Why and How They Hate Us

Last week’s post “Trying to Love My Enemies” ended up generating a comment thread that was more focused on how people became my enemies than discussion of how best to seek their good.  A number of Christians raised questions about what was signified by the reluctance of most Americans to vote for an atheist and whether my aggrieved feelings were merited.

Poll numbers alone make it hard to suss out the feelings and motivations of the respondents, and some Christian commenters seemed concerned that other atheists and I were impugning the motives of people who were merely concerned that atheists tend to support policies that they oppose.  I’m sure that accounts for some proportion of opposition to atheist politicians — respondents may not be able to honestly imagine the atheist who agrees with them, as most polls ask them to do.  However, I believe that there is a deeper distrust motivating many of these responses, one that is well illustrated in an essay by Pantheos’s Warren Cole Smith.

Smith’s essay is meant to persuade Christians that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism means they cannot licitly support him.  Although Smith has no equivalent essay against atheist candidates (and we have no candidates to offer) the logic of his argument would seem equally applicable to me as to Romney.  Here are the key paragraphs:

What Weyrich understood was that you can’t have it “both ways” when it comes to Romney’s faith. You can’t say that his religious beliefs don’t matter, but his “values” do. The Christian worldview teaches that there is a short tether binding beliefs to the values and behaviors that flow from them. If the beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually—but inevitably—be warped. Mormonism is particularly troubling on this point because Mormons believe in the idea of “continuing revelation.” They may believe one thing today, and something else tomorrow. This is why Mormons have changed their views, for example, on marriage and race. Polygamy was once a key distinctive of the religion. Now, of course, it is not. Mormons once forbade blacks from leadership roles. Now they do not. What else will change?

…Placing a Mormon in that pulpit would be a source of pride and a shot of adrenaline for the LDS church. It would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over. It would also provide an opening to Mormon missionaries around the world, who could start every conversation: “Let me tell you about the American president.” To elect a Mormon President is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church.

Atheists, like Mormons, would benefit from the legitimizing effect of having one of us elected to the highest office in the nation.  The first argument is probably less universally accepted when applied to atheist, but it’s not unusual.  It depends how much of the moral law Christians believe is written on the hearts of men and accessible to the heathen.  If it’s only a small proportion, then any agreement between Christians and atheists will only be coincidental and transient.

This is what Christians are implying when they tell be my moral beliefs are arbitrary and ungrounded, while theirs are ordained by God.  They can’t trust any of my moral judgments.  No matter how many correct answers I give, it’s only a case of a stopped watch being right twice a day.

And, in the eyes of many Christians, the result of these beliefs is that, as an atheist, I am not just a bad American, I’m a threat to everyone I meet.  If me or someone like me is the worst-case scenario, the best-case is that I am marginalized and isolated, that, no matter what I argue, my words are dismissed.  I am to be treated as an existential threat.

And that means that Christians like Warren Cole Smith are a threat to me.

These Christians succeed when they push me out of public life and the public sphere.  They are strengthened when judges deny custody to one parent simple because s/he is an atheist and therefore they are a threat to their child.  (They deny us adoptions for the same reason).  They rejoice when billboards that so much as mention our existence are banned as too controversial.  They are upset when the classmates of their children have the gall to discuss their beliefs in the cafeteria (and if the school won’t crack down on the atheists, the Christian parents pull their kids out of school any day they might be exposed to them).

Atheists are treated as subversive, enemy agents.  That might be a more reasonable attitude in a church or during a debate on Christianity, but it’s an inappropriate way to treat us in the public sphere.  Don’t forget that Smith’s arguments can and have been applied to plenty of Christian sects.  I imagine that, as an evangelical, Smith takes a pretty dim view of the infallible authority of the Pope, and many evangelicals would see any correspondence between Sacred Tradition and sola scriptura as coincidental and untrustworthy.  Although firmly opposed sects fear any respect or attention that their enemies win for themselves, they don’t try to censor or isolate them the way they do atheists.

