The Presence of Justice

Ophelia Benson

One of the pleasanter changes in morals and manners over the last few decades has been the marginalization of ugly talk about “the Xs”—the Jews, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the queers. Thoughtful people don’t talk like that anymore, and what a relief that is, grumbles about political correctness notwithstanding. The old style now reeks of paranoia and ignorance. “The Jews”— what did that even mean? What verb can possibly follow such a general noun? “The Jews” what? Nothing; the question is absurd. The intention behind the phrasing is revealed as malicious. It has come to sound stupid and sinister to make sweeping generalizations about groups.

But it appears that some people are nostalgic for the music of hostile generalization and delighted to have the opportunity to engage in it again. Respectable liberal intellectuals and academics—people who wouldn’t be caught dead growling “the blacks this” and “the Jews that”—can be found enthusiastically heaping opprobrium on the freshly minted outgroup called “the new atheists.” One such person is the philosopher Michael Ruse, who wrote on the Chronicle of Higher Education blog Brainstorm in March: “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the well-being of America comparable to the Tea Party. It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”

Jacques Berlinerblau wrote on the same blog a couple of days later: “For those not familiar with [the new atheists’] world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut.”

These passages are sadly representative; it is all too easy to find more via Google. There are whole books filled with similar invective, such as Chris Hedges’s I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

The quoted passages share three conspicuous qualities: they are general, inaccurate, and vituperative. This is a bad combination, and it’s the hallmark of racism and racism-like group hatred. It’s familiar from generations of us/them rhetoric. Step one: talk about “the Xs” as though all people in group X were somehow the same. Step two: make large, invidious claims about the dangerous alien qualities of the Xs.

It’s obvious how crude that is. It barely rises to the level of yellow journalism. So why is it that reputable academics such as Ruse and Berlinerblau allow themselves to write articles that fit the pattern so neatly? Why do professional taboos and standards not inhibit them? They would never write that way about blacks, gays, Jews, or immigrants (can you doubt it?). So why do they feel able to write that way about atheists? The label “new” isn’t enough to explain it.

This isn’t the part where I answer my own question, because I don’t know the answer. It baffles me. It baffles me anew each time it happens, and it happens often.

I don’t know the reason, but I think the fact that this happens confirms the very thing that new atheism as a movement is trying to address: a strong social taboo on frank, open, unapologetic atheism. It’s not illegal, but it is taboo. It is subject to forceful, angry opprobrium, and that not just from the predictable enemies—conservative religious believers—but also from other atheists, even liberal atheists.

This results in multiple layers of irony, in which liberal atheists berate other liberal (but new) atheists for saying that atheism is taboo and subject to bullying, thus proving the very point they are shouting at the new atheists for making.

The pattern is familiar in recent history. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s lived out the same ironies. The point was to disrupt the status quo in which black people put up with inferior status, sat in the back of the bus, and kept quiet; yet there were always plenty of people who rushed to defend that very status quo, even though they agreed with the disrupters on the essentials. Of course plain racists resisted the civil rights movement—there’s no irony in that—but so too did people, both black and white, who believed in civil rights. The preservation of the status quo and preference for a veneer of peace and social harmony trumped principle. Martin Luther King Jr. famously addressed this in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to feminism and gay rights. Yes, of course women should be treated as equals, and gays should not be stigmatized, but—but, but, but—you are much too aggressive, militant, strident, shrill, noisy, divisive, angry, dogmatic, extreme. We agree with you on the substance; we just don’t agree that you or anyone should ever actually do anything about it.

So it is with explicit atheism. Yes of course atheism is not a crime, and you have every right to be an atheist—just don’t ever talk about it in public, or we will call you harsh names.

There it is, the catch-22. Yes, you should have equal rights; no, you may not actually make use of them. We all agree in principle that you too are part of the human family, but we absolutely do not agree that you have any business saying so in public.

Of course, this is simply hopeless. If the civil rights we have are purely formal and not to be exercised outside our own living rooms, then we don’t have them. Civil rights are public rights or they are nothing.

Nonsense, will come the impatient reply. You do have civil rights, and we have the right to call you dangerous, fanatical, aggressive, extreme, and any other name we like.

Yes, but make no mistake—it’s an ugly business. There is no good reason for atheists to be silenced and closeted, so there is no good reason to berate them for leaving the closet and speaking out. To do so is simply to defend an unreasonable and unjust status quo; it is to justify an illiberal popular prejudice and indeed to express it so thoroughly as to become one with it.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

One of the pleasanter changes in morals and manners over the last few decades has been the marginalization of ugly talk about “the Xs”—the Jews, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the queers. Thoughtful people don’t talk like that anymore, and what a relief that is, grumbles about political correctness notwithstanding. The old style now reeks of …

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