Stereotyping or generalizing can be dehumanizing and disrespectful if you attribute characteristics - especially ills or deficiencies - to an individual without getting to know them, simply because they are part of a particular group. But while I can see how Christianity should push back against such a thing, why should atheism concern itself with denouncing stereotypes? In fact, atheism should encourage stereotyping. Let me explain how a consistent atheist should view the usefulness of stereotyping if he is to be consistent in his worldview.
Given naturalism, stereotyping aids an individual in evolutionary survival and advancement. To understand means or tools, which is what a stereotype is, I think it's first important to understand the ends or purposes. I categorize atheist purposes into two major groups. The first group recognizes survival as the goal of humanity and other living organisms, while the other type of atheism takes a more seeks pleasure or autonomy as the overarching goal. These guiding goals are not objective "oughts" that exist, but rather observations of tendencies within living organisms. They are stereotypes of what living organisms tend to pursue. In both cases, to fulfill these desires, stereotyping is a very important means to achieve either end. Like the scientific method, stereotyping or generalizing is inductive reasoning at its very core, so it is helpful for rational creatures to use for evolutionary advantage. Here are a few examples:
1. Prosopagnosia – This is a disorder of the brain. Our brains are created to recognize patterns. One of the patterns we are significantly keen to is the recognition of faces, or even recognizing that we’re seeing a face in the first place. People with prosopagnosia are unable to generalize faces and recognize specifics. Evolutionarily, this inability to generalize puts them at a disadvantage.
2. Aphasia – This is a disorder in which an individual is unable to recognize writing, or unable to speak or write. While it may never have occurred to you that the recognition of writing is a difficult chore, consider that you are able to recognize a plethora of symbols in a plethora of fonts. You can even recognize symbols in fonts or languages you’ve never seen before. How do you do this? You do it by recognizing patterns, or stereotyping/generalizing. If we did not generalize in this way, we'd have to individually learn each new font before you could recognize the letters that font represented.
3. Pareidolia – This is the phenomenon whereby we recognize patterns where none exist. For example, look at the picture at the top of this post. Do you see a face? The fact that your brain recognizes a "face" is an example of pareidolia. The general consensus among naturalists is that humans have evolved to recognize patterns. This is such a strong inclination, we even recognize patterns at times when none may truly exist. The argument goes that it’s better to perceive danger (I see a tiger) when none is present (it’s just a shadow) than to not perceive danger (a tiger is really there stalking me) and not react (I get eaten).
4. Can you read this? If so, it's because your mind is able to take advantage of generalizing.
5. The FBI and other agencies hire criminal profilers, because they understand that certain actions often have very similar root causes or types of individuals behind them.
The list could go on....
So in the grand scheme of things, stereotyping and pattern recognition are very important tools to utilize, even if the tool is applied incorrectly at times. In fact, nature seems to encourage over-application in a "better safe than sorry" approach.We may want to correct those instances in which we make mistakes, but it’s extremely valuable that we don’t squelch people or ourselves from stereotyping, particularly from a consistent atheistic standpoint where the goal is or should be maximizing either survival and/or pleasure/autonomy. With such good data collection in modernity, stereotyping can be much more accurate than it's ever been and supplies us with reasonably accurate probabilities as we assess individuals, groups, and situations.
I think it’s also important to note that stereotyping isn’t typically done for no good reason. It’s done because we’ve made significant observations over time. For instance, Crash is a great movie that takes a look at stereotypes. While the movie deals with all sorts of groups and stereotypes, one of the most interesting scenes involves a rant by Sandra Bullock’s character (some harsh language is used in this clip) after she’d been robbed by two black men. She talks about how her instincts told her to be cautious as the two men approached, but her political correctness overtook her instincts, which caused her to be vulnerable. While we can argue problems with our current criminal justice system, discuss the issues of poverty and oppression of minorities, etc - as it stands, “one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.” (NAACP). So given these generalized statistics and with two black men approaching her, Bullock potentially had a 33% chance of coming face to face with a convict/potential convict. From a survival/thriving standpoint, those are undesirable odds. Compare that to a 3% chance if those approaching were white males. While a 3% chance is still undesirable, Bullock's guard - statistically speaking - should have understandably been much higher in her situation. From an evolutionary standpoint, a consistent atheistic worldview should not say that Bullock was doing anything bad by stereotyping to increase her chances of survival and/or pleasure.
