Skin Deep

I’ve been reading this account of a disciplinary hearing against the odious John Freshwater, an Ohio science teacher who allegedly promoted religion in his class, repeatedly and illegally, even after being ordered by school administrators to stop. Among other things, Freshwater brazenly taught creationism in class – directing his students to Answers in Genesis and giving extra credit to those willing to see the anti-evolution documentary Expelled. Most infamously, he was accused of using a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student’s arm.

However, I want to focus on a different aspect of this story. As often occurs, this case has divided the community, with the religious students who support Freshwater intimidating and demonizing those who don’t:

Students carried Bibles to class last spring to support Freshwater.

Classmates of Arie Alvarado questioned her and a few other eighth-grade students who didn’t take part.

“They were calling us atheists,” Alvarado said. “I couldn’t believe it. One day they’re your friend, and the next day you’re an atheist and they’re completely ignoring you in the hallway.”

Students instantly being labeled as “atheists” for opposing religious bigotry reminded me of another community where this happened: Dover, Pennsylvania, and the intelligent-design fiasco that took place there in 2005. Matthew Chapman’s book 40 Days and 40 Nights gives examples of how the plaintiffs in that case, too, were persecuted:

In spite of all his and Christie’s Christian activities (including running their church’s Vacation Bible School), Bryan [Rehm] was accused of being an atheist.

…Toward the end of my interview with the Rehms, Christie said, “We’ve been told by this group of people that we’re not the right kind of Christians, you know, we’re not actually Christians, we’re something ‘other,’ and I think, well actually I don’t mind being something other because if Christianity is what you are, then I’m not a Christian. I’m not.” (p.69)

“By the second paragraph [of Of Pandas and People],” said Jeff [Brown], “I felt they were calling me an atheist because I believe in evolution. And that made me furious.” (p.96)

After the meeting Buckingham called Carol [Brown] an atheist… A month or so later when Carol ran into Bonsell, he told her she would be going to hell. (p.129)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an atheist – although many of the Dover plaintiffs were not. Still, the reaction of these hostile believers is telling. They think that the worst insult you can hurl at somebody is to call them an atheist, as though someone’s not believing in God necessarily implies that they’re an immoral and evil person.

We’ve seen this sort of demonization before. All too often, believers judge atheists based solely on our lack of belief, not on our actions or our character. It’s another manifestation of the pernicious human tendency toward tribalism, which religion does much to encourage.

Tribalism is a tendency that’s always been with us, stamped deep into our brains by evolution. It’s the urge to label and categorize people, to sort them into groups, and then to judge them based solely on which of these groups they give their allegiance to. Even when tribal distinctions are completely arbitrary, human beings can be passionate to the point of zealousness about them (consider sports fans), even to the point of violence (consider sports riots). And when tribal membership is determined by religion, which most people consider a far more integral part of their identity than sports fandom, the consequences of irrational tribalism are far worse. Those who are outside the tribe, who are labeled as “the Other”, will inevitably be blamed by tribe members for everything that is evil and frightening in the world.

A moral and rational person judges others as individuals, not on the basis of tribal allegiance. The labels we wear, by themselves, say nothing about a person’s ethics or character. The only way to learn what kind of person someone is is to get to know them, to understand what they care about and what motivates them, and what kinds of ideals they want to see realized in the world. This is as true for atheists (or for theists) as it is for any other group.

The advocates of tribalism want to bypass all this. They want to find some superficial mark of good character, one which immediately determines whether someone is good or evil, Friend or Enemy, One of Us or Other, without having to know the person as a whole. And, if you think about it, this is really no different from what racists do; it’s just that they fixate on a different superficial characteristic. Although racism is retreating, anti-atheist bigotry is still openly practiced. We can achieve much for the atheist cause by pointing out that equivalence.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • D

    I actually had this conversation – about the tribalism of sports fans – with a coworker who is otherwise rather rational. She was giving me flak for disliking sports (I guess I’m a sports atheist, too?), so I turned the argument around on her and she got really defensive. The main argument line was that she claimed her sports fandom arose from her competitive nature, but I pointed out that the outcome of sports events has nothing to do with her, and step-by-step reduced her position to tribalism. When she responded, “Well, then I guess I’m just tribalistic, then,” I found out that sometimes, one’s jaw can literally drop.

    It continues to surprise me that people don’t actively try to expunge these prejudices, and defend them to the point of absurdity. What makes people think that divisive groupings are a good thing?

