Atheism in the U.S. is not about civil rights

Atheism in the U.S. is not about civil rights December 10, 2014

Dan Barker, the president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was on a segment of the Daily Show last night, discussing a controversial 15% prayer-discount in a Wiston-Salem diner. The discount was discontinued in August.

As it stands, I’m not convinced the discount was discriminatory—from the segment and description, it seems as if any sort of reflection or expression of gratitude, religious or not, would qualify. Even if it were limited to strictly prayer, I’m still not convinced that it’s discriminatory. , According to Pew, more than 50% of “nones” pray more than monthly, along with more than 15% atheists

That said, Dan Barker perfectly exemplified how not to win anyone over to your cause. Any legitimacy behind their complaint was immediately thrown out the window once Barker started discussing this discount in the context genocide and Selma.

“We just felt it was an act of rewarding people for being grateful,” Mary Haglund, the diner’s owner, said.

One atheist told Jordan Klepper, the Daily Show correspondent, that he got the discount by thanking the chef. Another, when asked about the controversy raised by the FFRF, responded “I just think they’re being dicks.”

“If you want to label someone who fights for civil rights and the First Amendment a dick, you’re welcome to do that,” Barker said. When presented with the possibility that he could simply take a moment of quiet reflection, he said “I have too much integrity as a rational person to pretend that I’m talking to a ghost in the sky.”

When the correspondent said “I’m an atheist, I get it. We need someone fighting the good fight. Is this a good fight?” Barker responded “You could say this is more unfair or less unfair, but it’s still unfair. Take for example genocide…” and Klepper’s eyes visibly widened in disbelief. Barker’s point was that whether a genocide kills twenty thousand people or twenty million people, it’s still a genocide, though he was seemingly ignorant of how disproportionate and careless an analogy that is.

Throughout the entire interview, Barker exemplifies a complete obliviousness to what constitutes decent PR. Even if this was a legitimate case (I’m skeptical that it is but encourage commenters with legal knowledge to share it below), it’s hard to see how Barker is doing any good.

I can’t help but notice how much Barker’s rhetoric mirrors and appeals to the minority of atheists who frequent atheist blogs or forums; dismissing prayer as “talking to a ghost in the sky” brings to mind r/atheism, and the genocide analogy is right out of Richard Dawkins’s playbook.

It’s easy to forget, though, how insular and small the online atheist community is. You see this any time comments like this receive broader mainstream attention, because any atheist not part of the atheist movement (and the vast majority aren’t) is going to be embarrassed by association. It’s no coincidence that, in the segment, the voices most critical of Barker are atheists. Klepper said to the owner of the diner, “I think these guys are petty assholes, right?” and the owner stayed respectfully silent.

I think this all goes further to show that the problem atheists have in the U.S. is a PR problem and not a civil rights problem. I’ve written about this issue at length, but if there are any civil rights issues plaguing atheists in the U.S., they’re so small compared to any other historical civil rights struggle that invoking that language itself is extremely offensive and disproportionate.

Like Klepper suggests, we need to pick our fights and make sure they’re good ones. But even more importantly, we need to think about how we’re fighting our fights. Invoking genocide and Selma to discuss a 15% discount you could get by closing your eyes doesn’t do anyone any favors, least of all atheists.

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