McCarthyism and the 70-Year Stain, or Atheist-bashing from the Religion of Love


I was gladdened to stumble across a fellow Wordplogger’s post just recently, entitled “Why Atheists Call Out Christians on Morality“. It’s a heartfelt and I think quite representative account of the sort of vitriol, negative typecasting, and unempathetically demeaning comments that regular and otherwise inoffensive atheists can be subjected to, by the followers of the “religion of love” (who paradoxically tend to be the most vociferous in claiming persecution, but that’s for another blog post).

Apart from the statistical data, reports such as this one on the demographics of religion (generally in the United States, as it is there that religion seems to be a perennially hot topic) tend to focus on inter-demographic attitudinal trends, but give little attention to exploring the roots of those attitudes.

It should be a matter of some curiosity that, among the major English-speaking nations (essentially the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand), a good deal of smaller English-speaking ones, and virtually all countries in Europe, the only one in which atheism and atheists are associated, in the minds of a small but vocal minority, with some sort of moral turpitude, is the United States. I try my best to steer clear of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, but I don’t think I’m creating a false dichotomy when I suggest that there are only really two options here, with regard to understanding this unfiltered misanthropy:

1) They’re right.

2) They’re labouring under delusions that warrant investigation.

No prizes for guessing which side of that particular fence I come down on.

Seen in terms of couples therapy, the type of behaviour on display in the linked blog post (cf. screenshots) raises a few red flags that should be recognisable to anyone familiar with conflict resolution. Modify your pronouns; don’t begin your sentences with “you”, but try “I”, instead. “You” is accusatory; “I” is explanatory. Admittedly, this heuristic breaks down when one party is not concerned with de-escalation, in which case we go from “You are an evil, immoral person”, to “I think you’re an evil, immoral person”. There needs to be a willingness to listen and understand on both sides, and with the religious of a fundamentalist bent in particular, openness is often a rare commodity in short supply.

Secondly, don’t generalise. “You atheists are all…” presents the double whammy of being not just accusatory, but lazy as well. That said, often enough such laziness is less malicious than it is symptomatic of an inability to discern nuance, be it through cognitive or empathetic immaturity. Receiving heat as an atheist, it helps to be aware of this, but unless you’re phenomenally patient and pedagogically gifted, there’s not a lot you can do about it, especially where your tormentors are not receptive to your reasonings or protests.

Thirdly, don’t presume to know what the other person thinks, or feels. This represents the triple whammy of being lazy, rude, and stupid, to boot. Speaking of footwear:

Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.

It’s that simple, and needs elaborating no further.

Regarding the religious accuser, confontational behaviour of this sort can also indicate a deep-seated lack of confidence in his or her own convictions. Stepping back, taking a deep, objective breath, and peering beneath the surface, it often appears that we on the receiving end are not actually being insulted or belittled (well, we are), but in fact are simply in the unenviable position of being the unwilling recipients of a fundamentalist’s value conflicts or cognitive dissonances.

I’m no qualified mental health worker, but my experience and studies in counselling (both in giving and receiving), psychology and psychotherapy suggest to me that when it comes to being bashed by a fundamentalist, an atheist is not “merely” dealing with an unpleasant exchange or a verbal aggression, but rather with a potpourri of psychological, cognitive, and educational issues, awareness of which may sometimes help us to emerge relatively unsodden from the downpour.

From an historical perspective, several media reports in recent months inform us that the percentage of US “nones” (those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated) is larger than believed, and growing all the time. It may be that people are less against declaring themselves as unaffiliated than they are at embracing the label of “atheist”, and I suspect America has the lingering spectre of McCarthyism to thank for that.

Joseph McCarthy himself, in his 1950 West Virginia speech* (which, if nothing else, is commendable for its disastrously efficient longevity, the rhetorical equivalent of herpes, or perhaps syphilis), managed to associate atheists with Communists, ideologically and morally diametrically opposed to Western civilisation. “The great difference between our Western Christian world”, he said, “and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral”. The blank misapprehension of atheism (or conflation of atheism with subversiveness) by the Kasichs and the Huckabees of American politics seems like a throwback to a period during which sophisticated deceits were disseminated among the populace, so as to propagate fuzzy thinking, encourage latent biases, and thereby restrict criticism at home. After all, what government wants a citizenry that actually thinks and holds them to account? That would be an absolute nightmare to control. Call yourself a “none”? Not practising? Tut tut, but fair enough, it’s a free country. Atheist? There must be something wrong with you.

When it comes to jujitsu-ing your way out of such a confrontation, it may be helpful to have some awareness of the psychological and historical aspects at play. As an atheist, I don’t expect to get the upper hand, but neither is that ever an objective; nor do I hope to convert. Forewarned is forearmed, and if I feel that both my tormentor and I have emerged from our tête-à-tête with our respect intact and more understanding than when we started out, then that’s a victory in both our books.


*) Roughly 70 years ago, hence the flashy title of this post.

2 comments on “McCarthyism and the 70-Year Stain, or Atheist-bashing from the Religion of Love

  1. roianna says:

    I haven’t thought about the rise of McCarthyism being associated with the tying of atheism to immorality. I do know in the last 19th century there was a thriving Freethought/skeptic movement that did seem to go to ground during the 1950s. Interesting.

    Thanks for linking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt S. says:

      It’s a pet theory – but it seems reasonable! I think I’ve come across the movement you mentioned at some point, but here I thought to keep things relatively recent. That said, I think it’s definitely all part of a continuum, and the paranoid weirdness of McCarthyism can certainly be contextualised as a reaction to an earlier period of…lesser paranoia, shall we say 😉

      Thanks to you too for linking!


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