Psychologists have long known that people tend to favor their own group over others, a social phenomenon known as ingroup bias. But new research provides evidence that atheists are motivated to buck this trend in an attempt to override the stereotype that they are immoral.
Psychology researchers from Ohio University found that Christians demonstrated an ingroup bias towards other Christians in an economic game but atheists did not have an ingroup bias towards other atheists. The study was published online July 10 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“The rise of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ about a decade ago coupled with the ongoing ‘culture wars’ between religious and secular groups in the United States has led atheists as a population to gain an unprecedented level of visibility in this country in recent years, even as their prevalence has only incrementally increased. This has sparked a particular interest in anti-atheist prejudice research in social psychology,” explained study author Colleen Cowgill, a PhD student.
“From this previous research, we know that the general population in America tends to stereotype atheists as being immoral and untrustworthy – a reputation that many atheists understandably find distressing. My primary interest was in how atheists themselves respond to these negative stereotypes.”
“Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that individuals facing negative stereotypes are not passive observers of this social landscape, but rather are impacted and react in a dynamic way to negative group-level judgments important to their identities,” Cowgill told PsyPost. “One example of this is stereotype threat, or the phenomenon wherein negative stereotypes about a group’s performance on a particular task can lead to decreased performance for individuals who belong to that group, regardless of their actual ability.
“The psychological stress of fearing that your performance may confirm a negative stereotype about your group serves to limit the cognitive resources you have available for performing well on the task. Another example of this is people’s response to what is termed ‘identity threat,’ or the threat of being disparaged or discriminated against due to one’s group membership. We often see that negative stereotypes about a group can lead members of that group to behave in compensatory ways that ostensibly seek to disconfirm that stereotype, such as when American immigrants strive to emphasize their American identity when it is threatened.”
“This was the rationale behind my hypotheses stating that atheists’ behavior toward Christians in economic games might be different from Christians’ behavior toward atheists in economic games,” Cowgill said. “In the same way that many White Americans are often stereotyped as racist and have consequently been shown by research to be particularly motivated to be liked by Black Americans during interracial interactions, I thought that atheists would be uniquely motivated to disconfirm negative stereotypes about their amorality or untrustworthy nature during interactions with Christians.”
“I chose to operationalize this through an economic game because I thought it would be an ideal paradigm to capture constructs like ‘generosity’ and ‘fairness,’ which can directly relate to ideas of morality and trustworthiness. Indeed, we found in multiple studies that our atheist participants behaved more fairly towards partners they believed were Christians than our Christians participants behaved towards partners they believed were atheists, which are results that appear to support the original hypotheses.”
“These effects disappeared when the participant’s own religious identity was concealed. Under those conditions, atheists and Christians demonstrated the same typically observed in-group bias, which rules out the possibility that the results could be entirely explained due to discrimination on the part of the Christians.”
The economic game was a modified version of the Dictator Game, in which one person (the dictator) is asked to share a monetary reward with another person who can only passively accept what is offered.
A pilot study with 205 participants revealed that people believed atheists would treat Christians unfairly. But three experiments, which included nearly 1,200 U.S. residents, found almost the opposite was true.
“I think that the average person should understand how the stereotypes saturating our society can create a variety of underlying subtexts during interactions between individuals, often leading people to maintain differential goals when they communicate and cooperate,” Cowgill remarked.
“Oftentimes, we’re not even directly aware of these dynamics. We absorb what our society reflects to us about how to perceive groups of people, how to perceive ourselves, and how others view us, then we carry these expectations with us into our everyday interactions, leading to myriad unexpected outcomes both positive and negative.”
When everyone’s religious affiliation was disclosed, Christian participants offered more money to fellow Christians than to atheists. However, this ingroup bias was not observed among atheist participants, who gave equally to atheists and Christians.
When their own religious identity was concealed from the other participants, however, atheists gave more money to their fellow atheists than to Christians. Presumably, they were less motivated to counter the stereotype that they were immoral. The behavior of Christians was unchanged.
“In this case, atheists appear to have been motivated by negative stereotypes to behave more prosocially. Although that may seem like a net positive, the mechanisms at work here may carry some more troublesome implications,” Cowgill told PsyPost.
“For instance, on a more speculative note, I think it is quite telling that atheists are perhaps so acutely aware of negative stereotypes about themselves that there are observable differences in their behavior as compared with Christians in even this small, low-stakes type of interaction. Arguably, they are on some level aware of a pretty serious stigma about their identity.”
“Might that stigma consciousness create obstacles for a talented atheist interested in doing something like running for political office or spearheading a charitable organization — endeavors that could be said to require a trustworthy reputation?” Cowgill wondered. “It’s hard to say, but I think research like this in the aggregate begins to build a case that there may be these kinds of hidden costs to the prevalent, unchallenged negative stereotyping in our society.”
