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Grothe Smears Vocal Atheists Again (Peter Irons episode)
Posted: 28 July 2007 04:34 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Not long ago, DJ Grothe posted an essay in which he said that atheism is not a civil rights issue.

Apparently if I say that the methods atheists need to use to succeed are pretty much the same as the methods used to win the civil rights movement, DJ Grothe and Matt Nisbet think that I’m saying atheists are being murdered and persecuted as intensely as black and gays.

Anybody who just read that sentence knows that it’s an obvious fallacy.

It was an ignorant, disgraceful strawman on their parts.

And we’ve debunked this view over and over across the blogosphere.  I know I did, here : http://thescienceethicist.blogspot.com/2007/07/all-reasons-matt-nisbet-and-dj-grothe.html

Even Richard Dawkins never even comes close to making this equivocation.  Most atheists do not even mention a comparison to the civil rights movement.  So who are you even attacking?

There are many criticisms and downright refutations of this view, DJ Grothe.  But you seemed to have ignored them.

This week you did it again, 11 minutes in, you claimed that people in “the atheist movement” are completely equivocating themselves with blacks and gays of the civil rights movement in the last century.

You’re wrong, and I think you know you are wrong.  You seem to have gone out of your way to ignore and not hear criticism of this tactic of yours, and you have the arrogance to believe that since you are apologetic for your non-theism that you are a more acceptable atheist.

I find it funny that somebody who thinks atheism shouldn’t act like a religion behaves so much like it is by trying to smear the wrong kind of atheist.

[ Edited: 28 August 2007 04:41 PM by dougsmith ]
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Posted: 28 July 2007 09:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Aerik: As a vocal atheist for years, I certainly hope I have smeared no one. In fact, certain atheist leaders have equated “the atheist movement” with the persecution of blacks, gays, and women.

1. First, from my friend Herb Silverman, the atheist activist in South Carolina, :

“Discrimination against nonbelievers is the last civil rights struggle in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior.” (Herb is the founder of the Coalition for the Community of Reason, and one of the people behind the Secular Coalition for America, an atheist lobbying group in D.C.).

2. Lori Brown of the Secular Coalition of America equates the atheist civil rights struggle with the gay rights struggle: “Think of where the LGBT movement was 25 years ago . . . That’s where atheists are today.”

Do you know where the GLBT community was 25 years ago? Do you honestly believe that is where atheists are today? As a gay man, this is the kind of rhetoric that I originally disagreed with in the first articles we wrote about this a few years ago.

More from that newspaper article quoting Lori Brown:

Gathered around the plastic red-and-white tablecloths in the back room of a San Francisco hofbrau, 30 of the Bay Area’s “out” atheists were recasting themselves as the protagonists of America’s newest civil rights struggle.

(See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/20/MNGV3HBONH1.DTL )

3. Speaking the day before the Godless March on Washington, which was put on three or four years ago ago (I was there), Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said

“Tomorrow, we are going to take a major step forward in achieving our civil rights.” (Emphasis is hers.)

She went on to say:

“Let’s concentrate on issues and ideas, on getting our civil rights. . .”

(See http://www.americanatheist.org/supplement/ejgamowdinner.html )

Johnson often gives a talk entitled: “CIVIL RIGHTS FOR ATHEISTS: AN ACTION AGENDA.”

(See http://www.atheists.org/visitors.center/speakers.html )

Now, are atheists unpopular In America and elswehere around the world? Yes. And we should change that—but equating the challenges we face as a movement to the civil rights struggles faced by racial and sexual minorities won’t help in that regard. Being popular is not one of our civil rights.

Do atheists need to march on Washington to finally demand their civil rights, since everyone else has gotten them? I think you and I would agree that since we already have our civil rights, we don’t need to March on Washington to get them. Might a March on Wahsington, in principle at least, be helpful in raising awareness for our cause, and making us more visible? Sure, but such awareness-raising isn’t to attain our civil rights, but to change the culture.

