Disgust and closets and out campaigns


Chris Stedman has a piece at Religion News Service arguing against the claim that atheism coming out of the closet is comparable to the movement for LGBT rights.

Austin Cline claims on About.com’s atheism section that “atheists [are] hated more than gays,” and bestselling author Richard Dawkins has frequently compared the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights movement to the atheist movement—drawing heavily from the LGBTQ rights movement for his “Out Campaign,” which encourages atheists to “come out.” And these are just a few examples in a long line of well-intentioned atheist activists and organizations—who generally consider themselves LGBTQ allies—comparing the LGBTQ rights movement to the atheist movement.

There are things about this comparison that, on the surface, make sense: atheists and LGBTQs are marginalized communities that deviate from normative ideas about how people should live, that often share an experience of needing to reveal our identities to others (sometimes with terrible consequences), and that experience social stigma.

But.

He’s right, it’s not a great comparison. Mind you, comparisons often work by comparing a single aspect of the X and Y as opposed to comparing the entirety of each, and in that sense, as Chris says, this one makes sense at least on the surface. But his point is to underline the reasons it doesn’t work as a comparison.

Anti-atheist bias does exist, of course—particularly in other parts of the world—and it should be strongly condemned and combated. The prevalence of violence in the U.S. motivated by an anti-atheist bias, however, is more than eclipsed by violence motivated by heterosexism.

In 2012 the FBI reported that the largest percentage of reported hate crimes were those motivated by racial bias. After that, the next largest percentages of hate crimes were motivated by bias against sexual orientation and against religion (primarily against Jews and Muslims). But of the reported hate crimes motivated by bias against religious belief (18.7% of all hate crimes), only 0.9% stemmed from an anti-atheist/agnostic bias. In other words, the magnitude of violence against atheists and agnostics does not begin to compare to what many other communities experience.

There’s an odd thing about that FBI report though. It doesn’t include women as a category:

By bias motivation

An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:

  • 48.5 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race.
  • 19.2 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
  • 18.7 percent were victimized because of a bias against a religious belief.
  • 12.1 percent were victimized because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
  • 1.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a disability.

That’s it; that’s the list of categories. Because, what, there are no crimes in which the victims are targeted because of the offender’s bias against women? That can’t be right…

Chris goes on to zero in on what I think is a very important point, which is that the root of a lot of violent hatred is disgust:

A myriad of religious and political institutions have perpetuated and sustained anti-LGBTQ attitudes throughout history, and these attitudes are still frequently expressed and enforced through religion—but calling religion the source would be misguided. (Besides: if atheists consider religion to be human-created, then it follows that anti-gay attitudes come from humans who sometimes express them through religion.) Instead of originating from religion, studies suggest that negative attitudes toward gay people are influenced by intuitive, moral disapproval linked to the emotion of disgust. An important series of studies from Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe at Yale University, David A. Pizarro at Cornell University, and Yoel Inbar at Tilburg University suggest a strong link between disgust and negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Because of this link, anti-gay attitudes are frequently articulated through the rhetoric of disgust or dehumanization—“homosexual activity just isn’t natural” or “homosexuality is an illness” being two common examples. Sometimes this rhetoric is religious, but it seems to reflect an emotional source that’s ultimately not.

Yes, and that also very much applies to hatred of women. I’m lucky enough to be reminded of this any time I want to be (and often when I don’t); I can just look up what people are saying about me on Twitter for instance. (And if I don’t there will always be someone new who tweets some friendly disgust at me.) Like “Mykeru” for example.

mike

Mykeru @Mykeru
@chsvns You just dropped that into #feministselfie By the way, do you know Ophelia Benson queefs talcum powder?

Sexual disgust at its finest. Wholly irrelevant to anything, just an expression of sexual disgust for the sake of it. Once you notice that kind of thing, you notice how pervasive it is. It’s sad. All the little baby girls napping in their cribs today…they’ll all grow up to be the target of sexual disgust sooner or later.

