Skin Deep

Skin Deep October 24, 2008

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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