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Austin Cline

Matthew Nisbet on Atheists & Atheism

By July 9, 2007

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One of the more vocal critics of atheists and atheism today is the rather unlikely Matthew Nisbet. Although he does not express any open and deliberate hostility towards atheism, he does consistently express an implicit hostility towards atheists — specifically, atheists who are open and unapologetic enough to attract public attention. Apparently, the only good atheists are those who don't raise a ruckus and upset anti-atheist bigots.

A recent example was a post in which Matthew Nisbet insisted that atheism is not a civil rights issue:

One of the common claims that has been amplified by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that "atheism is a civil rights issue." (For an example, see the comments section of this recent post.) This false spin serves as a very effective frame device for radicalizing a base of atheists into an ever more militant "us versus them" rhetoric, an interpretation that is used to justify sophomoric and polarizing attacks on religious Americans.

Speaking of false spin, notice how Matthew Nisbet "frames" this in a manner that makes it appear that the "atheism is a civil rights issue" claim comes from Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., when those writers have never made such a claim. Would it really be so difficult to identify those specific people making this claim and directly addressing their arguments? Well, yes, I guess it would be because Matthew Nisbet never does so — not ever. Instead, he just keeps leaving the implication that the responsibility lies with those who have never made such a claim.

It's worth considering that the above claim would be consistent with Nisbet bearing personal ill will towards Richard Dawkins. I don't know if that's true or not, but others have suggested it and I think there is evidence that would support such a thesis. An even more recent post approvingly agrees with David Sloan Wilson calling Dawkins "just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion." Why? Because Dawkins' evaluation of religion doesn't take Wilson's personal theories about the evolution of religion into account.

Of course, Dawkins' wasn't writing about the evolution of religion and he has no obligation to discuss every theory out there. Wilson sounds upset that Dawkins didn't give his theory of the evolution of religion any attention, but as far as I can tell that's not really a valid criticism of Dawkins' book. It is an attack, though, which Nisbet repeats and endorses without reservation. That's not an example of someone engaging in sober, open-minded analysis. It looks to me far more like someone with an axe to grind and who doesn't care how they go about doing it.

Yet is atheism really a civil rights issue? The answer is a resounding "No." In a column at Free Inquiry magazine, DJ Grothe, vice president for public outreach at the Center for Inquiry, lays out the case against atheism as a civil rights issue, and argues as I do, that atheists don't face a civil rights battle but rather a public image problem. (To Grothe's argument, I would add that this image problem is only made worse by the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign.)

The standards for a "resounding no" seem to be dropping precipitously — or maybe it's just that Matthew Nisbet has no particular standards for such a declaration. Why? Because the whole of his evidence and argument is a single article written in 2004. That's enough for a "resounding no"? Since when? In what universe?

When I wrote about the article from DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey, I at least had the decency to link to a rebuttal published in a following issue. I also noted that Grothe and Dacey have a legitimate point: if you define a civil rights movement as one that works against official and institutional discrimination, then it's hard to say that atheists need a civil rights movement. Of course, that's not the only legitimate way to define a civil rights movement and this is where the article falls short.

Maybe if Nisbet had acknowledged the existence of critiques of the article it would have been harder for him to treat it as the basis for a "resounding no." Then again, he isn't the only one given to bouts of zealous overstatement: Grothe and Dacey do the same in their article. They correctly state that atheists don't suffer from the same degree of discrimination as other groups, but then they undermine their own good argument by stating:

To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing." If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.

It wouldn't have been difficult even at the time to find such examples, and today that numbers of examples just keep mounting. They can't be denied by any serious and objective observer, though Matthew Nisbet certainly does deny and ignore the many examples and links posted in the comments to his post. People should wonder why — his whole "resounding no" conclusion is based on an assertion and, when that assertion is proven false, what does Nisbet do? Does he reconsider his thesis? Does he modify his conclusion? Not in the least — and I fully expect to hear the same claims from him again as if nothing had changed.

DJ Grothe, though, is in a more difficult position because he's the one who made the original assertion. How does he react when example after example is presented to him of exactly that which he categorically denied existing? Ebon Muse exchanged some emails with him and while he backs down slightly from the original claim, he doesn't go so far as to acknowledge he's doing so.