Anyway I think Chris is right about this. Chris is right and Leon Kass is profoundly, horribly wrong. Disgust is not a good source of moral intuitions.

Comments

  1. says

    …also Jonathan Haidt, who comes a little too close to giving a free pass to some pretty nasty things by attributing them to one of his five (or is it six? Do I hear seven?) Moral Foundations (because the Naturalistic Fallacy isn’t, apparently). One of which IIRC is Purity (of which the opposite is Disgust).

  2. iknklast says

    Look, while Stedman definitely has a point, I think this borders very much on (actually, not borders, but is smack dab in the center of) someone else has it worse, so….

    Dear Muslima, anyone?

  3. Tim Harris says

    Correct about Haidt: I disliked the book on account of the constant suggestion that the morality of the Right was somehow more visceral, and therfore somehow more profound and true, that the superficial moralism of liberals – at leasr that is the impression the book strongly gave me.

  4. Al Dente says

    I was reading Stedman’s article and nodding my head in agreement. He was making a reasonable point and providing evidence and logical arguments to support it. Then I read the following paragraph:

    In this vein, a number of atheists have pointed to the gay rights movement and said that in order to move the cultural needle as the gay rights movement has, the atheist movement needs both conciliatory atheists and aggressive ones (or “diplomats and firebrands”). But here again there is an important difference: the “confrontationalists” of the gay rights movement have worked to fight against heterosexism and legally supported discrimination and bias against queer people, but as a whole they haven’t worked to eliminate heterosexuality. Many vocal atheist activists—perhaps even the majority—name the elimination of religion as a primary goal. That is a very different fight than working toward freedom of—and freedom from—religion, or for greater societal acceptance for nontheists. In fact, the explicitly stated goal of ending religion may make the work of attaining allies—which has been crucial to the advancement of societal acceptance for LGBTQ people—much more difficult, if not impossible. [emphasis added]

    Stedman just can’t let his hatred of gnu atheists go unappeased. There are a small minority of gnu atheist who advocate the elimination of religion. Most gnus want to eliminate religion’s social and political influence in pushing things like GLBTQ discrimination. Stedman has been told this numerous times yet he still lies about the “majority” who would eliminate religion.

    I cannot take Stedman as anything but an accommodationist liar. Too bad, because if he’d lose his disgust towards gnu atheists he could be a useful ally for atheism.

  5. says

    Well Al (I hope it’s not inappropriate to call you Al, even though it’s like calling you To) I think he’s refined his thinking on this over time. I didn’t get the feeling of hostility to mouthy atheists that I used to get from his writing.

    And he’s not really wrong, I think. I would quite like to see religious thinking, at least, go away, or if not go away, at least recognize its nature as willful belief as opposed to a reasoned guess about what there is. And I think that’s not a very unusual stance for a gnu atheist. Notice that he didn’t say all atheists, but outspoken atheist activists.

  6. John Morales says

    Al Dente @6 & Ophelia @7, good points (though tangential to the OP).

    Were I to dispute Chris’s point, I’d note that while the gay rights movement does not seek to eliminate heterosexuality, it does seek to put heteronormativity in its place — the which is a much more accurate comparability to gnu’s stance towards religion.

  7. Al Dente says

    The disgust people like Mykeru display about women is all too apparent. The vagina is a horrible, smelly, rancid organ. However most of these same people want unrestrained access to vaginas, the wishes of vagina owners notwithstanding.

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    I have to agree with JM at #9. Gay rights activists have nothing against heterosexuality for the most part, but they do want to reduce the influence if heteronormativity .

    Likewise atheists want to reduce public respect for theism, public support for theism, and undermine the notion that theism is necessary for someone to be an OK person. The big difference here that theism is something people are conditioned into and can sometimes escape from. Sexual orientation is in almost all cases fixed.

