An atheist mother's blog describes how a teacher reacted to her daughter's in-class essay on what she wanted for Christmas. The essay criticized the very act of asking such a question, given the existence of people who don't celebrate Christmas holidays as well as those too poor to be able to afford any gifts. It ended with:
What do I want for Christmas, I want a less assuming teacher. I want a teacher who thinks past the standard "What I want for Christmas..." assignment when she's aware that three out of her twenty students probably don't celebrate Christmas. I want a world where my friends will be asked to write essays about how they might use their winter vacay' to help other people. I want my mom to be healthy again. I want my grandmother to quit smoking. I want my grandfather to quite bugging her about it. But most of all, I want to not get an "F" on this assignment because you get angry with me for saying all of the above.
The teacher's reaction:
"Possum#1*, thank you for your thoughtful remarks. I don't think you're an atheist but I respect your empathy for your friends. Please see me after class today. A+"
After class, possum#1 said that her teacher told her she couldn't be an atheist because her "ability to care for others feelings isn't an atheist trait." and that her "attitude was very Christian."
It certainly speaks well for the teacher that they were willing to give the girl such a good grade for an essay that challenged the very premise behind the assignment itself. This expression of anti-atheist bigotry, though, is more than just vile look at how off-hand and casually it's stated. The teacher isn't trying to make an argument for some proposition that they recognize is disputed; instead, they are saying something they seem to consider obvious and beyond any serious questioning. Imagine if they had said:
You can't be Jewish because the ability to care for others' feelings isn't Jew trait.
You can't be Catholic because the ability to care for others' feelings isn't a Catholic trait.
You can't be liberal because the ability to care for others' feelings isn't a liberal trait.
You can't be black because the ability to care for others' feelings isn't a black trait.
The bigotry behind such statements will be obvious to anyone, but some people have no qualms about making just such a statement about atheists. Even if a teacher sincerely believed any of these alternatives, they would never say it to a student in a context like this because they would know just how much trouble it would cause but there is no feeling of shame in saying such things about atheists because anti-atheist bigotry, even when directed at children, is perfectly acceptable in American society.
What's interesting is that this daughter didn't self-identify as an atheist at this point her parents have been letting her choose her own path. However, the reactions of Christians have set her more firmly on the path for atheism. In the comments to this post, a local Baptist minister named William wrote:
I am a Baptist minister in your area. Why does your daughter expect her teacher to ignore Christmas? You do realize that you are living in the United States of America and that the teacher has just as much right to talk about faith as you do to turn your daughter into an atheist. Which I find to be morally reprehensible, how can you deny your child the beauty of God and His promises? How can you deny your children the love that comes from choosing Christ?
It's obvious that your daughter is already lost. You will allow her to spin off in to the darkness of atheism and all of those consequences? I will pray for your daughter and for your family and that your "smart" children will see that there choices are not smart and that all of the wisdom in the world can not by you the love that comes from simply accepting Jesus Christ into your heart.
William's wife is even worse:
Your poor babies are going to burn in hell if you continue to lead them astray and teach them that science and so called logic prevail. Faith always prevails! Faith alone can save them. They are like lambs to the slaughter. Please open your heart to the Lord, Jesus Christ and God. Allow the blessings of belief to soften your tongue and heart. I only pray that your daughter will use her brain for more righteous pursuits than mocking her friends. What a waste of talent. Gods blessings to you. We will keep reading this blog and hope your heart changes.
With people like William serving as leaders for Christians in this area, perhaps the teacher's response isn't so surprising and perhaps also it should be praised for being so moderate and mild relative to what it might have been. I doubt that the teacher would feel comfortable expressing such extreme anti-atheist bigotry, though, without the open support for such feelings from local religious and political leaders. They are thus two facets of the same problem.
Just in case you're wondering if perhaps William is a fake (that's a legitimate concern he's so extreme that it's hard to believe he's genuine), a Baptist reader of the blog in question attended a church service and "Young Adult Bible Study" led by William:
William said, "Let's pretend that a child wrote this... what would you have done if you were the teacher?" He told us that we should have done as the teacher had and taken the opportunity to witness to "a child so desperate for spiritual guidance." I asked if that would be violating the belief that public schools should be neutral territory and he said that God's law trumped man's law. He also said that when we saw a lamb in trouble, we should help the lamb.
What shocked me most was what came next. He launched into a tirade against atheists. Said that they are, "by default, the worst parents." He said that he was "100% sure" that you must be "the most uneducated and sorry mother" because no good mother would leave their child in spiritual limbo and let them find their own way. He said that atheists deserved our pity and that their children should be our mission. It was kind of scary, actually. I had had enough by then, so I left. It was hands down the most uncomfortable Sunday school I had ever attended.
Remember, this is a Baptist writing in, not an atheist, and William describes this Baptist as an "ambassador of sin" doing "Satan's work." If this is what he thinks of Baptists who don't agree with him about atheists, what do you suppose he really thinks of atheists themselves?
Although all his nasty anti-atheist bigotry is ultimately rather mundane, something much more interesting and enlightening appeared in other comments and I don't know if others reading the blog recognized it for what it is. In a couple of his comments, William makes quite clear something that I have written about a few times: that extreme conservative and fundamentalist is in many ways about maintaining traditional authority, authority structures, and authority figures:
If I had a daughter, she wouldn't dare speak to an adult in the ways that Possums daughter speaks to adults. I do not tolerate insolense in my home. I would be ashamed of that essay. ...