Like all research, the current study has some limitations.
“It’s always worthwhile to keep in mind that the differences in behavior observed here between Christians and atheists, while unlikely due to chance given the number of participants and replications, may be explained by some alternative narrative the researchers have overlooked,” Cowgill said. “We did our best to rule out alternative explanations, such as that atheists were simply being discriminated against by Christians, but of course complete certainty can never be achieved.”
Some have also raised questions about whether atheists really consider themselves as part of a cohesive group.
“I think future work should continue to explore how atheists, agnostics, or religious minorities, such as Muslims, are impacted and respond to negative stereotypes or even outright discrimination towards their groups,” Cowgill said. “It seems likely that these findings would extend to other groups stereotyped as untrustworthy such that those groups would be motivated to ‘advertise’ their altruism, fairness, compassion, or overall level of morality.”
“Future work should also look at the some of the downsides to awareness of these negative stereotypes about one’s group. Do atheists demonstrate stereotype threat effects in tasks described as being related to moral competence? Does stigma consciousness limit atheists or religious minorities in a significant way or lead to negative health outcomes? All of these questions remain largely unexplored or in need of more in-depth research.”
High School Atheist Ostracized by Town — Atheist Community Steps Up When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was ostracized, threatened, and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in. Whatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you. By Greta Christina https://the-orbit.net/greta/2011/06/08/high-school-atheist-ostracized/
Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.
Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.
2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.
3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.
4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.
Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all. And it’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody — not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.
Okay. I hope that’s clear.
So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.. He’s become the center of what he terms a “shitstorm”: he has been harassed, vilified, targeted with insults and name-calling and hateful remarks. He’s been told that he’s the Devil. He’s been told, “Go cry to your mommy… oh, wait. You can’t.” (A reference to him being disowned by his parents.) He’s been told that he’s only doing this to get attention. A student’s public prayer at a pre-graduation “Class Night” event was turned into an opportunity for the school and community to gang up on Fowler and publicly close ranks against him — teachers as well as students. (Here’s video). And people seen defending him have been targeted as well.
As just a taste, here are a few comments on the Bastrop Enterprise news story about the controversy: “I personally see him as a coward.” “I hope they [Christians] put enough pressure on this kid to convert him and save his soul from the fire of hell.” “The kid was likely a recluse and apathetic about most everything until now.” “If he don’t want prayer at graduation he can stay at home and not come to graduation.” “Afterall, that’s what she or he wants isn’t it to be singled out! This just makes me ill.” “I hope that the little athiest is offended.” “What he is really doing is trying to shove his views down people’s throats.” “Why does this student only now decide to get engaged in what is happening at the school? Is it nothing more than our own self-destructive human nature to break down anything of which we may not approve?” “That student should just have to have his/her one man graduation ceremony all alone.” “Satan continues to prowl and is deceiving many in this world.”
2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him. From the story in the Bastrop Enterprise:
Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who “had no problems” with the prayer.
“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”
Throughout her time working with the student, Quinn said they never expressed their personal beliefs or that they had any problems with other students’ Christian faiths.
“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said. (emphasis mine)
In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, therefore they’re in the right. Because nobody’s ever had the courage to speak up about this before, therefore the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it’s not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up… right?) And because Fowler hasn’t “contributed anything” — other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in — therefore his basic legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant… and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.
3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.
4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the porch.
Let’s be very, very clear about this one. At a time when their son was being bullied, threatened, publicly pilloried, and ostracized from his school and his community, his parents joined the party. Their initial response was to hold him in their house against his will, take his cel phone and cut off his contact with the outside world, and even cut him off from contact with his older brother, Jerrett. Their more recent response has been to cut off financial support, kick him out of the house, and throw his belongings onto the porch.
Fortunately, Damon isn’t entirely alone. His brother Jerrett is assisting Damon, and will help put him through college; and as of the last report I’ve seen, Damon is currently living with his sister, also in Texas. And Damon is fortunate enough to have the backing of the atheist community, who are providing encouragement, emotional support, practical assistance, and even a scholarship fund. (UPDATE: The scholarship fund is now closed. Info on where you can make donations is at the end of this piece.)
More on that in a moment.
Since that’s a lot of what this story is really about.
