The Important Thing

The Important Thing

College newspapers are rich sources of lulz and rage, and this article is no exception.  Michelle Robertson is a staff writer for UC Berkeley’s newspaper, the Daily Cal.   She wrote a pompously titled article, Believing in Tolerance, where she mansplains in a truly admirable fashion why atheists are atheists, why theists are theists, and why she’s smart enough to get the best of both worlds.

Because she coughs up so many absurd stereotypes about atheists – many of which I’ve addressed previously, such as the “You’ve never experienced hardship” theory of atheogenesis – I figured it’d be fun to pick it apart.  If you’re out, you’re sure to encounter these stereotypes, and it’s important to categorize them. With a little preparation and skill, you can easily knock these patently offensive prejudices down with a friendly grin on your face.


Michelle is no stranger to intolerance.  After attending a retreat with a youth group associated with her temple, she came home excited to share her cool story about pissing near a raccoon with her bros (tell it again!).  Her bros, confused by the fact that a person who professes to be an atheist – “I do not believe in God” – would be attending a god-bothering religious retreat, immediately began persecuting her. No, wait, they asked her why she went, and then proceeded to engage in “all-out religious bashing.” Just take her word for it, though; she doesn’t bother to give any details.  But it was totes intolerant how they expressed views that were slightly different from her own.

STEREOTYPE 1: You’re mad at your dad

After the obligatory Godwin where she implies her bros became disenchanted with religion after learning about the Holocaust in high school, she goes on to acknowledge all the pain, suffering, misery and death in the world that is the result of religion.  But she just kind of mentions it, leaves it hanging, and moves on to the theory that we’re just rebelling because getting up early on Sunday and starving yourself for a month are major sources of DO NOT WANT.  Huh? What about all the good reasons you just mentioned? Eh, they don’t count.

The response:if it applies to you, is to describe your upbringing as loving and supportive.  You didn’t resent going to church; in fact, one of the hardest parts about admitting you no longer believe was the thought of being pushed out of that social support system.  Coming out as atheist means leaving the tribe you were raised with, facing contempt and silence from your loved ones, feeling abandoned.  That’s a really hard thing to do, and it’s rarely a decision undertaken lightly.

If you weren’t raised religious, draw on that. Tell them how your parents encouraged you to make your own choices. You’re not rebelling because there’s nothing to rebel against.  You’re an atheist because there’s no good reason to be a theist.  The atrocities in the world aren’t what make you atheist; they’re what make you loud about it.

STEREOTYPE 2: Atheists are just godless Capitalists, craven materialists bent on hedonism and social Darwinism.
I know, I know. This one makes no sense.  But make a note of it, everyone: atheists invented capitalism.

Capitalism isn’t just an economic model but a way of life, the American raison d’etre; why not pledge allegiance to the gods of capitalism rather than that old guy up in the clouds?

Riiiiight.  I guess she was at youth group when her history teacher covered the Cold War.

The Response: Atheism is not an economic model, but if you wanna talk capitalism, I have two words for you: Mega Churches.  If atheists were in it for the money, we’re not doing a very good job.  There’s really no requirement you be a ruthless capitalist to be an atheist.  As a self-proclaimed atheist, you’d think she’d realize this.  Sadly, no: she’s the good atheist, the honorary theist who knows her place.  These arguments only apply to those other atheists.  She goes on to say:

One relies on the belief that a higher power controls our destinies; the other preaches that to attain the American Dream, all one needs is cunning and a little elbow grease

In other words, a belief in god necessarily implies Calvinism.  A lot of theists – Jesus included - would strongly disagree.  If you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with her friends objecting to religion, you’re not alone.

STEREOTYPE 3: You’re just a scion of privilege whose never known suffering.

Atheist cat has never known hardship.

This is by far the most personally offensive one.  It’s also one I’ve addressed before on Queereka. The crux of the argument is the strange idea that without religion, we’d have no answer for the suffering we have to endure. It’s strange that someone would spend two paragraphs on the suffering that religion causes and then, out of the other side of her mouth, suggest religion as palliative care.

I can understand it abstractly as a obvious prejudice when it’s coughed up by someone like Michelle Robertson, or this guy I met at a party once who went on about how cruel it would be to take away the promise of pie in the sky when you die.  But when it comes from someone who knows me, and who knows my story, I really do just see red.

Privileged children in comfortable homes can often afford to live by the belief in hard work over destiny, that trying one’s best will eventually allow one to reap the ultimate reward. This optimistic and can-do attitude, which many young adults have been raised on as gospel, doesn’t prepare the future generation for the inevitable bumps along the way.  You don’t pray to God when the road is smooth, straight and visible; you pray to God when you’re stuck in a pothole and your map blew away.

