A Reply from D.J. Grothe

A few days ago, I criticized Matt Nisbet and D.J. Grothe for asserting that “there is no such thing” as discrimination against atheists, in the post “Atheism Is a Civil Rights Issue“. I also wrote to Grothe to raise some of the points made in that post, asking him if he stood by his claim that there are no known examples of atheist bashing. I’ve had two replies from him now, which he’s given me permission to quote in full. I’ll do so and then voice my remaining objections.

As we say in the piece, atheism is not a civil rights issue on par with the grievous social injustices faced by racial and sexual minorities. It is more of a public awareness, “consciousness-raising” issue, as Dawkins himself says. Obviously, some atheists disagree with us on this point. Others simply misunderstand us to be arguing to diminish and make light of how bad atheists have it (as atheists, I know just how despised we are in America, and we offer suggestions for confronting this in article linked in the post-script below).

As I said to P.Z. Myers, I am just as much an angry atheist as anybody else is. But speaking strategically, we should also just admit that our moral indignation, our anger, is not on par with those who marched on Washington in 1963 to end public school segregation, and for legal protection against police brutality, and to make it illegal to racially discriminate in public and private hiring, and the like. Our indignation is not about how oppressed we are in society, but about how wrong we think society is to believe destructive nonsense. Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities. The same goes for many Christian activists who are these days talking about Christians themselves being the last oppressed minority in America. Both are arguments are wrong. Being popular is not a civil right. It is our job to make atheism and secularism more popular, and wrapping ourselves as a “movement” in the cloak of being an oppressed minority whose civil rights are as under attack as racial and sexual minorities won’t do that trick.

Black people make 20% less than white people on average, and have about twice the unemployment rate and infant mortality of whites, not to mention suffering from continuing discrimination from the police and the courts. For atheists, this is hardly the case. Or to take another frequent comparison atheists give: atheists do not suffer as gays do in our culture: we are not fighting for basic legal protections. We already have them. If and when atheists are discriminated against, we have recourse to the law. But in many states, when a gay person is discriminated against, he has no legal recourse. He is denied basic civil rights. There are few state/local laws and no federal laws which protect me from anti-gay discrimination. Anti-gay discrimination is thus legal. Gays are still fighting to be including in those laws (state, local, and federal) which are intended to ensure equality before the law. Atheists are already included in those laws.

Yes, it is true that until 1961 (the Torcaso decision), all the civil rights of atheists werent legally protected. Until ’61, we were prevented from testifying in court, holding public office, etc. But we never disputed this.

So if we’re not disputing that until 1961 atheists had it bad in terms of their civil rights, and that they still have it bad in terms of their popularity, what is it that we are disputing? We simply deny that atheists now need to wage a civil rights struggle, replete with Marches on Washington, etc., as some atheist leaders have argued for, using strained rhetoric equating the plight of atheists in America today with that of blacks, gays or women today or in other times. I have shared with P.Z. and others many direct quotes from atheist leaders to this effect.

Plainly, atheists have civil rights in America. What what we don’t have is popularity and mind-share. Neither a Buddhist, Wiccan, Satanist, or communist would likely anytime soon be elected to high office, but they dont need to respond to that fact by starting a civil rights movement all their own.

(And of course it should be said that just because we currently do have our civil rights, it doesnt follow that with this Supreme Court that we will always have them. We do need to rigorously defend the civil rights we currently have.)

Lastly, as a gay man, I have strong opinions about gay bashing as compared to “atheist bashing.” Custody battles, intolerance and bullying of a cognitive minority on a playground, unconstitutional taxation of atheists to support religious programs we find objectionable, the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our currency, and the like, do not qualify as instances of “atheist bashing” on par with the documented cases of gay bashing collected by groups like the Human Rights Campaign.

In my response, I made several additional relevant points:

I’m completely in agreement that atheists haven’t suffered the degree of discrimination that other minorities such as blacks or gays have been subjected to. We’ve never been forced to eat at segregated lunch counters, targeted for violence, denied the vote, or denied the right to marry a fellow atheist. No argument there. But… there’s a huge difference between saying atheists have not been subjected to the same level of discrimination as other minorities, and saying atheists have not been discriminated against *at all*. Your essay was clearly making the latter, not the former claim. You didn’t say that atheist-bashing was uncommon; you said there was no such thing as atheist-bashing. That is just clearly not true.

