The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

What Else You Can Say

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series what you can't say

This, I think, is my last post related to the Edwards blogger drama and it’s aftermath. In my previous post I mentioned two other stories that played out in the media parallel to the Edwards story, but that didn’t get the same degree of attention, probably because of the role the media itself played in both. One was the Anderson Cooper segment on “ex-gay” ministries.

It stood out to me as related to the Edwards story because of how it related to what you can’t seem to say regarding religion, without paying a price for it, and because it illustrated just how much of a “conversation stopper” the subject is, when it stops us from asking some important questions. And not asking those questions leads to ceding ground that shouldn’t be so easily surrendered.

The other story that came to mind was one that I wanted to include in the previous post, but feared that it would be even longer. Once Again, it involves CNN. But this time it features a Paula Zahn segment on atheists that didn’t actually include any atheists.

It was a CNN story about an atheist family in Mississippi who were basically run out of town when they complained about their child’s public school using class time for prayer and bible reading. And after they moved, they were kicked out of an apartment after confiding to an acquaintance that they were atheists. The story sounds a lot like what happened to the Dobrich family, except that the Dobrich family was Jewish. And there are echos of what happened to the Smalkowski family when their daughter was kicked off a school sports team for refusing to participate in a prayer.

You can see the video of the story and the discussion that ensued here, but there’s also a transcript (scroll down to the bottom, as it’s the last story).

Here’s what CNN viewers got after the commercial break. Three panelists. none of whom were atheists.

ZAHN: And welcome back. We’re talking about whether there’s widespread discrimination against atheists, folks who don’t believe in God. Let’s check out with our out in the open panel now. Stephen Smith, Debbie Schlussel and Karen Hunter. Hey Debbie, it took me 10 times to say your name right. (INAUDIBLE) So do you think atheists should keep their religious beliefs secret? What’s their beliefs period?

HUNTER: What does an atheist believe? Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take “In God We Trust” off of our dollars? Are we going to not say “one nation under God?” When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?

ZAHN: Are any of you going to defend them here tonight?

SCHLUSSEL: No, I agree with her 100 percent. I think that the real discrimination is atheists against Americans who are religious. Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion. And the problem is that, you have these atheists selectively I believe attacking Christianity. You had a case in California where school children were forced to dress as Muslims and learn from the Koran. In Michigan they’re saying high school (INAUDIBLE) in high school where they say Muslim prayers at the football games, public high school, (INAUDIBLE) in high school. You don’t see atheists complaining about that. I really believe that they are the ones who are the intolerant ones against Christians.

ZAHN: What happened to love thy neighbor, the idea that we should be able to practice free speech?

SMITH: That’s nonexistent. We all know that. We talk about that in America, but that’s pretty much nonexistent, especially in the red states, particularly in the south. That’s where the atheists are having the most trouble. When they talk about violent acts that have been enacted them or (INAUDIBLE) exacted against them or what have you. That’s the kind of area they’re talking about. I think in New York City, I don’t think people care too much about it. We’re a Christian country. There’s no question about that. I love the Lord. So does Karen, so does everybody that I know. But the reality is that you’re entitled to believe what you want as long as you’re not imposing your beliefs on other people.

ZAHN: Is that what you think they’re really doing?

HUNTER: They don’t have a good – marketing. If they had hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn’t feel so left out. We have Christmas cards. We have Kwanza cards now. Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they’re doing. I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.

SMITH: I don’t think they need to shut up. The reason why I don’t think they need to shut up is because there’s a whole bunch of people in this world that we can look at and say they need to shut up and they certainly don’t. You got everybody fighting for their own individual cause. This is their cause. We might not like it. I don’t agree with it at all, but they do have a right.

HUNTER: I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they’re being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools. But they did that because an atheist went to court and said their child — don’t pray (INAUDIBLE).

SCHLUSSEL: And what about this obnoxious Michael Newdow, who went all the way to the Supreme Court for his child, the child doesn’t know what’s going on, to try and get under God taken out of the pledge of allegiance. They are on the attack. It’s obnoxious and they do need to shut up.

SMITH: They are going on the attack, but the reality, again, is everybody has their own cause. The fact is there’s a whole bunch of people in America who need to shut up and they don’t. So why should these people be any less. We live in a nation. We’re supposed to be tolerant. We’re supposed to be accepting of other people’s viewpoints, even when they are not our own and the fact is, if they’re an atheist, that’s their right. They’re not going to change my belief in God (INAUDIBLE).

ZAHN: What I find so interesting is when you look at the statistics, that they were the most hated of all the minorities, gays (INAUDIBLE).

SMITH: I’m not even willing to believe that. That’s news to me. I heard that, I read that, I just don’t believe it.

HUNTER: You can’t pick an atheist out of a crowd.

ZAHN: Can you explain to me where you feel the assault? When 97 percent of the folks in this country claim to worship some kind of God, the 1 to 3 percent of this population that doesn’t believe in God, who are they hurting?

