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Jan 22 2013

Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I have been having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve decided to take it public. For the record: There are some things Andrew says in this piece (and has said in our subsequent conversation) that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Hi, Andrew. Greta here. I was reading your Papercuts piece, and was totally with you… up until this.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

I think you may be coming from a position of privilege here that you’re not seeing. You live in Chicago, and being an atheist in Chicago (or rather, being a white atheist in a more liberal enclave) is not that bad. Being an atheist in the Bible Belt is another thing entirely. Being an out atheist in the Bible Belt means risking your job, your safety, your property, your community, custody of your kids. Look at what happened to Damon Fowler. That was no papercut. That was systematic oppression, from every part of the society around him. And atheist activism isn’t just about nativity scenes and getting In God We Trust off the money. I do think those things matter… but that’s not just what it’s about. And I don’t understand why an atheist activist would be so dismissive and trivializing of the real oppression many atheists in this country do face.

The problem with the Maria Maltseva piece you linked to isn’t that it points out the seriousness of anti-atheist bigotry. The problem (well, one of the problems) is its basis in Maltseva’s raging anti-feminism. We can acknowledge the reality and importance of sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression — and indeed, talk about the places where those bigotries and oppressions intersect with religion — without being dismissive and trivializing of bigotry and oppression against atheists.

I really liked the piece other than that. Hope you’re doing well: take care, and I’ll talk with you soon.

(I’ll post links to Andrew’s replies as he posts them.)

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    Didn’t some societies have a legal penalty of “death by a thousand cuts?” Papercuts can be fatal, if you get enough of them.

    And actually, yes, atheists ARE dehumanized here in the Gool Ol’ USA. What is all that “atheists don’t really have morals” stuff, if not deliberate dehumanization? Repeatedly linking atheism to either Satanism or Stalinism is pretty dehumanizing too.

    We can acknowledge the reality and importance of sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression — and indeed, talk about the places where those bigotries and oppressions intersect with religion — without being dismissive and trivializing of bigotry and oppression against atheists.

    We can’t afford NOT to do so — acknowledging one manifestation of bigotry, without acknowledging another, is, at best, hypocritical, and prevents us from seeing an honest picture of the problem.

  2. 2
    baal

    “some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.”

    Would that everyone follow your example and respect the humanity of the folks they disagree with.

  3. 3
    Jackie

    Want to know how to lose feminist, LGBTQ, and other minority friends in KY? Come out as an atheist. If you espouse skeptic leanings, you can double the number of people who will simply no longer wish to know you. I don’t use my real name anywhere online or discuss these topics irl. I can’t take the fallout when I do. Here, you can lose friends, family and your job. Religion is commonly used as a weapon in custody disputes. So, you can also lose your kids. Yes, being gay, black, trans, female, poor etc. will multiply your isolation even further. But in a place where people use church for networking, charity and free childcare, not belonging to one will cost you. My husband has had people say several times in his presence (at work), “Can you believe people like that?” or “There aren’t any atheists here.” (They can tell because nobody has been seen at work eating babies, I suppose.) Only recently has he been fed up enough to risk his job by saying, “Yes, there are.” It is in our schools. It is in our DCBS. It is in our courts. It is a big deal. Sure, I can hide behind my various privilege, keep quiet and and get by just fine. I can pass around strangers. I don’t put stickers on my car or wear T-shirts that I would like to, because I don’t want to be yelled at in public, harassed by cops or shot. No problem. I can pass. I work with people who clearly dislike me and think less of me as a person for not being a believer. I don’t like it and I want to get the hell out of here ASAP, but isn’t going to kill me. I’m one of the lucky ones in that way. There are gay atheists, black atheists, trans atheists etc. and one more drop of blood lost to casual cuts may be more than they can afford to give up.

    Maybe it is just a small cut for me, but how deep does the cut need to be before it is a problem worth addressing?

  4. 4
    gbjames

    Andrew may want to check in with Jerry DeWitt before concluding that this is all just “paper cut” stuff.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/magazine/from-bible-belt-pastor-to-atheist-leader.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  5. 5
    Timid Atheist

    I use this handle because of my fear of my ex using my views against me in order to win sole custody of our child. Where I live Spiritual Fitness is something Judges look at when it comes to custody.

  6. 6
    Uncle Ebeneezer

    Well said Raging Bee. The fact that polls have shown greater prejudice against atheists than even gays and muslims, (with regard to who people would never vote for) speaks volumes about the problem. Even the we-must-respect-all-views crowd usually makes an exception for atheists. I’m fortunate to live in a big liberal bastion of the Left Coast, so I don’t face nearly so much practical bigotry (custody fights etc.) as those in middle America, but even here, the normative status quo that it is ok to pass judgement on the godless, is something I see all the time. Pretty much every time I express my atheist perspective. Even among fairly secular friends.

  7. 7
    Cornelioid

    I’ve been wrestling with this for a while now as well and am very interested in following the conversation. At the very least, the systemic discrimination or oppression that atheists face is qualitatively different from that faced by trans* folk, PoCs, and others, and arguably more so than across or within these groups. Anti-atheist discrimination shares much of its form with scientific denialism and paranormalist insularity—the notable exception being which side experiences marginalization; and it generally seems to be much more intentional.