Sin is a slippery slope. First these children will challenge authority and then the laws of society. Atheist children learn to be skeptical of everything but their own views. Why would any parent want their child to be in an ongoing fight with authority? How does the parent control the child's behavior if there is no law or authority? God was clear on this: obey thy father. That includes God.
See how everything comes back to maintaining strict lines of authority: some people are in charge, some are not, and the latter have an obligation to obey the former without question. Rather than the "chaotic" mix of both men and women in both the home and in public, the "chaos" of homosexuality, or the "chaos" of people being allowed to disregard Christianity, there is a strict delineation of authority. Everyone is given clear instructions as to their place, their role, their power, and their positions relative to others.
Many people derive a lot of comfort and security from knowing their place and not having to contend with what they feel is a chaotic ignorance of established rules. All legitimate authorities are established by God, thus a failure to acknowledge and obey those authorities is a failure to acknowledge and obey God. This is why all sin ultimately comes down to peoples failure to obey authority figures. It's not just atheism that's a sin, but skepticism itself: questioning what you are ordered to do is the first step down the path to the Dark Side.
Democracy, human rights, civil liberties, science, and everything which we take for granted can be traced, either in large part or entirely, to the conception of personal human freedom which says that we have the ability to reason, judge, and act for ourselves. Because of our freedom as individuals, we have the authority to choose our own leaders. Because of our freedom as individuals, we have basic rights and liberties in our communities which our leaders either cannot touch or can only infringe upon in extreme situations. Because we have the freedom to let our reason inquire wherever we want, we have developed expansive fields of science which contribute both our knowledge and our well-being every day.
This basic premise of personal liberty and personal autonomy is what fundamentally distinguishes the modern era from all other eras. It distinguishes us from those periods in human history when people were subject to the will of lords and masters, were born and died as slaves, were restricted to the social status and jobs of their parents, and so forth. When religious conservatives and fundamentalists attack modernity, this is what they are ultimately attacking. When religious fundamentalists and conservatives seek to reverse the progress of modernity, this is what they are ultimately trying to overturn.
Update: Michael Williams accuses me of denouncing stereotypes of atheists by "leaning on stereotypes of Christians in the very first paragraph." Careful, and even most causal, readers will notice that Christians aren't mentioned in the first paragraph. Or the second. Or the third. In fact, I don't mention Christians until I discuss Christian reactions to the student's essay.
The first paragraph discusses the attitudes of anti-atheist bigots and how they are unwilling to accept that atheists can be kind, moral, decent, civil human beings. The bigots in this particular story are Christian bigots, but the criticism of bigots is not directed solely at Christians because I am making much more general observations. Even if the first paragraph were about only Christian bigots, though, it wouldn't be stereotyping Christians generally because it's clearly about only some people, not an entire religion. At no point do I say that all or even most Christians are anti-atheist bigots; therefore my statements about anti-atheist bigots cannot be reasonably construed as statements about Christians overall much less stereotypes about Christians.
If it strikes you as bizarre that Michael Williams would assume that the first paragraph is about Christians generally (which suggests that he's the one with stereotypes about Christians), it gets better. He quickly insists that being an atheist isn't like being Jewish or black because skin color has no inherent effect on behavior. Well, that's true, but what Williams misses is that atheism isn't a philosophy or a religion either and, like skin color, has no inherent effect on behavior. It's precisely the assumption that atheism prevents people from being moral which drives so much anti-atheist prejudice, but for some reason Williams passes over this.
Even worse, if we accept that atheism is more like being liberal or Catholic than like being black, the fact remains that the statement "You can't be Catholic because the ability to care for others' feelings isn't a Catholic trait" is obviously an expression of bigotry which wouldn't be tolerated. So why is the same statement about atheists so readily tolerated? Michael Williams skips over this, however, and compares it instead to making such a statement about being a Nazi, as if being surprised that someone is a nice atheist may be as reasonable as being surprised that someone is a nice Nazi. This comparison could in theory be justified if Williams were able to show that atheism leads to similar violence and hatred as Nazism, but he doesn't even try.
Michael Williams goes on to say that "Atheists have a reputation for being condescending, arrogant, smug, closed-minded, intolerant, irritable, and pretentious." Well, all minorities have reputations among bigots, at least. Jews, for example, have a "reputation" for being arrogant and greedy among bigots. Is it OK, then, to treat the stereotypes as true? Does the existence of a "reputation" mean that repeating that reputation is justified? Of course not. There's always a "kernel of truth" to stereotypes, but the problem is that this "kernel of truth" generally applies to all groups fairly equally. There is only a kernel of truth to the stereotypes of Jews, for example, because that kernel is true about everyone.
Bigots capitalize on this by transferring all negative qualities to the despised minority in order to reify everything they dislike or fear about humanity or society generally. There is greed and crime everywhere, but particular groups are singled out unfairly as being the primary sources for these problems. Atheists are no more condescending and arrogant than theists. Jews are no more greedy than Christians. Blacks are no more crime-prone than whites.
Bigots, however, don't care about any of this and focus only on a few prominent examples (even fictional ones!) that happen to reinforce their prejudices because this also reinforces their political and social agenda of marginalizing the despised minority. You can always find an example of some member of a minority exemplifying some trait, but what of all the people in other groups exemplifying the same trait? They are ignored, of course, because they don't serve the purpose of smearing and degrading the minority being attacked.
Such is the basic thrust and effect of Michael Williams' post, whether he intends it that way or not. It's a post that serves the cause of encouraging bigotry by treating stereotypes as if they had narrow validity for targeted groups rather than broad validity for humanity in general. This creates division, suspicion, and ultimately hatred all the tools which allow bigots to do their work.