  • Folkface

    Hi thanks for the link. Looking forward to checking out your writing. I hope I can behave around here so that I don’t get the Tribal Atheists (looking for a new meme?) on me. I deeply fear Squids and primitive godless. I realize that is the sort of stereotyping you are decrying. I’m just enough of a nominalist to disagree with you. Cheers!

  • C

    D said :”What makes people think that divisive groupings are a good thing?”

    Maybe religious teachings like this D :“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

  • random guy

    D, they don’t really think its a good thing. What happens is that when you step on someones deeply held beliefs, no matter what they pertain to, you cause them to reflexively get defensive. Thats when all the neurological biases set in. Once a person believes something to be true, no matter what flimsy evidence they believe it on, they are predisposed to defend that position. Our brains are actually set up to reward this type of stuborness.

  • Polly

    It’s the urge to label and categorize people, to sort them into groups, and then to judge them based solely on which of these groups they give their allegiance to.

    “Ideas on earth were badges of friendship or enimity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enimity” – “Breakfast of Champions” Kurt Vonnegut

    I didn’t understand what he meant when I first read that section. But, now I see it clearly everywhere in religion and politics.

  • Joffan

    Of course, D, it’s not entirely true that the outcome of your coworker’s team’s games have nothing to do with her. They are affected by her spending power, and that of the other fans, in buying better players, better coaches, better medical support, etc.

  • L6

    “A moral and rational person judges others as individuals, not on the basis of tribal allegiance.”

    Eh, tribal allegiance is part of an individual. Certain tribes ensure that their members are pretty much all the same.

  • Brad
  • Scott Emerson

    Hello all,

    The parallel between sports fandom and relgious affiliation is one that I find quite interesting, especially given that I am both an atheist and a college hoops fan and have never really noticed it! My team (UK Wildcats for those who care) of choice was inherited… I’m a Wildcats fan because my father is a Wildcats fan, and so it has passed down through the family. Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect: I don’t have any particular “faith” in my team’s ability to win games (especially not this year), I’ve never declared a jihad against Cardinals fans, and I can see a tangible, human benefit in my fandom: the game’s more fun for me when I have a team to root for, it’s one of many things my family and I enjoy doing together, and admittedly, the verbal sparring with supporters of rival teams is quite enjoyable for those of us who don’t take it seriously.

    Alas, I split with my Christian family on relgion. Now that I think about it, a lot of the same benefits could be said to exist: solidarity, fellowship, etc. Fact is, I can physically see a basketball game, whereas this God fellow can’t seem to be bothered to show up for even a modest photo op, nor does he ever speak to me the way he apparently speaks to others all over the world (though under a dizzying variety of names and distributors. I sometimes wonder if perhaps he really does exist and simply puts on a fake beard and moustache when he leaves Christian lands to go chat with his Muslim followers). Add to that the fact that, to my knowledge, the Wildcats never slaughtered the Midianites and enslaved their women, not even in 2004 when they were having a particularly rough season, and I’ll take sports over religion any day.

    I seem to have lost my train of thought here, so I’ll sign off before I completely derail the conversation. Just want to add: Thanks to Ebon for all the fantastic reading. First time poster but long time reader.



  • Brad

    Hey, I found something in a pamphlet my mother got from In Touch Ministries called “The Principle of the Enemy”:

    We only have one Enemy of the church-and it’s not you, and it’s not me. Satan hates unity. So we must recognize that when there’s divisiveness and dissension going on, these are not things that come from God. They’re the work of the Enemy.

    Perfect example of self-defensive tribalism.

  • Christian the Atheist

    “Gay” also gets this treatment – not the casual, almost-divorced-from-sexuality “Oh that’s so gay” (which is its own problem), but the “If you’re voting NO on Prop 8, you must be gay” kind of thing. I’m straight, so to me, calling me gay is a factual error, akin to calling me “blond” or “female”, but to the speaker, it’s an insult. The accuracy of the insult isn’t a big concern to the speaker, because all of these insults boil down to “You’re a THEM!”

    One of the most positive things about this years campaign, in my opinion, is that tribalism for political purposes has actually occasionally gotten repudiated – Liddy Dole and Michele Bachmann both managed to overstep the boundary of policially acceptable tribalism.

  • Maria

    On Freshwater’s supporters calling the kids without bibles atheists, I’d add that it also shows the homogenity of the community. I mean, supposing there were a sizable number of, say, hindus in the class, the assumption that anyone without a bible is an atheist wouldn’t make sense. It also brings up an interesting image in my mind, of one of these classrooms or courtrooms, and someone calling another a Buddhist, in anger, after failing to make some other point. Wouldn’t the reaction be completely different, though? It would look more like confused speechlessness, at an irrationally angry error of fact, as though someone were getting mad at me because my hair is pale blue.

