Are Religious People Victims?

This is a guest post by Tony Lakey. Tony is a queer atheist, a social justice and interfaith activist, and an alleged Faitheist. A contributor to Columbia Faith and Values, he studied Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Missouri – Columbia, where he also ran a secular student group. He tweets at @tonylakey.

Last week, American Atheists posted an image with a quote from Dave Silverman:

“I had thought when I was younger that I was right and theists were just wrong. Then I thought that I was right and they were just stupid. Finally, I realized that I was right, and theists were just victims”

Wow, that quote has clearly got some issues. Like, for starters, they don’t really think ALL religious people are victims, right? American Atheists’ PR director, Dave Muscato, was quick to inform me that he agreed, it is clearly not the case that all religious believers are victims. That’s a relief…until you read the rest of his response:

“Some of them are in on the scam and continue calling themselves religious for money or power or because they want to fit in. So yeah, not only victims. Liars, and victims. Not much better though.”

Yeah, that’s definitely not okay either. You can be religious without being the victim or a scam artist. Why is the truth about the existence of a deity so important to you (something Muscato was sure to emphasize, in no uncertain terms) but the truth that “one need not be either a victim or a liar in order to be religious” irrelevant? Just because someone holds a metaphysical belief you think is false, does not make them a victim. If that is a stance you actually hold, would you not also be a victim for any false belief you happen to hold?

I think it’s pretty clear that would have to be the case with such a broad definition, and fortunately Muscato agrees and modifies his claim. Instead, you are no longer necessarily a victim if you are religious, but you are DEFINITELY indoctrinated because, “Religions are specific systems with specific sets of beliefs. You don’t come to those on your own. You have to be taught them. It would truly be a miracle of [sic] someone raised in isolation who had never heard of Jesus came to the conclusion entirely independently that a dude named Jesus was part of something called a trinity etc. That only comes from other people = indoctrination.”

Ignoring, for a moment, that isn’t what religion is, it seems like indoctrination is being defined as ideas that can only be taught by other people. Which, from the way Muscato described it, would also apply to most of human knowledge and anything taught. But fear not, readers, for as soon as this mistake was realized, the goalposts were moved again the definition was amended, because obviously, indoctrination and teaching cannot be the same thing.

“…the difference between [indoctrination and teaching], is that teaching means or implies the information you’re passing along is demonstrably true and indoctrination means that you are using psychological tricks to manipulate someone into believing something false…”

So true things are taught, and false things are indoctrinated? For anyone curious, most definitions of indoctrination do not rely on the truth value of what is being taught, but on whether or not one is allowed to question or critically examine the content of a teaching. So really, all indoctrination is teaching. Not necessarily ethical teaching, but certainly teaching. But if for the sake of argument, we go with Muscato’s definition, then I guess I was indoctrinated into believing that Pluto was a planet. And if this were true, Neil deGrasse Tyson would have been complicit with this indoctrination until 2006. In that case, American Atheists should be expected to go after NDT and planetary science educators behind the whole “Pluto is a planet” sham with the same fervor and vitriol as they do the religious . . . or just stop painting all religion with such a broad brush. But honestly those are both about equally unlikely.

Unfortunately that was the last of the thread I was able to see before it was deleted, so we may never know where American Atheists stands on Pluto’s planetary status indoctrination.

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. Dave Muscato seems to be on a mission to paint American Atheists in the least flattering light possible via his social media interactions. He seems to be constantly spouting off on subjects from a place of ignorance, without acknowledging his ignorance, and then deleting posts when he gets pushback about it.

    Kind of an odd mission for a PR guy to have.

    1. So true. He seems to be operating under a “all publicity is good publicity” model.

      1. What I don’t understand is his persistent interest in a.) discussing social justice issues while still b.) maintaining his ignorance about social justice issues while meanwhile c.) proclaiming that social justice issues are “mission creep” for American Atheists.

        If it’s mission creep, and you’re an official, professional representative of American Atheists, why not just, you know… not talk about it? At least, not in public. Maybe discuss it with your friends in private or semi-private settings. But don’t open up totally public discussions on those subjects.

