No, I'll not be taking the Atheist positivity challenge

Content Note:  Long rant ahead

In an article titled ‘Cut it out, atheists! Why it’s time to stop behaving like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins’, Salon writer Steve Neumann argues that atheists need to work on our image so that we can be seen as more positive:

If you’re at all familiar with atheism in America, then the following two scenes should probably come as no surprise: Biologist Richard Dawkins exhorting his followers to mock and ridicule believers with contempt, Bill Maher telling MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that “religion is a neurological disorder.” As an atheist who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian milieu, I admit that this rhetoric is not without its appeal. But the atmosphere this kind of animus creates has become as pungent and disagreeable as the stale bread and cheap wine of the church I grew up in.

So I got to thinking: First there was the Ice Bucket Challenge, then there was the Positivity Challenge (wherein you have to write 3 or 4 positive things as your Facebook status every day for 7 days). So why not get into the act and start my own?

I’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month. Let’s call it The Atheist Positivity Challenge, or the APC for short. The purpose of this challenge is to draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.

Let me first say that I don’t like the idea of mocking and ridiculing people for their beliefs.  As an atheist, I don’t do that. I will mock and ridicule the beliefs themselves, but I’m not going to do so for the believers. So when Richard Dawkins advocates doing so, well, I’m not going to listen to him.  As for Bill Maher, he’s neither a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, and he has no place trying to diagnose believers with any form of mental illness. Such actions serve to do nothing other than shame his targets, and have the added “perk” of causing splash damage to those people who do suffer from mental disabilities.  Unlike Steve Neumann, such rhetoric does not appeal to me in the slightest.  That behavior attacks the people, rather than their harmful beliefs.

It may come as a shock after reaching the end of this post, but I also agree with the idea of ‘rehabilitating the reputation of atheism in America the United States’ (note to Neumann-‘America’ can mean South America, Latin America, or the United States of America). With the behavior of high profile atheists like Sam Harris (with his recent sexist comments about the lack of women in the atheist movement or his follow-up “explanation” as well as his irrational anti-Muslim bigotry), Richard Dawkins (who has diminished the harm of child sexual abuseengaged in rape apologia, and who-along with Jerry Coyne– deploys overwrought histrionics at the very thought the he’s a sexist fuckwit, which further drives home the point of his critics-that he needs to examine his assumptions of gender), and the sexual predator and rapist Michael Shermerit is not hard for me to see how one might view atheists as assholes.  Such an opinion-which lumps all atheists together, as if we’re one monolithic entity with no differing views-is wrong, but I understand how people can reach that conclusion.  

Even without the “helpful” assistance of asshole atheists like Harris, Dawkins, and Shermer, the public perception of atheists is quite poor.  The only group viewed as untrustworthy as atheists are rapists:

According to the Vancouver Sun, University of British Columbia researchers conducted a total of six experiments on 350 Americans and 420 UBC students, of varying religions (67% of the Americans were Christian). In one experiment, they presented participants with the story of an “archetypal freerider” who cheats and steals a lot, and asked what group they thought that person might belong to. Participants were more likely to categorize the person as an atheist than as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, gay person, or feminist (some of the groups were chosen because they were “often described as threatening to majority religious values and morality”). Only rapists fared as poorly — participants were about as likely to put the “freerider” in this group. According to the study, “People did not significantly differentiate atheists from rapists.”

A 2014 Pew Research survey, the ‘Religion and Public Life Project’ further supports the idea that atheists are viewed poorly by the American public:

Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians are viewed warmly by the American public. When asked to rate each group on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100 – where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating – all three groups receive an average rating of 60 or higher (63 for Jews, 62 for Catholics and 61 for evangelical Christians). And 44% of the public rates all three groups in the warmest part of the scale (67 or higher).

Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons receive neutral ratings on average, ranging from 48 for Mormons to 53 for Buddhists. The public views atheists and Muslims more coldly; atheists receive an average rating of 41, and Muslims an average rating of 40. Fully 41% of the public rates Muslims in the coldest part of the thermometer (33 or below), and 40% rate atheists in the coldest part.

All of that makes me sympathetic to Neumann’s desire to help transform the public’s view of atheists. With that said however, I don’t agree with Neumann’s challenge.  When I criticize religion or religious beliefs, I do so not to gloat or to belittle others. I do so because I genuinely believe religion and religious beliefs are a net harm to society.  While many people use their religious beliefs to justify their good deeds or moral beliefs, many others use their religious beliefs in ways that actively cause harm to others. Whether we’re discussing the Quiverfull movements use of women as little more than human incubators, the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception, the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions,  or the anti-LGBT bigotry of prominent Christian organizations, religious beliefs often cause demonstrable harm, and can and DO lead to people being killed.  Even that, however is but the tip of the iceberg.  Religious beliefs are used to support policies that oppose anthropogenic global warming, healthcare reform,  and environmental regulation.  Of course it doesn’t end there either.  The Boy Scout ban on atheist members and leaders, the near impossibility of getting an open atheist elected to high office, the Christian Right’s support for corporal punishment (I initially typed ‘abuse’, then erased it, but I really should have left it-corporal punishment IS child abuse), and the discrimination faced by nonreligious students are further examples of harm done in the name of religious beliefs. I could keep going by mentioning the lies the Catholic Church has told about condom use in Africa, the child sexual abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church, the baby trafficking scandal in Spain (where nearly 300,000 babies were stolen from their parents over a period of 5 decades), Ireland’s infamous Magdalene Laundries, and more still.  I’m not arguing that all of these are examples of harm done solely due to religious beliefs. Rather, I’m arguing that religious beliefs have been used to justify or cover up these harms and are often found, front and center, where awful shit is occurring.  

