Yesterday I compared the Dallas Morning News Pulitzer Award winning exposé on the disparities between North and South Dallas with their apparent disinterest in the African Americans for Humanism billboard campaign. It was an unskillful comparison by an unskilled writer. Thankfully, most injuries caused by unthoughtful words can be heeled when your heat is in the right place. I wish to apologize and attempt to explain how I arrived at the comparison.
First, I will never win a Pulitzer Prize. I possess neither the skill or the courage necessary. The Bridging the North-South Gap Project was a great service to our city and deserving of our nation’s highest journalistic prize. The original web page appears to have been archived, but you can read the current Gap Blog here.
I am frustrated with the News and getting a bit angry and it showed yesterday. What I wish I had written was a plea for the same journalist to use their acumen to champion the cause of Texas atheists.
I realized my clumsy mistake when a friend sent me this email:
Anne, I see that you’re trying to tie your cause to [the] Gap project. But do the two equate? I can demonstrate statistically the oppression and unfairness that afflicts southern Dallas residents.
Do you really think Alix is oppressed and being treated unfairly? Lots of people don’t get their causes covered in The Dallas Morning News. Lots of people whose photos appear on billboards don’t necessarily get stories in the paper about how their photos appear on billboards. That doesn’t mean they’re being oppressed or treated unfairly. It just means they’re not getting coverage.
My error was in trying, in a few awkward sentences, to equate the South Dallas experience with the atheist experience. Some injustices are so vile that they stand alone in their uniqueness. Such is the case with South Dallas. The two do not equate.
However, do I think that Alix is oppressed and being treated unfairly? Yes, I do. But not because the Dallas Morning News won’t report on the billboard project. It is more complicated than that. I don’t have the resources to demonstate it statisically, but I would welcome the oppertunity to demonstrate it in my own way.
Alix Jules been interviewed several times in the past few years including a special piece in Ebony magazine. He attended Harvard University and is extremely articulate. You can do a web search for his name and find several articles and videos where he talks about his experience. I will let Alix’s words speak for themselves.
If I may rephrase the question… “Are Texas atheists oppressed and being treated unfairly?”
Treated unfairly is pretty easy to show. “Oppressed” is a really loaded word, but it just might apply. First, let me restate that oppressed people are oppressed in unique ways. African American oppression is different than the homosexual oppression. Immigrant oppression is different than the female oppression. These do not equate. They are unique. Please allow me to show how atheist “oppression” is unique and wrong.
Oppression is characterized by a powerful group attempting to control or remove the civil rights of a weaker, often less numerous, group.
Again, “oppression” may not be the mot juste, but I’ll have a crack at it. I’ll use this article on Wikipedia as inspiration. I can come up with many examples, but I’ll try to limit myself to the best one for each point.
1) Removal of civil rights: Section 4 of the Texas Constitution Article I, the Bill of Rights reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” An atheist is barred from holding public office in the State of Texas. Similar laws exist in eight other states. True this law is rarely enforced, but we wouldn’t keep a similar law regarding race in the constitution. Lots more potential examples, but this is one of the worst. (According to a 2011 Gallop Poll 49% of Americans would not vote for an atheist president- the lowest showing among all groups.)
2) Threats of violence: My best example comes from the Dallas Morning News’ interview of my nine year-old daughter Mason:
When people went on the blogs to write about what happened between you and Christopher Hitchens, did it frighten you, considering that you live in the very religion-oriented state of Texas?
I think it’s kind of scary. Because some people can get hurt very badly over religion. That’s what happened to a lot of atheists in the United States. That’s all. Verbally and physically.
Mason isn’t exaggerating the danger. One of the freshest examples of threats of violence to a young atheist is the story of 16 year-old Jessica Ahlquist. In this video ABC news talks about the threats to Ahlquist resulting in the need for a armed police guard at her high school.
3) Ostracism (Slate February 5, 2012):
Point, Texas (pop. 792) is not the easiest place for a single lesbian to raise her child. But neither her sexuality nor her unwed parenthood are enough to make Renee Johnson an American conservative’s worst nightmare. As she explained to me when I met her at Rains County Library, “I’d rather have a big ‘L’ or ‘lesbian’ written across my shirt than a big ‘A’ or ‘atheist’, because people are going to handle it better.”
4) “Assumption that the given target (of oppression) is in some way inferior” ( Univeristy of Minnesota):
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
5) Economic disadvantages (Slate February 5, 2012):
[...] when I talked to several atheists together, sessions ended up feeling like self-help groups. In Dallas, five of them took turns to list examples of the constant pressures of living in a religious society. One was a businesswoman in Plano, a city that’s part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis and was ranked as the fifth most conservative in America by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research. She insists that, if she came out, she would lose her business. “I’ve worked for years to get these people to trust me, to want to do business with me.” So she constantly has to bite her tongue when Plano City Council opens its meetings with prayers, which it does in defiance of the constitutional separation of church and state.
On a personal note. I have a friend who lost his job at a Dallas private school for refusing to teach Creationism. Actually, I have many friends who worry about consequences on the job if they were publicly atheist. Many go along with the daily prayer so as not to draw attention to themselves. I, myself, worry about possible economic consequences resulting from this blog.
6) ”Dehumanization and Demonization” (Pew Research Center November, 2011)
My best example of this twisted thinking is the story of Justin Griffith, a Dallas native currently serving at Fort Bragg. Justin failed the Army’s mandatory “Spiritual Fitness Test” and has been participating in remedial spiritual training at the official United States military “Virtual Spiritual Fitness Center:”
The overarching goal is to have individuals active in their own faith journey leading to spiritual fitness and ultimately to a comprehensive fitness for Soldiers, Family members, and DA civilians.
Justin is not “fit” to be a soldier because of his responses—there is something wrong with his humanity. In this video he speaks to our local Fellowship of Freethought Group (begin 17:30):
It is dinner time and this mama needs to feed her family. I’ll leave off here for tonight, but return tomorrow to give a few more examples and answer some tough questions. In the meantime, I always appreciate your comments. I truly look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your help and advice. Please leave your stories and thoughts in the comments.