…Granted, there are already laws against some of these practices to which atheists can turn for help. (Not all of them: being denied custody for being an atheist, for example, is perfectly legal.) That doesn’t mean they’re not civil rights issues. Granted, these practices are not as obnoxious as the discrimination aimed against other minorities. That also doesn’t mean they’re not civil rights issues. And even if other groups have suffered worse than we have, that doesn’t mean our own injuries are insignificant or do not need to be redressed.

And frankly, I don’t know of anyone who’s saying what you claim. You said that “many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities.” I’d like to see some examples of that. What many atheist activists are saying is that we should emulate the *tactics* of other groups that have worked for mainstream acceptance, not that our oppression is equal in degree to theirs. I think this is an attack on a straw man.

Grothe’s final reply, in its entirety:

I have quoted many examples of atheist leaders putting the beleaguered atheists’ plight on par with sexual or racial minorities in various comments on scienceblogs.com. And of course, atheists have suffered discrimination, as we say in both articles (and I have fought against for over a decade since I first got involved with the atheist movement). We just argued that the level of discrimination is not on par with racial and sexual minorities, and certainly don’t rise to the comparizon with “gay bashing,” or that of truly opressed peopled. Dawkins and Hitchens et. al make something of a similar argument: they are working to “raise consciousness” and increase mind-share, not to liberate an oppressed people. Expect possible followup in Free Inquiry in the next few issues.

I think there are some important concessions here, though Grothe does not acknowledge them explicitly. First, he admits that atheists have suffered discrimination – an important point which, to my knowledge, Nisbet has not conceded.

However, I still believe Grothe far overplayed his hand with the initial essay and is now trying to back down to a more reasonable position without acknowledging the change. He asserts that he was only saying all along that that anti-atheist discrimination does exist but is “not on par” with the discrimination suffered by other minorities. I find this claim to be non-credible, in light of the sweeping statements made in his original essay:

To our knowledge, there is no such thing as “atheist bashing.” If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.

He first says there is “no such thing” and not “a single compelling example”, then says that “of course, atheists have suffered discrimination”. I think any reasonable person would view this as a blatant contradiction.

Second, Grothe agrees that atheist activists like Dawkins and Hitchens are making the same argument he is. However, he also asserts that unnamed “atheist leaders” continue to claim atheists have suffered exactly as much as other minorities, yet provides no specific evidence for this claim, only a vague reference to comments somewhere on a very large site. I think this represents a continuing attack on a straw man. No one, to my knowledge, has made this claim except the people who are attacking it.

Third, Grothe misses an important point: even if there are laws preventing discrimination against atheists, those laws still need to be enforced and their violations pointed out. The civil rights struggle does not end as soon as such a law is on the books. Gay people such as Matthew Shepherd have been assaulted and murdered for being gay; this does not mean there is no civil rights issue simply because there are already laws against murder. The effort to win mindshare goes hand in hand with the effort to protect civil rights, because working for wider acceptance and tolerance makes it more likely that those laws will be obeyed.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Hearing that DJ Grothe is gay explains some of his stance. Fighting anti-gay discrimination in America is something most straight people can’t possibly understand. So Grothe probably feels that his experience is trivialized by claims about anti-atheist discrimination.

    But I have to wonder why a strong advocate for atheism (and opponent of religion, pseudoscience and quackery) would find it necessary to make the contradictory claim that the minority hasn’t suffered. If not, why bother making the atheist case at all? Why have a radio show? Why not just go about your business?

    The point Grothe is missing is not just about discrimination, but about the monumental inertia encountered by the reality-based community just getting people to understand why it matters. Why they should even care about other people’s beliefs, and the power of both good and bad ideas to change history.

    It can also be said that much of the anti-gay discrimination is based on scripture. And that goes also for opposition to stem-cell research, opposition to condom use, the indoctrination of children against science, and many other quite literally deadly beliefs. So even though Grothe has backpedaled slightly, I still say he has taken a very short-sighted and ultimately anti-humanist position.

