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Winning by Losing
Winning by Losing
by Herb Silverman
Then there was the guy who interviewed at a radio station for a job as a broadcaster. They hired someone else. A friend asked, “Why didn’t you get the job?” The guy answered, “B-b-b because I-I’m a J-J-J Jew.” Discrimination does exist against blacks, gays, women, Jews, atheists, and many other groups. But, to quote Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Crying “wolf” when there is none is the quickest way to lose credibility and damage a cause. Remember Al Sharpton and Tawana Brawley? For atheists, a more interesting option is whether to cry “wolf” when there really is a wolf. We can’t fight every battle. We haven’t the good will, the resources, or the political capital to respond to all possible slights. So, how to choose?
We all choose according to circumstances and personal comfort levels, but I want to suggest a strategy that has worked for me: Prepare to take advantage of the Law of Unintended Consequences, where an action results in an outcome other than what was intended. To plan for the unplanned sounds paradoxical, but adversaries may find that their squashing of our Plan A can make a Plan B more effective than the intended Plan A. There are numerous opportunities for us to take the “moral” high ground on wedge issues, which can create a Win-Win situation. For instance, we can ask respectfully for our rightful place at the table and either get it or get others to share our outrage for our being denied.
Here is a classic example. Of the many heroes in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, my surprise choice for the top ten is none other than Birmingham, Alabama’s police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. His use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against unarmed, nonviolent protest marchers in 1963 was broadcast on national TV. This incident shocked and moved the entire nation, and led to the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, Bull Connor’s tactics hastened the very change he had been opposing.
As atheists, I don’t think we should whine about past injustices or an unhappy religious upbringing. We won’t win friends and influence people on the basis of victimhood. On the other hand, I think we should look for serendipitous opportunities to expose the religious “Bull Connors” of the world. I know this will force many Christians to support the moral position of an atheist over that of some of their fellow Christians. Movements are most successful when they appeal to folks outside the group. Here is a personal example.
When the South Carolina Progressive Network held a “Meet the Candidates” forum prior to a Charleston City Council election, each sponsoring organization was allowed to ask one question of the candidates on the panel. Our local group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, asked this: “As you know, the Council starts meetings with a prayer. Since you will represent all your constituents, not just those who are religious believers, will you consider periodically allowing nonbelievers to give the invocation?” One candidate agreed, and when he won the election he invited me to give the invocation before the Council meeting.
As the Mayor introduced me, half the Council members walked out, returning just in time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They also turned toward me as they bellowed the words “under God.” I didn’t expect such open defiance, but it offered a unique opportunity. I saw the walkout as a “Law of Unintended Consequences” moment. I called a reporter from the Charleston Post and Courier, told him which Council members walked out, and suggested that his readers would like to know why. In his article, he quoted some interesting justifications.
Councilman Gallant: “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”
Councilman Gilliard: “An atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops, who are fighting for our principles, based on God.”
Councilman George: “He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I’m not going to be around when he does it.”
To this last, I responded: “Perhaps Councilman George does not realize that many of us who stand politely for religious invocations believe that praying to a god makes no more sense than praying to a chicken. At least you can see a chicken.”
Several days later, six favorable letters to my side appeared in the Post and Courier. When Christians side with atheists against other Christians, it likely means we have won by losing. Here is one of the letters from Dot Scott, President of the Charleston branch of the NAACP: I read with disbelief the actions of our councilmen who walked out of an official meeting during the invocation by Herb Silverman simply because of his religious views. It is most difficult for me, a Christian African-American female, who has probably experienced every kind of prejudice and intolerance imaginable, to understand an act that was not only disrespectful, but unquestionably rude by folks elected to represent all of the citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, religion or sexual orientation.
It is most regrettable that during a time when the fight is so fierce to have all citizens’ rights protected and respected, some of us would neglect to do the same for others. When any elected official demonstrates such lack of tolerance, especially while performing his official duties, those of us of conscience must speak out and voice our outrage.