That’s what we are, guys: privileged children in comfortable homes who aren’t prepared for the bumps of life. That’s whence the idiom, “the atheist work ethic!” You need youth groups and serious proximity to raccoons to truly prepare yourself for life’s hardships, like pot holes! And blown away maps!  It’s quite telling how much of this is pure projection that these were the best examples of life’s hardships she could wretch up.

The response: There’s a few strategies you can use here.  I strongly recommend starting out with a contemptuous, incredulous stare.  Let them know that this is not an argument; it’s an expression of prejudice.  They have crossed the line.  But whatever you do, don’t get dragged in; don’t let them shift the conversation to whether you’ve had sufficient hardships in life for your opinions to count; don’t try to argue them into accepting their own privilege.  The phrase ad hominem is frequently misused, but in this case, it’s exactly what’s happening, and you need to call them on it. Then, concede.

That’s right: grant that you’re the most privileged pampered man-child that ever lived.  Then ask: what does that have to do with whether there is a god?

 

Young people who have yet to experience significant adversity are quick to write off religion because they don’t necessarily need to believe in a higher power.

Remember: even if this is true, it doesn’t mean the atheists are wrong.  That’s why it’s an ad hominem attack; who I am as a person has nothing to do with whether my argument is true.  Remember that, folks.

Of course, it gets worse:

Young adults today aren’t prepared to fail, but if and when they do — an outcome that seems inevitable in today’s job market — they likely will want a supernatural, superhuman force to believe in. People characteristically turn to religion after experiencing death or catastrophe, so for young adults who have thus far not experienced hardship, religion doesn’t seem necessary.

Remember: this person claims to be an atheist.   Does that mean she hasn’t experienced hardship, death or catastrophe?  If so, does that mean she’s wrong, or is it only atheists that need to go through hardship for their opinions to count?  If she has, the next question to ask is why it is that she doesn’t need god to get through life’s hardships, but the masses and those bad other atheists who aren’t here will need their opiate eventually.

Will believing in a supernatural, superhuman force get me a job? Will joining a church bring a dead loved one back to life?

It’s worth noting I left Christianity after I asked God to let my grandmother live (John 14:13; Matthew 18:19 ). Oh wait, I forgot; I’ve never experienced a death of a loved one. I’m an ATHEIST! My mistake!

What does it say about religion that people turn to it at times of extreme emotional vulnerability?

And what does any of this have to do with tolerance?

People have turned to religion throughout history because they sought an explanation for their miserable lives, which no amount of hard work and diligence could change.

People have had misery inflicted upon them throughout history because they sought an explanation for their miserable lives, and believed the first salesman in a fancy frock who promised them the moon for 10% of their income annually.  Just sayin’.

STEREOTYPE 4: I’m the exception that proves the rule!

Ok, this isn’t really a stereotype, but more a phenomenon that happens in any social justice movement.  A member of the class in question will try to gain privileges for themselves at the expense of the larger class by asserting that the stereotypes are true, but they are the lone exception.   Feminism saw the Phyllis Schlaflies of the world building high-profile careers on the argument that women should stay home and grow heirs for a man, for instance.

Michelle is no different, as demonstrated by the last paragraph is a clusterfuck of contradiction.

Religion isn’t about submitting oneself to the will of the gods.

Yet, three paragraphs earlier:

Religion and capitalism, in their purest forms, aren’t as compatible as the Tea Party says they are: One relies on the belief that a higher power controls our destinies;the other preaches that to attain the American Dream, all one needs is cunning and a little elbow grease.

Hmmm.

HMMMMMM.

Nice compartments you’ve got in your brain, there.

The Response: Call them out on their hypocrisy and their condescension (condescending is another often misused term, but it applies here; it means to affect congeniality to cover a sense of superiority. She doesn’t believe in God, but she’s willing to condescend to go on youth group retreats based around the belief in god to get the benefits of the community that goes along with it). Ask whether they got their psychic powers through a spider bite. Be humorous, but don’t mince words. Say what you mean, but treat the very idea that you’re just a privileged, rebellious child with the contempt and scorn it deserves. Don’t forget to laugh out loud.

She closes with:

being religious is nothing to be ashamed of.

[Citation Needed]
Yessenia is a graduate student studying to be a speech therapist with an emphasis on traumatic brain injuries. She spends far too much time correcting the wrong people on the internet, lifting heavy things and training her cats. She's a proud internet atheist and trolls only for the greater good.

14 Comments

  1. I’ve just read the first paragraph, and I’d like to make a comment before I continue reading this. I really love a lot of what you write for this site, but I have some issue with the term ‘mansplain’.

    Having not seen this before, I Googled it, and seriously? The term is uber sexist. I’m not sure if you’re using it ironically or what, but it just rubs me the wrong way. It seems to assume that men are condescending assholes all the time, which they aren’t.

