A recent response from a reader aptly named “Hunt” about atheist criticism and tactics quotes one of the mavens of the movement (now that new atheism is not new they seem to want the name back), Greta Christina, who runs a site called Greta Christina.
I am taking Hunt at his usually impolite word when he says she says,
“People don’t dislike atheists because of our tactics; they dislike atheists because of who we are”
I don’t have any idea of what that throwaway line means either (“I don’t like you because you’re a mean and nasty old bugger Uncle Crank. I dislike you because you’re an uncle”). But giving Ms Christina the benefit of a doubt, since I have occasionally smiled at her postings, let me just say that “Hunt” has ripped another page out of the Atheist Surefire Response Manual (send $750 to me for your free copy along with prayer request), while totally belying everything Ms Christina is vouching for–because Hunt’s tactics are a lot like Uncle Crank.
In the history of fighting for basic human rights, from which Hunt’s “rationale” is derived, there have certainly been instances where the genetic argument works: African-Americans were not disliked for their actions but for the colour of their skin (who they were). Women and gays were held in contempt by an unconscientized America as women and gays.
At a certain point, however, the dis-resemblance of victimized classes overrides resemblance and the genetic argument becomes a genetic fallacy. America’s first experience of this is when fat people wanted to be considered a civil rights cause: After all, they suffered workplace discrimination, weren’t happy that the racks at Walmart couldn’t accommodate XXX-L in sufficient quantity (though that has hugely changed) and weren’t popular on airplanes.
But whatever the merits of seeing fatness as a socially, genetically and psychologically determined condition rather than an outcome, people still think fat people are fat. And blacks, gays, women and Buddhist monks–probably even atheists–groan when they see a fatty waddling down the aisle toward the only remaining seat, next to them. Me, I’d prefer the fatty to the Buddhist monk. Monks are rude and don’t use deodorant.
That is what happens when you try to make atheists the same sort of “victims” that blacks, gays and women have historically and really been on the basis of suspicion and dislike. The difference of course is that the three latter classes are powerless to control or alter, except through extraordinary means, anything about who or what they are.
Changing your mind is not at all like changing your skin colour. I had a useful discussion about this with Paul Cliteur a few years back in Amsterdam while he was finishing his superb book The Secular Outlook. It should be required reading for every atheist. But don’t bother reading it if you want different information than I’m giving you here. Go on believing what you have believed because you read it on an atheist website.
“Believing” or disbelieving something is not the same sort of thing as being something, even though we use the verb ‘to be” to describe various kinds of conditions ranging from illness to sexuality. Anyone who claims a modicum of philosophical sophistication knows what a category mistake is, so you will know that you can’t shove everything into one box and call it sand when there are sea shells and dead animals and coins and syringes in it. Atheists have the power to change their mind–indeed once prided themselves on this ability.
Atheists have, theoretically, the ability to become believers. Believers have the power to become atheists. I know people who have gone in either direction and swing, like me, both ways. That’s the routine.
It’s precisely this intellectual motility combined with the methods that you use or choose to get there that define you as an atheist. But to say that people dislike you because you don’t believe in god surely has something to do with the way you externalize that belief. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t be appalled at fundamentalism. If radically conservative Christian and Muslims were Quakers or non-voting Amish who would care about them? We care about them because they are vocal and in-your-face with their absurd moral agendas.
Consequently, like it or not, the basic reason people dislike atheists is not because of some hypogeal characteristic that makes atheism an essence but the observable things that atheists say or do. The same reason you don’t like uncle Crank.
And like it or not, that makes them (us) much more like the heretics and apostates of yore, our close cousins, than like the victimized members of twentieth century rights-struggles. If, in other words, you choose categories, be careful what you choose.
Never mind. I dealt with this issue a couple of years ago when people were sleeping. I don’t buy the fact that the word atheist is a scary word: that’s something atheists like to think because it feeds the victimization mentality now resurgent in the community.
Have a look:
The Boston Lowells knew who they were. From their perch on Beacon Hill they enjoyed a perspective that encouraged them to believe in the Unitarian credo: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the neighborhood of Boston. When William Filene opened a discount store in the basement of his father’s store to sell overstock and closeout merchandise through his “automatic bargain basement” (off the rack, serve yourself), Beacon Hill was a swarm of indignation. The son of a (Jewish!) peddler would throw Boston society into disarray. Cheap clothes that looked like finery? Now even Irishwomen who worked as chambermaids could look respectable. That is, if you didn’t look too closely.
Never to be persuaded without a firsthand look, Anna Parker Lowell walked into Filene’s downtown store near Washington Street, coiffed and umbrellad, sought directions “to the so-called Basement” and took the steps with the polish of someone who was used to grand staircases. Once aground she saw women flipping through racks of dresses like playing cards–choosing, refusing, playing tug-a-war, even threatening bodily harm if a latecomer tried to prise her find away from someone with a prior claim. “Disgusting,” Mrs Lowell tsked to herself. “Just look at them.”
Just when she had satisfied herself that Edward Filene’s brainstorm would mean the end of high society in Boston her eyes lit on a beautiful taffeta gown that looked just the thing for the spring ball at Harvard. She moved closer for a better look. As she reached to collect her prize, a woman of questionable pedigree snapped it from the rack and headed for the till. “Not so fast my dear,” said Mrs Lowell. “I was about to have that dress.” “You was,” said the woman without slowing. “I don’t think you understand.” I had chosen that dress. I was just about to collect it.” “You was,” said the woman, unable to evade Mrs Lowell’s pursuit because of a crowded aisle. “Look here, madam. I didn’t want to tell you who I was, but I will if you persist.” The woman stopped, turned, looked Mrs Lowell in the eye, and said “Ok dearie: Who wasyou?”
