Michael Enright: Atheists, you're not being silenced, so stop talking about it!

A reader forwarded me this via email as a sort of quick-bloggy bit of material, I suspect at least in part to get me blog just to prove I’m still alive. So, here we are!

Michael Enright, of CBC’s venerable The Sunday Edition, has decided to take on one group that’s really overreaching, that’s already gotten all the attention it deserves, that’s been given all the deference it could want and yet still keeps grasping for more: atheists. Seriously, can you think of another group that’s already won all its campaigns to be allowed to exist in peace and yet keeps, you know, talking about how horrible it is to be them, to have to play second-fiddle to all the overprivileged people in our society? Nope, none, just atheists!

He starts out by electing Richard Dawkins as our pope.

If the atheists of the world could ever organize themselves into a non-religious church, their first Pope would undoubtedly be Richard Dawkins.

Yeah, off to a GREAT start.

I don’t think we atheists COULD ever organize ourselves into a non-religious church, much less would want to. But you’re absolutely right that there are a lot of people who would bend over backward to provide apologetics for Richard Dawkins’ many, many verbal missteps and privilege-blind naivety. However, there are as many who feel movement atheism is passing Dawkins by in attempting to improve itself by taking into account other social justice movements, so already you have a division between papists and non-papists. And those non-papists are mostly so because they’re actually concerned about intersectionality, about social justice causes beyond atheism.

I’m absolutely certain Enright has no sweet clue about the goings-on within movement atheism, nor about the fact that there’s actual division amongst us about whether or not we should actually give a damn about feminism among other movements — feminism is the most prominent sticking point, especially among atheism’s primarily male libertarian bent. But when you get right down to it, movement atheism is a nearly identical fight over societal overprivileging of one group over another.

That’s never how members of the privileged group frame the issue, though:

It’s not that atheists don’t believe in God. That’s fine. It’s not against the law. Atheism is a coherent system of beliefs arrived at, I am sure, after some very serious and sober consideration.

Atheists are not being prosecuted or silenced. They are lovingly tended by media interviewers, me included, and their nuanced arguments are politely acknowledged.

The problem to me is that they won’t shut up about it.

The public, endless public profession of atheism to me reflects a whiny, whinging self-pitying narcissism.

Well, atheism isn’t a coherent system of beliefs, so much as a preference for scientific rationalism over any particular religion, but there are those among us who feel that atheism alone isn’t enough. But that’s arguing with a throwaway snipe while ignoring the blatant falsehood the passage was intended to convey.

The fact is, being able to simply BE atheist without getting physically assaulted or thrown in jail isn’t enough, when we’re treated by members of privileged religions as simply too different to treat as normal human beings. Society at large is grossly unlikely to elect an out atheist; not when so many people still claim that atheism is responsible for society’s ills, or thinks we’re spiritual targets to be converted — numbers for religious folks’ ledgers, not real human beings with real agency.

It’s interesting that he’d whine that we’re not shutting up despite not being prosecuted or silenced, when the whole point of achieving the right to speak freely without being prosecuted or silenced is to, you know, keep speaking. The alternative implicit in his characterizing our using our voice is that he really wishes we WOULD be silent.

Atheism and religion can co-exist, they always have.

While I feel this bald assertion is factually incorrect, insofar as religion has held all the power and has often persecuted non-believers of all stripes, I recognize that in Greek tradition, atheists and intellectuals were given deference that they are not today. I further recognize that today, at least in more progressive parts of Canada, simply being an atheist is not a revolutionary act. In the States, where the media is dominated by religion, the word atheist is often a slur, a sneering bit of othering that pushes atheists into “passing”. In my hometown, a 99% French Catholic area, I had no sense that they and I could co-exist without pressure to conform, so I conformed preemptively, to avoid the opprobrium I knew I’d get.

In fact, atheism has an important value set which believers would be well-advised to listen to and perhaps even adopt.

It’s just that instead of shouting their assertions and beliefs in a booming voice, they could maybe whisper.

As though they were in a library. Or a church.

Certainly, there are loud-mouthed louts among our numbers. Certainly, there are self-centered individuals who refuse to take into account anyone but themselves and their own needs; who do not realize or do not care that their fight parallels with so many natural allies and who thinks that the transgressions against them personally are the only ones worth fighting. There are people who all too readily universalize their own experience, and completely lack empathy for our fellow human beings’. But there are such individuals amongst any denomination of any ideology, and those who complain that others use their freedom to speak about their travails too much, are the ones attempting to silence those people.

But at the same time, I completely empathize with the discomfort Enright must be feeling.

Recognizing others’ issues and attempting to ameliorate them — that’s the noblest endeavour, what we as humanists strive toward. Recognizing when a group is underprivileged and helping fix that underprivilege, despite the howls of protest from those whose privilege benefits them at others’ expenses, is necessary. Fixing imbalances will by necessity discomfort the people who benefited most from those imbalances. When possible, we must strive to explain to rationally minded individuals who are discomforted by our attempts to fix the broken, tilted playing field so that we all are on the same footing.