This is all not to say that the “atheist movement” can’t learn from the organizing strategies of various other social movements (civil rights struggles, and even the abortion rights movement, the vegetarian movement and animal rights movement, union organizing, and the Christian Right.) But learning from their history of the civil rights, feminist or GLBT struggles doesnt mean that we should equate ourselves with them. Again, the fact that we’re unpopular doesnt mean we’re oppressed and need to be liberated, or that our civil rights are systematically being violated like that of racial or sexual minorities.

Interestingly, Sam Harris touches a little on this point during one of his Point of Inquiry appearances (I think the most recent one).

Also, don’t make me say things I am not saying. I certainly agree we need to defend our civil rights, like all Americans do. I have worked professionally for over ten years to advance the cause of atheists, secularists and skeptics in America—more broadly, to advance the scientific outlook or worldview as an alternative to the reigning paranormal and supernatural mythologies in society. It is the most important thing I can imagine doing with my time. But I want to be honest about it. As an atheist, I dont see myself locked in a pitched struggle to attain my civil rights, but in a public education and public awareness campaigns, a battle for public support and acceptance—to “raise consciousness,” as Dawkins talks about, and as we mentioned in our original articles on this point years ago.

I want to change people’s minds, much like the Christian Right began to do in the early 70s to advance their agenda by founding institutions devoted to their promotion (their agenda was not to win civil rights for Christians, but to win influence in the culture. And look how successful they’ve become).

[ Edited: 29 July 2007 07:00 PM by DJ Grothe ]
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Posted: 28 July 2007 11:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Someone suggested, and I agree, that I should post the original articles— it should be said they were published years ago, as opposed to recently, which was Aerik’s misunderstanding:

http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/grothe-dacey_24_2.htm

http://www.djgrothe.com/Response_to_Tabash_and_Downey.pdf

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Posted: 30 July 2007 11:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I think part of the problem is that using the language of civil rights for wider acceptance of atheism is seen as equating the degree of discrimination and suffering of atheists and other minorities, such as gays and people of color. Clearly, atheism is a point of view, not an intrinsic characteristic, and as such is easier to conceal when necessary. And the degree of discrimination and violence atheists experience is clearly much less than that other groups have faced during their civil rights struggles. Still, the language of civil liberties does seem appropriate in that we are talking about constitutional issues; the freedom to hold and express opinions publically without being threatened, intimidated, or denied full participation in public life. And it cannot be denied that atheists face such discrimination. The examples of the guest in this interview are evidence of that. I’ve stayed seated during prayers and left “under God” out of the pledge, and there is a price to be paid for that.

So while it is fair to make clear the intensity and scale of the problem is different, I don’t think the fundamental nature of the problem is. And it always seems a shame to me when groups that face similar problems as minorities have to bicker about whose “really” oppressed and who isn’t. For gay people I know, some of whom participated in the African American civil rights movement during the 60s and 70s, it is frustrating and painful to see some African Americans rejecting their use of civil rights language for their own struggle. Similarly, it seems unfortunate and unecessary that feminists, gays, and people of color should object to atheists and secularists trying to get society to accept their right to hold and express their values and to participate in the political process on an equal footing, when they should be allies in such an effort. It doesn’t diminish the suffering or the struggles of one minority group for another to seek greater respect for their own constitutional rights.

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Posted: 30 July 2007 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Agreed, Brennen. As I said somewhere else on this point: minorities should not get into tit-for-tatting over oppression: “my oppression is as bad as your oppression” serves no one. Unfortunately, this is exactly what certain atheist leaders have done when they equate the plight of atheists with that of racial and sexual minorities.

Atheists do have a tough time in America and we have much to learn from the struggles of women, blacks, and GLBTs.  But rather than all the arguing that atheists are as oppressed as racial and sexual minorities, I think a much more strategic, honest and ethical route is what we proposed in the original op-ed, and along the lines of what Dawkins says now—working to “raise consciousness,” to raise awareness.  What Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens are doing is raising consciousness, not liberating an oppressed people.

That should be our focus rather than strained comparisons with the oppressed.

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Posted: 30 July 2007 02:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Absolutely. I think secularism can learn from the tactics of other groups civil rights struglles, especially in the legal arena, but excessive use of intense language (e.g. “opression,” “civil rights”) cheapens it and reduces its effectiveness.

