Chris Stedman had a post published in Religion Dispatches yesterday suggesting that atheists aren’t addressing Islamophobia and that it’s going to come back to bite us on the butt. Stedman seems to suggest that his interfaith work has made him more likely to fight Islamophobia than the rest of us.
RationalWiki, an atheist wiki featuring a newsfeed and articles like “Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted,” contained no mention of the Sikh shooting, but it did list an instance where a Florida door-to-door salesman was shot, and noted the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. PZ Myers, who is among the most visible atheist bloggers in the world, did write about the shooting twice, though one of his posts simply referenced the shooting as a way to condemn America’s “gun culture,” while the other focused on Pat Robertson’s comments. (Most of the more than 35 other dedicated bloggers on Freethought Blogs—a massive atheist blog network he co-founded—didn’t address it at all.)
But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don’t want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem—or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society. A key offender in this respect is bestselling atheist author Sam Harris.
The day after the shooting in Wisconsin, Harris published a lengthy blog post decrying Internet trolls; bizarrely, though, he included yet another defense of his position that Muslims should face extra scrutiny at airports.
There are a couple of points worth addressing here. The first is that the community at FreethoughtBlogs (if we’re going to stand in for atheist bloggers or atheism in general, which someone else can have a word with Stedman about) is silent about most tragedies. We don’t have the idea that we’re generally speaking for others that would make it feel anything other than pompous if we were to issue a statement as though someone were going to pay attention to it.
On the other hand, while we don’t claim the kind of authority that makes it likely anyone is looking for our statements on obvious outrage, we do invoke a different sort of authority. We try to solve the problems through evidence and critical thinking. For example, Ed Brayton shared an article discussing what is and isn’t terrorism and how that shapes our understanding of an event we’d wish to prevent in the future. I had just done the same with observations prompted by the Aurora shooting, or people might have seen the same from me.
None of this says we don’t care. None of it says we don’t recognize the problem. It says we don’t have the same priorities for dealing with it. Stedman prioritizes an emotional response from what I can tell based on his article. Many of us in the atheist community prioritize a practical response aimed at decreasing future events.
This would have been obvious if Stedman had used Harris’s opinions on profiling as his base search. Again assuming, as Stedman does, that FtB can be treated as a proxy:
- Pharyngula: NO RACIAL PROFILING, PLEASE
- The X Blog: Sam Harris is Right: Profile away!
- The Atheist Experience: Racial Profiling – a data mining perspective (WARNING: WONKY)
- Pharyngula: More discussion of profiling, pro and con
- Pharyngula: My objections to profiling weren’t actually addressed…but OK
- Digital Cuttlefish: We Only Should Search Whom We Ought
- Pharyngula: Schneier on Harris
- No Country for Women: Are you an atheist? Better be a humanist.
- Maryam Namazie: Yes to profiling of Muslims?
- Mano Singham: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Muslims
- Pharyngula: Bruce Schneier vs. Sam Harris
- Pharyngula: Addressing Sam Harris
- Almost Diamonds: Just What Philosophers Do?
I may have missed some. It wasn’t a refine search. Nonetheless, I think it demonstrates that we’re not ignoring the issue. So do posts about the topic outside the Harris profiling debate.
- The Crommunist Manifesto: Let’s call this what it is
- Dispatches from the Culture Wars: NYPD Spying on Muslims Does No Good
- Atheist Talk: Stephanie Zvan Interviews Dr. William Beeman
There are definitely more of those, but that’s a bear of a search, and I’m tired. The point is that there is no ignoring going on.
There is contention, yes. Like many forms of xenophobia, there are plenty of people who trust stereotypes over everything else. There are islamophobes in the atheist community. One of them appears to have commented on Stedman’s article.
This problem, however, is much like any other that requires persuasion. Will some people be reached by engaging in interfaith work? Sure. Familiarity is a great way to stomp on xenophobia.
However, some people won’t find that persuasive. The people they meet will be those infamous exceptions to the rules, or they won’t meet anyone at all because they don’t live in a metropolitan area with a significant Muslim population. There’s a good chance, however, if they’re atheists, that they’ll still run into arguments like Harris’s. They’ll still need to see arguments being made against the nonsense of one of the “Four Horseman”. Thanks to a number of atheists who are treating this as a skeptical issue, they will.
It just doesn’t require interfaith activism.
Photo credit: Cordelia Persen. Some rights reserved.