Atheism is an idea more than an identity
Back from Skepticon and still trying to catch up! Fun was had by all, mostly because of the onstage talks and offstage conversations, but there was a very exciting incident that also happened during the conference.
For those who can't read it, it says "Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business." This was very exciting for we atheists at Skepticon, since clear-cut proof of overt discrimination is so hard to come by in our era of everyone pretending to be tolerant even while promoting intolerance, and almost every blogger who saw this wrote a post about it, except perhaps myself and Lindsay Beyerstein. The owner has since apologized for his hasty actions, and now there's a raging debate over whether or not he should be forgiven or not. I participated a little, since I generally think that we can't move forward on progressive issues if we don't accept sincere apologies from people who've been overtly prejudiced or bigoted, and allowed that human beings can and do grow. But now I realize that I kind of don't give a shit, on a fundamental level. I just don't see this sort of thing as bigotry in the same way that I would see, say, a sign that says "No Muslims allowed" as bigotry. Before you crap your pants and write angry letters, let me explain.
Thing is, I don't see atheism and especially atheist activism as being primarily about protecting the rights of atheists as a group. I think a lot of people prefer that model, because it's a nice, comfortable one that makes it easy to align it with civil rights, gay rights, and feminism. The problem with it is that unlike with those other situations, is that the argument for mutual tolerance, nay, acceptance, is a lot easier to make when it comes to religious groups, racial groups, sexual orientation, and gender. Gay rights is no real threat to straight people. Women having rights isn't anti-male. Black power doesn't mean white people can't hold jobs or go to school anymore. Accepting Muslims into your community doesn't mean you can't be Christian anymore. That conservatives have to lie and claim these things are true just shows how empty their actual arguments are.
I suppose if atheists were willing as a group to relegate atheism to being just another religious belief, then we could probably limit ourselves to using the oppression/rights model of activism, though it would really seem kind of silly since atheists—unlike women, people of color, or gays—tend to be better-educated and wealthier than the dominant group. But we're not content to allow ourselves to be defined as a religious group. On the contrary, the whole point of atheism is that it's not religious. We tend to argue that there isn't a god or gods. We argue that religion is a hypothesis on how the world works, and we criticize it. While many atheists do in fact get oppressed when they speak out, it's not usually because they're atheists per se, but because of what they're doing, which is criticizing religion. This may seem like a distinction without difference to you, but I really don't think that it is, to myself or to most Americans. I make a similiar distinction between oppression against women and hostility to feminism. They're related in a lot of ways, but that someone on a blog makes rape threats at me because he disagrees with my ideas is different than when some guy sexually harasses me on the street because he can see that I'm a lady. In one case, they're arguing—crudely, unfairly, and pointlessly—with an idea and in the latter they're just hating on me for what I am. These distinctions, by the way, are an excellent way to maintain my sanity.
It's important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we're different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don't simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we'd like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end. This is an argument over what people believe, not who they are. Religious people frustrate us to no end because they deliberately conflate "what I believe" with "who I am"—this guy with the sign did so—and I think it's a bad idea to do exactly the same thing out of expedience. In order to maintain that narrative, we would pretty much have to shut up about how religion is illogical and stupid, so that we can make this about identity and not arguments. In a narrow sense, this guy was bigoted because he refused to serve the gelato, but as soon as he stopped doing that and apologized, I think "bigotry" is the wrong framework to employ. Now I think it's more valuable to talk about why it is that atheism is such a threat, and the reason is that atheism as an idea is threatening, no matter how much atheists as people can get along with our neighbors in day-to-day interactions.
Here's some more thoughts from earlier this year on why these distinctions are very important and shouldn't be blurred. Again, Christians are the first to scream "bigotry!" if you criticize their ideas, and so we atheists should be mindful not to imitate the worst aspects of our opposition.