(Incidentally, Dot Scott recently was a guest at a dinner party at my house. We exchanged stories about how the religious right treats our respective constituencies, though clearly African-Americans have it much worse than atheists in South Carolina. She told a shocking story about the fund for the families of the nine Charleston firefighters who died in a furniture store fire, the most such firefighter deaths since 9-11. Some potential contributors wanted to give only if they could earmark their donations to the white firefighters. Dot said that when bad things used to happen in South Carolina, the consoling comment would be “Thank you, Mississippi.” She opined that “Thank you, Mississippi” is no longer operative, since South Carolina is now worse than Mississippi. I looked at her and responded, “Dot, I’ve lived here long enough to know the real expression, so please feel free to say it correctly.” She thanked me for not being offended by the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi,” and I thanked her for recognizing that not all people are religious.)
I was even offered an opportunity by the Post and Courier to write an Op-Ed about the walkout. Here is one of my paragraphs: “In recent years, Charleston has taken steps to become a progressive city that celebrates, rather than fears, its diversity. The walkout, however, vividly shows that we are still engaged in one of the last civil rights struggles in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior. Of course, bigotry exists everywhere, but it is especially lamentable when public acts of intolerance at government functions are later defended in the media by government officials.”
I have been in a number of public debates with fundamentalist Christians, but one of the more interesting was with Dr. Richard Johnson, religion professor at Baptist-sponsored Charleston Southern University. The main benefits came several weeks later, not just from winning debate points. After the debate, Johnson asked if he could come to speak to the Atheist-Humanist Alliance, a student group at the College of Charleston where I am faculty advisor. I, of course, agreed. He tried, unsuccessfully, to bring some of those students to Jesus. In the Q&A after his talk, one of the students asked Johnson if he would be willing to invite me to speak to his religion class. He agreed, and the date was set. The day before I was scheduled to speak, I received an email from Johnson saying he had to rescind the invitation because of “complications,” and that his administration did not want him to devote class time to my appearance. I immediately recognized this as an opportunity to win by losing.
I called the religion editor at the Post and Courier and described how a Christian professor at this Baptist institution had broken his promise of allowing me to speak at his university, after I had kept my promise of allowing him to speak at mine. The reporter’s article quoted me as saying: “I think it reflects poorly on an academic institution that appears to allow only one point of view. Had the administration at the College of Charleston objected to Dr. Johnson speaking at my institution, I would have fought it and engaged others on campus to help keep academic freedom alive.
The Chair of the Religion Department told the reporter that the invitation was rescinded because their “students had heard quite enough from Dr. Silverman recently.” I asked what that meant, since I had never been allowed to speak on campus. Dr. Johnson originally wanted to hold the debate on his campus, but the president of the institution had vetoed it. The debate took place, instead, at a large nearby church.
The religion reporter wrote that the provost of Charleston Southern University declined to explain “how not allowing Silverman to speak in Johnson’s classroom fits in with CSU’s vision of academic freedom.” Johnson also declined to comment on the situation. I felt sorry that his university had put him in such an untenable and embarrassing position. This incident is another example where Christians couldn’t help but acknowledge that atheists acted more reasonably and more “Christian” than did their Christian counterparts.
Assuming one of our goals is to increase the visibility and respectability of atheist viewpoints, there are a variety of approaches. Best selling authors Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) have given us more visibility than we ever had before. It is up to the rest of us to make the most of this opportunity.
Other minorities have had significantly more problems than atheists. As a class, we are well educated, productive, and prosperous. But atheists are not as influential as many interest groups with fewer adherents. I think the primary reason is that the majority of atheists are in the closet, and it is relatively easy for atheists to remain there. Blacks and women can’t, and gays can only do so with great sacrifice. Atheists are not necessarily afraid to come out. Most are apathetic about religion. They have full lives, and can’t understand why some of us waste so much time focusing on nonexistent deities.
Atheists are also an independent lot, not easy to organize. Many view their “despised minority” status as a badge of honor. I must admit to having this tendency myself. I enjoy reading letters from ignorant people who try to convince me that my beliefs are wrong. But in the end, I would rather engage in the culture war than maintain an elitist pride that we can simply rise above it. I think it is far more important for us to work toward change, than to accept the status quo and hope things won’t get worse.Herb Silverman is a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, Charleston, SC. He is president of the Secular Coalition for America and is a board member of AAI.
Appeared in Secular Nation—Vol 12, Number 2, pages 14-15, 26 (Published September 2007)