    Personally, i feel opportunistic whenever i compare my own marginalization as an atheist to that of trans* or of-color people, or even call it “oppression”. I wonder if others feel similarly.

  8. 8
    Argle Bargle

    American atheists are not oppressed.

    I literally fear getting fired if my fundamentalist Christian boss knew I’m an atheist. Maybe Tripp has no problem being an open atheist. There are other American atheists who disagree with him.

  9. 9
    miller

    I think it’s good to know where marginalization of atheists stands in comparison to the marginalization of other groups. But you can’t do it simplistically. Personally I have had very few negative experiences from being out as an atheist, but I know many atheists are far less lucky. Furthermore, we must allow for people to actively fight causes that are most personally relevant to them, even if these are not the most important causes in the world.

    Actually I did not see anything wrong with that list by Maria Maltseva. The list was fine, it’s just it was obviously motivated by, “Those darn feminists, ruining everything that I love!” (my words) I think it’s better to criticize anti-feminists when they are speaking anti-feminism, not when they are just muttering under their breath about how much feminists annoy them.

  10. 10
    jesse

    Well, some of this does come from the people who are most visible in the Skeptic’s movement — at least until recently — were basically white men. And being an atheist isn’t one of those things someone can pin on you in the way that they can if you’re black. And nobody can prove you are an atheist if it comes to it the way they can prove you have a same-sex partner.

    So given that, I can certainly see why someone might conclude that atheists as a rule aren’t oppressed much. I mean, I am not worried about Michael Shermer or PZ Myers, you know? They’ll be fine. If anything, their privileges offer them the opportunity to speak in a way that many of us cannot. Tenure is a great thing and all that.

    That said, it’s one of those things that can differ a lot by region. After all I might say that gay people aren’t oppressed if I confined my observations to the Castro district or Fire Island. We can all see why that’s silly.

  11. 11
    Sastra

    Many people who claim to be “fine” with atheism (“well, it’s a free country!”) are definitely not “fine” with outspoken atheism. You’re acceptable if and only if you try to blend into the background, agree to disagree, or reassure the majority that your “opinion” is no better than theirs. In fact, you envy them.

    It’s like being accepted as gay as long as you don’t advocate for gay marriage or act all ‘swishy’ or anything. Doing that would be seen as an attack. Same with “militant” atheism. It’s more than that they disagree. It’s that they disagree and fail to see how a decent person wouldn’t know better.

  12. 12
    juliewms

    “And in this Bible Belt Republican county, our new unelected school board chairman is both a Democrat and a member of a militant atheist organization…” – Cal Beverly, Editor of The Citizen (describing a Fayette Freethought Society member)

    I adamantly disagree with Adam Tripp that “we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences.” Until any atheist is actually subjected to bigotry, hatred and religious intolerance, they won’t understand what many secularists have experienced firsthand.

    I started a freethought group in my local community (Peachtree City, GA) back in 2010, in one of the most, statistically, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist areas in the country. When it was discovered that our newly elected Chairman of our school board was also a member of our freethought Meetup site (he is Jewish) the Editor went after him in the local newspaper. The witch-hunt against him incited members of the community, who also went after him, publicly, in the paper: “Freethought Chairman now leads our schools” http://www.thecitizennews.com/articles/01-17-2012/freethought-chairman-now-leads-our-schools

    Citizens who were “afraid” of the very existence of secularists in their community, let alone on the school board, attended school board meetings demanding that the Chairman tell the public, “what is your religion?” Here’s a link to David Barlow demanding just that at a public school board meeting (David Barlow has recently been elected to our City Council) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwdACdRCBvw

    Papercut? Maybe so for Adam Tripp. But for many other atheists/humanists/freethinkers who live, or have lived in the bible-belt regions, we have personally encountered hatred, bigotry, intolerance, public shaming, ridicule and ostracizing from our communities on a daily basis.

  13. 13
    frog

    The reason we don’t see large campaigns against atheists is because it’s much, much easier to hide atheism than other minority status. The closest analogue is being gay, but that’s not quite on, since hiding gayness is a lot harder. People tend to notice when one isn’t getting married and settling down with a member of the opposite sex. Coming up with narratives to explain that (or getting a beard, or living in denial) requires action. Hiding atheism requires only silence.

    Why should people be required to live in silence? How is that not an injustice? How is that not a deep, deep problem? How does that not cause pain? Just because a lie is one of omission doesn’t make it less a lie, and normal people don’t want to live a lie.

  14. 14
    michaelbusch

    I have not encountered any particular discrimination, but I am trained and work as a scientist. Atheism is pretty much unremarkable in the communities I spend most of my time in. Thanks in large part to the bloggers here, I also understand many of the privileges I enjoy in current American society. My personal experience is about as far from any average as it is possible to get.

    @Raging Bee: Lingchi, practiced in China from the 10th century until it was outlawed in the last years of the Qing. The Wikipedia article provides details. As a warning: it includes some photos taken during one of the last such executions, in 1905. They are disturbing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_slicing

  15. 15
    sc_a7897c05478ecf7a213c29daadc7b2bc

    I good discussion, but I’d be wary of mentioning Damon Fowler. He’s come down fairly strongly on the side of rape culture and patriarchy lately. I finally left his page after he started referring to female co-workers as “cunts.”

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