    Getting back to the original post, I agree Leon Kass is an idiot. There is no “Wisdom of Repugnance”. Feeling s of repugnance can be shaped by culture. The whole point of segregation was to make white folks thing black people were ritually unclean. Yes, you can walk the same streets, you can shop in the same stores, but when you have to piss or eat you can’t do it the same place black folks do it. Their cooties could get on you. Repugnance can be conditioned and people can made to perceive horrible injustices without repugnance. Repugnance is not a useful ethical concept.

    As for expressions of sexual disgust and slut shaming toward women. I never fully understood this when I first came across it in early puberty. Weren’t we supposed to be badass by having sex with girls? Isn’t the pussy the holy of holies? Why would you shame girls who have provided you the means of greatness? But then I came to understand that in some of the male world sex is more about peer approval and power transactions. The more she does it for status or popularity points the better. If she was really expressing interest or horniness it counts less, because it’s not a conquest. Pretty easy to see how some dudes might come to believe rape was the best sex of all.

  9. Shatterface says

    But of the reported hate crimes motivated by bias against religious belief (18.7% of all hate crimes), only 0.9% stemmed from an anti-atheist/agnostic bias. In other words, the magnitude of violence against atheists and agnostics does not begin to compare to what many other communities experience.

    That might be because you can’t spot an atheist by the colour of their skin or identify them by which bar they come out of.

  10. Shatterface says

    Whether misogyny and homophobia are motivated by religion or disgust is a chicken or an egg problem.

    The disgust is rooted in religion which is rooted in disgust.

    ‘Not natural’ sounds much more like a religious objection – unnatural in the sense of being against God’s design. Plenty of ‘disgusting’ things are entirely natural.

  11. Dave Ricks says

    I agree with Stedman’s advice to own your own movement.  But I disagree with him explaining negative reactions to gays and atheists as disgust and distrust respectively, and writing

    Disgust is a very dehumanizing, visceral, and moralized emotion, whereas distrust is not – it’s the difference between denying someone’s humanity and simply avoiding them.

    Jessica Ahlquist stirred “a very dehumanizing, visceral, and moralized emotion,” her police escort wasn’t because people were “simply avoiding” her, and people did in fact deny her humanity.

    To be clear, I’m not playing the atheist victim card; I’m saying atheism stirs more than distrust, and Stedman doesn’t account for that.

  12. John Morales says

    Dave @15, it’s true Chris doesn’t account for other factors, but neither is he claiming there are none — that is, that it’s only due to (mostly) distrust and (somewhat) disgust.

    (So, you’re not contradicting him any more than I am disputing you)

    I admit that, not being an activist or considering myself to be in any movement (other than in the widest sense), I am to a great degree leeching off those who are when I exercise the freedom to speak out and to be myself that those who actually did the activism have achieved.

  13. says

    But here again there is an important difference: the “confrontationalists” of the gay rights movement have worked to fight against heterosexism and legally supported discrimination and bias against queer people, but as a whole they haven’t worked to eliminate heterosexuality. Many vocal atheist activists—perhaps even the majority—name the elimination of religion as a primary goal. That is a very different fight than working toward freedom of—and freedom from—religion, or for greater societal acceptance for nontheists.

    I feel like this is a bit of a false equivocation. I would say that the goal of getting rid of religion is not the same as black people advocating the elimination of white people or LGBT people wanting to eliminate heterosexuals (not that this hasn’t ever happened, either, and held up as examples of why these people shouldn’t have rights). You can’t convince someone to become black. You can force a heterosexual to engage in homosexual acts, but you still generally can’t change their orientation. I don’t think any prominent atheists have advocated making religion illegal (could be, but I haven’t come across them), but merely convincing the religious to be rational to the point that they all come to the conclusion that it’s best to not buy into religion. To me, this sounds like getting rid of religion (or irrationality more broadly) is more akin to activists trying to get rid of racism, homophobia, and other irrational belief systems. That’s not such an impossible goal, because you can definitely change minds, even if it takes generations.

  14. says

    Dave R, very true. I thought of Jessica while writing this yesterday. So…the distinction Chris makes doesn’t hold in all cases without exception; it’s not an exceptionless law, but it’s still a distinction that gets at a real difference, I think.