Let’s flip the lens and look at racists. When we look at racism in general, the stereotype would be to point fingers towards the South. Is it racist or ethnically uncouth to stereotype those from the South as being racist? Let’s take a look at the data. After Obama's second election, Twitter was a great way to see racism in action. And guess where most of the racist data pointed? Southerners. Which states are more outspoken and fail to hide their racism? The Southern states. We could mix this data with other polls that may help indicate racism, such as an overall poll and a poll about sympathies for the confederacy (obviously many may hold to this for state’s rights, but some almost certainly for racial reasons). Using the aforementioned example from Crash, let's pretend the setting of the movie was in the South. If that had been the case, the two black men robbing Bullock's character may have been just as reasonable to assume that Bullock was a racist as Bullock was to assume they were convicts. While that understanding of statistical probability in regard to racism may not have changed the two men's actions, understanding such a statistic could be very beneficial to minorities who want to maximize their chances of survival and pleasure, as they choose where to live, how to act in different areas or situations, who to trust, etc.
Examples abound where stereotyping is founded in truths and probabilities. Young earth creationists are probably more closed to current scientific consensus. Theistic evolutionists are probably more liberal in their theology and believe less in biblical infallibility. College students love free food. Middle schoolers are weird and stink. Single parents don’t typically fare as well as two parent homes, and as every educator learns, the best indicator of a child’s success is their socioeconomic status. Real world examples of stereotypes abound and often have a legitimate foundation. They help us to determine when to be on guard, where benefits or pitfalls may lie, where and how to allocate our resources most effectively, and so forth. While you may only have a 20% chance of being correct in a given situation, when it comes to survival or allocating limited resources, it simply makes sense – given naturalism – to stereotype, not only when dealing with theoretical data, but with every actual, individual encounter.
At this point, the non-religious may argue that the golden rule predates Christianity, and is an intuitive moral truth. Humans seem to recognize that society flourishes when we do unto others as we'd like them to do to us - which would include not stereotyping or being stereotyped: "I help others because I want to be helped in a similar situation." There's a societal trust and foundation that is built by such a view. While this may be true to a certain extent, it raises two very big issues. First, it points out - just like the atheist Christopher Hitchens states in his video linked in the following paragraph - that altruism under atheism is really just a form of self service. The Golden Rule is important because it generally benefits society, and I am part of that society that receives the benefit. That's an awfully depressing truth to accept without strong grounds. Secondly, the Golden Rule is only evolutionarily effective and true in an equal community. It may be important and beneficial for me to help those in my community or those of equal status and power so as not to ostracize myself when my time of need arises, But why not indulge my darkest pleasures and avoid giving of myself when traveling outside of my community? If I hurt someone or avoid giving when others are in need - as long as I do so outside of my community - I have few/no repercussions to fear. And if I have significant power, as dictators and tyrants do, of what use is the Golden Rule to me? Without an objective moral grounding that is true through all ages and regardless of a subject's perception or whims, the Golden Rule is only a good suggestion to the masses that may generally prove useful across the world today, but holds no inherent value or meaning. It's only "good" in so far that it serves an individual's purposes.
The same, however, does not follow from a Christian worldview. While a Christian can certainly be aware of such data, and while they may choose to act on it at times, they should not be constrained by the data. Whereas on naturalism one should be considered stupid, irresponsible, and lacking in evolutionary wit to avoid listening to their instincts of stereotypes (like Bullock’s character lamented in the clip), on Christianity, one should be gracious, loving, merciful, and generous to do so. Those altruistic notions make no sense on naturalism, as even those things we consider altruistic are really driven by self-interest (see Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, etc - see portion on morality in this post). But on Christianity, we are given the tools to be all of those things, though we certainly fail in implementing them much of the time. And on what grounds does Christianity provide for altruism and love?
1. We are made in God’s Image– Whenever we’re talking about human value, the notion that ALL humans are created in God’s image is huge. Everyone, regardless of their background, is a valuable human being worthy of dignity and my love. We all bear this image, not because of our accomplishments, pedigree, or ability to intellectually ascertain that image. It is intrinsic to all humans and cannot be stripped away, regardless of individual or group affiliation. It is inalienable, as our founders put it.
