Archive for July 14th, 2010
This is Part IV of a series of post titled “Mending Fences.” Part I begins here.
The many things we have in common
Drawing stark lines to divide people into groups often invites suspicion and hostility. Instead of bifurcating humanity into two mutually exclusive groups–believers and atheists—we should carefully reconsider the degree to which atheists and believers are different. To the extent that we discover that we actually share interests, including a mutual interest in better understanding our differences, we dissolve big hurdles to working together.
Whether we see each other as essentially similar or essentially different depends on whether we are focusing on our similarities or our differences. When we consider the ways that believers and atheists are similar, we can quickly think of enough things we have in common to fill encyclopedias. Most of us enjoy good food, good music and fresh air. We contribute to flood victims together. We throw muggers in jail together. We want our children learn to appreciate Shakespeare, mathematics and history together at school. We shop together, work together, celebrate most of our holidays together (even religious holidays) and we all struggle to understand how it was that we ended up on this spinning planet. Most believers and most atheists have another thing in common: they are both attacked by religious fundamentalists. We are so much alike in so many ways that a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap of atheists and believers would present itself as an eclipse.
Truly, a Martian anthropologist who carefully observed the day-to-day behavior of most believers and most atheists would be perplexed to hear us grumbling about our differences. For that anthropologist, trying to differentiate humans based on our outward behavior would be as difficult as it is for humans trying to discern differences among the worker ants in an ant colony. Well, except for one hour per week when the believers went into a building with a steeple on top. Except for that hour, though, it would be almost impossible to tell who is who based on the way we live our lives.
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How much have U.S. taxpayers paid to bail out Wall Street? Here are many of the details, but note that $2.02 trillion remains outstanding. Also keep in mind that the TARP payments were only 10% of the total U.S. aid given to Wall Street. Be wary, then, when you hear Wall Street crowing that it has paid back much of the TARP money. Dylan Ratigan puts the topic in perspective.
This is the third installment of a series of postings I’ve titled “Mending Fences.” You’ll find the first installment here.
It’s time to call a truce.
Until recently, I didn’t think of atheism as a political movement; it didn’t occur to me that I was being systematically victimized. Rather, I commonly thought of a long personal history of rude, arrogant, and exclusionary behavior directed at individual atheists by individual theists. More recently, though, it has become apparent that atheists are victims of rampant bigotry. How else could you describe a situation where 15% of American adults are atheists, yet only one member of Congress (Pete Stark of California) has ever admitted to being an atheist? Thanks to the new atheists, atheists are now part of something that is akin to a civil rights movement.
Based on historical precedent, though, civil rights movements don’t become successful when they encourage their members to be angry and to call the the aggressors “stupid,” at least not in the long run. Nor is it productive to frame what we want to accomplish as a “war” on ignorance, or any other type of war, because “wars” (on drugs, terrorism) usually polarize opposing camps indefinitely. To stop discrimination against non-believers, we should borrow the successful methods used by women, blacks, gays and other oppressed minorities. In short, we need to add a strong educational component to our movement. Most of the people who make derogatory comments do so without examining the roots of their aggressive impulses. I agree with Hannah Arendt who, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that most damage is not done by people trying to cause damage, but by normal people who fail to think things through—that is the nature of what Arendt termed “the banality of evil.”
How do we counteract deep unexamined prejudices against atheists? We need to be savvy about our PR. We should patiently show others who we are. We need to show believers that we don’t threaten their way of life except to the extent that they must stop slandering non-believers. I doubt that theists lay awake at night worrying about happy atheists; rather, in my experience, theists are far more haunted by images of snarly know-it-all in-your-face atheists. We need to promulgate images of friendly faces of real atheist Americans. After all, functional atheists have lives the stretch far beyond sitting around fretting about people who believe in “God.”
We must also become visible. If all of the atheist Americans glowed as dots on a national map, everyone flying overhead would see tens of millions of law-abiding atheists from coast to coast. We are taxpayers. We fight in the military. We are actors, housewives, musicians, business people, parents, police officers, scientists and teachers. We are inextricably socially connected to believers. We are their brothers, daughters, co-workers and neighbors. We give to charity too, including prominent atheists who give billions to help the poor (e.g., Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). We spend disproportionately less time in prison than those who believe in God.