    Because advocacy for atheism and reality-based secular government is not just for the benefit of those who lack belief in god. It is for the advancement of society in ways that will help everyone, even those who remain religious.

  • Zed

    What does DJ mean by bashing? Bad mouthing or random beatings outsides Atheist bars?
    I think you have point but are going too far in that we Atheist do not suffer discrimination in the form of physical or government sponsered abuse, but limited to job and social rejection when our atheism known. Also I would add we are taxed to provide brides to churches.

  • http://brokenspells.blogspot.com/ Yenald Looshi

    While I can appreciate Grothe’s reluctance to put “atheist bashing” on par with “gay bashing” since he has a perspective on the latter I can never hope to appreciate, I think that for the atheist parent that was stripped of his or her custody of a child for the sole reason of prejudice against that parent for being an atheist, the effect is every bit as traumatic (as a parent, I would argue perhaps more so) as being called a “fag” in public and not allowed to marry the person I love.

    Such a plight is on-going for Rachel Bevilacqua, a comic performer who’s participation in a parody of organized religion has created a major and costly court battle that she may actually lose essentially because she’s viewed as an atheist by the court.

    For anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of suddenly seeking employment after being let go from a job, I think they’d agree that their plight is at least as significant as anyone else who was dismissed due to discrimination -if they were dismissed because of their atheism. I can relate to Carletta Simms (of the link) since I’ve long suspected that my own dismissal a few years ago was made a convenient choice since I didn’t hide my own atheism. In my present job, I’m much more guarded about it, though I won’t hesitate to reveal it if asked.

    Discrimination against atheists *is* an on-going problem, albeit a far more subtle one than that against people of color or homosexuals. While I admire Grothe’s work at POI and listen to it “religiously,” I, like most atheists, don’t have the luxury of going to work to an establishment of like-minded peers. I can count off the top of my head at least 7 desks near my own at work that have Bibles, usually open. I’ve no doubt that my relationship with each of these people, whom I call friends, would change if I should leave The God Delusion in plain sight in the same manner of open piety my workmates use.

  • Archi Medez

    To my knowledge, we don’t have statistics on the prevalence of actual (behavioral) discrimination against atheists, in its various forms. (E.g., how many job or other types of opportunities have atheists lost due to their atheism?). That makes it difficult for us to compare ourselves with other groups. I’ve seen various opinion polls indicating that Americans generally dislike atheists much more than any other group. Indeed, there is a big difference between Americans’ attitudes toward those who merely declare themselves nonreligious and those who are “atheists”–the latter clearly attracting much more enmity. I suspect that Americans overall are probably the most anti-atheist group, at least in stated attitudes, in the modern west. And yet, interestingly enough, America also seems (to me, speaking as someone who is not an American) to provide the greatest opportunity for freedom of expression of belief or disbelief, including the ability to criticize religion.

    Also, as most of us know, in European history, people were tortured and executed simply on the grounds that they had publicly expressed their atheism, which would be classified as blasphemy. Likewise, in Islamic countries, even today, people can be imprisoned or executed on the grounds of uttering statements deemed to be blasphemous. Whereas the predominantly Christian west is slowly moving towards acceptance or at least increased tolerance of atheists (along with increased tolerance of gays, blacks, women in positions of authority, etc.), over the past several decades (particularly the last 3 or 4) the Islamic countries have been generally moving in the opposite direction: Classical Islamic laws regarding apostasy and blasphemy have been revived, and atheists or suspected atheists are among the many kinds of people–non-Muslims or those regarded as such–who must fear being on the receiving end of these punishments (and other forms of discrimination within the society).

  • Oz

    Sounds to me like another example of the old “I have it worse than you, therefore you have no right to complain about anything” canard. I hear it all the time at work from whining martyrs. Discrimination against gays and ethnic minorities may be more widespread than it is against atheists, but I have an idea about that. Atheism is much easier to hide than the other two and still practice. You can’t hide your skin color without continuous and onerous effort. You can’t hide homosexuality without denying your identity and attraction. However, it’s simple to hide being an atheist – I do it every day with no effort whatsoever. I don’t discuss religion with my co-workers or extended family, so only my wife and some college friends know my status.

