Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why the experience of anti-atheist prejudice is different, though similar, to prejudice regarding sexual orientation, race, gender, etc.

At a post over at on the purging of the most vile homophobic elements from the mainstream anti-marriage equality movement, I made a comment as to how this signals a movement into "dog whistle politics" regarding LGBTQ issues, where it is no longer okay to blame it all on those evil gays, but new codewords creep in like "traditional family" and "special rights". I felt the need to qualify my comment thusly:

(Disclaimer: As a straight white male, I've never felt the sting of having a mainstream politician call me less-than-human in cleverly veiled terms. I can't imagine...)

Except that I have felt that sting, sort of. One need not look far to find plenty of examples of mainstream politicians demonizing atheists in truly shocking ways. For an admittedly not-that-recent example, look at Bush Sr.'s infamous remarks about whether atheists should even be citizens.

But I can't shake the feeling that it's just not the same. It doesn't cut me as deeply as I think it would to have my race, my sexual orientation, my gender classed as sub-human. And I got to thinking: why is that?

I think it comes down to two major factors: Degree of choice, and "believing" vs. "being".

Now note I said "degree of choice", not "choice". At this point, atheism is not really a choice for me per se. I could no more decide at this moment to believe in god(s) than I suspect you, dear reader, could choose at this very moment to believe in the Keebler Elves. Oh sure, you might freely choose to proclaim an allegiance to Ernie and the gang any time you wish, but you wouldn't sincerely mean it.

But I suspect that if you really dearly wanted to believe in the Elves... If you told yourself every day that they were real, if you surrounded yourself with others who shared the same forthright belief, if you fervently tried to make yourself believe, one day I suspect you'd wake up and be quite certain of the magical origin of Keebler cookies. It might be a more tenuous faith, you might be more inclined to inwardly question it than those who had been Keeblerites since birth or had experienced a more organic conversion to Keeblerism. But I bet if you really wanted, you could pull it off.

To do the same thing in regards to one's race or one's gender is patently absurd. And as we now know from dearly-bought experience, attempting to do so in regard to one's sexual orientation is ineffective, dangerous, and often deadly.

My atheism is something less than a free choice, but it is somewhat more of a choice than are race, gender, sexual preference. I am an atheist because it is what seems to me to be the clear truth. I cannot change it as easily as I could change my shirt or my hair color or the restaurant I go to most often... but I probably could change it with sufficient time and effort, if sufficiently motivated.

The other difference is harder to get at, and I fear I am verging on a form of Cartesian dualism here... But I really think there is a subtle difference between what you are and what you believe.

To explain what I mean, consider a person who is a straight-up communist, and somewhat of an activist at that. If she is really sincere about her communist beliefs, it may be no more of a choice than is my atheism: She could insincerely declare her mind changed at any time, and she may at some time be sincerely argued out of it (and I naively hope she would; I find communism to be about as sensible a position as laissez faire capitalism, i.e. not very -- but this is an irrelevant digression and I will say no more about it), yet if she really believes in her cause at 8:32PM on Wednesday, she cannot simply "decide" not to believe in it at 8:33PM on Wednesday.

And there is no question that many Americans consider communists to be less-than-human. Yet somehow it feels like that stings a lot less than racial prejudice or anti-gay prejudice or misogyny. There's just something about what you think about things, especially when it is ostensibly for rational reasons, that makes criticism of it seem less hurtful than something which you are -- even when the distinction between identity and belief is fuzzy.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that this reeks of dualism; we are all de facto dualists in our day-to-day lives, after all, and since this post is all about perception, perhaps the fact that we usually perceive ourselves as dualists is enough to justify this perception.

In any case, I do think there are differences, and as such I think I still cannot claim to know what it feels like to be a member of a group whose very identity is (or recently has been) denigrated by the mainstream. There are a lot of ways in which anti-atheist prejudice is similar -- there's been much talk about how the "coming out" analogy works very well for atheism as well, for example -- but I think the experience of it is different in some crucial ways.

1 comment:

  1. I'm also a straight white atheist male, unfortunately, and thus don't have much interesting perspective to add. I agree with just about everything you said, but have a comment about the dualism.

    Everyday talk about mental states, beliefs, desires, etc. seems to presuppose a form of dualism, but (1) these ideas are coherent enough to be very useful tools for understanding other people, and (2) use of such concepts need not commit you to dubious metaphysics insofar as you understand that these ideas can be fleshed out in fully physical terms at a more fundamental level of explanation. I think both of those observations apply to your discussion (as you hint at yourself, but more modestly).

    So, nothing wrong with dualism in folk psychology. It can be very useful as long as we don't let it inform our opinions in other domains (such as metaphysics or neuroscience). That's my first point.

    I also have a suggestion for a way to tweak your idea of "being versus believing", which might make it a little less fuzzy. Could we put everything just in terms of "categories that people belong to", and recognize that some categories are more central to how we define ourselves? The idea is that categories such as "gender == female" and "sexual orientation == whatever" are much more fundamental to most people's identity than "belief in sky fairy == False" would be. So I think we can understand your idea of "being vs. believing" a bit less fuzzily as "importance to self-identity".

    To illustrate: If Mary the communist had devoted her whole life to promoting communism - if it was one of the central pillars of her life and one of her most beloved self-attributes - then I think it is safe to say that Mary would be much more badly damaged by the demonization of communists than would be Jane, who just kind of did communism on the weekends and whenever it came up in conversation. One nice feature of the "importance to identity" model I proposed it that it deals with cases like this very naturally.

    N.B. I think the degree of choice thing is important too, and I can't decide whether it can be subsumed under this same rubric (e.g. traits that are very hard to change are less contingent and hence more important aspects of our identity) or whether it must be tacked on separately.

    But either way, nice article! It's an interesting parallel to think about.