2. We are Them: Christianity is very clear on the sinfulness and unworthiness of all who would stand before God apart from Christ. We are refugees who have had our lives and homes destroyed by sin, our very nature corrupted by our decisions and our experiences, and our only possibility of hope resting in the generosity and love of another. Yes, it may be more possible that the person I’m meeting is a convict or a racist, but who am I? Is my slate clean? Am I innocent of discrimination and ill will towards others? Am I without fault? Not even close. We’re in the same boat as those we stereotype.
3. We are Forgiven: One of the most convicting passages in the Bible is that which tells the story of a king who loans a wealthy man who a huge sum of money. The man is unable to pay the king back, but the king forgives his debt. However, this wealthy man loans a pittance to a peasant, who is then unable to pay back the debt. Rather than forgiving the peasant of his debt, the wealthy man has him thrown into jail. When the king finds out that the man he forgave was unwilling to forgive, he punishes him severely and casts him out of his presence. As Christians, we believe that we are that wealthy man. We have been forgiven so much. Nobody could ever owe us more than we owe our king. Despite our wretched, sinful condition, our king took on the status of a peasant, lived a long, meager life, and died a torturous death for us. If he could do that for us in our state, shouldn’t we reach out in love and forgiveness to others? Even if we’re right, and the individual we stereotype is actually a racist, a convict, or whatever else, we have no grounds as the loved and forgiven to do anything but reach out in love and forgiveness.
4. We are God’s: Finally, Christians have a perspective that naturalists don’t. While atheists live and die as nature determines, Christians don’t have to fear such helpless, unguided determinism. It’s not that there is no fear because God always protects from physical harm or death, and it’s not that God has promised the Christian an easy life. Rather, as Romans 8:28 ff. says, he has promised that all things work together for good, a) to those who love God, and b) as defined as that which conforms us to the image of Christ.
Christians have thus been promised that we will be made like Christ, which often is done via suffering. Christians also realize that this process of sanctification is not completed here on earth, but will be completed after we all stand before God’s presence in the future. While we can enjoy our life here on earth, and while God often does provide in simple ways and with a multitude of blessings, the greatest blessing and the only thing we are learning to live for is the transformation of our bodies and wills so we can and will be able to live in the presence of God forever, in a world as it should be. So even if one's stereotype is right, and the refugees knocking on our door pose a threat to my physical and economic security, my hope does not lie in maximizing my life or pleasure. Rather, it lies in the grace, mercy, and love that I've been shown, and have been called to show others
It is my hope that this post helps you to see the importance of a solid, grounded morality. While everyone can live relatively moral lives, many are not able to do so consistently. This is a huge pitfall faced by those who hold a naturalistic point of view. The inconsistency of the view and the depressing conclusions it leads to certainly don’t disprove it. However, we are reasonable beings who have not been created to live with such cognitive dissonance. We need a resolution. On atheism, I see that lack of resolution often resulting in self-deception (altruism really can exist on naturalism! stereotypes are bad! Humans do have intrinsic value beyond what they can do or what they contribute!). Where there is consistency and acceptance of reality under atheism, the result is often nihilism. C.S. Lewis, in his book "The Abolition of Man," writes almost prophetically about man's throwing off of objective morality, leading to nihilism - or as he calls it, the "abolition of man." But on Christianity, we do not live with cognitive dissonance in the moral realm. We can truly be whole men and women as we were created to be, living out lives and ideals that are not in conflict with reality.
So why should we help refugees? Because there is an objective moral law that demands we love and provide for others. There is a moral law giver who exemplified unconditional love, grace, and mercy for us. And there is a savior who has redeemed us from our fallen natures, and made such love possible. We love because we have first been loved. We are not men without chests. We are not wayward nihilists or inconsistent atheists who should live only for our pleasure or survival, or who pride ourselves on grandiose morals that are fickle and fleeting with times and on whims. We are children of a loving father who are doing his work, loving his creation, obeying his charge, and longing for a realized redemption that does not come from hording life and wealth here and now, but rather in investing in the immaterial and the eternal: faith, hope, and love.