Empathy is so integral to my epistemology that I can even see where people in privileged positions might be discomforted by having the playing fields tilted back — they see their lot in life being diminished. That must suck. It must be very hard to have everything, and to find out that someone who has nothing actually deserves some of what you have, especially if you want society as a whole to function more smoothly and to improve humankind in toto at your own expense. But rational human beings who put the good of society over their own personal comfort are capable of seeing the good of the many outweighing the good of the few.

I don’t believe Enright is beyond that sort of education, crystallized though he is in his ideas by his age and his privileged position. But, I don’t believe I’m the one with the resources to do it.

Michael Enright: Atheists, you're not being silenced, so stop talking about it!

16 thoughts on “Michael Enright: Atheists, you're not being silenced, so stop talking about it!

  1. 2

    @1: Indeed. I’ve listened to Enright on-and-off for 30 years, and used to have a hell of a lot of respect for him as a journalist. But this? The only “whiny whinging” going on here is his.

  2. 3

    Atheism is a coherent system of beliefs arrived at, I am sure…

    But which, such phrasing strongly implies, he doesn’t actually know, nor has any intention of wasting his beautiful mind by trying to find out in any way.

    Atheism and religion can co-exist, they always have.

    For a very tiny value of “always” in space and time.

    … they could maybe whisper.

    As though they were in a library. Or a church.

    Dunno ’bout up there in Canadia, but in my experience churches feature more shouting than any indoor venue other than sports stadia and bars.

  3. 5

    The G&M column he cites mentions it, so I guess he knows about it. And that G&M piece is almost as bad — I don’t think Renzetti knows a damn thing about movement atheism. I’d be embarrassed to write a blog post that was as poorly fact-checked.

  4. 8

    Ed Brayton is most definitely a libertarian, but of the civil variety, not of the entitled douchebro variety.

    I’m more liberal than some, but I still lean pragmatist on some things.

  5. 9

    “whisper as if they were in a church”? Has he never heard of sermons, hymns, or congregations whose members shout “Amen”? Even Quakers, who don’t have ministers and sermons, sometimes speak out loud in Meeting.

    How about asking the professional Christians–including ministers and theologians–to be that quiet? But that’s a large project. OK, a small one: since he thinks the public square calls for library levels of quiet, Enright himself should take a public pledge not to speak above a whisper on any topic of religion or politics until after the next federal election. (He can still use an ordinary speaking voice for things like “please pass the salt” and “how’s your mother?)

  6. 11

    I was really surprised to read this, too. He names a “good atheist,” with a sense of humor (humour) but kind of writes the rest of us living atheists off as being humourless, even his Close Personal Friend Richard Dawkins, the one he patronizingly listens to even though he has no sense of humour and is treated magisterially by us hoi polloi atheists.

    I used to listen to Enright on “As it Happens” and have been listening to the odd TSE podcast on occasion, and like Eamon I was dismayed to read this tripe from him. It seems as though he had no idea of what to write on this day so he just dashed off the easy old “Let’s pick on atheists” filler that so many columnists use to curry favor with their liberal Anglican buddies down at Tim Horton’s. I also wondered if Enright chose the graphic that is incredibly offensive for this post (the one that shocks believers with the claim that there are real people out there who don’t believe in God!)

    It’s an easy one to write from privilege, one that he would not write about Muslims, about Jews, about gays, about feminists, about any other cultural group that has to fight for acceptance in our secular, classless societies in North America. All one need to is fill in a few blanks, a few disclaimers that some of the writers’s best friends are atheists (even the dead ones with the sense of humour,) No, go, be quiet and let us believe in peace; especially those in the U.S. where school boards are still passing measures to open the games and school days with sponsored prayer, where women are being denied contraceptives and kids are being bullied to death because “deeply held religious beliefs” are more respected than you, know, people.

    And Ed is a liberal who is anti-authoritarian. He shares the anti-authoritarian with libertarians, but little else.

  7. 12

    For those inclined to write and dispel Enright of his arrogance and privilege, here is the show’s email address:

    [email protected]

    I doubt they’ll have the courtesy to reply or even acknowledge receiving it, never mind admitting the error in posting his tripe, but it’s better to say it than not. Silence equals assent in the minds of the self-absorbed.

  8. 13

    @12: SDE does often read responses the following week. A polite and concise reply might make it to air (which means I should get off my ass and write one, right?). I suggest not harping on the “Atheism is a belief system” phrase, as that’s about the least of the problems with the piece.

  9. 15

    Enright is an avowed Catholic – why should someone take anything seriously what he has to say about other religious believes or atheism? The man’s bias stops his brain from thinking clearly when his pet ideology is threatened.

  10. 16

    Groucho once stated he would not belong to any organization that would have him as a member. Can you imagine 100 Grouchos in the same room, packing heat and one of them gets drunk? That would be congress.

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