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.