        He actually blocked me for suggesting that he might want to keep those types of conversations among his friends instead of having them with the general public.

        1. That’s not why I blocked you, but I don’t want to derail. I only mention it because I don’t want people operating off of incorrect assumptions. Thanks.

          1. How fucking brave and intellectually honest of you. Stop speaking for atheists. You’re a god damn embarrassment.

  2. Whether Pluto is a planet or not is not a scientific fact. It is a matter of definition, i.e. a social construct.

    Lakey says that the difference between teaching and indoctrination is whether or not the student is allowed question or critically examine the content of the teaching. I think that is a good operational definition of the difference, but it is also the essence of skepticism that questioning and critical thinking (along with observation and experimentation) lead to determining the truth of the claim being taught. Indoctrinators may not care about the truth value of their claims, but teachers definitely should.

    But people can believe false or unproven ideas for many reasons other than indoctrination or because they are perpetrating a scam. Both Muscato and Lakey are wrong, but I think due to Lakey’s failure to appreciate skepticism, he is more wrong. Muscato was at least willing to modify his stance on further thinking (although he still has a long way to go, and a great many other possibilities to eliminate) and that’s a virtue, not a fault, as Lakey seems to think.

    1. Why does Muscato deserve credit for backing up from offering a definition of “indoctrination” that was initially factually inaccurate? It’s not like it’s controversial; you can look up “indoctrination” in any number of dictionaries and that’s what you’ll find. Muscato was wrong and got corrected. Congratulations on not stubbornly insisting on being wrong, I guess?

      And I’m not sure how you interpret this as Lakey being insufficiently appreciative of skepticism.

      1. That wasn’t what I was giving him credit for. The half-point (on a scale of 1 to 100, if you insist) was for admitting the initial premise, that all religious believers are victims, was wrong. However, looking back at the post, it was Silverman’s original assertion, and it’s not clear whether Muscato ever supported it. If he didn’t actually change his mind in response to reason or more information, then I take back the 1/2 point.

        I didn’t give any points to Lakey because he just asserted that Muscato was wrong without providing any evidence. All he really needed was one example, or just a reference to some. A lot easier than showing all religious believers are either vics or perps. In the (Twitter? Facebook?) exchange, Lakey points to another comment that not all religions “don’t consider other beliefs” in their religious teachings, thus not constituting indoctrination. (There’s a triple or quadrupole negative buried in there somewhere.) An example would have nailed it.

        I also don’t see anywhere where Muscoto claims or implies that he does’t care if Silverman’s or his modified claim is true or not; he just blithely asserts that it is.

        None of this addresses the arrogance and assholery of the original statement, not to mention that the last thing we need is for more RWRNJ’s to go around saying “see, we’re the true victims here, the atheists even admit it.”

        1. Yeah, definitely don’t need to provide examples of religious people that aren’t victims because there is no reason to accept the idea that someone is a victim just because they believe something you think is false. Although, if I did need to provide even a single example of someone that believes in a deity and is neither a victim for it nor a liar about it, I could probably just grab the closest religious person and show them to you.

          Additionally for many people religious belief is very personal and does not align perfectly with a given doctrine, couple that with the fact that some of these people are leaders of religious communities and it follows that there are religious people that don’t indoctrinate others.

          Again there was no reason for me to feel the need to provide evidence as this as it ought to be fairly obvious. Much as if I said there are people that enjoy eating celery and then you said “PROVE IT, PROVIDE ME A SINGLE EXAMPLE! Otherwise you are just asserting things that could be false”. Like yeah, dude, sure, it *could* be false. But there is no compelling reason to believe that it would be, other than it would make the lives of those working for American Atheists easier.

  3. The question is why is an accommodationist (faitheist? is that what their calling themselves now?) worrying about how other atheists are presenting themselves? Oh, that’s right, that’s what they do.

    It has been pointed out many times before that there is no unifying belief system behind atheism, there is only a lack of belief. That Dave Silverman or Dave Muscato or any other atheist for that matter has an ignorant view of believers harms who exactly? American Atheists perhaps? OK, but their reputation is hardly sterling to begin with given recent attempts to cozy up with the right wing (which was already covered here) , their laughable attempt to “celebrate” Cinco de Mayo, and the general abrasiveness (and awful graphic design) of their sometimes tone-deaf billboards.