Whether that’s because opinions have softened since the day Thomas Nast drew the cartoon below or because rival sects no longer have firm majorities to wield, I don’t know.  I only hope some kind of acceptance for us comes soon, and I suspect the best thing we can do is to come out as atheists and reap the benefits of familiarity just as the gay movement has.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    So if you were in a majority atheist country, would you want some handsome/charming/Kennedyesque religious guy running the country?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    They may believe one thing today, and something else tomorrow. This is why Mormons have changed their views, for example, on marriage and race. Polygamy was once a key distinctive of the religion. Now, of course, it is not. Mormons once forbade blacks from leadership roles. Now they do not. What else will change?Because Christian sects have never changed their views on slavery, interracial marriage, female suffrage, or any other topic of importance, right? :)

  • Patrick

    Ebonmuse- This guy's an evangelical, and the Evangelical response would be to claim that they changed their views based on an increasing understanding of existing revelation as encoded in the Bible, rather than by means of new revelation. Although… yeah, that paragraph was clearly written by an idiot, and plays a lot more on fear of uncertain doctrine than is justified given the place this guy is probably coming from.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    I don't think you can draw generally valid conclusions from a selective handful of anecdotes. Bigotry and intolerance are alive and well on all sides. Richard Dawkins has argued that it should be illegal to teach Christianity to children, equating Christianity with "child abuse". I've witnessed firsthand anti-Christian bigotry in University doctoral programs and in the workplace. It would be easy to collect a bunch of anecdotes and argue that "atheists are a threat to Christians", and at some point it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle as both sides escalate in suspicion and hostility. Personally, I don't see a point in feeding that beast.Warren Cole Smith is an ass clown, to be sure, but it's also a mistake to think that things would be better if clowns like him (and Dawkins) were gone. Schelling's segregation model shows that even very small overall preferences can result in segregation, and of course segregation can lead to hardening of preferences. IMO, Schelling's model is more than enough to explain why it's so hard for atheists to get elected. It's probably more fruitful to focus efforts at that level.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    Strangely enough, I think that many atheists are also influenced by the idea that other atheists' integrity is less trustworthy than a religious person's. I have several friends who were raised in officially atheist countries and who are committed atheists, but would prefer to vote for a Christian. I personally don't care a bit whether a candidate is Christian, atheist, Mormon, or Muslim — so I was quite surprised the first time an atheist expressed a preference for Christian politicians. I would like to see statistics on this, but I suspect it is a real factor that helps explain why atheists have such a hard time getting elected even in European countries where atheism is strong and widely accepted.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking for the intellectual Christians among us, Edward Feser writes of our distrust of atheists quite nicely:"For secularism (and atheism) is, necessarily and inherently, a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world, and the more thoroughly it is assimilated by its adherents, the more thoroughly do they cut themselves off from the very possibility of rational and moral understanding. Moreover, and for this very reason, its adherents unavoidably find it difficult, indeed almost impossible, to perceive their true condition. The less they know, the less they know it." (The Last Superstition, 3)

  • Patrick

    Feser is a perfect example of the problem. The dude has a strong commitment to the idea that certain claims of medieval and pre medieval philosophy are self evidently true, and then again that once you accept those claims of medieval and pre medieval philosophy, certain other things necessarily follow.Unfortunately for him, no one agrees.And when you think something is self evidently true, and yet no one agrees with you, you have two possibilities. Either you are wrong and the thing in question is not self evidently true, or else there is something flawed with the people themselves that prevents them from seeing what's so obvious.He's chosen to build a career out of claiming the latter. Or at least to build a blog.

  • Anonymous

    @JS Allen – False equivalence is false equivalence. There is a difference between a more powerful and numerous group making threats about an 'other' being the enemy and subversive and the less powerful and less numerous group making similar claims. It is a problem when Christians largely do this because of their overwhelming monopoly on power, numbers and public rhetoric. It is possible for Christians to do horrifying things to individuals of other religions or non-religions in this country through state-sanctioned means via majoritarian power – the opposite is effectively untrue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    In response to Lukas's question, I'd vote for a liberal Christian over a libertarian atheist any day of the week.

