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.

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