    The point is, why is that any skin off Tony Lakey’s back? Are you saying Tony, that atheists need to have a unified message least they “hurt the movement”? And if so how so? If their viewpoint is ignorant (and I believe you are right in saying it is) and you point it out and they refuse to see what you are saying then you have done your due diligence at which point harping on it does little more than make you look like the scold. Don’t give your money to AA and find someone who wants to listen to your message, we’ve had more than enough criticism of the tone of the arguments coming from the gnu atheists and we really don’t need to go there again.

    I commend you for trying, I really do, but I caution you not to take another run at that particular brick wall without head protection.

    1. Fair or not, you will be judged by others similar to you. I have seen little shyness in the atheist community about condemning a religious person for the beliefs of another religious person. I have seen little shyness in religious communities condemning their own members for being jerks. Therefore, I understand why he cares how other atheists are presenting themselves.

      1. I get that, and the criticism is fine and fair. But I bristle at atheists telling each other how they “must” act for the good of the movement (I don’t feel this goes that far yet, hence my caution in the last sentence) from either side. He registered his disagreement and it was met with near indifference, at this point finding a more receptive target would probably be best.

        Banging on against an unreceptive target, unless they are doing real harm, does neither yourself or the target any good just as beating your head against the wall will likely hurt your head yet leave the wall standing. And I don’t think that “making atheists look bad” is real harm in the broadest sense, I don’t think one misstep on this side or that side makes the whole ideal invalid. But yeah, I do see why he cares how others are perceived, I just feel that repeating the already rejected criticism becomes a tone argument. If he wishes to continue I won’t stop him, I just felt a friendly word of warning was justified.

    2. It don’t think it is a stretch to view American Atheists actions as causing harm. Further “othering” of all religious people can make atheists less willing to work with religious people. Those unaware of the dynamics between American Atheists and atheists, themselves, likely view their public posts as representative of all atheists. Both of these make it more difficult to cooperate on common goals.

      What’s more, if everyone just refrains from voicing their discontent with American Atheists message, how will they know that atheists that they would otherwise agree with, and claim to represent, have an issue with their approach. How can we expect them to change for the better if we don’t tell them we think what they are doing is wrong?

      Now I’m not saying anyone has an obligation to voice displeasure. But certainly being displeased and wanting their actions to change ought to be acceptable justification for choosing to say something.

      1. I agree, giving them advice is critical to them changing things you want them to change. Now that you’ve given your advice and been told basically “thanks, but we don’t agree” (without the thanks perhaps) what next? That was my point, repeating your advice (or criticism, which I agree with) only becomes telling others how to conduct their atheism. It is unlikely to work and makes you look like the scold.

        Your point about othering religious people would be true if atheists only looked to AA for guidance, there may be a few that would see AA as their only source for information on what theists think and why they believe, but I seriously doubt that it is a significant number and it would be mitigated by actually knowing a theist or two. Atheists are not monolith and AA is not nearly big enough to be the sole voice of atheism to atheists or to the general public, in fact I would say high-profile atheists like Dawkins, Gervaise, or Penn Jillette are more likely to sway opinion on either side and I find their attitudes toward theist to be far more disturbing then AA’s.

        So, yes you gave your two cents on this and I let them know they will never get my money until they stop courting abortionists and we are now at a point where further pressure does little good. I personally will be backing organizations that I feel do a better job and will let AA go about their business sans my support. That’s all, I wish you well.

  4. I’m uncomfortable with this idea that all religious people should be viewed as victims from another perspective. The concept reminds me of radical feminism and its attitudes towards trans people, sex workers, and particularly just any woman who doesn’t agree with radical feminism… they’re all supposedly victims who are operating under “false consciousness”; incapable of thinking for themselves, incapable of understanding their own values or their own interest and just basically too brainwashed to understand the basic concept that radical feminists are right about everything. It’s just, you know, a little too convenient… and also kinda dehumanizing if you think about it.

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