Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/10

4

The different qualities of distaste

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A comment below:

” I’m sure many people here have read opinion polls that show Atheists to be public enemy #1 ranking less favorably than Gays, Blacks, and Gay Blacks. Many still can’t understand that someone can believe in morality but not God.”

Just speaking as someone who is gay [lesbian] and was atheist/agnostic for most of my life, I always object when ppl make such statements. Sure, people say they don’t like atheists, but hatred against atheists manifests itself in completely different ways than hatred of other groups….

Over the past generation there has come to be in the United States a series of “oppression” bidding wars. Who has it worse, white women, or black men? Atheists or homosexuals? Muslims or Mormons? And so forth. A problem though with these comparisons is that they presume that dislike and persecution lay on a linear spectrum, rather than exploring a multidimensional space. The concreteness of this is manifest in comparing relations between the sexes and the races. The relationship between men and women, all things equal, is qualitatively different from the relationship between different races.

American atheists have trumpeted the fact that public opinion polls suggest that they are the most reviled and disliked segments of the population. More so than Mormons, Muslims and homosexuals. But I think that this sort of question misleads, and is expressing a widespread, but shallow, sentiment. The typical hostility toward atheism emerges out of ignorance, and preconceptions. Most Americans are at least moderately religious, and take it is a given that morality comes from God. It does not take a logician to infer from this model that those without God are particularly amoral and lacking in character, and because most Americans do not know anyone who is an atheist, or more accurately, they do not know that some of the people they know may be atheists, all they have to go on is a superficial model. When I was younger and socialized mostly with conservative white Protestants and Mormons (because of the demographics of where I resided) my atheism had an initial shock effect, in part because I was notably “straight edge,” and did not exhibit the amorality which was expected. But this issue quickly faded into the background, as the lack of religion had little pragmatic consequence.

In contrast, the few open homosexuals at my high school were subject to a far greater level of harassment. Though homosexuality is ostensibly different from race because one can mask it, operationally it is not always so, and many homosexuals have a particular affect which makes their orientation unmistakable. The hostility which many of my peers expressed toward homosexual males derived not from abstract preconceptions, but concrete fears and visceral disgust. Over the past generation the gay rights movement has worked to dispel preconceptions and raise consciousness, and this is resulted in a more acceptable public profile for homosexuals. While to my knowledge no person in Congress has been elected with their atheism public, Jared Polis and Tammy Baldwin were both elected as open homosexuals. But I would much rather be an atheist in much of this country than a gay man, because in interpersonal relations I believe that homosexuality is much more threatening to some than atheism is. In other words, the idea of atheism is something that many Americans have been indoctrinated to fear, but the reality of atheists turns out to be far less threatening. In contrast, sexuality is a much more primal issue, and though the specific relationship of social norms to homosexuality may vary across time and space, it is always something with much more personal valence.

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26 comments

  • mike · March 4, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    First, “fear” isn’t what drives disdain for atheists or homosexuals. That’s just an attempt to pathologize un-PC sentiments.

    Second, elections are a poor way to measure bigotry. 97% of blacks voted for Obama. Does that mean they hated McCain’s whiteness, or just that they saw Obama as “one of us” and someone more likely to look out for their interests? With regards to religiosity versus sodomy, it’s just easier to pretend to be religious than it is to pretend to be straight.

    Finally, we have a bad habit of imagining this strawman bigot who’s a toothless white evangelical redneck. Is that who really holds the power in America today? As our demographics and institutions change, shouldn’t we acknowledge that many different groups hold many different bigotries? All other things being equal, who’s going to be discriminated against in college admissions or government hiring – a black lesbian Wiccan or a straight white Christian male? I’m not trying to enter the Victimology Olympics here, but can we at least acknowledge that discrimination is not some monolithic force that only works in one direction?

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 4, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    we have a bad habit of imagining this strawman bigot who’s a toothless white evangelical redneck. Is that who really holds the power in America today

    blacks have more of a hostility toward gays and atheists than whites. so that would be a retarded strawman in this context.

  • Susan · March 4, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    In my line of work (academe/entertainment), and my neck of the woods (northeast), I’ve never suffered from being an agnostic/atheist, and I know no one like me who has. Were I devoutly religious, and vocal about it, I probably would have suffered from it.

  • mike · March 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Hume, please excuse me for being a poor reader and not seeing the reference in your post that blamed blacks for prejudice against gays and atheists. For some reason, probably my own innate bigotry, I only saw “conservative white Protestants and Mormons” as specific groups named in your post. I apologize for suggesting that you didn’t specify who is directly responsible for prejudice in AmeriKKKa.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 4, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    dude, you need to take lessons in non-assholery from will-the-ex-asshole. seriously.