    As for the students again, I wonder, could they be very aware that other religions exist? At least, it shows that christianity is such a pervasive element of the culture that other religions are at least considered negligible. Good comparative religion classes would be an alright start.

  • bestonnet


    On Freshwater’s supporters calling the kids without bibles atheists, I’d add that it also shows the homogenity of the community. I mean, supposing there were a sizable number of, say, hindus in the class, the assumption that anyone without a bible is an atheist wouldn’t make sense.

    From what I’ve heard it sounds like it’s pretty normal for small towns in the US to be almost unanimously Christian (with those that aren’t usually being in the closest due to the bigotry).


    Good comparative religion classes would be an alright start.

    Should be a requirement.

    Although there’ll probably be a lot of controversy about what to teach, especially if you want to teach the bad as well as the good about all the major religions (which you’d have to if you want it done properly) as well as teach what the reasons people who don’t believe in any religion have for that stance.

  • D

    C, good call on the Jesus quote. I wonder how that’s supposed to mesh with “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” and all that good stuff?

    That’s a good point, random guy. I guess I just think that each person ought to try harder to eradicate that prejudice from their own mind, rather than permit it to remain – y’know, work to overcome instinct with rational thought.

    Polly: Vonnegut FTW.

    Joffan: That’s true. However, in my defense, the specific example used was how her rooting from her couch in front of her TV at home does zero to affect the game, so it’s an idiotic way of expressing one’s competitive nature (she chose the other horn of the dilemma, that that’s not what she was actually trying to do and is just tribalistic).

    L6, you wrote, “…tribal allegiance is part of an individual.” Fair enough, but let’s make a distinction between weak and strong tribal allegiances, though. Weak tribal allegiance = merely belonging to a community (these are sometimes things that one cannot help, such as “the community of those with ancestor group X”). Strong tribal allegiance = going along with the party line because it’s the party line (this is a behavior, something a person does and not who they are). In between = being active in that community, but not rabidly so, and retaining the ability to admit fault without engaging in excessive “othering” (IOW, more than weak tribal allegiance, but not quite strong tribal allegiance). I think it’s safe to say that everyone here falls into the “in between” category. What’s bad about tribalism in this case is when people with strong tribal allegiance X make judgments on people based on weak tribal allegiance Y, no matter where those in group Y fall on the spectrum. Weak tribal allegiance is superficial and generally meaningless – it tells you nothing about the person as a person. Strong tribal allegiance is bad for you because it is blind and unthinking.

    Bestonnet, you wrote, “…the reasons people who don’t believe in any religion have for that stance.” This is what makes any comparative religion course into a long version of the argument from religious confusion.

  • bestonnet

    Yeah, just giving people the impression that those who don’t accept religion actually do have decent reasons for it will probably help a lot.

    Still, I could imagine the complaints from the extremely Christian parents should a proper comparative religion course actually be taught.

  • John


    “Maybe religious teachings like this D :“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.””

    You do not understand this verse.

    Good article, this Christian agrees – keep religous teaching out of government schools.

  • bestonnet

    Then why don’t you explain it for us?

  • goyo

    Yeah john tell us how we’re not understanding the ancient middle eastern mind when we read this particular verse.

  • bbk

    Maria, I’d be careful about teaching comparative religion. These same Creationist bigots would end up teaching those classes and it would just give them an even greater opportunity to slander other faiths and atheists. At least, that’s what happens now.

    I just don’t like the structure of the nation’s school systems. At first it seems like a quaint idea that local communities should be in control of teaching their own children according to their values. Until one realizes that the vast majority of communities who take advantage of this ideal are doing so out of bigotry and ignorance. It’s what allows schools in one state to teach a different version of history than schools in another state while setting the bar for science and math so low that children no longer learn how to think for themselves. And all of it boils down to allowing bigots like that Creationist stand up in front of children and teach them how to hate. These communities just shouldn’t be in charge of their schools’ curriculum.

  • bestonnet


    I’d be careful about teaching comparative religion. These same Creationist bigots would end up teaching those classes and it would just give them an even greater opportunity to slander other faiths and atheists. At least, that’s what happens now.

    You’d really have to be able to enforce a standardised curriculum that they can’t deviate too much from. I suspect that what we would teach in those classes would get a lot of extremely religious people very angry (and not just Christians since to do it properly we’d also have to teach the bad parts of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc).