  • http://blamer.myopenid.com/ blamer

    It seems to me that Atheism tends to elicit the same public response as a cult.Even to non-Christians, the atheist is commonly seen as belonging to a minority group with a disturbingly bizarre idea at its centre.Notably that "grouping" is absent for the agnostic or the individual whose spirituality lies at the disorganised end of the religious spectrum.To my mind, a candidate's view of God can offer no comfort to my policy or ethical concerns. Nor should it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas, I'd vote for whoever represented my interests and/or public policies best. I expect religion would be a minor consideration in most cases, from me, but they may colour their public policies based on their religion (or any other reason) and if I didn't agree then I wouldn't vote for them. But that's because of their policies rather than where their policies derive from.Leah, I'm disappointed to hear you won't be voting for me, even though I'm small-l libertarian and more pragmatic than ideologue.JS Allen, as a European (yet another reason Leah won't be voting for me) I think the apparent lack of atheist representatives may struggle to be elected is because the religious can often vote en mass on a single issue whereas atheists vote for politicians that have the best policies in their personal opinion. However, in the UK the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition are both avowed atheists and the Prime Minister himself is a really weak Christian. So it's not all doom and gloom over here for the atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    blamer: "To my mind, a candidate's view of God can offer no comfort to my policy or ethical concerns. Nor should it."Okay, swap God for 'Elvis being alive', bigfoot, leprechauns, fairies, ghosts, ESP etc. and see if that statement still holds water.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    "There is a difference between a more powerful and numerous group making threats about an 'other' being the enemy and subversive and the less powerful and less numerous group making similar claims."Exactly! The problem has nothing to do with Christianity versus atheism. People put on their political blinders and try to make this an issue of my belief system versus yours, but that's just childish thinking that feeds the beast.Take a look at China. Rapidly becoming the world's most powerful country, and it's an atheist nation. I have visited regularly on business and pleasure over the years, and know a number of people in government. If you are not an atheist, you can forget about ever holding powerful political office in China. It's that simple. And in China, the members of the 'other' don't just have to endure bigoted rants by fringe figures with blogs — they are thrown in jail, have their property taken, and are actually persecuted.By the logic of some commenting here, the proper approach to the repression of the minority 'other' in China would be to talk about how evil Chinese atheism is, and join forces with the minority groups (like Christianity and Falun Gong) to try to strengthen them. Because, you know, the 'other' must be superior to the dominant 'ism' by simply fact that the dominant 'ism' is dominant. But that's just crazy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    Also, I want to challenge the constant claim that Western Christianity is particularly repressive of the 'other'. Atheists love to bang the pots and pans and raise the alarm that the Christians are coming to steal everyone's porn and outlaw sodomy.As far as I can tell, Americans consume more porn than any nation on earth. Americans tolerate openly gay behavior more than any nation on earth (try being openly gay in atheist countries like Russia or China, or even in sexually liberal Brazil). Americans consume more recreational drugs than any other country on earth. And the list goes on…In every single area of morality, America has continued to become even *more* liberal over the years. The reports of the demise (let alone *decline*) of the 'other' are pure fabrication.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    JS Allen, you show that the country based on freedom is more liberal than China or Russia, is that really what you want to be compared to? How about comparing it to western Europe?In fact, let's compare the US (pop. 300m) to China (pop. 1.2bn). You mention the ability of the state to take religious people's possessions and imprison them. A terrible thing. How's your 4th Amendment working these days? Your government has the right to seize whatever it wants for whatever reason too. It can, and does, hold people without charge indefinitely.What percentage of the adult population in the US is incarcerated? 1% (approx. 5 times the UK ratio which is the highest in western Europe) over 2.5 million. In china it is approx. 