their neighbor Hicks clearly hated them for who they were: Muslims. Hicks’ Facebook posts show a slightly more equal-opportunity hate: both Christians and Muslims in his mind were a serious social problem to be met head on.

Whether Hicks’ action was a hate crime or not is still being debated. Other neighbors have claimed he argued with them too over parking issues. But there’s the rub, no? He didn’t finally execute the other neighbors.

I believe that what the New Atheists have created is a hate movement. Under cover of science and “rationality”, they’ve managed to promote a virulent but socially sanctioned bigotry. I strongly suspect Hicks is an example of how this bigotry may build up in individuals until it finally leads where bigotry usually leads: criminal violence.

I don’t at all believe that atheists as such are inherently violent people. I do believe, however, very strongly, that those who support the New Atheism are largely motivated by a deep-seated personal hatred for people of faith. The New Atheism is different from simple atheism. All one needs do is look at the way New Atheist writers write and talk about religion. And their followers, generally less polished, are even more direct in their fury.

This is not the case with atheists in general. It certainly wasn't the case with those I knew back in the years before 2004. The atheists I knew then had personal or intellectual reasons they didn’t believe, but were not likely to see people who did believe as a menace to be gotten rid of.

Though I consider atheism a normal part of the modern West, I see the New Atheists, who are actually anti-theists, as a dangerous and almost cult-like movement motivated more by hate than by the rationality it claims to serve.

I am writing this post today for other believers. Because I think that we as people of faith need to learn to quickly identify, label and respond to the kinds of tag words New Atheists typically throw around. We need to condemn these terms as bigotry as soon as they appear. This is what I mean by labeling. We need to say aloud: “That is a bigoted term.” And as for responding, personally, I’ve come to believe that we must then swiftly cut off further discussion with those who use such language. We must literally walk away or refuse to respond further to them. Especially if they defend their language or double down on it.

Identify, then, is to recognize clearly when you are dealing with New Atheist-inspired ranting. Labeling is to open your mouth or start tapping at your keyboard to point out immediately that such language is bigotry. Responding is to indicate that one isn’t going to discuss such important issues with a bigot.

Among bigoted terms I include those I opened with: “imaginary sky friend”, “medieval superstition”, “Christian moron”, “religitard”. There are others of course--some used more often against Muslims or Jews or people of other traditions. But these are the ones I usually run up against.

I’ve spent a lot of time this past year debating my Catholicism online, arguing history and ethics with folks apparently hardwired with the idea that progress is by definition making people of faith like myself go away. This is usually rather ironic for me, because on other issues I often agree with my debate opponents. Typically, in economic and various other areas, I’m on the political left. But still, for them, certain of my social or historical ideas make me the Enemy.

Yes, such debates and online wrangles are often tiresome and circular. The sad fact is that my opponents usually know very little about the faith they’re trying to erase. And they refuse to recognize besides how the Judeo-Christian tradition is the historical root of their own precious notions of human rights. They are often historically shallow, as if world history began in the 18th century.

But although I get tired of these discussions, I also recognize them as a necessary part of living in the trenches of a cultural war the New Atheists started--a war we cannot avoid. So these little “debates” with friends and others are arguably important, because the war in general is important. But how best conduct ourselves?

In online or verbal debate the other person may strongly disagree, that goes without saying, they may even got rather hot under the collar, but once they start referring to people of faith as “morons” or “insane”, or once they start referring to God as “your imaginary friend”, they should be told that such language is bigoted, and if they continue with it the discussion should be cut short. Why? Because in the current social climate people of faith should no longer let such anti-religious bigotry slide by as a part of “normal debate”. It is not normal debate, no more than it would be normal to start referring to African Americans or immigrant groups with slurs during a discussion of relevant social issues. When others attack one’s dignity directly, trying to stress a lower (social or mental or cultural) status, that is bigotry, quite simple.

The New Atheism is doing everything it can to paint religious people as 1) stupid, 2) full of hate, 3) outdated. What would one call it if a group were seeking to paint, say, Asian immigrants as stupid, belligerent and outdated? One would call it bigotry. New Atheism practices a similar bigotry, in this case against a huge population of people spread over the world: religious people. An excellent brief post at Philosophy out of the Box sums up this bigotry well (the comments by Kevin Stern following the post are also very useful):
Atheism becomes bigotry when it makes prejudicial statements about religious people. Prejudice is prejudice and intolerance is intolerance, and both are irrational regardless of who commits it. Despite its scientific pretensions and its pronouncements of love for reason, many atheists offer arguments laden with logical fallacies[,] hasty generalization, strawman arguments, and most of all ad hominem attacks.
Aside from the ethical sewer that bigotry leads to if unchecked, there is the further issue of how historically inaccurate, how tendentiously selective, New Atheists’ depictions of religious people usually are. Just look at their dismissive treatment of Christians, who are supposedly uneducated, motivated by hate or living in the past. Negating such bigoted propaganda, Christians are not known for stupidity (only look over the role of Christians in intellectual history, even modern history), they’re among the world’s most active in helping those in need (i.e., sharing love rather than hate), and they are definitely not outdated (they happen to currently exist, in the modern world, in huge numbers).

In The God Delusion, one of the veritable scriptures of the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins makes the astonishing claim that he can find little evidence of Christians winning Nobel Prizes in science. This is important because, in physics or chemistry, winning the Nobel is proof positive of serious achievement. Communities with a high number of Nobel laureates are necessarily on the cutting edge. Dawkins’ guiding assumption in The God Delusion is that fellow scientists nearly all agree with him on religion. He writes: “The only website I could find that claimed to list 'Nobel Prize-winning Scientific Christians' came up with six, out of a total of several hundred scientific Nobelists.” (126) Here Dawkins demonstrates the kind of shoddy “research” New Atheists do to back up their flippant assertions. The “only website I could find”? The facts are otherwise, as Dawkins surely must know. One 2002 study, Baruch Shalev’s 100 Years of Nobel Prizes, finds that 73% of Nobel laureates in chemistry, 65% in physics, and 62% in medicine self-identified as Christians.