    Besides, the US, which seems to have more problems than most other first world countries in this regard, happens to have the first amendment which would probably require that if comparative religion is taught that it be taught properly (and not just bad mouth those who aren’t a specific type of Christian).

    Still, to allow people to enter a world full of religion without an understanding of it would be a massive failure of any educational system (not to mention the role that religion has sadly had in our history).

  • John

    bestonnet, goyo;

    The Word = Sword(or Flaming Sword)
    earth = carnal mind

    It’s the best I can do for you. Way off-subject.

    As I said, I agree with the article.

  • Christopher

    Most infamously, he was accused of using a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student’s arm.

    I wonder if the community would be so defensive of this fellow if he burned a Pentagram or a Swastika on his arm?

  • bestonnet


    bestonnet, goyo;

    The Word = Sword(or Flaming Sword)
    earth = carnal mind

    It’s the best I can do for you. Way off-subject.

    Which does beg the question of why we shouldn’t take those words so literally?


    I wonder if the community would be so defensive of this fellow if he burned a Pentagram or a Swastika on his arm?

    If they believe it then I highly doubt it, OTOH the fact that he was teaching nonsense and doing faith healing where he wasn’t meant to means that a lot of his supporters probably wouldn’t believe it.

  • Leum

    Which does beg the question of why we shouldn’t take those words so literally?

    There’s a pretty convincing case for not taking any of the words attributed to Jesus literally. So much of the gospels’ material is so self-evidently metaphorical or allegorical that taking Jesus’ words at face value may not ever be correct. Of course, to carry this to its logical conclusion you also should refuse to take Jesus’ words about being the Son of God literally, too.

    Returning to the topic, I wonder if some of the tribalism tendency comes from the dualistic thinking about good and evil. If you believe that good is, by definition, that which is fighting evil, it could be hard to call yourself good without having some group to oppose. This shows up even more among groups that seem to believe that good and evil are arbitrary designations of God, rather than terms relating to suffering, happiness, and life.

  • bestonnet

    Tribalism is really just us verses them thinking so it is pretty obvious that it’s dualistic (perhaps too obvious to be noticed by most people).

    Dualism has been one of the worst ideas out there, getting over dualistic thinking has been necessary for science to proceed and most pseudosciences [PDF] (including religion) are to a degree vitalistic.

  • Paul Sunstone

    I think Bob Altemeyer has done a good job establishing that the sort of “Us versus Them” thinking mentioned in the post can belong to a cluster of cognitive traits associated with an authoritarian temperament.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    The comments on divisiveness and namecalling remind me of my favorite space opera series, Empire of Man by John Ringo. One of the minor characters is a Satanist. Her faith grew out of a civil war on a Catholic planet where one side literally demonized its enemies; the enemies ended up accepting the epithet of “Satanist” and turned it into a real faith. Satanism, in this series, holds that in Paradise Lost, Satan was the good guy, and the evil angels won the war, imprisoned God, and banished Satan and his followers. Michael, Gabriel, et al have brainwashed us to think otherwise (the winners write the history books, after all). This neatly explains why the universe is in such a mess. The Satanists, therefore, join the military in large numbers, planning to fight for Satan come Armageddon, and free God from ‘the chains of the angels.’ As she points out:

    “‘… frankly, we believe that as long as Christians and Jews and Muslims are being ‘good,’ they’re violating the intent of their controllers. So we applaud them for it.” She turned and gave him a truly evil smile. “It really confuses them.’”

    So perhaps namecallers should be careful what they wish for!

  • karatemack

    Decent post with good things to consider. I wonder though if labeling people is only on one side of the fence. As soon as someone knows you believe God exists or accept the Bible as truth you are instantly labeled. Is this just as bad to you? Or is it only bad when ‘religious’ people label others? If we do recognize this as “tribalism” how do you propose we overcome this? Or perhaps you think that it’s alright to label people if you have enough ‘facts’ and ‘history’ to support your claim. Careful, because then you would promoting bigotry which you claim to decry.

    Since I’ve been on this site I haven’t found one person who cares a bit who I am as a person or why I feel the way I do about certain things. As soon as someone recognizes I’m a christian, the battle-lines are drawn. So while I agree with the thrust of your argument against “tribalism” I have a hard time accepting ‘religion’ as a greater cause of it than anything else you mentioned (sports) or failed to mention (atheism).

  • Leum

    Good point, karatemack. One of the ever-present dangers of being in any community is tribalism, and this is just as true in anti-tribalist communities as anywhere else. Certainly, refusing to acknowledge the existence of intelligent theists, assuming that anyone who accepts the Bible either is a fundamentalist or a hypocrite, or believing that atheists cannot fall prey to irrationality are all examples of tribalism (to some degree) within the atheist community (not that they are often seen here on Daylight Atheism).