That's disappointing. Grothe and Dacey made a claim in their original article which was wrong — it should have been recognized as wrong then and certainly should be recognized as wrong now. The only proper follow-up now is to admit this. I can't understand the reluctance, given the fact that their argument isn't even based on this particular assertion.

Far more disturbing, though, is Matthew Nisbet's insistence that atheists merely face a "public image problem" rather than any civil rights problems. It's their "rhetoric" which is creating the alleged "public image problem," even though atheists have never said or written anything which is remotely as intolerant, offensive, disrespectful, or uncivil as things said by many religious theists. Why don't they have a "public image problem"? The answer is simple: there is no pre-existing and widespread bigotry towards them.

So according to Matthew Nisbet, when bigots respond negatively to things said by atheists which the bigots don't like, the resulting problems for atheists is their own fault and a "public image problem." Presumably, the solution lies in not saying anything which the bigots will disapprove of. Just keep quiet, don't rock the boat, and everything will be fine. That, in my opinion, is more than enough to conclude that Nisbet himself is one of those harboring anti-atheist animus and hostility.

Matthew Nisbet is among those reacting negatively to things said by atheists which are far milder than many things said by theists, politicians, movie critics, etc., but he attaches all the blame with the atheists themselves. And we atheists are then supposed to take advice from him on our "public image" and how to "frame" our positions? No, thank you. Nisbet is the last sort of person atheists should be taking any advice from. If we look to him for anything, it should be for signs of how not to act.

Comments
July 9, 2007 at 10:04 pm
(1) JonJ says:

I think we have to face the fact that arguments about religion, especially between believers vs. non-believers (not all, but many), and arguments between many (not all) Christians and Muslims, are unavoidably going to be very emotional and heated at this point. These “wars” go back for centuries (look at what Aquinas said about Islam in the Summa Contra Gentiles, and what he and other Christian notables have said about atheists for all this time).

It might be nice if everybody could calm down and be quite level-headed about their disagreements, but religion is not an emotion-free subject, and objectors to religion are not necessarily calm, cool, and collected either. Religion stirs up strong feelings in many of them, and there is nothing wrong with expressing those feelings. Insisting that they be kept under the covers for “public relations” reasons is self-defeating, because it will not pacify the hard-core atheism opponents in the believers’ camp (nothing will), and honest expression of feelings will, I believe, win respect from believers who are not hard-core.

July 9, 2007 at 11:11 pm
(2) Ebonmuse says:

I’ve long since given up on Nisbet, but D.J. Grothe is a reasonable fellow, and I still wonder what he was thinking when he wrote the original article. He could readily have acknowledged the existence of anti-atheist discrimination while maintaining (truthfully, in my opinion) that it is not as severe as discrimination directed against other groups, like homosexuals. That would scarcely have altered his argument at all.

I think he fell into the trap of a misguided absolutism in an attempt to make his argument seem stronger. He’s backed down from his original erroneous claims somewhat, but not yet enough, in my opinion.

July 9, 2007 at 11:14 pm
(3) Tep says:

From the quote block: “..leaders in the nonreligious community…” There’s an identifiable, locatable community? And we have leaders, akin to religious leaders? News to me, must have missed some indoctrination meeting sometime.

Also, typo. “..there is no pre-existing and widespread bigotry..” Probably meant w/o the ‘no’.

July 10, 2007 at 1:33 am
(4) Tep says:

Ignore previous typo comment, I can’t read…

July 10, 2007 at 2:57 am
(5) Blunderov says:

“Sophomoric”? He accuses us of being wise fools! We get this “argument from non-argument” all the time and I admit it enrages me. The riff goes : “There is a knowing beyond knowing, a logic beyond logic. Yes, your atheistic arguments, reason and logic all hit the mark but god is above all that, you see?”

“Kiss my aura, Dorah.” Oh yes.

July 10, 2007 at 3:45 pm
(6) tracieh says:

>“There is a knowing beyond knowing, a logic beyond logic. Yes, your atheistic arguments, reason and logic all hit the mark but god is above all that, you see?”

I have run into this particular apologetic personally a few times. My reply is that if logic does not apply to their god, then they cannot say or know anything reliable about their god. All the attributes and claims they make about what their god does cannot be measured by logic and/or reason, and so they have no basis upon which to evaluate their own claim of god–any more than I do.

