Atheist Bigotry: Are Atheists Bigots for Generalizing About Religious Theists?

Privileged Classes Always Object to Generalizations, Criticisms

One complaint made about some atheist activists is that they are in fact anti-religious and anti-theistic bigots who are just expressing their personal bigotry, not arguing on behalf of atheists' rights and liberty. There is a legitimate point to be made here, in that generalizing about an entire class of people for the actions of only some members is technically incorrect. What's missing, though, is an appreciation for how the "silent" majority perpetuate and benefit from injustice.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this particular disagreement is not in the least bit new. Liberation and civil rights movements in the past have recognized that there is always a "silent" majority in privileged classes who do not actively oppress or discriminate, but at the same time help perpetuate and benefit from injustice precisely through their silence and inaction. They may not intend this and they may not even be conscious it, but this does not alter their complicity and it is because of this complicity that generalizations are made.

Consider, as a point of comparison, the Queer Nation Manifesto distributed by members of ACT UP in the New York Gay Pride Day parade in 1990. A section near the end was entitled "I hate straights" and explains how the privileges of a heterosexual world look to gays who are excluded:

I hate straight people who can't listen to queer anger without saying "hey, all straight people aren't like that. I'm straight too, you know," as if their egos don't get enough stroking or protection in this arrogant, heterosexist world. Why must we take care of them, in the midst of our just anger brought on by their ****** up society?! Why add the reassurance of "Of course, I don't mean you. You don't act that way." Let them figure out for themselves whether they deserve to be included in our anger.

But of course that would mean listening to our anger, which they almost never do. They deflect it, by saying "I'm not like that" or "now look who's generalizing" or "You'll catch more flies with honey ... " or "If you focus on the negative you just give out more power" or "you're not the only one in the world who's suffering." They say "Don't yell at me, I'm on your side" or "I think you're overreacting" or "Boy, you're bitter."

It's amazing how easy it would be to transform this into an atheist complaint with just a couple of word changes. Obviously atheists don't suffer the same discrimination as gays do, but that isn't relevant to the underlying point. Both atheists and gays have been attacking unconscious and assumed privileges which the privileged classes have been unwilling to give up.

Anger, harsh criticism, and even generalizations are only to be expected. Those on the receiving end of the generalizations, though, sometimes seem far more concerned with their personal image than with the reasons behind the anger.

A comment from Aaron at Pandagon, about men who get upset at generalizations made about men by feminists, provides a similar point of comparison:

You do share responsibility for the behavior of your fellow men. You think you’re better than that? You think it’s unfair that you should be tarred with the same brush? You think that women ought to live with the constant tactical calculation that men make necessary, that’s just fine, but you are different, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether women might find you trustworthy — you feel you ought to have the benefit of the doubt, in spite of everything?

Well, great. Stop whining and start finding something to do about the men who’re dragging your *** in the mud. And y’know what’d be a great start on that? Stop letting your buddies slide when they say things that make you wince on the inside. Yeah, you know you do it. I do too. It’s a bad habit either way. Cut it out.

Oh, what, you’re not willing to do that? You’re afraid you’ll lose friends over it, and you don’t feel you should have to pay that price, and it doesn’t occur to you that maybe a friend who doesn’t really see women as human isn’t really anyone you’d want to call a friend, after all? Well, that’s fine too. Just don’t expect me to take you seriously when you come and start whining to me about how those mean, mean women don’t give you enough credit. Not unless you really do enjoy the sound of a tiny violin.

Once again, atheists don't have the same fears and concerns as women but there is a broader underlying point which should not be ignored: Christians and religious believers should spend more time dealing with believers they think are giving them a bad name than with generalizations from atheists. Which is ultimately causing more harm: generalizations made by a few atheist bloggers, or the incessant privileging of religion, religious beliefs, and religious believers?

Generalizations made by a despised and discriminated-against minority cannot harm a privileged and powerful class — this is true whether it's atheists generalizing about Christians, feminists generalizing about men, gays generalizing about straights, blacks generalizing about whites, etc. Those members of a privileged class who are supposedly giving the rest a bad name are, however, causing real harm to others.

Some of that harm is even due to their generalizations about despised and excluded minorities which are made precisely to ensure that the marginalized remain powerless.

When other members of a privileged class — the ones who insist that they "aren't like that" — expend more resources and worry over the former than the latter, then they are tacitly abetting and complicit in the harm being caused. Atheist generalizations about Christians or religious theists do not lead to any religious believers being excluded from power, being denied equality, or being forced into a second-class status. Those generalizations, even if empirically incorrect, do provide strong rhetorical force behind arguments about how insidious, unjust, and indecent religious and Christians privileges really are as well as the criticism that religious theism itself is empirically and logically unjustified.