    Is religion a cause of tribalism? Yes, and one that provides more justification for tribalism than most causes, in that the source of all wisdom Himself/Herself/Itself/Themselves has endorsed it (in many cases). If religion is a greater cause of tribalism than atheism, politics, or sports, it is because it all too often grants the ultimate excuse for such thinking.

  • D

    Karatemack, you’re absolutely correct that things go both ways here. However, once again I believe it will be instructive to look at the differences between “weak tribal allegiance,” “strong tribal allegiance,” and the in-between. Weak allegiances will always be present, strong allegiances tend to be destructive, and the in-between is where most of us fall. How this plays out is a bit more subtle than your post indicates, though.

    Of course the labelling isn’t only on one side of the fence. The thing is, as soon as you inform someone of the fact that you believe in a deity, the label “believes in a deity” applies to you (you’ve informed us of a weak allegiance of yours). Labelling in and of itself isn’t the problem, it’s how we use these labels and what we then do because of them that matters. For instance, there are certain people to whom both the labels “fundamentalist” and “christian” accurately apply, and for some of them, whenever they notice that the “atheism” label applies to someone else, they will also believe that the “morally reprehensible person” label applies to that person as well. For people who fit this behavioral model, I apply the label “overzealous.” (Note that assuming the weak allegiances of “fundamentalist” and “christian” always entail the strong allegiance of “overzealous” is just the same mistake from the other side.)

    Labelling by itself is not the same as tribalism – it’s just labelling. It’s something we need to do in order to be able to deal with the world – we slap labels on things in an attempt to understand them, and from time to time these labels must be modified or re-applied. However, if you meant “labelling inaccurately, unjustly, and/or prejudicially,” that is definitely part of tribalism, but only in the sense that a stomach is part of a salmon (IOW, not all “bad labelling” is tribalistic in the same way that not every stomach-having animal is a salmon). So because labelling by itself is not tribalism, your antecedent, “If we do recognize this as ‘tribalism,’ ” does not hold.

    Nevertheless, you are correct that there is bigotry from both sides, and those who decry religion-based prejudice while themselves maintaining religion-based prejudice are both bigots and hypocrites. However, any rational person ought to reject bigotry of all stripes, and I believe that’s an aim of everyone here. There’s a subtle but important distinction to be made here, though, and that is: “calling religious crazies out on their craziness is not religious discrimination.” When we do this, it’s because we have a problem with the crazy, and the fact that it’s religious only matters insofar as either A) the religion is bad because it encourages this particular brand of crazy (e.g. misogyny in Islam), or B) society at large tolerates this brand of crazy because it is religious (e.g. European accommodations to political Islam). Both of these problems seem to rise directly out of the “kid gloves” treatment with which religion is handled in modern society, as well as the sense of entitlement engendered by insular, tribalistic culture (such as raising kids to think they’re more special in God’s eyes).

    Does this help to clear some things up for you?

  • Mathew Wilder


    I think we all (or at least most) of us here agree that atheists can be tribalistic too. Whether they are as tribalistic as religious people is an empirical matter. Sadly, atheists are probably just as tribalistic as religious people, because they are, of course, humans, and tribalism is strongly rooted in our evolutionary past. It is my experience, though, that atheists are less tribalistic because they have spent much time examining the divisive nature of religion (and certain philosophies) and recognize tribalism as one of the idols of the mind which must be smashed if clear thinking is to win the day.

    The internet also tends to make things worse, I think. It is depersonalizing. It is easier to insult someone, or write an off the cuff response that is offensive when you don’t have to confront someone in person, or even wait around for a reply.

    However, part of why the “battle lines” are drawn when someone announces themself as a Christian is due, I think, to the nature of this site – which is meant to be a forum to discuss opposing viewpoints. This being an atheist site, it’s aim is to convince people that religion is false. Now, this is not necessarily vicious. It is good to be clear where one stands on specific intellectual matters. If things get heated, it is hopefully due more to the passion which people feel for their position, rather than mere reaction against the opposing side qua opposing side.

    I think most people here do a good job of arguing strongly for their side without falling into tribal thinking, which is reaction against the opponent, and not the opponent’s views/positions, which is what actually matters here.

    Furthermore, I think in real life, most of the more heated commenters here probably would be as courteous and congenial as anyone. (I hope!) Not every conversation is about religion (or some other divisive topic) after all!