Yesterday, I took blogger vjack to task for an article at Atheist Revolution titled Recognizing Bigotry. My response, titled Recognizing bigotry is trickier than you think chided vjack for zir sloppy argument. But while zir argument may have been sloppy, zir intentions were good, right? That is, while dismissing Anne Graham Hotz as a bigot for the reasons given were wrong, dismissing her as a bigot – assuming one could reasonably show she is – isn’t wrong, right?
Recently, in the wake of a mass exodus from the Catholic Church and an overall drift away from religion in general, studies were done asking the newly non-practising religious why they were moving away from organized religion. One of the interesting findings of those studies is that it’s not us pulling people away from the churches; it’s not the pervasive pressure of freethinkers causing people to become disillusioned. Rather, what’s really driving people toward more secular lives is the churches themselves.
Here is a segment from an article in a Catholic magazine describing “exit polls” done – by Catholics – asking lapsed Catholics why they’re no longer interested in the Church (emphasis mine):
Another woman who identified herself as “a cradle Catholic, educated exclusively in Catholic schools, married to a practicing Catholic, raised five children in the faith, taught C.C.D., was involved in the marriage preparation program in our parish—in short, one of the active practitioners of the faith,” said she had opted out because of “the recent church teaching on end-of-life issues; the moving, instead of removing, of priests and bishops involved in the molestation of children; the headstrong opposition to the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS; and the absence of any priest I can talk to.” She added: “I’ve stopped going to Mass because I can’t in good conscience say the Creed, as I don’t think this is a ‘holy’ church, and I don’t feel I can receive the Eucharist under these circumstances.”
“Exit interviews for departing Catholics or those just not attending Mass is a nice thought,” said a 69-year-old retired businessman, “but it is obvious to me that there are two reasons for the drop in Mass attendance and withdrawal of financial support: (1) the pedophile issue and (2) the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood.”
As you can see, it’s the moral and ethical failings of the church leadership that are driving the believers away. The most powerful method of attack we have, then, is simply to highlight the moral turpitude of the church leadership. We don’t need to judge it ourselves. Most people are essentially good people, and will eventually make that judgement themselves, if we just make it hard enough to ignore.
And the really neat thing about this is that the church leadership just doesn’t get it at all. In that article I quoted, the writer ends up more hung up on the fact that the clergy is less involved in the community than on the plain-spoken condemnations of the moral and ethical failings. And just a few days ago, the Pope himself basically said “fuck you” to everyone pushing for gender equality in the clergy. They just don’t get it. And that’s good for us.
That’s why vjack’s response – aside from its abysmal logic – is wrong. When someone like Anne Graham Hotz stands up and says something hateful and stupid, we shouldn’t denounce her as a bigot to shut her up. Quite the contrary, we should be standing on the sidelines saying, in our best Jon Stewart voice, “go on…?” We shouldn’t be trying to get people like Rush Limbaugh off the air. We should be prompting him, encouraging him to really speak his mind. Getting angry when religious leaders say something stupid and hateful about atheists is the wrong strategy. We should be thrilled when a major religious leader says something stupid; there should be a thousand jokes about it on the social networks the next day.
When we, atheists, throw a public hissy fit over bigotry against atheists, while it may be perfectly justified, it will ultimately come off as merely self-serving. No one but atheists will weep for us.
But! If, instead, we respond not with outrage, but with patience and reason, we will become more sympathetic victims in the eyes of the public. And to sweeten the deal, if we respond to an ignorant statement by – instead of denouncing it – calmly asking the speaker to make the statement stronger and clearer, we’ll probably provoke even more stupidity and hatefulness out of them. And there seems to be no more effective way to drive people away from churches then to let the leaders show their true colours.
To be clear, I am not advocating turning the other cheek. Far from it. I am merely suggesting that the best response to a slap in the face is not necessarily a return slap. Instead, the best response is, if it is possible, to roll with the punch until it swings right back around and hits the attacker zirself. I am suggesting we adopt a more Socratic approach to confrontation, and use our main advantage – intellect – to turn the attacks against us into strikes for us. If we truly believe that these religions, and their leaders, are ultimately unethical, immoral and misguided, then we should be confident enough to allow them to show their true colours, and the evidence indicates that if they do that, we win.
I am also not saying there is no place for fiery “tone” in the debate. Quite the contrary, I’ll be pretty fiery myself. There is nothing wrong with going on the offensive ourselves. What I object to is responding to hateful and ignorant statements by trying to shut the speakers up – and that is exactly what calling the speaker a ‘bigot’ is intended to do, nothing more, nothing less. That’s not intrinsically wrong, because the speaker was wrong to make the statement, since the statement is bigoted. It’s just tactically stupid in our case, because it makes us look weaker, and it ignores the fact that we want our opponents to be themselves. The more honest our enemies are about what they believe, the better it is for us.
Don’t fight harder; fight smarter.