HUNTER: Eight to 12 percent. (INAUDIBLE) They’re not hurting anyone. I personally don’t have a problem with an atheist. Believe or don’t believe what you want. Don’t impose upon my right to want to have prayer in schools, to want to say the pledge of allegiance, to want to honor my God. Don’t infringe upon that right.

SMITH: When they want to take – when they want to take God out of the pledge of allegiance or whatever, this is what I’m saying. They’re saying, OK, that’s Christian. What if you’re a Muslim? What if you’re someone of a different belief?

SCHLUSSEL: This is a Christian country.

SMITH: I understand that, but what they’re saying is how can — if we’re inclusionary, why can’t we include all that and we’re not. That’s my point.

SCHLUSSEL: (INAUDIBLE) Look where there are more atheists and where they’ve lost God, where the church is not that strong. Europe is becoming Islamist. It’s fast falling and intolerance is increasing. That’s the one reason our country has not become like Europe because we have strong Christians and because atheists are not strong. And I think that’s a good thing.

Now. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment CNN or any other media outlet doing a story any other minority group — ethnic, religious, sexual minority, or any other minority group — and not having, or apparently even appearing to consider having, a member of that group present to speak. And remember that in the Anderson Cooper segment on “ex-gays” they were at least thinking clearly enough to invite someone from HRC to be interviewed, even though there were any number of gays more qualified to speak on the subject.

At least they had one non-“ex-gay” person on the show, and that’s because if they hadn’t, they’d have heard about it. The best they can do in this case is Stephen Smith, whom I don’t know anything about but whom Ed calls “the ESPN loudmouth who yells for no reason about everything and rarely makes any sense.” (I’ll have to take Ed’s word for it, since I don’t watch ESPN.) I understand that Bill Donohue was on CNN as a commentator on the Edwards blogger debacle. Given his tendency to say stuff like this:

‘Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it. … Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint. They believe in libertinism.’

It would have been interesting to see Schussel on the same segment as Donohue.

But that’s beside the point here, which is the inherent double-standard when it comes to belief vs. non-belief. Non-believers are constantly admonished to “respect” the religious beliefs of others, and to temper their objections to religion expression bleeding over into public spaces, like public school classrooms. but as the CNN story and the Dobrich story point out, even grievances that are apparently pursued through the proper channels invite extreme responses.

If you want to understand what it can be like for some religious minority kids in school, there’s the story of Tempest Smith, a Wiccan girl whose classmates taunting drove her to suicide. The immediate answer to this will probably be that if the parents don’t want their children to have a hard time in school, they need to keep their religious beliefs or non-belief to themselves, and teach their kids to do the same while freedom of religious expression otherwise abounds all around them. Mona Dobrich was told that she should tell her son to “give his heart to Jesus” if he didn’t want to be called “Jew boy” at school.

It’s the equivalent of those who object to prayer in public schools or nativity scenes at city hall being told to “just don’t listen” or “just don’t look.” The basic message is “this school/space/country is ours, and if you want to keep the right to be here, you’ll keep quiet.” Or, more specifically, you’ll maintain a respectful silence.

The reality, I think, is that the majority of atheists and even agnostics by and large maintain a “respectful silence,” and Courtnix, in a post about the Edwards Blogger debacle over at A Blog Around the Clock, does a pretty good job of explaining why that’s pretty much a necessity.

It is unfortunate but true that the doctrines of organized religion (as opposed to the personal, emotional need to believe something) are still respected on this planet and this country. Atheists are the last discriminated-against minority in this country. Thirteen states (inlcuding my own NC) have explicit laws precluding atheists from seeking elected positions.

A hundred years ago, women were fighting for their rights. It is still not completely equal, but compared to today, situation a century ago was akin to slavery.

Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights movement, often bloody, resulted in elimination of official seggregation. While racism and seggregation are still alive and well, the comparison between today and half-a-century ago is stark.

The gays are fighting that fight right now, and slowly winning by winning the hearts and minds of the next generation. Even Young Republicans are not as homophobic as their parents are.

The next fight will be over religion. Atheists will need to speak up and stand up for themselves. So many people have no idea what the word ‘atheist’ means except that it has something to do with eating live children. But many of the same people think the same about Liberals. I hope that in 10 or 20 years I can go to a campaign blog of an openly atheist presidential candidate who has realistic chances of winning with nobody batting an eye-lash, and not finding the word ‘atheist’ in scare-quotes in someone’s comments, like this: “atheist”.

And therein, with the last paragraph, lies the challenge. How can atheists stand up for themselves? Going through appropriate channels with legitimate grievances, like public schools sponsoring Christian prayers and bible reading (during class time), still provokes an extreme and even violent response. That’s because, as I posted earlier, though atheists are a minority, there’s a also a number of people who are quietly agnostic.

I return from Oxford enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask.

Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!”

But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”

“Why?”

“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”

“Well, that’s true.”

This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’” This is the type of statement she would never want to make. [emphasis added]

It’s a statement that many would never want to make, party out of politeness but perhaps also party because of an awareness that to do so, or even come close to it, might earn them the same kind of response that the Rice and Smalkowski families got, or even the Dobrich family; even when they have legitimate grievances, and even if pursued through appropriate channels, and even if their protests are relatively mild.