    Anyway, just thought I’d bring that to your attention. Now I’m going to continue reading your lovely article and support my sister-site. =]

    • I don’t agree that the term “mansplain” is sexist per se. This has been discussed ad nauseum on Skepchick on multiple posts (read through some of the comments on posts talking about sexism, also see this blog post).

      That being said, I can certainly see how the argument can be made that the usage of the word in the OP is sexist. But Yessenia may disagree, and I’d like to get her take on it. ;)

    • Hi Elly, thanks for the feedback. Can you link me to the definition you found? Maybe we’re going on different definitions. My understanding of the term is that it exists to label and describe a sexist behavior. Specifically, the term refers to a tendency of men to assume, when talking to women, no prior knowledge of whatever the topic is, even when it’s been established that the woman knows more.

      My favorite example of this was talking to someone who had no familiarity with research on the wage gap, was aware I had a degree in gender studies, but was nevertheless quite certain he knew more about the topic than I did. The last thing he said was: “I admit I don’t know much about the research, but I hope you’ve learned something from this conversation.

      I don’t think one can be sexist against men (using the definition of sexism as prejudice + power), but setting that aside, I don’t think the term exists to say all men are condescending assholes all the time. It refers generally to the unjustified assumption of expertise that comes with unexamined privilege. In this case, the author – a woman – was mansplaining because she assumed that the atheists she was speaking to were less familiar with why they were atheist than she was. It wasn’t unexamined male privilege, but the dynamic was the same. It’s the refusal to consider that the other might have insight that they just don’t have; it’s double-backing the clasp on the belt of her invisible knapsack. Because you see there are these things in the brain called neurotransmitters…

      So to reiterate: it refers to a specific behavior often engaged in by men towards women as an artifact of privilege, but also engaged in more generally by the powerful towards the marginalized. In the same way, although ‘bitch’ is a derogatory word for a woman, I think we understand that saying, “Geoffrey was bitching about his erectile dysfunction,” we don’t necessarily say that because we think that all women are always complaining about trivial things in an annoying way all the time. We use it because it’s a useful word to describe that behavior along with our opinion of it.

      Mansplain is the only word I’ve seen that really captures that, though if you have an alternative/criticism of my response, please share.

      • “I admit I don’t know much about the research, but I hope you’ve learned something from this conversation.

        I’m sure you did learn something from the conversation, but it certainly wasn’t what he thought. =P

        I don’t think one can be sexist against men (using the definition of sexism as prejudice + power)

        Interesting. I’m not sure I agree with you on this. Certainly sexism is directed at women the vast majority of the time, but is it really fair to say that one cannot ever be sexist towards a man? Is misanderism not a form of sexism? Is that really all sexism is–prejudice+power? Doesn’t that encompass a lot more than sexism?

        In this case, the author – a woman – was mansplaining because she assumed that the atheists she was speaking to were less familiar with why they were atheist than she was. It wasn’t unexamined male privilege, but the dynamic was the same.

        Yeah, this makes sense to me and I think you’ve extended the meaning of the word in an interesting way. =)

        • Yes, I think that sexism is prejudice+power (I didn’t make it clear, but prejudice here is referring to specifically prejudice based on sex). I’ve seen similar definitions for racism.

          It’s possible to be prejudiced against men (though I don’t think mansplain assumes all men or only men do that all the time), but if you don’t have a power structure backing up that prejudice, it’s not the same as sexism (or racism, for that matter).

          The distinction is important to avoid false equivalences (like one I’ve seen a lot: c*nt isn’t sexist, because men are called dicks!). To put it another way, everyone is harmed by the patriarchy, but it’s women who end up oppressed by it.

          I might experience prejudice from others based on my skin color, but I do not experience racism because of my skin color. That’s what I’m saying.

          • It’s possible to be prejudiced against men (though I don’t think mansplain assumes all men or only men do that all the time), but if you don’t have a power structure backing up that prejudice, it’s not the same as sexism (or racism, for that matter).

            The distinction is important to avoid false equivalences (like one I’ve seen a lot: c*nt isn’t sexist, because men are called dicks!). To put it another way, everyone is harmed by the patriarchy, but it’s women who end up oppressed by it.

            I agree it is important to avoid false equivalencies. I disagree that that means it is never possible to be sexist towards a man or racist towards a white person. It depends on context in my view. Thanks for clarifying. =)

          • Maybe we could differentiate between different forms of sexism? Personally I think men and boys can definitely be the direct objects of oppositional sexism (the belief that gender roles and identification should be based on assigned-at-birth sex); in fact I think with respect to that kind of sexism they get hit as hard as women do. But misogyny/traditional sexism overwhelmingly targets women, and it would be ridiculous to draw any equivalences there.

            However, I don’t know that stereotyping of men based on negative traits associated with masculinity would fall under either one of these types of sexism. So I guess I’d agree that those kinds of actions would be considered prejudiced at the worst, and I don’t personally think “mansplain” stereotypes men, if it’s understood correctly.