I have always wondered what people mean when they say “That’s who I am,” but usually they mean something silly and parochial: I’m a Catholic, a democrat, a creationist, a car dealer, an ex-con, a neo-con. It’s the substitution of code for argument, a conversation stopper rather than an invitation to discuss a position or idea. Clearly identity matters, but the twentieth century was distinctive in breaking down the sorts of identities that isolated people from majority communities and power structures.
There are big identities and small identities, weak and strong. Part of this has to do with the nature of language and part with the nature of things. Being a democrat or a used car salesman are weak identities: you can change those things tomorrow if you change your mind or lose your job. Being an African-American or a male, despite the fact that we know a lot more about race and sexuality now than we did fifty years ago, still have a lot to do with properties and are much more difficult to change. To say, “I’m gay,” is not just to say “I’m not straight” but to challenge the idea of straight as normative and authoritative. That’s different from saying, “I’m Catholic,” if by that you mean you’re on your way to heaven and the guy you’re talking to is going the opposite way. Beware of anyone who says “That’s who/what I am” with a smile on his face.
Identities can be a great source of fun, as when Ambrose Bierce (the Devil’s Dictionary, 1925) defines a bride as “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” and “Brute” as husband, or a “minister as “An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.” Too bad that in Bierce’s day the Vegan craze wasn’t what it is in the twenty first century, but he did have this to say about clairvoyants: “A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.”
The weakest identities of all are the ones that have to do with what we believe to be the meaning of life. I can remember in college three distinct phases of change: being a socialist at seventeen, a half-hearted anarchist at twenty, and an existentialist at twenty one.
I recovered from these infatuations by not permitting myself to stop reading and never reading Camus after thirty. With confusion intact, I went to Divinity School and emerged as confused and doubtful as ever. Voltaire (or maybe his aunt) said it was only his skepticism that prevented him from being an atheist. That was me, too.
I can’t doubt that there are “meaning-of-life” identities that one holds passionately and therefore appear to qualify for the “That’s who I am” category of identification. I have known people whose non-belief is as fervent as the belief of a twice born Baptist or Mormon elder, people who say “I am an atheist” as proudly as an evangelical says “I’m born again.” It’s tempting to say, isn’t it, that the difference between these two statements is that the atheist is smart and the Born again needs his intelligence quotient checked. But we all know that identity statements are code for a whole range of ideas that need to be unpacked and call for explanation. An atheist who felt his non-belief in God entitled him to murder children because of the absence of divine commands to the contrary would be no better than a cult member who believed that disobedient sons can be stoned because it says they can in the Bible.
I feel my Atheist Reader squirming, because while you liked the Bright-Dim difference, you don’t like equivalences. When Katherine Hepburn turns out to be an atheist people say, “I just knew it. Such a strong woman.” When Pol-Pot says God is bunk, we think “Well that’s different, isn’t it—and so far away?”
Personally, I don’t like people who say “That’s who I am,” or “That’s what weare,” or “We need to be honest about who we are.” At a crude level I want to say WTF? It’s eerily metaphysical when atheists do it—not only because it’s the language God uses when he introduces himself to Moses on Sinai. You remember, right?: Moses hasn’t been properly introduced and God says, “That’s who I am,” and when pressed after Moses accuses God of being slippery says “I am what I am.”
I reckon what he really means is, “You know—God—the one who does firmament, landscaping, Leviathan, floods, human beings God.” In fairness, however, the Hebrew Bible insisted that God was not just a proposition but an actor on the human stage. I don’t believe that God did any of the things ascribed to him in the Bible, but to believe in a doer and deeds is a perfectly legitimate way to establish an identity—even if it’s a fictional identity. That’s why Jewish atheists begin by denying the deeds and then the doer. None of this silly ontological stuff: too Christian, too mental.
But I find it a lot harder to know who I am or what we are on the basis of not believing something.
“We need to be honest about who we are” coming from an atheist doesn’t translate easily into the propertied descriptions of being black, gay, female or physically challenged–things over which people have no choice and no control.
It’s tempting, I know, to think the things we believe or don’t believe have the same status as the things that constitute us as persons or collectives of persons. But you would laugh at a used car salesman saying at dinner, “Dammit, Mother, I’m tired of hiding from who I am. Tomorrow I’m going right into the boss’s office and say to him, ‘Mr Jones: I am Bill Smith and I’m an atheist.” You would not laugh at someone who said, “Mr Jones: I haven’t had a raise in two years. Is it because I’m black?”
Atheists often complain when religious groups claim special treatment on the pretext that any speech against religion is defamatory while claiming equivalent protection for their own beliefs. But atheists need to be very careful about traveling the road of victimization and minority rights or simply adopting the legal definitions supplied under non-discrimination laws. Especially when racial, sexual orientation and gender provisions do not apply to atheism and the protection accorded to religious beliefs, if embraced by atheists, creates a stew of issues–not the least of which is that there is no settled definition of atheism and if there were a true freethinker would reject it.
Difference is deceptive, especially when it comes to self-definition. Is coming out atheist like coming out gay, an act of courage? On what basis–the fact that terms like “minority,” “unpopular” and “misunderstood” can be applied to both categories? But simply to embrace a minority position toward a “divine being” based on denying a premise is not an act of bravery. It doesn’t make you who you are or what you are. It’s neither race, profession nor party platform—not even a philosophical position or scientific theory. It’s not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It’s just about an idea—even if it’s a really Big idea.