Ideas vs. identity

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, July 28, 2011 16:46 EDT
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Hemant at the Friendly Atheist posted this video someone made educating people on both the oppression that atheists often face and how we're not monsters that easily-threatened religious people make us out to be:

This video provoked decidedly mixed feelings in me, in part because it's so treacly.  (We're atheists.  One of the advantages should be the minimization of the maudlin in our lives.  Leave the self-pitying dramatics to the Christians, please.)  But I felt a little bad for that, because the video imparts important information the viewer might not know, especially with regards to how people in smaller, more conservative communities get treated when it's discovered that they don't believe in any gods.  It's worth watching for that.  

But I sat upon it and I realized that the video made me uncomfortable because it conflates the actual oppression and demonization of atheists with criticism of atheism.  The examples in the video include:


  • Pat Robertson counseling a Christian woman to break up with her atheist boyfriend.
  • Michelle Malkin pulling the passive-aggressive “pray for them” maneuver on Fox News, while the host claims that atheist views aired in public will bring an end to Christianity.
  • A pundit saying that atheists need to shut up.
  • A girl getting bullied in school by students and teachers when she revealed that she was an atheist.
  • People pretty much getting run out of town for protesting their son being forced into Bible study in a public school.
  • People who were kicked out of their house because they were atheists.

The first three examples differ dramatically from the last three.  In the first three, it's atheist ideas that are fundamentally being criticized.  In the last three, people are facing overt oppression as religious minorities.  I think it's incredibly important to distinguish between the two.  

After all, we do it when it comes to other religious groups all the time.  I maintain strongly that I can criticize the Catholic church without saying Catholics are bad people or should be subject to oppression.  I can say that a religious person is full of shit and still defend their right to, say, wear whatever silly religious headgear they wish without being harassed for it.  I can say that the Vatican needs to shut the fuck up with their excuse-making for the abuse cover-up, but I would never think it's appropriate to harass someone for being Catholic or toss them out of their house.  I can't be angry at Pat Robertson for telling a Christian woman not to date an atheist. If I were advising her atheist boyfriend, I'd probably say DTMFA, because really, what kind of life can you live with someone who is so devoted to her illusions?  But if she was getting fired or something for her beliefs, I'd be the first to protest.  

There's a real danger in trying to push all negative reactions to atheism—or any religious claim, really—into the bigotry box.  It's not like gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Belief or lack of belief in a god or a religious teaching is an idea, and as long as you're basically criticizing the idea, well, it's fair game.  If I can say that believing Jesus was the Son of God is stupid, then I have to extend the same right to someone else to say that atheists are wrong.  

Plus, all of the first three examples can be boiled down to a single argument from the religious people: Atheism is scary because it threatens religious belief.  Robertson is clearly concerned that the atheist boyfriend will de-convert a Christian, both Malkin and the Fox News pundit are kicking around the notion that actually listening to atheist ideas undermines faith in Christianity, and the "atheists need to shut up" argument is centered around the notion that atheism is so threatening to religious belief that atheists incur a special responsibility to be quiet and not disturb the illusions of the faithful. Now, except for the notion that atheists owe it to religious people not to disturb them, I actually basically agree with all these folks.  Exposure to atheism is a threat to religious faith.  Religious people who don't want their illusions punctured are smart to avoid talking to atheists, listening to atheists, and certainly dating atheists.  A solid percentage of religious people who really entertain atheist arguments de-convert—unlike with religions, most non-believers didn't inherit their ideas from their parents, but de-converted after being exposed to atheist ideas.

But even if that weren't true, it's still fair game for people to refuse to listen to people they disagree with.  I don't let missionaries into my house, don't let racists chew my ear off with their racist theories, and for self-care reasons, I take a break on the weekends from anti-choice blather.  I'm not concerned that these people are going to convert me; in fact, knowing that they can't is what makes it all the more stressful, because it's just listening to bullshit for no purpose whatsoever.  Religious people who know they aren't going to change their minds are being stupid when they shut me out by saying they're going to pray for me, but they're not oppressing me.  

It's critical that atheists tease these distinctions out.  If you put up an atheist billboard, and someone censors it, well okay, that's a formal act of oppression.  But if they write a snotty letter to the editor about how you're going to hell, well, that's not.  You are free to respond that they are wasting their time going to church while you spend your Sunday mornings in lazy bouts of fornication.  If an atheist is bullied in school, fired from work, subject to a hate crime, or kicked out of their house, that's oppression.  But having a Fox News pundit claim that people like me are a threat to Christianity? Well, we are—we steal away members of the faith all the time.  Having Michelle Malkin say she's going to pray for me?  Well, I'll kindly suggest that she kiss my ass instead, and in that exchange, no one is being oppressed for our religious status.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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