      • I just Googled the word, and the first thing is UrbanDictionary (I know that this is not a credible source), which describes it as “To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening.” and most other hits for the term are contemplations on whether it’s sexist or not.

        Using the definition of sexism as “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles” (Dictionary.com), I would definitely say that the term is sexist. It’s stereotyping a typically ‘male’ behavior of condescension.

        I do understand what you’re saying about ‘bitching’ and the general application of terms that removes them from a specifically sexist context. However, if intent were everything, a lot of sexist comments would go uncriticized because a lot of sexism is embedded in the culture in such a way that people don’t even realize they’re being sexist. (Which is one of the main problems Feminism tries to handle, of course.)

        Even if it’s determined that using the term ‘mansplain’ is not sexist, it can still be perceived that way. Just before I commented the first time, I pointed out the term to my boyfriend, cited him the context and what Google said about it. His immediate response was “Wow, that’s really sexist.” He added that it was especially disrespectful because he’s had women do exactly that to him.

        If one man perceives a writer for this network as being sexist towards men, it can color us as wanting feminine superiority rather than equality of the genders. I’m not talking about MRA groups, which IMO have little credibility in many of their claims. I just mean average men. It seems that if it strikes two people as sexist, probably a lot of people think it is, and I generally try to avoid using any language that could potentially offend. (Except in terms of religion, I’m really bad about saying nasty things about religious people. Mostly in private.)

        Anyway, there isn’t exactly another term to describe what the word intends to say. You could just use a couple extra ones and say “condescendingly explained” or something.

        • Elly, I wasn’t aware there was a traditional stereotype that men explain things condescendingly.

          There is a traditional stereotype that women aren’t as smart or as educated as men, and so mansplain acknowledges that there are people who buy into that stereotype and act accordingly.

          I hear what you’re saying, and your argument that regardless of what the word means, how it’s perceived can distract from the rest of what I’m trying to say is compelling.

          Here’s where I take issue: let’s grant that your boyfriend is right. I’m not sure why you felt you had to consult a certified man for his opinion, but ok. The problem I then face is that it makes me feel like reaching for my tiny violin. The thing about being a woman in a patriarchy is that I encounter things that are sexist and disrespectful towards me fourteen thousand times a day before breakfast.

          The fact is that most sexist comments do go uncriticized if we can convince ourselves hey, they probably didn’t mean it that way. If I didn’t pick my battles like that, I don’t think I’d have time to eat or sleep. It’s one word, against an entire language stacked against women.

          Sure, maybe women have done the same thing to him. I don’t doubt it, and since I used the term here to apply to a woman, I think it’s obvious I agree women can do it too. But I suspect maybe – just maybe – he’s underestimating how often or how egregiously it’s done to women. It couldn’t really be that bad.

          As far as the dictionary goes, there’s dictionaries that define atheism as the belief that there is no god, too.

          BTW the definition of mansplain I prefer is: “that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?”

          It’s not just that it’s patronizing or assuming total ignorance. The explanation has to be wrong, but delivered with rock-solid confidence derived from who the mansplainer is, too.

        • I tend to agree with Yessenia regarding whether or not the term is sexist per se. And I’m a man. =P If someone were to tell me that I was mansplaining, I would certainly not be offended by the term and would seek to figure out what I was doing that was problematic.

          This is not to say that the word could never be used in a sexist way (something I do disagree with Yessenia on, as I stated above), and I think you make a good case for the importance of choosing words carefully. That being said, if the “average man” can’t handle the word “mansplaining” in a feminist space, I would challenge him to think about the exponentially larger amount of sexism that women constantly face and ask him to set aside his offense at the word and in order to look at things a bit more empathetically. If he can’t do that, he’s not going to be a very good ally.

  2. Great job! =)

    As for Stereotype #2, I’d add to your response that sociologist Max Weber begs to differ (hint: this person needs to go read and stop talking out of their ass).

  3. STEREOTYPE 3: You’re just a scion of privilege whose never known suffering.

    This, just this blows my mind. The suffering is the reason I’m an atheist. All the chanting, praying, burning corn dollies did absolutely nothing, not a damn thing. There’s nothing there. I’m an atheist. the end.

    • In my long dark teatimes of the soul, the utter indifference of the universe to my suffering has been strangely comforting. Hey, it’s shitty, but at least I’m not being punished by a pissed off ghost, right?

  4. The “privileged scion who’s never known suffering” hit me kind of hard, too, for a different reason. Having had a relatively privileged and happy childhood, I felt an intense amount of guilt for doubting the faith I was raised in seeing how many other people turned to it out of a need to resolve their suffering.

    I guess I internalized the idea the author articulates here, without realizing how messed up it is: claiming that believers only believe because they’re desperate and atheists only doubt because they’re privileged trivializes the beliefs of both!

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