Who We Are: A Response to Tony Jones

The internet is burning again.

Or rather, Tony Jones’ blog is.

I’ve read Dr. Jones’ blog on Patheos, Theoblogy, for a couple of months now, as well as followed him on Twitter. Jones puts himself squarely in the progressive Christian camp, and so his posts are mainly what one would expect, most often an attempt to rectify the tenants of Christianity with those of basic human decency. Yesterday, he posted a statement concerning why he believes in God. The post boiled down to saying that he’s a theist because 95 percent or so of the world are theists, that atheists are exclusively white privileged elitists, that he doesn’t want to separate himself from all of humanity as atheists clearly do, and that he would rather stand in solidarity with suffering people in Bangladesh, India, South Africa, and foxholes. Places in which, Jones claims, there are no atheists.

Hemant Mehta, aka the Friendly Atheist picked up on the post and absolutely ripped his statements on atheism apart. Mehta has quite a large reader base, and a slew of atheists picked up the banners and marched over to Theoblogy. I can’t attest to whether any of them were singing ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah,’ on the march over.

I had read the post earlier and thought about responding, but after seeing Mehta’s rebuttal I suspected there might be a larger reaction. Sure enough, I went back to the article and spent the next thirty minutes in a state of something like this:

A visual metaphor

A visual metaphor

There were a couple of points many of commenters were harping on. One of them was Jones’ statement that:

“I have enough respect for the collective wisdom of humanity to stand in solidarity with them in proclaiming that there is, indeed, a God.”

Many commenters, Mehta included, portrayed this as ‘the worst argument for theism ever.’ At a cursory glance, the statement seems to be a classic example of argumentum ad populum, the argument that if something is popular, it must be true. It brought a lot of heat. And yet, somehow, I feel like I may have been one of the few who didn’t raise one of my elegant and magnificently sculpted eyebrows at the statement. The fact is, I don’t think Jones was trying to make an argument for theism. I think he was merely saying that the majority of the world believes in some sort of deity, and he takes comfort in that. Because he knows that he can go almost anywhere in the world and meet people whom he differs in customs, language, culture, virtually everything that makes one human and still connect over a basic belief in a higher deity.

Do I think that’s a rather sketchy and emotion-based reason to subscribe to the Christian religion? Yes. But I’m not going to call him out on it, not on a personal statement of belief. Not when Jones’ wasn’t making a case that this is the reason I (or anyone else) should subscribe to his religion. I’m sure Jones would consider my reasons for my atheism to be rather piss-poor and anger-based. The table can easily be turned.

Now, being an inquisitive person, I’d be tempted to inquire as to why Jones sees collective wisdom in the human perception of god and dismisses out of hand the collective human perception of, well, everything he disagrees with, but Dr. Jones made it very clear in the comment section that we weren’t supposed to inquire on this subject.

Dr. Jones claimed that theists comprise about 95 percent of the world population, another statement that raised some eyebrows and questions. A significant percentage of the world’s atheists (so it seemed) asked for a citation, and Jones mentioned in the comments that it was a guesstimate. He made it clear that he was separating the world population into theists and atheists, and (seemingly) lumping everyone who identified as agnostic, unaffiliated, spiritual but not religious, non-theistic Jain, and non-theistic Buddhist as ‘theist.’ This seemed rather clumsy and intellectually dishonest, but it didn’t take away from the point he was trying to make. There are a lot of people who believe in a deity. A lot. Whether 85, 90, or 95 percent, Jones is correct in saying that theism is a clear majority.

And then Dr. Jones talked about atheists. And this is what he said:

“As others have noted recently, atheism is a position of privilege. Atheism is almost exclusively the purview of educated, white elites. The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it should be updated to say that their[sic] are no atheists in the slums of Bangladesh, in the townships of South Africa, in the trash heaps of India.”

Finally, the eyebrow raised. A number of other things happened as well.

I felt confused. Angry. Insulted. Resigned.

And the first question I asked, one that I nearly shouted outloud, was: What the hell does the colour of my skin or the level of my education have to do with my personal beliefs?

Is this how Dr. Jones would view me if he ever met me? As just another white boy who thinks he knows all the answers? My skin is pale, the inheritance of my Celtic father. But my mother is Roma, a despised ethnic group in Europe. From her I inherit dark hair, sharp features, and a bit of understanding of what it means to be judged for whom you were born as. Not as much understanding as some, but a bit.

My atheism is so much more than my pale skin.

I have an education. Religious, forced upon me. Secular, earned by my own hands, paid for with my own wages, every penny. It’s not as much as some. I don’t have an advanced degree, I’ve never published a book, I’m a kid with a computer and a motive to stand up to religion. I’m a bartender. I know what it’s like to go hungry. I know what it means to be afraid.

So why would Dr. Jones rather see the incidentals of my appearance than the content of my character? I honestly don’t know, and at this point I don’t really care. Because my atheism isn’t rooted in my skin colour, or what education I’ve gained.

It comes from a moment when I was a child lying on a burning street in Omagh, my skin not white but blackened with soot and ash, surrounded by pieces of masonry and shrapnel and children. And I can swear I can still feel the heat of the flames on my cheeks and smell the acidity of death. And in that moment, when all belief in God drained out of me, I have never felt less privileged or elite.

And that is just me. One half-Roma boy in a nation of religious fanatics.