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Posted: 31 July 2007 04:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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A few thoughts:

1. It should be remembered that religious tolerance was never conceived as tolerance of the absence of religion; it originated as a means of negotiating a solution to the conflicting claims of various sects, and more specifically of the the claims to authority (often secular authority) of the leaders of those sects.  The supposedly secular authorities set up were not purely secular, but intended to accommodate permissible religious affiliations.  Atheism was never permissible (in fact, was thought far more evil than “heathen” religions like Judaism, Islam, paganism, or even witchcraft), and even now “secular”, in practice, does not mean that religion is absent, only that no sect is allowed to preside officially over or dominate public affairs.

2. Until relatively recently in civilized human history, atheism was punishable by death.  It may seem like ancient history now, but so does lynching, and government massacres of strikers, and pogroms, and destroying lives over political associations, and so on.  That kind of violence has only recently become illegitimate, in the last forty years or so.  It seems absurd now that anyone would ever seek to harm someone simply because he states he does not believe in any religion.  But, just as “atheist” or “godless” is tacked on to people targeted because of their politics, sexuality, subculture, or whatever, the reverse also takes place - anyone who says publicly “I do not believe in God” is assumed to be some kind of general miscreant, suspected of other transgressions, and subtle or overt social sanctions come into play.  Outright violence is rare now, but subtler forms of violence like ostracism are common.

3. Atheism can be hidden more easily that other grounds for discrimination or hate, and I think that it usually is voluntarily hidden, and religious doubting too, as opposed to just not coming up, and I also think that if one’s atheism were as obvious as race or gender that the bigotry would be more acute.  Atheism is still dangerous enough to a person’s social, political, and even economic position that it is something that most atheists will hide, even if passively, until they are certain of the local public opinion on it.  Most often, even within populations which are not particularly religious, some kind of public piety is required as a display of one’s morality.  Without it, a person may, probably will, find it difficult to “get ahead” socially, and that includes politically.  Most of the world is not run by peole in high office—it is run by middle management, whether political, economic, or social, and middle management is not subject to the same kind of public or legal scrutiny as grander loci of power.  I’m not so sure that the kind of people who discriminate based on race or gender or sexuality do not even sooner discriminate on the basis of a “lack of religion”.

4. Atheists may not form a group that can be easily conceived monolithically for the purposes of targeted hate, but that does not mean that individual atheists do not suffer the same kinds of hate as people who can be labeled with such concepts.  I don’t think we have the legal concepts in place to deal with that kind of intolerance, because legal sanctions against intolerance tend to depend on the idea of the existence of a monolithic group (monolithic as pertains to the characteristic that is the basis of the intolerance) of which the victim of the intolerance or discrimination is a part.  I also think that we do not have the will to do anything serious about such forms of discrimination or hate on what is seen as an individual basis.  That kind of intolerance tends to fall into some kind of “opinion”, where it is argued that you don’t have to like everyone, and if you don’t like some person because of some attribute that no law protects, it’s your own business, and no one else’s.  So, even if you are the victim of intolerance because you are an atheist, there is really nothing to be done.

5. The nature of atheism is such that it cannot be compared well with more familiar bases of intolerance.  It is, at root, a refusal to recognize irrational authority, and thus a repudiation of people who depend on that authority to order their lives and social contexts.  In a word, it’s personal.  Moreover, it does not replace the security blanket of religious belief with anything but uncertainty, forcing people to be responsible for themselves and their world.  That can seem a huge burden to someone who thanks Jesus for sunny weather, and consigns all evils in the world to Satan.  Other forms of tolerance simply acknowledge that differences need not be all bad; that black men will not come steal your women, that lesbians will not “convert” your daughters, that immigrants will create more jobs than they take, that God and Allah are the same guy, and so on.  Atheism does not “celebrate diversity” or some such; it is a negative, destructive denial of the wishful thinking and irrationality that forms the basis of the freedom to fabricate a world where you can feel you have power just because you say so; it robs you of powerful friends in the deities and spirits and gods and angels and mysterious anthropomorphic forces.  For a lot of people, it is like jumping off a ship in the middle of the ocean.

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Posted: 31 July 2007 04:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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David (drkoepsell), what riled up Aerik (and on his blog) was something I said last week on the episode with Peter Irons. Aerik has since retracted many of the things he said in his original posting, and I dont have any hard feelings.