It’s also a way of saying: “I can’t possibly know or understand anything about X, but I believe X.” And that statement is without logical or reasonable merit.

July 11, 2007 at 4:02 am
(7) Patrick Quigley says:

“There is a knowing beyond knowing, a logic beyond logic. Yes, your atheistic arguments, reason and logic all hit the mark but god is above all that, you see?”

Fine, but as all serious atheologists know there is also knowing beyond the knowing beyond knowing. This super-supernatural way of knowing is metaphysically indistinguishable from empiricism so it turns out that simply knowing is superior to knowing beyond knowing which relies solely upon merely supernatural epistemologies.

Take that theologians.

July 12, 2007 at 11:06 am
(8) D.J. Grothe says:

DJ Grothe, though, is in a more difficult position because he’s the one who made the original assertion. How does he react when example after example is presented to him of exactly that which he categorically denied existing? Ebon Muse exchanged some emails with him and while he backs down slightly from the original claim, he doesn’t go so far as to acknowledge he’s doing so.

That’s disappointing. Grothe and Dacey made a claim in their original article which was wrong — it should have been recognized as wrong then and certainly should be recognized as wrong now. The only proper follow-up now is to admit this. I can’t understand the reluctance, given the fact that their argument isn’t even based on this particular assertion.

All: While I think Nisbet says many thought provoking things, and has arguments very worthy our attention as atheists, it is true that we are not saying exactly the same thing. I think we atheists should be less defensive about our position and give his arguments a hearing; let me refer you to my debate with him on Point of Inquiry.

And as for the question of “atheist bashing” versus “gay bashing” — I have neither backed down from our original position in the two essays we wrote on the topic of making the atheist plight be on par with the plight of racial or sexual minorities, nor do I think we need to. Consider in the first pieces, we say everything that I rejoined to Ebon: that atheists have had it and do have it bad, that they are unpopular, that they are even despised by the majority (the most despised minority). But that their plight, including his examples of “atheist bashing” just can not be equated with the “gay bashing” or violence against racial minorities. His examples are instances of injustice, but arent civil rights violations on par with racial or sexual minorities, nor are they in any sense instances of “atheist bashing” on par with “gay bashing.”

If you let “atheist bashing” equal every instance of despicable treatment of atheists, then the category is so broadened that it no longer has any use, and it does disservice to the gay rights activists and others who have actually suffered widespread “bashing.” Gay bashing means “verbal confrontation with, denigration of, or physical violence against people thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT).” Gay bashing is widespread. But gay bashing does not mean every public argument against homosexuality, and neither should “atheist bashing” mean every instance of an atheist being unpopular. The atheist movement does not need to organize and mobilize around perceived and unreal widespread instances of atheist-bashing. We need to organize around the aims Dawkins and others suggest, and that we have worked for over decades: to increase public acceptance of atheism, to increase mind-share, and to “raise consciousness.” (It is debated whether Dawkins is doing this by folks like Lawrence Krauss and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But I tend to think he is in fact raising consciousness for our cause in ways no one has ever done before him.)

The point we still make, and Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens appear to agree with: atheists are not an oppressed minority, and do not need to be liberated. Atheists are an unpopular minority and need to win over the public, both for acceptance and to persuade people that their position is perfectly reasonable.

July 12, 2007 at 11:28 am
(9) Austin Cline says:

If you let “atheist bashing” equal every instance of despicable treatment of atheists, then the category is so broadened that it no longer has any use

I don’t believe that anyone has made this claim, have they?

Gay bashing means “verbal confrontation with, denigration of, or physical violence against people thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT).”

So, is it your position that there is no such thing as “verbal confrontation with, denigration of, or physical violence against people thought to be atheists” and that there are no cases of any of this occurring? That would be disappointing because you are defining “bashing” more broadly than I would have. If you take this position, then you are asserting that no atheists experience verbal confrontations, denigration, violence, or threats of violence.

You might reasonably argue that such incidents are not a constant problem. You can reasonably argue that such incidents are not the most important issue facing atheists. You would have to argue that such incidents are not nearly as bad for atheists as they have been for other minorities. To claim that no such incidents exist, however, is just unbelievable.