  15. chrislawson says

    Stedman is still playing at apologetics:

    Instead of originating from religion, studies suggest that negative attitudes toward gay people are influenced by intuitive, moral disapproval linked to the emotion of disgust.

    Where that level of disgust comes from? Babies aren’t born with a disgust of homosexuality. Intuitive disgust of homosexuality comes from years of socialisation in a homophobic culture, and religiously-justified homophobia is a massive contributor to that culture.

    Religion isn’t the only driver of homophobia (we’ve seen plenty of homophobic and transphobic comments in the atheist community recently), and not all religious traditions are homophobic, but the idea that intuitive moral disgust is evidence against a religious influence is just blatant fallacy-spinning.

  16. Dave Ricks says

    Greta Christina’s part 1 and part 2 are a point of reference for me. She says the difference between the two movements is that atheism has an oppositional aspect, no matter how nicely we put it, and this will always cause conflict.  She says, “we need to cop to it,” and if we don’t, then we’re disingenuous.

    I see Stedman framing the problem as mistrust so he can save the day with his personality and sincerity: if they just knew him, they’d trust him. I see that as his personal quest, and I’m happy when it works for him, but that model lacks things I’ve seen (like the reaction of shock to blasphemy), and I wonder if he has confirmation bias when that model works for him.

    As one reality check, I made a point to thank Jen McCreight for her comment on a WiS1 panel that her student group met with a Christian student group, and they all just wanted to eat pizza and watch The Simpsons (because her example grounded the discussion for me). So I’m not confrontational in my personality. But I also relate to the experience Greta Christina has with conversations falling apart once believers see the oppositional aspect, no matter how nicely it’s put.

  17. zibble says

    Maaaaan, fuck Chris Stedman.

    My husband’s conservative southern family accepted our gay relationship (not perfectly, but that’s another tangent). He is terrified of letting them know that either of us aren’t Christian.

    There are lots of different kinds of prejudice that express themselves in very different ways. If you’re looking for some objective marker to show who is the most hated, you’re making a mistake.

    Chris Stedman is a know-nothing prick, and I wish an end to his career of appeasing religious bigotry in the most smug, condescending manner imaginable.

  18. says

    @20: I’ve heard Greta speak on that topic, and yeah I figure she might know what she’s talking about a damn sight better than Stedman does.

    Also: I’ll plead guilty to wanting to eliminate religion (at least in the creedal and tribal senses thereof), by way of persuasion and a general increase in rationality. But I recognize that’s such a long term project that it barely counts as a “goal” at all (I have trouble setting “goals” that will certainly take much longer than my lifetime), and in the mean time I’m quite content with advancing secularism, and reducing the privilege and assumed prestige of religion.

  19. Jimmy Boy says

    I’ve been there and I have a fair amount of sympathy for those who equate deconversion with coming out. The similarities have really struck me (specially when I’m feeling sorry for myself…): it was emotionally painful; my friends and family were shit about it (and still are…); it involved a substantial level of personal honesty that I was not that happy with at first.

    But I also recognise that, as I’m not gay, I need to be careful with the analogy. It is quite likely that coming out is more significant, has more implications, is more painful. Probably the only people who could inform me are those who have both come out and deconverted from a religious family/environment.

    I have absolutely found the confrontational part of this too: either I accommodate the fuckwittery of my friends or I confront. There is no alternative. As a naturally non-confrontational Englishman, I don’t enjoy that much.

    But that confrontation? Much smaller actually than what my gay friends experience. Just back from a weekend in NY for a lesbian wedding. They’ve had a mare – even with family who thought they were liberal (but really weren’t). And there’s something so utterly fundamental about that. My atheism is a choice. Their sexuality is really not.

    I felt so privileged though, my US friends (for once I can really hold my hat to you): I felt I was there at the start of something huge. The recent legal liberalisation is fantastic! Not the first country of course – but probably the most significant. Truly wonderful.

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