There are a lot of hot-button issues in Damon Fowler’s story. There’s the depressing fact of how common this kind of story is: the fact that, despite the law being unambiguous on the subject, public schools around the country are continuing to sponsor prayers and otherwise promote theocracy, in flagrant violation of the law… apparently in the hopes that nobody will want to make waves and speak out against it. There’s the lack of understanding in the United States about fundamental civics: the all-too-common belief that “majority rules” in every situation, and the all-too-common failure to comprehend the principle that the minority has basic civil rights. There’s the ugly reality of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination across the country — especially in high schools. According to JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, “In Alabama, Auburn High School is refusing to allow an SSA affiliate. In Cranston, Rhode Island, a public school is facing an ACLU suit for refusing to take down a sectarian prayer [a banner posted in the school gym]. In Texas we had a student who was told he could have a secular club if he called it a philosophy club and didn’t affiliate with the SSA. The list of similar situations is a mile long and these are only the ones I’ve become aware of in my first four and a half months on the job. The Fowler incident is much closer to being the norm than the exception.”
There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There’s the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There’s the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself — and how, when that consensus is threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There’s the idea that the unverifiability of religion — the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about — means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere… since there’s no reality check. There’s the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.
And of course — duh — there’s separation of church and state. There’s the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being — oh, what’s that word? — unconstitutional.
All of that is important.
But there’s something else important going on here.
And that’s the way the atheist community has stepped up to the plate.
Damon Fowler was ostracized by his school, his town, even his parents. But he has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it’s been covered on FriendlyAtheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief… the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage. American Atheists said of Fowler, “This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn’t cancelled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!” JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, “Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion.” Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about “his courage in speaking out for his and other students’ rights.”
And it’s not just the atheist thought leaders. It’s the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The “Support Damon” group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler’s position and their opposition to the prayer.
This support isn’t only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course: it’s hugely important, especially when you’re being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship. And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents — and the response has been overwhelming. At the closing of the scholarship fund, the atheist community had donated over $31,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned.
Why am I bringing this up?
One of the chunks of mud that’s most commonly slung at atheists is that we’re selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly… and would just do whatever we wanted to do.
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.
If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do… then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.
A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.
I’m not saying that atheists are morally superior to religious believers. I don’t think that, and I’m not saying it. I’m aware that many religious believers are good, compassionate people with a strong sense of justice. I’m even aware that many religious believers, indeed many Christians, are appalled by what’s happening to Damon Fowler, and oppose it with every breath in their bodies. And I’m aware that many atheists are hostile, self-involved schmucks. (Believe me… I’m aware of that.) That’s not my point.
My point is this: Human beings don’t need God to be good. Human ethics seem to be wired into our brains, through millions of years of evolution as a social species, and every human being who isn’t a sociopath has them. Some of us act on them better than others… but we all have them. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Wiccan — and atheist.
And my point is this: The next time someone tells you that atheists are selfish and amoral? Remember Damon Fowler. Remember the religious community that bullied him, harassed him, ostracized him, and drove him out.
And remember the atheist community that took him in.
If you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:
1: The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100% in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of Constitutional law.
2: As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized, and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called “evil” in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape, and death.
Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here?
Let’s get #1 out of the way first. This court decision — that as a public school in the United States, Cranston High School West cannot promote religion, either any particular religion or the idea of religion in general — is, in any legal sense, entirely non-controversial. In court ruling after court ruling after court ruling, for decades now, this principle has been made eminently clear. There have, of course, been some genuinely controversial court cases recently about separation of church and state, which examined previously untested questions and established new legal precedent. But Jessica Ahlquist’s was not one of them. Not even in the slightest. This was a no-brainer. If the school district’s lawyers didn’t uncategorically advise the district that they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, and fervently plead with them to concede the case before trial, they should be disbarred. (A PDF of the full court ruling, including extensive citation of clear precedent, can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog.)
For anyone who doesn’t understand this ruling or agree with it, let me take a moment to explain. First of all: No, the majority does not always rule. In a Constitutional democracy, people with minority, dissenting, or unpopular opinions and identities have some basic rights, which the majority cannot take away. If the majority thought that everyone had to dye their hair brown, or that all witches should be burned at the stake, the majority would not rule. Redheads have the right to not dye their hair brown; witches have the right to not be burned at the stake. No matter how much in the minority they are.
And the right to not have your government impose a religious belief on you is one of these basic rights. The right to make your own private decisions about religion or the lack thereof, without your government enforcing or promoting a particular view on religion that may or may not be your own, is one of the most central rights that this country was founded on. In fact, it’s the very first right established in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said in his ruling, “When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”
Oh, and no, this case was not about “history” or “tradition.” Many people opposed to this ruling are making a very disingenuous argument: saying that the prayer in question wasn’t really a prayer, that the religious content wasn’t really religious but was simply “history” and “tradition,” and that it therefore shouldn’t be a problem. Bull. When a public school has a banner in its auditorium beginning “OUR HEAVENLY FATHER” and ending “AMEN”… that’s a prayer. The religious fervor with which the banner was defended attests to that. As Judge Lagueux pointed out in his ruling, “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” Furthermore:
The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.