0.2% a lower total number than the US despite having being 4 times the size.There are no laws regarding being gay in China, so I guess America wins there.But how about you compare it to other free states like those in western Europe? Does America compare well when it comes to minority rights? Did it lead the way on freeing the slaves? Did the Land Of The Free lead the way on civil rights for people of all colours? Did the country based on all men being created equal give women the vote first? How about all men being created equal actually being treated differently under the law because their partner is the same gender?As for America becoming more liberal… You must be joking. Prop. 8, DOMA, PATRIOT Act, banning stem cell research, states trying to enforce religious tests for public office (in breach of the Constitution), the army and secretary of state speaking out against a US citizen exercising his 1st Amendment rights (Terry Jones) etc. etc. These are all very recent events.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @March Hare – Yes! Those are exactly the kinds of things I was thinking of. None of these examples are caused by belief systems. They're caused by powerful political coalitions of people attempting to exploit weaker coalitions. It's politics, not religion.People who point fingers at the belief system are naive. That goes for some commenters here, and for people like Feser. Attacking the belief system as if that's going to solve the problem, is just silly — it doesn't even pass the giggle test.Think about it. If Christians are the dominant political lobby in America, and if their policies are driven by their belief systems, we should expect to see policies that closely reflect Christians' publicly stated beliefs. But that's the opposite of what we see. Christians talk constantly about sex and drugs, but seem utterly incompetent at stemming the flow. Christians claim that homosexuality is an offense against God, but we have some of the most liberal tolerance for gays in the world. On the other hand, Christians send missionaries all around the world to save the souls of brown people, but then 20% of our black and Hispanic young men are put in prison here. Since when has any Christian claimed that imprisoning minorities is a Christian value?When you try to battle the belief system, you're chasing a Chimera. You want to "fix" the Christians' belief system to "fix" the discrimination, but you're ignoring the fact that the repression has no correlation with stated worldview. Yank out Christianity and put atheism in it's place, and you end up with exactly the same world as you had before. Racism, sexism, repression of minority religions, gay bashing, etc.FWIW, this magical thinking about belief systems is almost exclusively the domain of Westerners. I've never seen Chinese or Russian atheists say, "If only you could turn people into atheists, the repression would stop". Chinese and Russians tend to be a lot more cynical than that. Anyone who wants you to trust them based on the purity of their belief system is probably a shyster, or at least hopelessly idealistic and naive — not the sort of person you would want running your country.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    A simpler example: The most Christian nation on earth drops more bombs on other countries than any other country. Our imperial armies are spread around the earth involved in multiple wars, and we'll bomb Christian Serbs as readily as Libyan Secularists who are fighting against Al Qaeda.Do we solve the problem of American aggression by fixing Christian beliefs about violence? Maybe we should change the Bible to say something like "turn the other cheek". That might work.Another mystery: Democrats criticize Republicans for the Republican's overt militarism and lack of diplomacy. Yet Obama has thrice violated the sovereignty of other nations to assassinate foreign nationals, in just the past few months. And nary a peep. Why do you suppose this is?

  • http://blamer.myopenid.com/ blamer

    March Hare: Okay, swap God for 'Elvis being alive', bigfoot, leprechauns, fairies, ghosts, ESP etc. and see if that statement still holds water.MH, those personal beliefs don't effect electability. Should they? Well yes, but only to the extent that belief has societal consequences.Evidently belief in God is effecting electability. And your examples support the idea that once elected their personal view of God can and does influence public policy, if sufficiently religious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    All a politicians opinions should come into play when deciding whether to elect them or not, however should their (in your opinion) ridiculous beliefs not impact their stated intentions then it ceases to be a major concern – albeit it could interfere with how they interpret new information and deal with novel situations.e.g. While I'd have no problem voting for a Christian who went along with the majority beliefs of their constituents (or the positions they laid out pre-election), I'd refuse to vote if they were a dominionist who ultimately wanted rid of the secular state and it replaced by Christian laws. I'd also refuse to vote for anyone who believed they were in daily contact with God (or Elvis, or leprechauns) as they are not mentally competent.


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