Identity politics in the United States is a testament to the human ability for self-blindness. Essentially the practice of identity politics boils down to “a particular social identity is considered good in itself” and then combined with “all actions therefore by true adherents of that very social identity are inherently good and right.” There are two central points to consider here: 1) actions themselves are not judged by merits but the association with a social identity and 2) by deeming only the actions of “true” adherents sacrosanct then anything contrary is removed from criticism and sets up an ideological aristocracy. In other words, those in power, whatever form that may be, get to occlude themselves from any critical analysis of their actions or the legitimacy of their ideological stance. This is not only anti-democratic, it is contrary to the pursuit of knowledge through skeptical inquiry that lies at the heart of science, and sets up the nastiest form of tribalism that such can manifest.
With knowledge, facts and even the type of questions to be asked circumscribed by social identity, there are few behavioral possibilities when dealing with external criticism. The first is a self-proclaimed elitism, where by virtue of being a “true” believer one has access to a set of information or source of knowledge that others simply don’t. This is a favorite of fundamentalist religious believers and of presuppositional apologists in particular. Unfortunately such a tactic is also becoming prevalent in the political playground. Accepting that they can’t actually prove their opinions to anyone, they resort to a metaphysical reality that is completely self-referential. In other words, anybody inside the box knows what they know is true and anybody outside the box will simply never understand. The metaphor is particularly apt considering the blinders that must be constantly kept in place and the isolation that results. The apologist ignores the inherently shared reality required to even have a conversation, and the political demagogue, with false humility in full splendor, will declare “I’m not a scientist, but…”
The second tactic is some form of ad hominem where the goal is to dismiss the critical party. This can take the form of name-calling, but often it’s about selecting an otherwise benign feature and using it to create a self-defeating caricature. The white establishment looks at black behavior as “aggressive” even though similar behavior by whites would be considered “passionate.” Males have long considered particular female behavior as “emotional” when in any other situation it would be considered as “speaking their mind.” When it comes to the religious majority, the attempt is made to declare atheists as being simply “angry” when often such behavior in another situation would simply be referred to as “critical or questioning.” The examples here are chosen because they center around “anger,” since when any actions of similar form are taken by those in power, such is no longer considered a detriment but a testimonial to the strength and righteousness of their cause.
Dismissing critics is more than simply removing people from consideration in public discourse, it is to remove even the words themselves. We live in a country where the strength of one’s opinion is not based on the quality of rational appraisal given to it, nor the honesty with which criticism is dealt with, but whether there’s a suitably large enough gathering of supporters to buttress the opinion against the encroachment of contrary ideas. We no longer live in a marketplace of ideas, we live in a militarized zone of barbed-wire fences demarcating who can go where depending on uttering the right catch-phrases and the extent of commitment to mindless status-quo mediocrity. What this does is stop bad ideas from fading away into the dark night of mental oblivion, fit only for the worst of cranks and conspiracy theorists. That such bad ideas are often at the heart of destruction, both personal and global, only makes the dismissal and the attached criticism that much worse.
A 2008 survey found that 95% of U.S. people believe in a god. Further research has noted that those who attend religious services weekly or more and believe that religion is very important, are predominantly conservative. This fact points to why despite a scientific consensus to the contrary, the vast majority of conservative political adherents either don’t believe the earth is warming or that human behavior has nothing to do with it. Such a denial of scientific understanding makes sense when faced with another scientific consensus, that of the accuracy of evolutionary theory, where 69% of those who attend church weekly believe their God created people in the present form. The connection between the denial of evolution and the denial of climate change is truly remarkable and makes a circular form of rationality; if the earth is only a few thousand years old and your God is in complete control of all of creation, then not only can the earth not be warming due to human actions but we have nothing to worry about. Since more than 100 million people live within three feet of sea-level, the extent to which rising oceans will cause destruction and displacement is catastrophic. Dismissal then is more than removal of inclusion in public discourse, it is a complete disregard for the very real problems faced by the marginalized.