And — very crucially:
The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.
And no, this court ruling didn’t take away anyone’s right to practice their own religion, or to express their religious views, or to pray at their school, or even to organize religious student clubs on their school campus. People in Cranston, Rhode Island are still entirely free to do all these things. The ruling simply said that, as a government institution, Cranston High School West is not allowed to endorse any one of those religious views and practices. It said — as has been said again and again and again by the courts in the United States — that the government, including the public schools, should stay the hell out of the question of religion.
Very importantly, this is a principle that doesn’t just protect atheists. It protects everyone’s right to practice their own religion, or lack thereof, as they choose — regardless of whether that religion is the majority or the minority. As someone in a discussion about this case so eloquently pointed out to Christians screaming “Majority rules!”: If you lived in a small town, and dozens of Muslim families quickly moved in and became the majority, should they have the right to post a prayer to Allah in the public school?
So yeah. To anyone with even the most basic understanding of civics and the Constitution, the court decision in favor of Jessica Ahlquist, ruling that her public high school could not have a banner in the school auditorium offering a prayer to the Christian god, was about as surprising as the fact that millions of people enjoy chocolate and think kittens are cute.
So why are so many people so enraged about it?
Have no doubt — people are enraged. Not just disappointed; not just upset. Enraged. Even before the judge’s decision, Jessica Ahlquist had been ostracized, bullied, and even occasionally threatened over her lawsuit. But when the court ruling came down last week, the climate of harassment and hostility against her escalated out of control, into widespread vilification, venomous bile, and explicit, widespread threats of violence, rape, and death. Including the following:
“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #fuckthatho”
“I want to punch the girl in the face that made west take down the school prayer… #Honestly”
“hail Mary full of grace @jessicaahlquist is gonna get punched in the face”
“Fuck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”
“lol I wanna stick that bitch lol”
“We can make so many jokes about this dumb bitch, but who cares #thatbitchisgointohell and Satan is gonna rape her.”
“Brb ima go drown that atheist in holy water”
“”But for real somebody should jump this girl” lmao let’s do it!”
“shes not human shes garbage”
“wen the atheist dies, they believe they will become a tree, so we shld chop her down, turn her into paper then PRINT THE BIBLE ON HER.”
“May that little, evil athiest teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL!”
“definetly laying it down on this athiest tommorow anyone else?”
“yeah, well i want the immediate removal of all atheists from the school, how about that?”
“If this banner comes down, hell i hope the school burns down with it!”
“U little brainless idiot, hope u will be punished, you have not win sh..t! Stupid little brainless skunk!”
“Nothing bad better happen tomorrow #justsaying #fridaythe13th”
“How does it feel to be the most hated person in RI right now? Your a puke and a disgrace to the human race.”
“I think everyone should just fight this girl”
“I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck #TeamJesus”
“literally that bitch is insane. and the best part is she already transferred schools because shes knows someone will jump her #ahaha”
“Hmm jess is in my bio class, she’s gonna get some shit thrown at her”
“gods going to fuck your ass with that banner you scumbag”
“I found it, what a little bitch lol I wanna snuff her”
“if I wasn’t 18 and wouldn’t go to jail I’d beat the shit out of her idk how she got away with not getting beat up yet”
“nail her to a cross”
“When I take over the world I’m going to do a holocaust to all the atheists”
Even her state representative, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, has gotten into the act. He went onto WPRO talk radio to excoriate the ruling (saying, among other things, “we’re crucifying Jesus again”), and to mock and vilify Ahlquist, calling her a “pawn star” (that’s a 16-year-old girl we’re talking about), a “clapping seal,” and an “evil little thing” (later modified to “coerced by evil people”). (Slight tangent: It’s bad enough when ordinary citizens don’t understand enough Civics 101 to know that this ruling was not only correct but entirely uncontroversial. It’s much worse when this isn’t understood by a State Representative, whose job it is to understand the law, and who took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Palumbo’s phone number, by the way, is (401) 785-2882, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org .)
What the hell is going on here?
Why has an entirely unsurprising court ruling — on a well-established point of law, based on one of the most fundamental rights established by our country’s Constitution, protecting everyone’s right to practice their religion without government pressure or interference — resulted in such grotesque, hateful, violently threatening rage aimed at a 16-year-old girl, simply for having the temerity to ask her public school to obey the law?
Some of it, of course, is Internet culture, and the anonymity that makes people feel comfortable saying horrible, cruel, threatening things they would probably never say in person. Some of it seems to stem from a grossly underfunded public education system, and the widespread piss-poor understanding of Civics 101 that apparently goes along with it. And some of it, of course, is just generic enforcement of conformity, and generic hostility aimed at anyone who steps outside social norms. (A tendency that’s especially prevalent in high school.)