How many of Dawkins’ half-educated readers are led to believe Christianity and science are incompatible because of the Master’s unfounded claims? More Nobel winners in science have self-identified as religious than not, and most religious laureates have self-identified as Christian. Why is Dawkins allowed to get away with such unfounded claims? I suspect it is because the great majority of his readers pick up his book already deeply biased against religion. As the writer is a scientist, they are willing to believe any mud he cares to fling. Without checking.

Another obvious area the New Atheists are dead wrong is in their claim, which has been repeatedly disproved, that most of the wars over history have been caused by religion. But I’m not even going to bother addressing this here: the hypocrisy of it is almost nauseating when one puts it next to the death tolls officially atheist governments ran up in modern times. (A recent book on the problem by scholar Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, raises the pertinent questions and shows up the shallowness of the old atheist canard about war.)

In any case, historical facts carry little weight once a movement gains traction--especially if that movement is based on contempt for some cultural other. I recently see “imaginary sky friend”, to refer to God, appearing in interviews and articles not even related to atheism, as I see increasing references in public discourse to “insane Christians” (as if insanity was a defining characteristic of the group) or to Christians or other religious people “still living in the Stone Age”--as if we were not actually part of the modern world. Offhand insults like these need to be called out, and refuted.

Some might find that these terms or insults do not constitute actual bigotry. For one, I’ve been told that since Christians are supposedly the “dominant” group in America, they can’t be victims of bigotry because “they control things”. Uh-huh. Aside from the fact that Christians obviously do not in fact “control America”, this says nothing essential about the nature of bigotry. It is only a comment on the relative social position of different kinds of bigots.

Second, some might insist the term “imaginary sky friend” isn’t bigoted because, after all, the person using the term doesn’t believe God exists and so is right to refer to God as “imaginary”.

I strongly disagree.

When someone uses “sky fairy” or “imaginary friend” to refer to God, they are not doing so to show others they don’t believe. They are doing so as a way of insulting anyone who does believe. These terms are meant to insinuate that I as a believer am somehow childish compared to them: just like many children, I have my “imaginary friend” because I haven’t “grown up”. Whereas nonbelievers, in this register, are no longer stuck in the silly nonsense of childhood.

Repeatedly insinuating that some group of adults is inherently childish is a kind of bigotry. It was bigotry when men used to insist that women were inherently childish. It is likewise bigotry to insist that religious people are childish.

Referring to God as an “imaginary sky friend” is bigoted moreover because it is not commensurate with the subject at hand. It shows a lack of recognition for the important role belief in God has played in the long unfolding of our history as a culture--regardless of whether or not one believes oneself. As a term it is meant to demean all those who have taken the question of God seriously (virtually all philosophers in the Western tradition) even as it shows historical shallowness on the part of the person using it.

For these reasons I’m inclined to cut off discussion with someone using this slur in the same way as I’d leave a dinner table where people were using racial slurs. One shouldn’t dignify bigotry with one’s presence.

Am I maybe wrong here? In fact I’ve often hear from debate opponents that I shouldn’t be so sensitive about these insults--that imaginary sky friend or religitard or Christian idiot are “just words”.

Of course these are the same people who go ballistic when they hear someone using a racial or anti-homosexual slur. Then it is suddenly no longer “just words”. Then it is time for someone to lose their job.

Well, in my mind my left-leaning friends are right to stand strong against racial or anti-homosexual slurs. It’s just that slurs against religious people are also examples of bigotry. And the New Atheists have been coining and promoting such bigotry to the best of their ability for a decade now. And in general the liberal press has given them and their followers carte blanche to do so.

Anti-religious bigotry, like any form of socially sanctioned hatred, will feed on itself and only get worse until, as I’ve said, it leads where bigotry always leads: to violence and oppression. The momentum behind this vicious cycle will only be broken when people of faith loudly call out New Atheist bigotry for what it is and shun those who insist on using it.

Eric Mader


Many thanks to the Freedom from Atheism Foundation for bringing my attention to probably the sharpest response so far to the Craig Hicks case, “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists”, by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. Learning of the murders, Richard Dawkins tweeted the following: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?” Breunig brilliantly underlines how Dawkins’ very response reveals the shallowness of his understanding of culture. In a few sentences she makes clear just why the New Atheists are not to be trusted when they offer visions of a better social order based on atheism:
Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted; he doesn't feel the need to offer an earnest denouncement of these murders because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of. But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason. Yet in doing so, New Atheism tends to simply baptize the opinions of young, educated white men as the obviously rational approach to complicated socio-political problems. Thus prejudice in its own ranks goes unnoticed.
Exactly. Dawkins and Harris and their millions of secular fans do not understand culture well enough to realize just how constructed our social ideas are. Our modern Western sense of decency and common sense, as well as our concept of human rights, is the product of a very complex cultural history. It is not “natural”, and Dawkins, who has grown up and continues to live in a culture deeply shaped by its Christian background, is naive to assume that these common values will continue to prevail once one has aggressively turned one’s back on the tradition out of which they grew. There is good reason our modern concepts of human rights and individual liberty arose in Western Europe, i.e., in a Christian civilization, rather than elsewhere. Dawkins, in a very fundamental sense, is biting the hand that feeds him. While he benefits from his privileged social milieu, his angry followers, raised in less “decent” surroundings, may easily turn to less “decent” ways of expressing their anti-religious grudge--a smoldering and irrational grudge Dawkins and Harris glibly fan.

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