More on microaggressions

I reflect on microaggressions atheists may face and discuss my thoughts concerning conversation with those who may utter microaggressions.

I authored a post titled ‘Microaggressions atheists experience‘ in early 2013 during my participation in a multicultural counseling class. Within the post, I listed some comments which may fall under the categories of microagressions — subtle messages directed at an underprivileged or oppressed group that people send — that atheists would face, but did not delve into how I handle situations concerning microaggressions.

More recently, last weekend, someone asked me a question similar to ‘Are there questions people ask you which you may find annoying or otherwise are sick of hearing?’ during a meeting I attended. I responded saying that I don’t particularly find questions annoying or find myself sick of hearing questions, but rather — upon hearing some questions — hope to start a worthwhile conversation educating others and possibly learning something myself.

Rather than becoming upset, overly emotional, or shutting down what could be a productive conversation, I maintain level-headedness and simply discuss. In almost all scenarios, conversation remains civil and other people have the opportunity to ask more questions, learn something, and hopefully have a good impression of atheists. It’s very often the case — at least in some recorded open-to-the-public debates and discussions I had — that audience members and participants had kind words and said that they learned something.

Perhaps my educational background in philosophy and my general openness/willingness allows for me to have a level head and leads me to embrace discussion. Some atheists, though, unfortunately won’t be as willing to discuss following certain alleged microaggressions and can actually turn a potential for a productive discussion into a negative situation entrenching the negative stereotypes surrounding atheists.

Prominent atheist writer Greta Christina, for instance, published a piece in 2013 titled ‘9 Questions Not To Ask Atheists – With Answers‘ in which she writes that non-atheists just shouldn’t ask atheists certain questions.

She writes,

“Sometimes the questions get asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they get asked douchily, in a hostile, passive-aggressive, “I’m just asking questions” manner. But it’s still not okay to ask them. They’re not questions that open up genuine inquiry and discourse: they’re questions that close minds, much more than they open them. Even if that’s not the intention. And most people who care about bigotry and marginalization and social justice — or who just care about good manners — don’t ask them.”

Some religious individuals naively hold unfair assumptions about atheists as Christina mentions. Such unfair assumptions can be challenged through genuine discourse and inquiry even if the questioner doesn’t enter into discussion with an open mind. Negative attitudes may not change as a result of one encounter with an atheist, but a conversation may lead to more inquiry on a religious person’s behalf.

Christina writes,

“But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking. And if you do want to know more about atheism, please stop and think about the questions you’re asking — and the assumptions behind them — before you do. Thanks.”

It’s simply not the case that all religious people are going to be initially self-reflective and question their assumptions because they lack the insight to do so – they don’t question their negative assumptions because they are unaware that the assumptions are flawed. It’s quite unrealistic to expect people to do research prior to moments of understanding in which entrenched beliefs are challenged.

Throughout my tenure as an activist for separation of church and state also advocating for fellow atheists, I’ve encountered many negative attitudes from religious individuals. Early on, I would be more prone to dismiss questions and react in a more defensive manner, but over time I’ve grown to morph what might be hostile or ignorant remarks into more productive learning opportunities.

I’ll answer questions religious believers have and be very happy to engage in discussion. Although I’ve heard questions like ‘If you don’t believe in God, what basis do you have to be a good person’ several times, I’ll continue to answer questions with hopes that people will better understand my perspective and have better impressions about atheists. I don’t become angry or demand that people not ask certain questions.

I don’t particularly find anger to be a helpful component of activism lest it bring about positive action and I certainly do not want to direct my anger at religious individuals by turning a possible productive conversation into a negative experience which furthers others’ misconceptions.

Some religious individuals have such misconceptions about atheists because of indoctrination, lack of conversation with atheists, and mere unfamiliarity with other perspectives. Why become angry with people or think of people as being hostile when they simply don’t know better? Sure, it’s possible that some religious individuals can be — as Christina says — hostile and closed-minded, but this simply won’t always be the case.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.