  • John · March 4, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I agree that dislike of atheists is shallow, and not very important in the grand scheme of things. It is also easier to hide atheism than sexual orientation, and much easier to hide atheism than race.

    Still, maybe we can get affirmative action for atheists, or better yet, reparations. $800,000 a person sounds fair to me.

  • Bob Smith · March 4, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    The problem religious people have with atheists isn’t atheism. It’s the aggressive push by some atheists to remove religion from the public sphere, to force it underground.

  • Lorenzo from Oz · March 4, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    First, “fear” isn’t what drives disdain for atheists or homosexuals. That’s just an attempt to pathologize un-PC sentiments.
    (1) The post did not claim that fear was the only driver.
    (2) Some disdain for homosexuals is driven by fear that one has, or might have, homoerotic inclinations.
    (3) Plenty of bigotry has been driven by fear, of varying degrees of realism.
    (4) Bigotry pathologises people systematically.
    (5) Typically, the great selling point of bigotry is http://lorenzo-thinkingoutaloud.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-is-it-to-be-human.html“>effortless virtue.

    With regards to religiosity versus sodomy
    The use of ‘sodomy’ in this context, though traditional, is in fact a very dubious interpretation of Genesis 19.
    It invokes God-the-virtuous-exterminator-of-the-different (and morally quarantined). It is, in effect, saying “this group of fellow citizens is the group God hates and wants dead”. That’s going rather beyond merely pathologising people.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    It’s the aggressive push by some atheists to remove religion from the public sphere, to force it underground.

    sure. but that can’t be the only issue, from what i recall religious minorities such as jews and unitarians are much more instrumental in separationism, and people aren’t that hostile to jews.

  • Falterer · March 4, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    In 2007, Gallup found that 53% of Americans would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate, 43% would not vote for a gay, and 24% would not vote for a Mormon. Several atheist blogs trounced on the poll as further proof that we’re the most hated people in America, but it doesn’t show that at all. Rather, it shows that the majority of Americans do not trust atheists in positions of responsibility. We’re seen as lacking a firm foundation for our morality; not necessarily that we’re amoral, but that our morality is more likely to sway than one who believes it was handed down from a supernatural higher power.

  • muffy · March 5, 2010 at 9:35 am

    ” A problem though with these comparisons is that they presume that dislike and persecution lay on a linear spectrum, rather than exploring a multidimensional space. ”

    Thank you! This is what I was trying to say in my post. Let’s not play the so-called “oppression Olympics.” Prejudice can not be reduced to one psychological phenomenon that is quantifiable in a certain set of polling data.

    I also think it’s interesting how different “oppressed statuses” interact with one another. Both women and gays are “oppressed groups,” so one would think that being female and gay would be the “worst” combination to be. However, I don’t think this is true at all. I’d rather be a lesbian than a gay man. Furthermore, I think being irreligious has less of an effect on gays/lesbians than straights, since people assume (fairly on unfairly) that being gay necessarily makes you less religious to begin with.

    “In my line of work (academe/entertainment), and my neck of the woods (northeast), I’ve never suffered from being an agnostic/atheist, and I know no one like me who has. Were I devoutly religious, and vocal about it, I probably would have suffered from it.”

    This jives from my own experience in the very liberal academic environments in the northwest and northeast. Specifically, traditional Christianity was pretty much the worst religion you could be part of since irreligion was the default and ppl at least tried to be PC to religious minority (like Jews). However, I know this isn’t true everywhere, and I’m sure in some places atheists have to put up with a lot of *%&^, although I personally have managed to avoid such environments (thank goodness).

    BTW, Razib, or anyone else — do you have polling data that examines distrust of atheists in public office according to gender/race/religion (e.g. exploring whether men or women are more likely to trust an atheist president)?

  • Joshua · March 5, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Re: Falterer

    That sounds pretty close to the mark. As I have argued before, religion is an elaborate reinforcement mechanism for morality, not necessarily its source. However, it occurs to me that claiming that God is the source of morality also serves the purpose of reinforcing it. After all if one believes that God exists, is all-powerful and all-knowing, decides who is and is not allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven, and on top of all that, also invented the moral code upon which our society is based, the decision to follow that code is a no-brainer. In the absence of such beliefs, YMMV.

  • Rich Rostrom · March 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    “While to my knowledge no person in Congress has been elected with their atheism public…”

    Rep. Meyer London (Soc-NY), 1914-1918, 1920-1922, was “ethnically Jewish”, but not “religious”. I’d guess he was an atheist.

    I’d also suggest the same about his party comrade, Rep. Victor Berber of WI (1910-1912, 1918-1920, 1922-1928).

    There was no absolute conflict between being an establishment political figure and being an atheist, or at least an agnostic. Robert Ingersoll was perhaps the most famous “freethinker” in America in the late 1800s – but he was also Attorney General of Illinois, and made a famous nominating speech for James G. Blaine at the 1876 Republican convention (Blaine was not nominated that year, but was in 1884).