But some of it seems to have to do with the unique nature of religion.
Religion, unlike any other belief system or social structure, is based on a belief in that which cannot be seen, felt, heard, touched, or otherwise detected by any normal or reliable means. It is based on ideas that have no good evidence to support them, and that by definition can’t have good evidence to support them.
And in a frustrating and exasperating paradox, when people hold beliefs we don’t have good evidence for, we have a strong tendency to defend them more vigorously, more vehemently, and in many cases more violently.
This is something Daniel Dennett pointed out in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you see that the sky is blue, and someone else says that it’s orange, you don’t feel a particularly passionate need to defend your position… because it’s freaking obvious that you’re right. You have an easy way of resolving the dispute, and the facts are clearly in your favor. But if you think that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that your faith in his divinity is required for you to get into Heaven — and someone else insists that no, Jesus Christ is not the son of God, there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet — you don’t have any way of resolving that dispute. Neither of you can point to any good evidence showing that one of you is probably right. All you have is your personal feelings and beliefs and wishful thinking, and the teachings of authorities who don’t have anything better to back up their ideas than you do.
So — paradoxically — the less good evidence we have for a belief, and the less defensible it is, the more vigorously we defend it.
And if that indefensible belief is important to us — if it’s a central part of our philosophy, our community’s culture, our consolation in the face of hardship, our deepest personal identity — our defense of it is likely to become even more vigorous. And our need to shut down any contradictory ideas becomes even more vehement. In some cases, to the point of ostracism, bullying, and outright threats of violence.
So when religion is questioned, and the privilege it enjoys is challenged, all too often the answer is, “Shut up.”
That is exactly what the bile and vilification and threats against Ahlquist are. They are not a serious attempt to engage with her on the question of separation of church and state, or even on the question of atheism and religion. They are an attempt to shut her up. They are an attempt to terrify her into silence. And they are an attempt to terrify anyone else into silence who dares to ask questions about religion, to challenge unjust religious privilege, and to insist that the government stay the hell out of their personal religious convictions.
So those of us who care about religious freedom — including the well-established freedom to not have our government impose religious views on us — need to speak out about it. Believers, atheists… everyone. We need to speak out about it. We need to act on it. And we need to support the organizations and the people who are defending it on the front lines, in the face of willfully ignorant and hideously cruel opposition.
“You atheists are just taking on the mantle of victimhood. There are laws protecting you — especially the First Amendment. Therefore, you’re not really discriminated against. And it’s ridiculous for you to claim that you are.”
Atheist activists get this one a lot. When we speak out about ways that anti-atheist bigotry plays out, we’re told that we’re not really oppressed. We’re told that, because we have legal protection, because anti-atheist discrimination is illegal, therefore we don’t really have any problems, and we’re just trying to gain unearned sympathy and win the victim Olympics. (I’d love to hear Bob Costas do the commentary for that!) It’s a classic Catch-22: If we speak out about oppression and point to examples of it, we’re accused of “playing the victim card,” and the oppression becomes invisible. And if we don’t speak out about oppression … then the oppression once again becomes invisible.
If you’ve ever made this “discrimination against atheists is against the law” argument, I have some really bad news for you. You may want to sit down for this, it may come as a shock:
People sometimes break the law.
Theft is against the law — but people sometimes steal. Bribery is against the law — but people sometimes bribe other people. Arson is against the law — but people sometimes set buildings on fire.
Anti-atheist discrimination is against the law; in the United States, anyway. But people still sometimes discriminate against atheists.
It’s illegal for public schools to prevent students from viewing atheist Web sites, while allowing them to look at religious ones. But the San Antonio Independent School District did it anyway.
It’s illegal to make atheists swear religious oaths when they testify in court. But the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers did it anyway.
It’s illegal for businesses to give church-goers discounts they don’t give to non-believers. But the Fisherman’s Quarters II restaurant in Asheville, N.C. did it anyway.
It’s illegal to deny atheist organizations the right to advertise in venues where religious groups advertise regularly. But when American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society tried to place a bus ad in Pennsylvania that simply had the word, “atheists,” with the names and URLs of the organizations in smaller type, the transit system rejected the ad because it was “too controversial.”
And then tell me — or any other atheist — that we don’t experience discrimination.
Getting anti-discrimination laws and court rulings is hugely important for any marginalized group. But it’s only a first step. After that, you typically have to play a decades-long game of Whack-A-Mole, in which violations of the law pop up in local venues all over the country, and have to be smacked down again, and again, and again. That’s true of sex discrimination, racial discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination in states where that’s illegal. To give just one example among zillions: It’s illegal for banks to discriminate in lending practices on the basis of race… and yet Wells Fargo just settled a $175 million lawsuit over charging higher fees and rates on housing loans to racial minorities. Not in 1946, not in 1969 — in the last decade, in the years 2004 to 2009. It’s illegal to do that. It’s been illegal to do that for decades. They did it anyway. The mere existence of anti-discrimination laws is no guarantee that those laws will be obeyed.
