My close friend Tristan recently posted an article titled No Excuse for Bigotry in which he focused on religious bigotry and why he felt it was wrong. Today I want to expand on this subject a little and discuss how atheists can be just as bigoted as the religious and how it can impact public perception of the Atheism movement.
Bigotry is defined as…
‘… intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.’ as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. That is a reasonably simple definition of the term, so why is it so complicated in practice? What is it that makes one person’s view bigoted and another’s rational? Let us first examine the word opinion:
Opinion – a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.
So from the definition of opinion it follows that not all opinions are created equal.
That’s your opinion!
If not all opinions are created equal then some opinions are more valid than others and should necessarily be held in higher regard. Opinions which match up with facts and knowledge are generally accepted to be more valid than opinions based on wild speculation or hearsay, or simply proposed due to ulterior motives. This is easy to demonstrate; all you need to do is look at how the world currently works. If uninformed opinion ruled, we would not have laws, roads, computers, medicines, airplanes and most other modern conveniences. One simple example would be the GPS, made possible only due to Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
It’s a commonly held misconception that in 1902 Charles Holland Duell stated, “Everything that can be invented, has been invented.” Ironically the actual quote stands in direct contrast:
“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”
In fact, this sentiment is actually attributable to a Patent Office Commissioner by the name of Henry Ellsworth in his 1843 report to Congress in which he wrote, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”
If we had allowed this uninformed opinion to rule, we may still be living in the 19th century.
If All Opinions Are Not Equal, Why Does Bigotry Exist?
The key word in the definition of bigotry is intolerance.
Intolerance – unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differ from one’s own. – Oxford Dictionary
But hang on a minute, that’s what we atheists do! We are unwilling to accept the God claim aren’t we? Doesn’t that make us bigoted!? No, it doesn’t. I the context of bigotry, intolerance applies to an individual person as per the definition. It is specifically about finding where the intolerance lies. If you make judgments on a person based solely on one facet of their existence and not on their actions as a whole then you are being a bigot. Tristan’s example of his friend Travis in the opening paragraph of his article is a perfect example of bigotry. I don’t know Travis personally, but his actions (as described by Tristan) show his character. Bigotry comes about when a person is incapable or unwilling to separate their own ideologies from the actions of another. This is where many atheists fall into the trap of bigotry.
In Travis’s case, the intolerance lies in his sexual orientation. It is entirely possible to hold the opinion that certain sexual orientations are wrong without being a bigot, just the same as it is entirely possible to be of the opinion that organised religion is wrong without being a bigot. It’s when you act on those opinions, generalize others according to them and try and impose those opinions on other’s lives that you become a bigot.
An Example of Uninformed Opinion vs Bigotry
John Doe thinks that homosexuality is wrong. John has his reasons for thinking this, whether they’re religious or not is irrelevant. John’s uninformed opinion is that homosexuality is wrong. However, John has many homosexual friends who he loves and cares about and while he does think their sexual orientation is wrong, he doesn’t judge them by it and he doesn’t impose his uninformed opinion on their lives.
Joe Bloggs thinks homosexuality is wrong too. Joe has no homosexual friends, in fact, he despises all people who are homosexual. He spits on them in the streets and publicly denounces them as evil. Joe’s uninformed opinion is that homosexuality is wrong and Joe wants everyone in the world to conform to his uninformed opinion. Joe is most certainly a bigot. This is of course an extreme example. It’s possible Joe Bloggs might have a homosexual friend, though if he imposes any ill will or judgment upon this friend, it is still an expression of bigotry, though perhaps to a lesser extent.
The Difference Between Hypocrisy and Evil
In a recent discussion I had with a fellow atheist, I was exposed to the view that because Christians are hypocritical in their belief (that is, they pick and choose which parts of their religion to follow) then they must all be liars and evil. I found it hard to believe that someone could hold this massive void of logic to be true. The logical leap from personal religious hypocrisy to outright lies and evilness makes Indiana Jones’ leap of faith in The Last Crusade look easy and pathetic by comparison.