    Thus it is not impossible that someone in that era was elected to Congress despite being an atheist; probably a virulent conservative of some kind, whose atheism was written off as a personal eccentricity.

  • Claudia · March 7, 2010 at 6:56 am

    @.Falterer your deconstruction of why people don’t trust atheists in positions of authority rings true, but I don’t see it as particularly being an argument against atheists being a hated minority. We are not trusted because we are falsely expected to have more flimsy values. In essence we are expected to be amoral, or at least more so than a religious person. However I would expect that being considered less moral will make you less liked, even if you don’t seek a position of authority. If you felt Jews were generally less moral than you, would you react kindly to them? Other polls have stated that a majority of Americans would not accept or feel uncomfortable with their child marrying an atheist. Sounds like bigotry to me.

    However it is true that there’s no point in having a victimhood Olympics. The extent to which whatever your status (sexuality, gender, religion, race etc.) is going to hurt or favor you is very complex and very context-dependent. A devoutly Christian male will do great in Alabama, but put him in the NYU women’s studies department and things will change rather radically. We can still agree that its generally easier to be a white Chritian male than a black atheist female, but context is still key.

  • Julian · March 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

    mike: Considering institutions like Liberty University and the current rash of Christian zealotry within the air-force, I’d say the Black, female Wiccan is much, much more likely to face discrimination than a White male Christian. Heck, as a white male atheist I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt and handed all manner of honors I never sought throughout my life, and I live in Texas. The fact is that, compared to pretty much any demographic grouping you can name out there, being a white, straight, male in the United States is heads-and-shoulders easier. For us to complain of “discrimination” is not only laughable, its pathetic and infantile.

  • robert Zeller · March 7, 2010 at 7:28 am

    It was always a curious thing to me how race, sex, national origin and sexual orientation are blended in with religion (or atheism) in civil right and anti-discrimination laws. Freedom of religion is perfectly understandable, but being free from the consequences of what you believe and practice (as apposed to what you are) seems odd indeed

  • Laertes · March 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

    I’ve been an Atheist for 20 years, in the Midwest, in Texas, and on both coasts. I don’t recall any discomfort over it, ever.

    Some years back, just once, for maybe half an hour, I was mistaken for gay and didn’t care to correct the misimpression. The disgust I perceived in those around me, the harassment of a couple of them, and the alienation from the rest that I felt remain a vivid memory to this day.

    That was just a tiny sample of the real thing, and I knew I could leave it behind at any time by just walking away from this particular group of strangers who I’d never see again. I don’t know how people live with that all day, every day, with no easy escape.

    What white atheists may sometimes encounter isn’t a patch on real bigotry. Just a tiny sip of the real thing drove that point home to me. Real bigotry is a lynch mob. Anti-atheist “bigotry” is the looks you get when you wear a Cardinals jersey to to a Cubs game.

  • Mike · March 7, 2010 at 8:24 am

    “from what i recall religious minorities such as jews and unitarians are much more instrumental in separationism, and people aren’t that hostile to jews.”

    David, this statement was a joke, right? If not, then talk to some jews about it. Or better yet, just google the word “jews” and see what comes up. Google will even help you out; two of the related searches for “jews” are “jew jokes” and “I hate jews.”

  • Nato · March 7, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Mike, I just got here and it strikes me that none of your comments seem to follow from that on which you comment. For example, how does prejudice against Jews in any way contradict the recollection that religious minorities are instrumental in separationism? Also in what way did David’s original statement “A problem though with these comparisons is that they presume that dislike and persecution lay on a linear spectrum, rather than exploring a multidimensional space” fail to “at least acknowledge that discrimination is not some monolithic force that only works in one direction”? The very inappropriateness of the comment discredits the preceding claim that you were “not trying to enter the Victimology Olympics here.”

    Anyway, I’m a young, healthy, blond haired, blue-eyed, financially-secure, straight white male from a Christian background, who lives in San Francisco. My wife and I were also both formerly in the Army, living in places like Colorado Springs CO and Clarksville TN. I think I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of discrimination people like me face. I’ve also been able to compare it to a wide variety of friends and coworkers from very different backgrounds. Pretty much the only time I ever bring up evidence of anti-Atheist bigotry like the cited polls is when someone like me wants to vent about how oppressed Christians are. It’s so ridiculous and downright indecorous to pretend to the status of an oppressed and powerless minority when one merely finds one’s huge preponderance of power hedged about slightly more than before that I can only assume the speakers have never honestly tried to imagine themselves in the place of their supposed oppressors.

