Ever experienced being told that you’re crazy because one of your relatives is? Or having your family name associated with that crazy relative’s craziness as if one relative’s actions represented the collective character of the family?
What about being profiled as a mugger, a lazy worker, or a parasitic immigrant because you’re the same colour or eye shape as that mugger, lazy worker, or parasitic immigrant from the other side of town?
That’s how it feels when anti-theists throw around the word ‘religion’ when they mean a specific religion (often, Christianity or Islam) or a specific strain of religion within that specific religion (like Evangelical Protestants or Wahhabists).
Easier to do, but not smarter. It’s truly offensive, too.
Religion is such an old, vast, and diverse thing to ever compress into one definition or characteristic. This isn’t an ideal — this is thousands of years of actual history. Which is why it seems extremely racist (to borrow the term with good reason) to group a good chunk of the world’s population into one basket, as if they were all the same.
And that’s really how a lot of anti-theists seem to see the religious in their repetitive, impassioned memes: that religious people are a monolith; a cohesive group of delusional, backward bigots holding the world back from science, reason, and progress.
But on what basis?
There’s also the matter of shrugging off the decline of ancient religions as if it were a matter of “progress”.
This Halloween, Hemant Mehta, an otherwise Friendly Atheist, yet again, praised the annual anti-theistic stunt of UW-Madison’s atheist group on his blog:
As they do every year, the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison put together a fantastic “Graveyard of the Gods,” reminding students of all the deities who were worshiped, believed in, and eventually forgotten.
The purpose is to get students thinking about when their God will join the ranks of the dead.
“Fantastic”? But this isn’t a matter of critical enquiry, at all. It’s not that it bothers me what these kids believe about the old gods. It’s because the graveyard, essentially, is an endorsement of cultural genocide, no different from building a monument to Christopher Columbus.
Basically, how this sounds like is, “These cultures are dead and you’re next”. But since these cultures didn’t die of “natural causes” or “old age”, this isn’t a reminder of mortality — it’s a threat. We know from history that most of those religions “died” and their gods “forgotten” because of coercion, not for simply falling out of favour.
Now, I understand how they want to “help” monotheists see how ridiculous it is to question other religions but not theirs. I think that’s important. However, this graveyard stunt (and others like it) comes off as historically and culturally uninformed. There are countless accounts of pagan peoples fighting for their right to exist in an increasingly pagan-hostile society, ultimately losing because the enemy had more money for a bigger army. In some places, it still happens.
Imagine future generations, talking about how there are no more Jews because their ancestors simply saw their culture useless and assimilated happily into the Reich. Or how Native American culture is vanishing because everybody decided it was so much better to join the White Man.
This kind of thinking doesn’t question monotheism’s absolutist claims as effectively as it could and should because these anti-theist attacks are still Eurocentric–still monoculture-centric. By using the same absolutist language the Wahhabists and Evangelicals use, power remains with the powerful. Putting up this sort of graveyard only adds insult to injury and only supports the same hegemony we’ve all been trying to defeat.
Polytheist, Lily A. Connor, laments on her Facebook:
[…] blanket antitheist rhetoric – deities are “imaginary friends,” using the language of psych disability for religion (“delusions” etc) – doesn’t hurt Christian institutional power or hegemony. It doesn’t weaken abusive religious orgs.
It does, however, hurt people like me – practitioners of stigmatized minority religions. Some of that religious abuse and stalking was on the basis of my religion, and from my position, there’s not much difference when atheists and fundamentalists use the same arguments to dismiss me.
[…] I wish y’all would approach atheism like I approach vegetarianism – do your thing, but don’t be an ass, and go out of your way not to accidentally marginalize already-marginalized people. Discrimination is real and collateral damage is still damage, y’all.
Because if you’re against racism, racial profiling, and stereotyping, maybe you should be against absolute anti-theism, too. After all, there are so much better, more informed ways to critique religion.