So yes. Anti-atheist discrimination is illegal in the United States — and it happens anyway. I know. I haz a sad. And I’m going to have to hit you with even more bad news:
Standing up for your legal rights sometimes has ugly consequences.
Ask Jessica Ahlquist. High school student and atheist Jessica Ahlquist fought a legal battle she never should have had to fight: the battle to get her public, taxpayer-paid high school to take down a prayer banner from the auditorium. From a purely legal perspective, this was an utterly non-controversial issue: decades of legal precedent clearly supported her position, and to anyone familiar with the law, the ruling in her favor was almost entirely unsurprising.
But as a result of filing this lawsuit, Ahlquist was bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence. She was called “evil” in public by her state representative, and was targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape and death. And this wasn’t just from hateful strangers trolling on the Internet — it came from her own schoolmates and her own community. This wasn’t in the Bible Belt — it was in Rhode Island.
And Ahlquist is hardly alone. When atheist student Damon Fowler tried to stop his public high school from having an illegal prayer at his graduation, he was physically threatened, publicly demeaned by one of his teachers, pilloried and ostracized by his community, and kicked out of his home by his parents. When atheist student Skyler Curtis tried to publicize his group at his high school, his posters were torn down, the local newspaper ran a letter from a parent calling his atheism an “atrocity,” and he received threats of violence. When atheist John Kieffer protested prayers at his local school board meeting, he was arrested.
Not everyone is able to fight these fights. Not everyone is able to risk hateful ostracism and violent threats from their community. It’s hard enough for a 16-year-old high school student like Jessica Ahlquist to face down this kind of venomous hostility. It’s even harder when you’re trying to hold down a job and support your family, and you literally can’t afford to alienate your bosses and co-workers and customers. Yes, the law is mostly on our side, and atheists and church-state separation advocates generally win these lawsuits. (Although not always — more on that in a tic.) But it doesn’t do much good to have the law on your side if fighting a legal battle is going to destroy your life.
And I have yet another piece of shocking news for you. I know, the terrible news just keeps on coming:
Sometimes laws aren’t enforced.
To give just one appalling example: It is — or it should be — illegal to deny custody to atheist parents, purely and explicitly on the basis of their atheism. And yet this happens, again and again and again. It has happened in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. According to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.’”
Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to parents, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because she’s an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens.
It is illegal. Or it should be. But custody laws vary greatly from state to state — and family court is something of a special case, where judges have far more leeway than they do in other courts. So this is a very, very difficult legal battle to fight. The laws against it exist — but they are very difficult to enforce.
And finally, I have one last piece of earth-shattering news that will almost certainly shake your worldview to its foundations:
Not all bigotry is illegal.
The fact that atheists are the least-trusted group in America? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that atheists are the minority group Americans least want their children to marry? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans think atheists could share their vision of society? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president — a lower number than any other group? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. People have the legal right to not vote for an atheist… just like they have the legal right to not vote for a woman, or an African American, or a Muslim, or a Jew. It’s still discrimination. It’s still screwed-up.
And it’s still worth fighting.
Plus, of course, all of this is just in the United States, where we do have a Constitution that ostensibly gives us the legal right to not be religious. In much of the world, the situation for atheists is far worse. In much of the world, it is literally against the law to be an atheist, and to say so, and to say anything critical of religion. To give just one example of many: In Indonesia, atheist Alexander Aanwas beaten by a mob, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to over two years in prison — for stating his atheism on Facebook. (There is currently a petition to the White House, asking President Obama to speak out about the Alexander Aan case and call on the Indonesian government to correct this gross violation of human rights.)
Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No. Almost certainly not. Not in the U.S., anyway. It’s worse in some ways — we consistently show up in polls as the least trusted group in America, and the least likely to be voted for — but atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people, or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color.
That’s not the point. Here is the point.
If you were mugged, nobody would tell you, “Quit whining — there are laws against mugging, you have legal protection, you don’t have anything to complain about.” The fact that there are laws against mugging did not stop you from getting mugged. It is reasonable for you to say something about it, and to express distress that it happened. And if muggings are happening a lot in your town or your country, it is reasonable to ask your community to pay attention, and to do something about it.
Atheists are getting mugged. Atheists are experiencing real, law-breaking discrimination. The fact that it’s illegal does not always stop it from happening. It is reasonable for us to speak out about it. And it is reasonable for us to expect people to give a damn. It is reasonable to expect our friends, our families, our colleagues, our communities, our country, to pay attention — and to do something about it.