    My point is basically that with so few apparent targets, it’s easy to dismiss discrimination against atheists as isolated incidents rather than the institutional practice (witness various state constitutions) that it often is or the accepted slurs that are in common use (no atheists in foxholes; G H W Bush’s infamous remarks). How is it that Christian fundies can write novels about their atrocious predictions of the end of the world and about how God will torture all unbelievers eternally and they become bestsellers, while books that say nothing more than the simple facts that prayer is ineffective and God doesn’t exist can only be written by “angry” or hateful people? I think discrimination against atheists might be softer than other sorts, but it still exists.

  • stillwaters

    For several specific discrimination events against atheists, please see the following link to the Report documented by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia’s Anti-Discrimination Support Network. I would classify many, if not all, of these offenses as “atheist-bashing”.

    On a side note, I have heard from a fairly credible source that George the Elder’s remarks about atheists not being patriotic are not true. Apparently, there is no evidence that he actually said what was claimed he said.

  • OMGF

    On a side note, I have heard from a fairly credible source that George the Elder’s remarks about atheists not being patriotic are not true. Apparently, there is no evidence that he actually said what was claimed he said.

    I don’t know if this proves anything, but here’s a site that claims to do just that, with documents from the Bush Presidential Library.

    Bush documents

  • Polly

    @Oz:

    Atheism is much easier to hide than the other two and still practice. You can’t hide your skin color without continuous and onerous effort. You can’t hide homosexuality without denying your identity and attraction. However, it’s simple to hide being an atheist – I do it every day with no effort whatsoever. I don’t discuss religion with my co-workers or extended family, so only my wife and some college friends know my status.

    Ditto for everything you mentioned here. I suspect there’d be a lot more discrimination if non-belief were plainly evident somehow. Only my xian wife and 1 friend know about my atheism.

    I’m not 100% sure I would have gotten to where I am career-wise if I were a known atheist from the beginning (though, that may be an unfair assumption about my boss). I wasn’t hiding it before, I just deconverted late. In fact, I used to be like one of those guys that Yenald Looshi mentioned, reading my Bible at work (in different foreign language translations per my mood). My co-workers still come to me with questions about Xianity/the Bible and I still answer them without letting on that I don’t believe it anymore.

  • stillwaters

    Thanks for the link, OMGF. From reading through that website, it appears that there is some circumstantial evidence that Bush did make those remarks. The WH never did apologize for them, nor did they deny that Bush ever said them. From some of the responses to the AA president, it certainly seems that the remarks were said.

    So, I take back what I said earlier. There does appear to be some evidence that Bush really did say those awful things about atheists.

    What I found most curious was a memo at the end of the 40-page pdf download. Here it is:

    MEMORANDUM FOR C. BOYDEN GRAY

    FROM: NELSON LUND

    SUBJECT: Correspondence Asking that the President Apologize to America’s Atheists for his Campaign Remarks

    “Attached for your signature is a draft response to a complaining letter from the President of American Atheists, Inc. I had to strain to achieve a polite tone, but I think I succeeded without giving the correspondent unnecessary comfort.

    The letter alleges some campaign remarks by the President and his Illinois campaign chairman that might not be too easy to defend, if in fact they were made. I thought it best to ignore these specific allegations.”

    This is about as outrageous as the alleged remarks. Although the author realizes that the remarks were wrong, if they were true, he decides it is best just to ignore the whole thing. He doesn’t try to find out whether the remarks were made or not, or to apologize if Bush did say those things. He just ignores it. Another case of ‘atheists aren’t important citizens, let’s not pay any attention to them or listen to them, and maybe they’ll go away.’

    When are we going to get some respect?

  • Polly

    Another case of ‘atheists aren’t important citizens, let’s not pay any attention to them or listen to them, and maybe they’ll go away.’

    When are we going to get some respect?

    Politcally speaking, the more closely associated (indistinguishable?) a minority is with a political party, the less respect that group will receive from either side. Democrats know they’ve got them in their pocket, whether they help them or not, while Republicans don’t bother trying for them because they’re a lost cause. The trick is, I think, for a minority to grow its political clout through voting numbers and then make each party fight for their vote by being responsive (swithcing sides) in reaction to positive and negative developments.
    There are many factors that can frustrate this strategy especially for atheists. For one thing, we are not a voting “block”, i.e. readily identified like racial minorities.
    If you’re perceived as “the other guy’s” constituent by a legislator or executive, then why should they help you? Because, it’s their job? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    On the bright side, the evidence seems to indicate that the non-religious actually comprise a substantial bloc of independent swing voters, rather than being solidly Democratic. In the long run, this may encourage politicians to take us more seriously.