Hypocrisy comes in many forms. A person who has been raised as a Christian their entire life but does not follow the bible literally is a hypocrite (thankfully) but does that hypocrisy translate to that person being evil or a liar? The oxford dictionary defines the word evil as, ‘profoundly immoral or wicked’, so we can see that hypocrisy has no relation to evilness by looking at the actions of the average believer. Does it make them a liar? The oxford definition for lie is ‘an intentionally false statement’, so again we can see that it does not follow that all hypocrites are liars as many of them truly believe what they are saying.
The statement that all religious people are evil liars by virtue of their hypocrisy is inherently false. When you act on that statement, you become a bigot. Unfortunately this is a point of view which I see all too often in younger atheists and the thrust of atheism in general these days. Fighting fire with fire doesn’t work within this scenario and I feel that many atheists today forget the important distinction outlined above.
Conflation of Beliefs With Person
The bible is an unabashedly evil book, evidenced by even a cursory reading. It condones slavery in many forms (Exodus 21: 20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46, Ephesians 6:5, Luke 12:47), rape (Deuteronomy 22: 25-29, Zechariah 14: 1 – 2, Judges 21: 10-24), genocide (1 Samuel 15: 1-35, Isaiah 13: 15-18, Joshua 6: 20-21, Deuteronomy 13: 7-12) and many other atrocious things. If a book were written in the 21st century which contained all the evil which is contained in the bible and were published as a guide on how to live morally it would not gain traction with 99% of humanity.
The distinction between the abhorrence of this book and bigotry against the people who believe in it is made by finding out where the intolerance lies. Are you intolerant to a book and its teachings or intolerant to the person who believes in the book? One of those views is bigoted and the other is not. Since the bible promotes all of these disgusting practices, it follows that its practitioners must all promote these values too, right? Wrong. Again it only takes a minute to analyse the real world to see that this statement is not true and that many, if not most, Christians are good people who are simply mislead or indoctrinated by their beliefs. That their bigotry is a by-product of their indoctrinated or ingrained belief does not necessarily make them evil or bad people.
Why Is Bigotry So Damaging to Atheism?
The original definition of the word atheist is only a small part of todays Atheistic movement or New Atheism as it has come to be known. The standards of New Atheism hold that reason, evidence, secularism and rational thinking should be at the fore of today’s society and applied in all situations where opinions are prevalent. That is, valid opinions should be applied over uninformed opinions. A key factor of this way of thinking is the ability to view others without bigotry as bigotry is irrational and unreasonable. Since New Atheism’s main goals are to promote rational discourse and critical thinking you can see why bigotry within the New Atheist movement is so unbelievably damaging. It equates with religious hypocrisy, something which many atheists love to pick on.
Sam Harris & Richard Dawkins have recently been accused of being Islamaphobic and bigoted in their arguments against religion. In an article written by Nathan Lean at salon.com he criticizes both Dawkins and Harris, accusing them of targeting Islam after the 9/11 attacks:
“Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.”
It’s personally hard for me to see where Nathan Lean’s attack comes from. His article is peppered with quotes from both Dawkins and Harris which he claims are hate-speech and Islamaphobic without ever really giving reasons why (inferring that they’re self-evidently incorrect) or rebutting any arguments. He concludes with the statement, “Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.”
To me it seems that Nathan Lean is incapable of distinguishing between an attack on an ideology and an attack on a person. However, this whole point shows how damaging bigotry could be to an ideology which is focused on eradicating it. When even the giants of rational thought can be accused, we must all certainly check ourselves for our own prejudices. You can find a few rebuttals of Nathan Lean’s (and other similar arguments) here, here, and here.
Try to judge people on what they do, not what they are or what they believe
In closing, it can be hard to separate your own feelings from a subject. Everybody is guilty of letting their emotion get the best of them on occasion. However, as rational thinkers we should always be on our guard against bigotry and prejudice within our group. I hope this article has helped to give a little bit more clarity to the term ‘bigot’ and why, no matter what the source, it is a bad thing.
After all this seriousness let’s enjoy some Monty Python.