A secular blogger has been hacked to death in north-east Bangladesh, the third such deadly attack this year.
Police said Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered as he headed to work at a bank in the city of Sylhet, an attack that fellow writers said highlighted a culture of impunity.
Kamrul Hasan, commissioner of Sylhet police, said a group of about four masked attackers pounced on Das with machetes at about 8.30am on Tuesday on a busy street in Bangladesh’s fifth-largest city.
“They chased him down the street and first attacked his head with their machetes and then attacked him all over his body,” Hasan told Agence France-Presse. The attackers fled into the crowds and Das was taken to hospital but declared dead on arrival, police and medics said.
Hasan would not be drawn on the motive for the attack but fellow writers said Das had been on a hitlist drawn up by militants who were behind the recent killing of a blogger who was a US citizen.
Sarker told the Guardian: “They [the government] should not stay in power, if they are not able to bring the perpetrators to justice. One after another incident is happening and they are not able to do anything.”
Debasish Debu, a friend of Das, said the 33-year-old banker was also an editor of a quarterly magazine called Jukti (Logic) and headed the Sylhet-based science and rationalist council.
Debu said Das had been receiving threats for his writing and that their frequency increased after the killing of Roy. “He had written about superstitions, but he wasn’t among the writers that would hurt the sentiments of religion,” Debu said.
According to the Mukto-Mona site, Das won the publication’s annual rationalist award in 2006 for his “deep and courageous interest in spreading secular and humanist ideals and messages”.
While most of Das’s output for Mukto-Mona focused on science and evolution, he wrote a number of blogs that criticised some aspects of Islam and also of Hinduism. He also wrote a poem eulogising the famed Bangladeshi secular writer Taslima Nasreen, who fled to Europe in 1994 after protests by Islamists.
In comments on Facebook posted early on Tuesday, Das criticised the local member of parliament from the ruling Awami League party for criticising one of the country’s top secular and science fiction writers.
His murder comes a week after al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for Roy’s killing on 26 February in which his wife was badly injured. An Islamist has been arrested over his murder. Another atheist blogger, Washiqur Rahman, was hacked to death in Dhaka in March. Two madrassa students have been arrested over that attack.
Bangladesh is an officially secular country but more than 90% of its 160 million population are Muslims. There has been an increase in attacks by religious extremists in recent years. Supporters of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, which is banned from standing in elections, have been accused of being behind a spate of firebombings this year aimed at toppling the government.
Since 2013, at least five bloggers have been attacked by Islamists after another hardline group, Hefazat-e-Islam, publicly sought the execution of atheists who organised mass protests against the rise of political Islam.
Hefazat, led by Islamic seminary teachers, also staged a massive counter-protest against the bloggers in May 2013 that unleashed violence and left nearly 50 people dead.
The single-room apartment in which Goswami and his family, including his wife Juthi and their 16-month-old son Adrij, currently reside is still mostly empty.
There’s hardly any furniture in the flat; only a few suitcases at a corner, a mattress on the floor, some toys and a laptop can be found in it. The family has been living in this tiny apartment in the western German city of Aachen for the past several months.
They were forced to flee Bangladesh last year as a result of increased threats from Islamists as well as government officials. Goswami found himself in their crosshairs due to his criticism of religious radicalism and advocacy for protection of minority rights.
The 29-year-old has been blogging since 2008, focusing initially on writing short stories and poems on “somewhereinblog.net,” the South Asian country’s largest community blog platform.
Gradually, the topics he wrote about shifted to more sensitive subjects, putting him on the radar of Islamists.
After becoming an atheist a few years ago, he began criticizing religious radicalism on the internet. His blog posts on contentious issues have been read by many Bangladeshis. Even though he used pseudonyms to publish his articles, extremists managed to discover his real identity and even government officials started monitoring his online activities.
“The authorities never summoned me, but I found some of them on my Facebook and Twitter followers’ lists. I was warned several times to think about what I write online.”
Threats on Facebook
It was in 2013 when Goswami started receiving threats on his life from religious extremists.
The enormous power wielded by bloggers in the Muslim-majority country became evident that year as thousands of ordinary citizens poured on to the streets of the capital Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for the Islamist leaders who were involved in war crimes during the country’s War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971.
Some bloggers organized the protests via a Facebook event. Islamists were alarmed, and countered the protests by leveling blasphemy allegations against some atheist bloggers.
Atheism has long been seen as a crime in Bangladesh’s conservative Islamic society. Self-proclaimed atheist bloggers like Goswami thus became a target of attacks by radicals.