Thus, when Steve Neumann argues for us to be nicer (read: accommodate religious beliefs) to improve the image of atheists, he’s asking atheists to stop criticizing the harms done by religion. He’s asking us to not comment on the child sexual abuse, the anti-LGBT bigotry, the selling of babies, the treatment of women as human incubators, and more. “Wait”, some may argue. “He’s not saying to ignore all that stuff, he’s saying we shouldn’t criticize the small stuff”. On the surface, this does seem to be what Neumann is saying:

The idea for the APC came to me when I read a post last week from atheist blogger Libby Anne, who wrote about the continued downhill slide of mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll. In this post, Libby Anne draws our attention to something Driscoll had said on a message board in 2001, where he opined about the relationship between men and women from an allegedly biblical perspective. He wrote: “Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home.” I don’t doubt that Driscoll wrote that, or even that he sincerely believes it. But the problem with focusing on clowns like Driscoll is that it’s much too easy to single out for righteous indignation the most visibly disgraceful member of a group. And the unavoidable implication that others get from this is that the entire group must hold those beliefs as well.

My first big problem is that Neumann is saying “ignore the fact that some religious leaders say harmful, misogynistic shit about women”.  Treating women as if they are nothing more than homes for a penis is deeply misogynistic. It denies the fact that women are people, and treats them as mere objects for the satisfaction of men, while dressing that satisfaction up in god talk.  That’s a problem, to say the least. One can take a look at Reddit subthreats or 4chan (neither of which will I link to, as I want nothing to do with those cesspools and I don’t want to give them any traffic) to see examples of people who think women exist to satisfy the desires of men.  Sexism pervades our society and attitudes like Driscoll’s, while perhaps not held by the mainstream, do exist on a spectrum of misogyny and sexism.  Neumann seems to be of the opinion that such beliefs should not be criticized.  I wonder if it’s because he’s a man who hasn’t had to deal with this shit.  No matter the reason, to not call out these beliefs is to give them tacit support and approval.  People need to know that sexism and misogyny are wrong and should not be tolerated.

The second problem I have is that the “unavoidable implication that the entire group must hold these beliefs” is false.  That’s not the implication. Libby Anne is quite careful to not make such a blanket generalization. She’s talking about the harmful beliefs of one individual and how those beliefs can influence others.  At no point does she hint that all Christians feel the same as Driscoll, and it’s a highly dishonest reading of her post to claim otherwise.

The third problem I have with Neumann’s comments is that he ignores how much influence Driscoll has. As Avicenna writes at A Million Gods:

By contrast? Mark Driscoll has millions of fans. I repeat. Millions of people listen to this douche. Calling out his bullshit is quite necessary particularly in a movement that struggles to treat women better within its own ranks. We can’t just say “sorry Libby! You got to be nicer to Mark Driscoll! You are making us look like angry harridans!”. I say  “goddamn Mark Driscoll! This kind of stuff is precisely why young men grow up to be young douchebags like Mark Driscoll who think women were put on this earth for the fucking penises to live in”.

The fourth problem I have with Neumann is his use of Libby Anne’s post as an example of what atheists need to not do, which is call out sexism and misogyny.  He’s effectively telling women in general, and Libby Anne specifically, to sit down and shut up.  Sure he’s couching it in civil terms, but he’s saying her comments are not helpful. He’s saying that it is more important to be nice to theists than to call out their harmful bullshit, and he’s doing it as a member of a movement which has a big problem with sexism and misogyny.  Dude, you’re not helping.  Some of us want an atheist movement that is welcoming to women and other oppressed groups.  Telling them to sit down, shut up, and not complain is not the way to go.  In fact, it treats their concerns as if the’re unimportant.  Here’s both middle fingers to you for that.

One might say “Mark Driscoll is merely one example Neumann uses. He’s talking about individual Christians. He’s saying that we shouldn’t criticize them.”  To which I’d say “Duh. I know that.”  That’s part of my point.  Neumann is asking atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and secularists to not criticize the harmful beliefs of religious people (though he limits it to Christians).  Given the plethora of examples I gave above concerning the harm done in the name of religion and religious beliefs, I find Neumann’s suggestion to be laden with privilege.  He doesn’t seem to see much of the harm done in the name of religious beliefs, whether that harm is on an individual level or national level (if he is aware of the harm, he minimizes it greatly).

In the end, Steve Neumann is sounding a call to civility. He wants nonbelievers and their allies to not be so mean to religion and religious beliefs.  He thinks that is important.  As I said above, that is important, but it is NOT more important than criticizing the injustices done to human beings in the name of religion and religious beliefs.  As long as he is asking for that, my response is “Fuck your Atheist Positivity Challenge”.

No, I'll not be taking the Atheist positivity challenge