    Not that I have much more tolerance for atheists who spend a lot of time trumpeting how oppressed we are, because that’s similarly weak. We have some awfully strong constitutional protections, and though we sometimes have to fight to get them enforced I think we’re not exactly in dire straits these days. If you’re trying to be an atheist in the Middle East, then sure, you’re in an awfully tough spot, but here in the US, we’re not all that oppressed as a class. Personal circumstances (are things much more difficult for a black atheist? I don’t know) make a lot of difference, but I agree it doesn’t make sense to cite such polls as evidence of serious oppression.

    As an antidote to the Christian sense of persecution, however, they’re indispensable.

  • Joe G · March 7, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I think his point was that Jews have an easier time succeeding politically than do atheists (which is funny because in the parts of the country where Jews are most likely to succeed politically, they are probably less likely to take a fundamentalist approach to their religion, or do much more than identify as “culturally Jewish”). Also, the same conservative wing that tends to try to co-opt anti-Jewish sentiment has an interest in being stridently pro-Israel. There’s a strange disconnect.

    You could say the same thing about African Americans. Racism still exists all over this country, but a black person would have a much easier time getting elected than an atheist would.

    Ultimately it may be more about agenda than anything else. In my opinion an atheist/agnostic is less likely to go into politics to promote atheist/agnostic values, and probably isn’t bothered (morally speaking) by having to hide their personal belief system (or lack thereof).

    On the other hand, a black person or an openly gay person elected to office probably got there with the support of a certain community and would be expected to serve the interests of their community or lose their support. I can just imagine the ruckus made if someone tried to make an issue out of a black candidate fighting for issues important to the black community*, but for some reason it’s totally aces to be openly hostile towards the gay community.

    So it’s harder to become an openly gay elected official, unless you’re entrenched, like Barney Frank. So you run into problems with people hiding their sexuality for the sake of a political career.

    In other words, I think if people perceive you as having some sort of agenda, you’re much more likely to attract the wrong kind of attention unless your agenda is massively popular wherever it is you live. If an atheist ran on a platform of banning religion and forced abortions for a massive stem cell research plan, I should imagine this person would not be very popular. An atheist/agnostic who ran on a platform of issues and made very little noise about his/her atheism, in certain parts of the country that person could get elected.

    Isn’t that how Republicans get elected in blue states?

    *In the current political climate, conservatives seem to be able to get away with saying whatever the heck they want, however crazy, so the normal rules may not apply anymore.

  • Robert · March 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    If I recall correctly, Fortney ‘Pete’ Stark, Congressman from a district near where I live (East Bay, Northern California) is publically atheist.

    I do not know if he ‘came out’ as freethinking before or after he was first elected, however. He’s still quite popular in his own district, as many Congressional representatives are.

  • Mike Caton · March 7, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    As a straight atheist I agree completely with this article. The comparison is muddied because who you would vote for, versus how you react to people living next door to you or teaching your kids, are not the same question at all. In the U.S., gays face far more, and far more dangerous, discrimination than atheists. Period. (E.g., I’ve yet to see an atheist travel guide listing which attractions in which U.S. states and cities are safe for my atheist spouse and me.) The sum total of “oppression” that I’ve personally experienced during my life, despite my fairly open and forward atheism, has amounted to a few frivolous comments.

    But to be fair, I also don’t think I’ve met any atheists who fight to claim the “most hated demographic” position, despite bloggers’ emphasis on the “distrusted minority” poll. And that’s good, because it’s harmful for atheists to make noise about how difficult or dangerous it is to be an atheist in America, when in fact it’s usually fine. Blowing hot air about how hard it is unnecessarily scares and discourages closeted atheists from coming out and seeking others like themselves.

    Another note from relevant anecdotal experience that I’d love to see actual data on: why is it that I meet so many nonreligious people in official college Republican groups? Where are these people post-graduation?

  • Ray Ingles · March 8, 2010 at 6:34 am

    @Bob Smith – Leaving aside the question of whether there actually is an “aggressive push by some atheists to remove religion from the public sphere, to force it underground”, I don’t see much evidence that’s the reason for how atheists get treated.

    For example, the much-publicized recent ‘atheist advertising campaign’ has the message, “Don’t Believe In God? You’re Not Alone.” A billboard in Cincinnati with that message – which boils down to, “atheists exist” – had to be moved because of threats.

    @Joe G. – Why would an atheist run on “a platform of banning religion and forced abortions for a massive stem cell research plan”? Why would those be “atheist/agnostic values”?

  • JimBob · March 8, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    “While to my knowledge no person in Congress has been elected with their atheism public…”

    Pete Stark (D-CA) is a current member of Congress and has stated publicly that he is an atheist.

  • Joe G · March 8, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    @Ray Ingles I was using hyperbole to illustrate my point.

  • Tim Kowal · March 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    You *were* straight-edge? You know, if you’re not now, you never were, as the saying used to go.

    Those were fun days.

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