Edward Feser has continued his critical exchange with Greg Koukl in “Repressed knowledge of God? Part II.” Feser and I agree on the key point that “not all atheism stems from intellectual dishonesty.”
Koukl, by contrast, insists that atheists are actively, willfully suppressing their innate disposition to believe in God in analogy with a person struggling to hold a beach ball under the water.
I’ve rejected Koukl’s claim as lacking both scriptural and empirical support. But does it follow, as I’ve suggested, that Koukl and those like him adopt a bigoted position toward atheists?
The term might seem strong. But again, let’s be clear on what a bigot is. Wikipedia provides a good definition:
“In English the word “bigot” refers to a person whose habitual state of mind includes an obstinate, irrational, or unfair intolerance of ideas, opinions, or beliefs that differ from their own, and intolerance of the people who hold them.”
Koukl’s claim that atheists are all akin to people struggling to hold beach balls under the water is simply not supported by evidence. Moreover, it involves a categorical imputation of immoral and deceptive practice to a vast and diverse population (including, for example, approximately 7% of the population of the United States). This certainly looks like bigotry.
Consider an analogy. Jones states his insistence that he will never vote for a woman for president. His reason? In 1 Timothy 2:12-14 Paul states:
“12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Jones then quips: “As Paul says, Eve led Adam astray. So do you really want to trust the nuclear codes to a woman?”
Jones might have been able to get away with those attitudes a few decades ago. But today he will readily be called out as misogynistic / sexist. In short, Jones is a bigot, i.e. one who retains an obstinate, irrational, or unfair intolerance toward those of the female gender and their potential roles in society.
If we readily impugn Jones on these grounds, why wouldn’t we impugn Koukl for claiming that every atheist is willfully suppressing innate belief in God out of sinful rebellion like a child struggling to hold a beach ball under the water?
The kinds of attitudes that Koukl promotes against atheists have real world consequences. For example, in a 2012 Gallup Poll only 54% of Americans would consider voting an atheist for president. In a 2015 Gallup Poll that number had risen to 58%. That still leaves millions who would never vote for an atheist. And it isn’t hard to see why with folks like Koukl insisting that these individuals are in sinful rebellion as they actively suppress an overwhelmingly powerful innate disposition to believe in God.
You might not vote a woman for president based on the assumption that women can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes in the same way that they couldn’t be trusted with the tree in the garden. But be prepared to have your opinion morally censured in wider society as misogynistic and sexist.
Terms like “misogyny” and “sexism” are helpful, for a succinct and emotive label of a form of bigotry can bring social censure which in turn speeds social change. With that in mind, it seems to me time to promote a succinct term which can be invoked to flag anti-atheist bigotry. To that end, I propose “misoatheism”. The word derives from “misos” (Greek for “hatred”) and atheism. And it parallels another little used term: misotheism (hatred of God).
Granted, as a neologism, misoatheism doesn’t yet have the emotional currency which can make it an effective means to bring social stigma to prejudice against atheism. But then, there was a time when the same was true of misogyny. That’s why we need to start using the term misoatheism and identifying instances of it in society which are worthy of social stigmatization.