And there are others. So many others. All I have to do is ask my atheist friends, my followers on Twitter, people I know and respect and debate and laugh with, who they are. And you won’t hear any of them say anything about their skin colour, or their educational background. Their voices are a much richer tapestry, a much more evocative symphony of who we are than any packaged deli-aisle label that Dr. Jones wishes to slap on us.

We are the wife of the Baptist minister who sits in the pew each day, afraid that a careless word could cost her family, her friends, and that she’ll have nowhere else to go.

We are Margot de Wilde, tortured and sterilised by Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau, who goes through life with a cheerful heart and wonderful humour, but no god.

We are a high-school educated truck driver, who simply does not believe.

We are the Catholic boy in the school for the deaf, raped by a man of god and bullied into silence.

We are Marwa, trapped behind a veil in home of religious darkness, afraid of the man who would beat her for using a cellphone, for touching her collarbone, for a sigh. For whom privilege means the freedom to raise her face to the rain.

We are every atheist of every nation who has ever defended his or her homeland in a foxhole. We are soldiers who fought and died without hope of a second chance, or another life, giving up the only opportunity for the wondrous life experiment as a sacrifice to defend others. We do not exist, according to Dr. Jones. There are no atheists in foxholes.

We are the gay man tortured by men of god in ex-gay therapy. We are the lesbian subjected to reparative rape.

We are Asif Mohiuddin, a man in one of the very places Dr. Jones does not believe there are atheists, brutally attacked in Bangladesh for expressing his beliefs.

We are Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a man of colour who is one of the most respected scientific minds in America.

We are a woman in Uganda, afraid for her life, because American evangelicals have finally found a place willing to execute people for homosexuality.

We are everywhere. Of every nation, tribe, and colour. We are vocal and we are silent. We whisper in the dark. Each of us has a story, a culture, and a life. There is so much more to us – any of us – than elitism and privilege. Who among us is privileged? I dare say that more atheists can identify with the downtrodden and ostracised than a white man of privilege sitting on a golden throne in a temple, claiming to speak with the authourity of the Most High.

And yet Dr. Jones dismisses us. He says that there are none. None in Bangladesh or Lebanon. None in South Africa or India.

There are no room for exceptions in his statements. And so he invalidates us. Identifies us by what he can see rather than who we are. He could have said there are few atheists in the far corners of the world. He could have said that theism is overwhelmingly prominent among the poorest and most desperate hives of humanity, away from the modern Western world. He wouldn’t have been wrong. Some of us might have spoken up, saying there may be more of us than he believes, but at least he would have acknowledged that we are.

He did not use those words. He did not say few. He said There are none.

We are none.

Outside of the walls Dr. Jones has built for us, we are none.

And, as he has learned, no one likes to be told that they are none.

No one likes to have labels picked for them by others.

Would you say that homosexuality is exclusively for sex-addicted effeminate men and butch women like so many of your brothers and sisters in Christ do, Dr. Jones?

Would you say that drug use is exclusively for black people?

That public school teachers are people who can’t get a real job or find a rich spouse?

I don’t think so.

Then why are you doing it to us?

Being told that just because we are atheist, just because we may have white skin, that we are elitist and privileged is not only hurtful and lazy, it is not true. You imagine all of us as your friends in the halls of higher education, as the blogs you come across and read. If that was every atheist in the world, your box might have some truth to it.

But we are every colour, every nation, every education level, and every possible realm of the human experience. We are atheist and agnostic and people who neither know nor care. And if each of us shared with you our history with your religion, you may not be so eager to call us privileged. Many of us simply call ourselves survivors.

You made a personal statement of your own faith, Dr. Jones. I will not quarrel with it. But you brought us into it, each one of us, by stating that your personal faith depends on not wanting to be like us. And that desire is built on a perception of us that is a lie.

Keep your faith, Dr. Jones. But keep your labels as well.

4 thoughts on “Who We Are: A Response to Tony Jones

  1. That was really well written.

    I always bristle a bit when I hear someone make the connection between atheism and privilege. My grandfather was a factory worker, and an atheist. He was with the IWW and I think he may have come to it through socialism. Back when he was young it was not at all odd for someone from the working class to be that particular collection of things.

    My biggest problem with Jones’ reasoning is that I find it dehumanizing. It interprets the most important characteristic of human beings as being their membership in a particular group. It denies them individuality and agency. This was the crux of my struggle with the leftist view of history and contemporary society I internalized growing up. Rejecting that way of interpreting the world was the single biggest intellectual development for me, yet it’s left me fairly isolated from people on the left with whom I frequently agree on many more concrete issues.

    I wonder if it occurred to Jones that the corollary of standing with the majority is turning your back on the outcasts and the misfits.

    • “Dehumanizing.”

      That was the word I was looking for as well. I have the feeling that Dr. Jones would look at me and fit me into his ‘white, privileged atheist box.’ Or as not he would discard my voice as simply another ‘none.’

      Talk about dehumanising.

      • It took about a decade of trying to come up with what was wrong with leftist thought to articulate that. I never studied political science and I have a really hard time articulating my thoughts about things, which is one of the reasons I’ve been writing my autobiography. It reads right now like an ordinary coming of age narrative, but I’m hoping to be able to explain, not only to other people, but to myself, why I see the world the way I do, especially in terms of politics and sexuality.

        Just to be clear, although I tend to criticize the left a lot, I’m not a conservative. In the U.S. I’m pretty comfortable with people calling me a liberal, but outside of the U.S. that word doesn’t always convey the right meaning. The French call me a social democrat.

  2. Pingback: The Irish Atheist Strikes a Deal. | The Irish Atheist

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