July 12, 2007 at 12:55 pm
(10) D.J. Grothe says:

1. Ebon, in his email to me citing incidents of atheist bashing, did exactly that: he broadened the definition of “bashing” to include many despicable incidences that simply weren’t “bashing.” Strained analogies with the gay rights, civil rights or feminist movements undercut the integrity of our argument and position. I believe his original listing of such examples of “atheist bashing” which simply aren’t bashing is online.

2. It is my position that gay bashing against gays for no other reason than their being gay is widespread, and at the very least, much more widespread than anything you one could struggle to define as “atheist bashing.” And that the converse for atheists is not, and therefore doesn’t rise to the level of justifying the comparison.

3. I do argue, therefore, that such instances are not a constant problem, and that they certainly are not the most important issue facing atheists (contrary to the position of some of the leaders in the atheist movement, which I have cited elsewhere, and which our original articles confronted).

4. Further, I argue that atheists are not an oppressed minority, and do not need to be liberated. They do not need to organize a movement to secure their civil rights (as they already have their civil rights). They do not need to march in the streets to keep from being lynched, bashed or beaten. Atheists are an (should I say “merely”) a very unpopular minority and what they need to do is to win over the public, both for acceptance and to persuade people that their position is perfectly reasonable.

Lastly, to repeat what I have said elsewhere, just to avoid being accidentally misrepresented in this back and forth:

Just because we atheists currently do have our civil rights, it doesnt follow that with this Supreme Court that we will always have them. We do need to defend the civil rights we currently have (as all Americans do).

July 12, 2007 at 1:32 pm
(11) Austin Cline says:

1. Ebon, in his email to me citing incidents of atheist bashing, did exactly that: he broadened the definition of “bashing” to include many despicable incidences that simply weren’t “bashing.”

Not having his original words before me, I cannot judge.

2. It is my position that gay bashing against gays for no other reason than their being gay is widespread, and at the very least, much more widespread than anything you one could struggle to define as “atheist bashing.” And that the converse for atheists is not, and therefore doesn’t rise to the level of justifying the comparison.

Your position is not simply that gay bashing is more widespread than atheist bashing, but that there is no such thing at all as atheist bashing. I don’t believe that you have supported this position, however. This would have to involve taking alleged incidents of bashing — preferably stronger ones — and explaining how they don’t qualify under your definition.

I don’t understand the comment about “anything one could struggle to define as atheist bashing.” You’ve already defined “bashing” and I’ll accept it with the caveat that threats of violence really should be included — that doesn’t strike me as a controversial addition. Even without the caveat, though, “verbal confrontation” and “denigration” cover an awful lot of ground. I don’t see how you could possibly defend the proposition that there is no “denigration” of atheists in America.

Your final sentence sounds a lot like you’re suggesting that the number and severity of incidents is relevant to the definition, but nothing like that is included in the definition of “bashing” which you originally offered and I don’t think it’s relevant. I’ll stick with your original definition of “gay bashing” and apply it to atheists rather than gays.

July 13, 2007 at 3:13 am
(12) Blunderov says:

I think the comparison to feminism is more apt, at least in my experience. Atheists often miss out sub rosa in the same way that women do. Everybody in the boardroom assumes, sometimes without even speaking or thinking about it, that it would be better to have a man “in the position” than a woman. The so-called glass ceiling. The same thing happens to atheists on a frequent basis. This IS grievous. As women well know, status seeking is a basic human behaviour and to deprive persons of status they have deserved is to do an injustice to these people.

Injustice is at the heart of bothing ‘bashing’ and ‘the glass ceiling’; it does not seem to me that such a clear distinction between them as
Mr Drothe wishes to draw is entirely justifiable.

It does not seem to me that physical violence is necessarily ‘worse’ than social violence. What is ‘worse’? Violence that is upfront, if deeply misguided? Or a violence that is systemic and never even recognised for what it is because it is so much taken for granted?

August 31, 2007 at 7:01 pm
(13) John Hanks says:

I believe that G-d exists, but I don’t know anything else. My mystical experiences could be a disordered thyroid.

August 31, 2007 at 7:16 pm
(14) John Hanks says:

The problem with “believers” is that they think they have a personal relationship with a supernatural being and that they can speak for him.

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