  • http://www.djgrothe.com D.J. Grothe

    It should be said, as I have had to say on a number of occasions, that neither Austin Dacey nor I ever said there was “there is no such thing as discrimination against atheists.” This is an accidental or deliberate misquote on Ebon’s part.

    What I rejoined to Ebon above is completely consistent with our first two essays on this matter:

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=grothe-dacey_24_2

    http://www.djgrothe.com/Response_to_Tabash_and_Downey.pdf

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    You might be interested that DJ has responded in the comments of my post. He defines what he means by “bashing” (might have helped to do this at the start) and says that he does not back down from his original position at all. In effect, he seems to be saying that there are no cases of “verbal confrontation with, denigration of, or physical violence against” atheists.

    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/259240.htm

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    With all due respect, D.J., you did say that. I quoted the paragraph in full in my original post:

    To our knowledge, there is no such thing as “atheist bashing.” If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.

    I maintain that my statement was a fair summation of your position. And that position is false, whether you define “atheist-bashing” as atheists being targeted for discrimination either through legal or illegal means, or even using your own more narrow definition given by Austin Cline. Are you seriously claiming that there are no known examples of “verbal confrontation with” or “denigration of” atheists? Not even one? If so, that position is plainly and obviously wrong. Even if we limit “atheist-bashing” to physical violence alone, there are proffered examples. Consider the Smalkowski case litigated by American Atheists last year.

    Now, I know what you’re going to say: even if Smalkowski’s claims are completely true, that is not as serious as the physical violence suffered by gays and other minorities. No random mobs are seeking out and targeting atheists for beatings. And I agree! I said very plainly that other groups have suffered worse discrimination than we have. I don’t know of anyone who’s disputed this. But, again, this does not validate your claim that “there is no such thing”, that there is not “a single compelling example”. There is such a thing and there are compelling examples.

    I stand by what I said: you’re trying to strengthen your position by exaggerating it into an absolute, but that effort is misguided and incorrect, and it actually weakens your argument rather than strengthening it. It does not trivialize the prejudice and discrimination suffered by gay people to point out that they are not the only group that has faced hostility from a majority. It does not make their injuries any less important or any less in need of redress. But the same is true of atheists. We do have a public image problem to overcome, but we do also have civil rights issues. These two battles can and should be fought together. We should be doing that, not quibbling over terminology or, worse, trying to undercut the efforts of people who are fighting these battles like Nisbet has done.

  • Matt

    I’m thinking the difference of opinion has to do with a more fundamental disagreement. For atheists who think religious tolerance is enough, it seems like a civil rights issue. For atheists who have a more evangelical bent (like Dawkins), it’s a far more expansive issue.

    Even if violence against atheism is far less prevalent, I’m not positive it’s non-existent. Yes, I’ve never experienced it living in the north, but accounts I’ve read of the atmosphere elsewhere make violence sound at least plausible. Maybe the statistical difference has more to do with circumstance, such as atheists tending to be whole families, Christians (so far) having less irrational fear of “recruiting,” and lower visibility.

  • Willard Bolinger

    I was on the jury of a civil case in Kansas City, Mo. where there was no procedure offered to “affirm” rather that the normal religious oath read to the entire jury so effectively I had no way to “affirm” and therefore I saw it as ignoring the right of atheists to “affirm” when the court has no procedure for me to fill out a form and even that seems to discrimate especially if I was singled out my the join to personally “affirm” rather than included in his reading to all jurors. Again it points out the problem of usinf a religious oath at all rather than just asking people to tell the truth under punishment of perjury and having each to just agree to to the truth. The religious fiction that only those who believe in the christian “God” and a future afterlife where one would go either to a entirely mythical heaven or hell and this belief would get all to tell the truth or suffer punishment was full of holes that one would think that “reasonable” people could figure out. But such is the nature of religious dogma and an inability to think critically!


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