Here is a link to the original post he made:

http://thescienceethicist.blogspot.com/2007/07/grothe-smears-vocal-atheists-again.html

Again, in later posts he retracts much of that over-the-top rhetoric, and shifts the discussion to religious intolerance in history, and away from a discussion of civil rights struggles.

[ Edited: 31 July 2007 06:30 PM by DJ Grothe ]
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Posted: 24 August 2007 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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No the retractions about “smearing vocal atheists” and mischaracterizations were made in his earlier posts. I’ll dig them up for you.

[ Edited: 25 August 2007 02:48 PM by DJ Grothe ]
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Posted: 24 August 2007 09:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Here is my response to his recent post, since he may be having trouble again taking comments on his blog:

When Austin Dacey and I wrote about civil rights way back in 2004, of course we weren’t referring to Dawkins at all, but to atheist leaders who equated the gay civil rights struggle with the atheist movement. Dawkins never makes such equations, and as such, I certainly dont disagree with Dawkins in this regard. In fact, throughout many conversations with him, I dont see myself disagreeing much with him, and find him very open to other views regarding strategy to “raise consciousness” (also, see his debates with Lawrence Krauss).

As for making fun of those cultural competitors with whom we disagree, I favor this. Puncturing the pretensions of the overly credulous makes perfect sense and can be not only strategic, but enjoyable.

Strained rhetoric and overstatements, mischaracterizations and vilifying those who disagree with you when we’re all atheists, and all working to diminish the role of religion in society while advancing secularism, atheism, and the scientific outlook, benefits neither the movement nor the dialogue. Such is the nature of blogs, I suppose.

As for his retractions:

“For Grothe to simply admonish the fact that atheist leaders [equate the plight of atheists with the gay rights or other civil rights struggles] in itself is not really a smear.”

He appears to have a hard time getting that Austin Dacey and I wrote about atheism and civil rights in 2004, not in response to Dawkins. The fact that most people now say that the atheist fight for increased mind-share and church-state separation is not equal to the systemic diminishment of life prospects faced by racial and sexual minorities is a good thing. That was not the case when we wrote the original op-ed in 2004—many atheist leaders in fact did equate the two (some still do)—and if we played a small part in changing others’ view on this, we’re gratified.

[ Edited: 24 August 2007 09:55 AM by DJ Grothe ]
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Posted: 24 August 2007 11:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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dkoepsell - 31 July 2007 04:22 PM

also, the statement that there is no “atheist bashing” pisses off those of us who have witnessed or experienced it first-hand.

Imagine how a Christian must feel, hearing atheists tell him they’re really not that smug or superior while everyone in his milieu looks down on him for believing.

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Posted: 24 August 2007 12:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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1. I’ve never seen or heard of any atheist bashing (not since the inquisition anyway), so please tell me what happens at these sorts of events.

2.  As long as a Christian has a sense of humour, he or she will probably join in the slagging and enjoy it.  Ridiculing silly beliefs and weak arguments in amusing ways is a very big and vibrant part of many people’s atheism.  There are Christians and other religious people out there who can get involved with that, throw a bit back at us and just generally join in the fun.  It’s pointless anyone feeling bad about it.

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Posted: 24 August 2007 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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He was not beaten. He was punched in the face for saying something some people might find baiting. Atheism is offensive, and rightfully so. I doubt you would have been punched in the face David. Sometimes atheists are disliked not because of their atheism but because they are unlikable.

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Posted: 24 August 2007 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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dkoepsell - 24 August 2007 01:10 PM

One of our center directors was recently beaten for trying to put up a sign for a CFI meeting.

Who was that? This should be publicized.

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Posted: 24 August 2007 01:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Was this person reported to the authorities? This is a rather serious charge, and should be prosecuted to the full extent. Was the director robbed? Is there a public record of this event?

[ Edited: 24 August 2007 01:41 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 24 August 2007 01:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I live in the U.S., Albany N.Y. to be exact. Soon I’ll venture the freethought trail out to the Center. I’m wondering, what civil rights are not enjoyed by Atheist, that are given to all other citizens in the U.S.?

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