Yesterday, the LA Times ran an opinion piece that is nothing short of appalling. The column in question was titled, "Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining". Sadly, that remarkable headline does appear to very accurately reflect the content of the column. The LA Times apparently decided, for reasons passing understanding, that it was a good idea to give Charlotte Allen the opportunity to present a ~1300-word long explanation of why she doesn't like "atheists."
Just so we're clear, that's how she presented herself - not as someone who doesn't like some, many, or most atheists, or someone who doesn't like atheists who do X, but as someone who doesn't like atheists, full stop.
Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that she gives for disliking atheists is that atheists have an over-developed sense of victimhood:
First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.
That little *bang* you just heard was the sound of a multitude of spontaneously combusting irony meters.
"First off, there's Catholic victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we think the Pope's infallible."
"First off, there's Muslim victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we're Jihadist Terrorists."
"First off, there's Jewish victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in Jesus."
"First off, there's Mormon victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we've got more Scripture than they do."
Seriously, is there a mainstream newspaper in the country that would run a column that broad-brushed any religious group the way Ms. Allen did atheists? And they'd have good reason not to. Forget about the narrow-minded bigotry and willingness to insult swathes of people who don't actually fit comfortably within the caricature that's being constructed. Broad-based criticisms of entire groups are almost never the product of anything but the sloppiest of thought processes.
But let's go ahead and ignore the irony involved in slamming a group's alleged "whining" and "victimology" in a way that you would be unlikely to get away with if any other group were involved. Let's look at the substance - for lack of a better word - of her critique:
In his online "Atheist Manifesto," Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such provisions unenforceable nearly 50 years ago, but that doesn't stop atheists from bewailing that they have to hide their Godlessness from friends, relatives, employers and potential dates. One representative of the pity-poor-me school of atheism, Kathleen Goodman, writing in January for the Chronicle of Higher Education, went so far as to promote affirmative action for atheists on college campuses: specially designated, college-subsidized "safe spaces" for them to express their views.
Now, I might be blind, or Ms. Allen might be reading something different, but I just read the Atheist Manifesto, and I cant find a thing in there about clauses in the constitutions of six states. The only relevant passage I found on the problems of seeking public office addressed public opinion, not "antique" statements in old documents:
More than 50% of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70% think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious."
That assertion of Harris' is well supported by polling. In late 2007, Pew reported that 61% of those surveyed stated that they were less likely to support a candidate who did not believe in God. According to Ms. Allen, 4% of the American population identifies as atheist or agnostic, and could presumably therefore be classified as "not believing in God." According to Pew, 0.6% of the US population identifies as Muslim, 1.7% identify as Jewish, and 1.7% identify as Mormon. Americans are nowhere near as willing to say that religion would make them less likely to vote for a candidate with any of those beliefs.
It's easy to blame the public's expressed dislike of atheists on the outspokenness of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers - and, predictably enough Ms. Allen takes exactly that intellectually lazy route - but there's very little evidence that has anything to do with it. First of all, it's not like those folks are exactly household names. I'd be shocked if the four of them combined reached the 61% mark - and that's the percentage of the population who would be less likely to vote for atheists. More to the point, all of the books, websites, and incidents Allen cites are relatively recent, but in 2003 - prior to the majority of the outspoken behavior that Allen and others publicly deplore - 63% were less likely to vote for an atheist then. At worst, it would seem that Dawkins et al. haven't particularly helped public perception of atheists (which is not the same as hurting it).
Personally, I am not all that fond of the writings of any of the atheists named by Allen. I can certainly understand how someone could form a strongly negative opinion of any or all of them. But none of that excuses either Allen or the LA Times. The mildest term I can come up with for someone who is willing to use the actions of a few to justify a dislike of an entire group is "ignorant". Allen's column deserves at least that label.
I had thought that the days when major newspapers would provide a platform and a megaphone to people who have ignorant and bigoted views of religious groups were behind us. Unfortunately, the LA Times apparently disagrees.