That’s the inherent problem with ideas like the one at Faithful Progressive, for a day to “celebrate religious freedom and separation of church and state.”

We therefore propose the following practical steps:

Consideration of enactment of state and national holidays honoring religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Freedom of Conscience Day could be a time to honor and educate Americans about the contributions that Americans of diverse religious traditions have made, and how religious freedom for one ensures religious freedom for all.

One sacred day per year should be voluntarily honored in all places of worship as Religious Freedom Day (Sunday/Sabbath, etc.). Passages of the scared tradition which celebrate religious freedom, diversity and the specific tradition of separation of church and state shall be celebrated and discussed.

The problem is that, again, there’s no room for non-religious Americans, or even an assumption or consideration that perhaps some important contributions were made by Americans who were quite specifically non-religious (like Thomas Paine, for example). And it may be dangerous to make that case.

Talk of “respect” in matters of religion indicates that it flows entirely in one direction; non-religious persons should “respect” the religious beliefs of others, but no “respect” is required to flow in the opposite direction. In that context “respect” is not the correct term, if it’s to be considered a state of mutual understanding between equals. That atheists or non-religious persons are small minority is always emphasized indicates an assumption that (a) the majority must be right by virtue of being the majority (91.8% of Americans can’t be wrong, after all), and (b) the concerns — let alone rights — of such a small minority are not worth considering, let alone taking any great measures to protect. In that sense, it’s not “respect” so much as deference that’s being all but demanded from non-religious Americans.

In other words, non-believers are basically being told, “remember your place.”

For what it’s worth, standing up can work. Imagine what the Anderson Cooper segment on “ex-gays” would have looked like if gay people were still as closeted as most non-religous Americans are (if you consider having to maintain a “respectful silence” or face the consequences as being in the closet). If there hadn’t been decades of gay & lesbian Americans “coming out,” if there hadn’t already been years of gay & lesbian Americans organizing and advocating for themselves and demanding fair and honest treatment in the media, the Anderson Cooper segment would have only featured “ex-gays” and their viewpoint. That’s essentially what you got in the Paula Zahn segment on atheists

Various online atheists posted about the CNN piece, inspired their readers to contact CNN, and the result is that Paul Zahn will interview Richard Dawkins tonight. You can argue whether Dawkins is the best representative to have on CNN, given his alleged arrogance (note, the responses by the panelists on Paula Zahn’s segment would not be considered “arrogant,” though they’re no less outrageous than any of Dawkins’ statements), but seeing as how few people are willing to speak up, and why, who else is there?

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6 Comments

  1. Great putting the three stories together this way. Most of us covered them separately, but you are right that they are deeply connected.

  2. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    He makes atheism warm and cuddly. He speaks about the lack of a deity with such passion that makes one believe we’re in a better place because of it.

    There was a symposium of atheist scientists held and videotaped and it’s archived here at Beyond Belief 2006. I’m not sure if I got the link from you or from Norm at One Good Move. Mr. deGrasse Tyson spoke on a couple of the panels and has the exact opposite personality of Mr. Dawkins.

    That’s just my feelings. He speaks in a much more uplifting way about things and you can feel his excitement for life. I’d love to see him speak more on the atheism circuit, but he’s got this other stuff he does that probably takes a lot of time and energy, being an Astrophysicist and all.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Love,

    Hanna

  3. See, this is EXACTLY the problem I had when I tried to start an atheist “coming out” meme on my blog. All my atheist friends commented to tell me why they weren’t going to do it — it was rude to believers, they didn’t feel discriminated against (sure, because they never told anybody!), their lack of belief was private and nobody’s business but their own, it would be arrogant, there was no need to do it (because of course, none of us ever write about anything on our blogs unless there’s a need for it!).

    I have felt all of those ways myself. But the fact of the matter is, it is possible for atheists to talk about atheism without insulting anybody. A simple explanation of what we (don’t) believe, and why we (don’t) believe it. Not with an eye to convert or persuade, but as a means of letting the world know the truth about us. So that the next time one of our believing readers hears someone badmouth atheism, she can say, “Hey, I know an atheist, and she’s OK!”

    Frankly, I’m glad for Dawkins’ “arrogance”. He is driving atheism into the public consciousness. If I think he’s giving people the wrong impression, well then surely the onus is on me to speak up too.

  4. There has to be a healthy way to discuss atheism in the face of obnoxious theistic zealotry that avoids the twin embarrassments of dishragitude and blowhardosis. A happy medium – self-confident but cheerful. Carl Sagan comes to mind….

  5. Thanks for the links. If I didn’t make it clear, my proposed Freedom of Conscience Day would also celebrate the contributions of atheists–there are many great Americans atheists. The point came out of my discussion of how we need the religious right to buy into the idea of separation of church and state–it protects all.

    Keep up the great work!

    FP

  6. Wonderful post. Great job on all the links, they were really good for giving this context. My grandparents were in the Holocaust and my Grandpa is scared because of the way America is treating non-Christians right now.

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