At first, Goswami didn’t take the threats seriously. But when Avijit Roy, a famous Bangladeshi-American blogger, was hacked to death in February 2015, Goswami began to worry. Shortly after Roy’s murder, Goswami noticed a surge in web traffic to his blog posts. Petrified, he pulled down his blog from the internet. Yet, he got a message on Facebook: “You may think that we might have forgotten you just because you took your website off the internet. But no, we will remember you and your time will come.”
The frightened blogger turned to the police for help. “But they told me to leave the country as they couldn’t give me protection,” he told DW.
Despite the growing insecurity, Goswami remained in Dhaka, even though he reduced his regular outdoor activities. By the summer of 2015, three other secular bloggers had been killed, including Niloy Neel, a friend of Goswami.
The murders heightened the anxiety of Goswami, who was spending many sleepless nights. His wife was also worried about their increasingly precarious state. The two were also concerned about the future of their three-year-old son.
In April 2016, the risk to Goswami’s life became so great that he decided to leave his country. With the help of an international organization, he first flew to Nepal, a country where a number of Bangladeshi bloggers sought temporary shelter after the series of ghastly blogger murders.
Goswami thought that his wife and son would be safe without him in Dhaka. But he was wrong.
“When I was in Nepal, I received threatening emails and Facebook posts saying that my family would be attacked as I was not in the country. My family is the most important thing for me,” Goswami said.
The blogger later contacted the German embassy in Dhaka, which issued him a visa at the end of September 2016. He then arrived in Germany on October 9. Three months later, his wife and child followed, and the family reunited in Aachen.
Goswami is lucky – Three international organizations supported him in bringing his family to Germany.
“Leaving my country was not an easy decision. Everyone loves their country,” he said. “But the influence of extremists and militants has become so high in Bangladesh that ordinary citizens think it’s no longer safe to practice freedom of expression.“
Forget everything – at least for a moment
Arnab Goswami showed us his blog and Facebook page while sitting on the mattress in his living room in Aachen. His blog was hacked just a few days ago.
He said he doesn’t know who the culprit was, but suspects that it could be a professional hacker. When his son crawled into the room, Arnab shined. He cuddled with him, made him laugh. At that moment, he seemed to have forgotten all his worries. When his wife took the child to the kitchen, his face once again turned serious.
“My family has been going through a tough time, maybe I’m safe here, but my future is still uncertain. The fact that I have been suffering for my writing hurts me,” he said.
The couple also misses their parents, whom they left behind in Bangladesh.
But Goswami stresses that he does not regret his writing. “It was not possible for me to stop writing in exchange for a secure life in Bangladesh.”
A gloomy situation
“Of course, it’s alarming to see that liberal writers have been killed for writing blogs, but shall we stop expressing our opinion to save our lives?” The answer to this question, he said, is a clear no.
“Someone has to come forward to write on those issues. Otherwise, our country will enter into a dark age,” he warned.
Goswami criticizes Bangladesh’s government for not doing enough to protect secular voices. “It’s clear that they have been supporting Islamists to stay in power,” he underlined. “If they continue doing so, Islamic Shariah laws will be introduced at some point. We don’t want that. That’s why we have to continue writing, even though there’s a risk of being killed.”
Goswami’s wife Juthi backs her husband. “I support my husband’s scripts. Sometimes he discusses a topic with me before writing on it as a blog. Nothing is perfect in our life. No religion is perfect. No society is perfect. Some problems are there. And It’s important to write about those problems,” she stressed.
When Goswami is busy updating his blog site, 27-year-old Juthi takes care of their son and does the household activities. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and wants to learn the German language to explore job opportunities in Germany. But their future in the European country remains uncertain.
Aachen – and then?
Arnab Goswami’s immigration lawyer, Volker Simon, has been supporting the family since February. In the meantime, the three family members have received a residence permit that expires at the end of 2017.
Simon wants to submit an application for asylum and he is optimistic regarding the family’s chances – even if Bangladesh is not considered a priority country by the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). According to BAMF statistics obtained by DW, there were 2,657 asylum applications from Bangladeshi nationals received in Germany in 2016.
The quota for accepted Bangladeshi asylum seekers during this time was 10.9 percent. This includes the number of accepted asylum applications, protection from deportation and granting of refugee status.
Help from the embassy
Arnab Goswami’s case for asylum is a special circumstance. “I see good chances for a successful asylum application,” said Simon. “The German Embassy in Dhaka has emphasized that as a critic of religion, a free thinker and a blogger, Goswami is in considerable danger in his country of origin. A few of his colleagues have already been murdered.”
A tragic incident involving another Bangladeshi blogger adds to the legitimacy of Goswami’s case.
“This person applied for asylum at the Swedish embassy and in the time it took to process the application he was shot in the streets,” said Simon. At the time, this helped give Goswami a reason to get out of the country quickly. Now, his future in Germany remains uncertain.