If the effects of belief remained at the global level, we might have a way of working within the masses to effect change by informed debate and gathering more information. Unfortunately, the global level of effect is predicated on an inability to note the damage caused at the individual and social levels. Vast numbers of minorities, from women and children to atheists and anybody else who doesn’t conform to the self-proclaimed moral imperatives of religious conservatives, have been and continue to be abused, maligned and their struggles dismissed as mere examples of “not being right with God.” Recent research on the caricature of the “angry atheist” note many studies showing atheists to be generally considered lacking in morality, disapproved of if selected as a spouse, unsupported if running for president and denied medical treatment. The research noted that the higher one’s stated belief in god, the greater the perception that atheists are angry. Further, when looking at traits associated with anger, atheists in no way demonstrated that they were angrier than anyone else, in fact often less so.
The authors note that such stereotypes are detrimental, as “research has shown that perceiving other people as angry can make us hostile and set the stage for conflicts that need not happen (Berkowitz, 2012; Orobio de Castro et al., 2002).” Also, “Stereotypes are detrimental to stigmatized groups because they create expectations about how people should treat out-group individuals (Bahns&Branscombe, 2010).” This is the worst of tribalism. We cannot help ourselves from identifying with groups and logically then there must exist in-group and out-group individuals. Such does not necessitate the mischaracterization of out-groups. What caricaturing the out-group does is take the natural proclivity of tribalism and move it into the support of bigotry. People are no longer looked at by their own character, but through the projected discriminatory constrictions of the powerful.
Let’s look again at how incredibly poor the myth of the angry atheist is. Remarkably, given the clear discrimination, deliberate mischaracterization and perception of mistreatment, atheists are not in fact angrier than other groups. An old piece of wisdom cautioned that prior to judgment, one should attempt walking in the shoes of the other. Consider then the situation from the atheist viewpoint. For those atheists who were raised religious, the change in ideology leads to the recognition that they were raised under a lie and the actions of their parents and caregivers were such not for their benefit but for the appeasement of an imagined deity. Further, as they were raised as such instead of offered the chance to think for themselves, the very notion of free choice was withheld from them, leading to the simple conclusion that those who raised them cared less about their individual development than the continued devotion to parental authority structure. Now consider those atheists who were not raised religious, placed in a world in which the vast majority disagree in some form about a fundamental aspect of reality, the result of which is then to be looked at as inherently immoral and lacking in benefit for engagement in matrimony. Then consider the many uses religious ideology has been put to for denying global problems, supporting abusive punishment, vilifying a particular gender, demonizing one’s sexuality, and banishing from social discussion any form of legitimate criticism. This is but a short list, though considering the far-reaching consequences it truly becomes monumental that the myth of the angry atheist is just that, a myth. Seen from their perspective, they have every right to scream retribution from the top of every mountain.
Why the myth then? Stepping back to a point above, note that false projections of anger are utilized by those in some form of power to dismiss and disregard the existence and criticism of those deemed beneath them. This allows their actions to continue without any degree of need for introspection. Given the self-referential reality that is pervasive, placing all critics outside the box of the in-group and cut off from access to the “true revelation,” declarations of anger amount to little more than patronizing paternalism. Faced with empty and demeaning platitudes of various racist, misogynistic, discriminatory forms of “believe in order to know” (in other words, agree with me and you’ll then see that I’m right), the atheist and other minorities find themselves looking at a world that does not in fact consider them worthy of belonging. Remember, “Persecution on one hand can be a debilitating experience when felt in conjunction with not having any support. However, persecution, or at least the feeling of it, can be rather beneficial when one feels supported by a community. This is exacerbated more so by the human tendency to hold even more tightly to one’s beliefs when feeling attacked.” If those in power can continue to paint any opposition as childish and cement their mischaracterization within the echo chamber of their own groups, there exists no reason to ever doubt their self-righteousness.
© David Teachout