Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Faith and...uh...charity?

On last Sunday's show, Matt and I got into it with one caller where we ended up pointing out, repeatedly, that religion is no less selfish than any other human activity. Certainly there is altruism in the things many people do. But altruism is usually understood as doing good for others without expectation of reward or personal benefit. And you don't find this activity in religious environments, with few exceptions. People pretty much practice whatever religion they subscribe to because they want something. You hear this admitted plainly by Christians who try to argue that God is necessary for morality. "If there were no God," they say, "I'd just go out and do whatever, kill people, who cares?" In other words, if there's no reward awaiting them for good behavior, why be good? Selfishness in its most childish form.

In the case of religion as an institution, it always wants something. And that something is more converts.

We see this no more plainly than in the case of religious charities. These little exercises are certainly undertaken due to the self-interest of the sponsors, regardless of what they may say. They're eager to be picking up brownie points with God, racking up a good Heavenly credit rating. And they get to show off how pious they are for the public, which, hopefully, will be good for business. I suppose that's a small kind of selfishness, and not in and of itself worthy of criticism.

Thing is, some churches take it a little too far. Case in point: the First Reformed Church of Hackensack, NJ. I'm not sure what they're claiming to be "reformed" from, but after this little embarrassment, some reform will surely be necessary.

Seems this church was litting a charity not directly affiliated with them, the FAITH Foundation, use their facilities for a Christmas dinner for about 100 homeless people. The church laid down a rule that homeless attendees first had to be subjected to prayers and a sermon — in short, a full scale church service — prior to being fed. In short: sales pitch first, then food.

The shelter's own director, Robin Reilly, realizing most of the attendees hadn't eaten a thing in more than 24 hours, went ahead and served dinner without the required god-bothering. Result: the church kicked her out. No Jesus, no food, is the rule at the First Reformed Church, evidently. Perhaps what they've been "reformed" from is basic human decency.

Robin Reilly did the right thing, and she's clearly one of the rare exceptions in an entire religious "charity" industry that's really all about targeting the most vulnerable people in our culture as easy converts. She's apparently had trouble before, failing to get the right permits and that sort of thing. But overall she's clearly a person who wants to help those who need help. Apparently the True Christians at the First Reformed Church have a difference of opinion concerning the idea that the Christmas season is all about the spirit of giving, the milk of human kindness, and all that hippie crap. Nope, Jesus is the reason for the season, and you better drop to your miserable knees now and realize that fact, you homeless piece of shit. Hell, you're practically falling down from starvation already, so it ought to be easy for you, right? And if not, well, hell, why don't you just get a job?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Today's "Duh!" moment

From the WaPo:

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers

Abstinence-only sex education is an exemplar of the neocon/religious right way of handling problems: wishful thinking. But it's no substitute for education. Teach students about the actual consequences of irresponsible and careless sexual behavior, teach them the benefits of protecting yourself and realizing that you're the one who makes the decisions about your body and no one else, and they'll be much better off. Basic human urges simply can't be swept under the rug with ritualized denialism. But they can be properly controlled and channelled if you have a good idea what can happen to you if you don't exercise a little common sense in knowing when to act, and when not to act, upon those urges.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Today on the show: Atheist evangelism

Today I'm cohost, and I'll be talking briefly about some recent efforts at atheist evangelism, specifically some highly publicized signs, billboards and bus ads, and I'll give my opinion on what I think are effective versus ineffective approaches to promoting atheism in the public square. This will basically be following up on recent posts here on the matter.

In other news, a T-shirt update: 32 still available for reservation out of the original 100.

Well, I didn't get to discuss my topic much, but that's because the calls were roaring in from the get-go and talking to callers is infinitely more interesting than anything I'd find to prattle on about. The chat room accompanying the online stream was on fire, too. Fun show today, overall.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bloggy slowness?

Had a commenter or two mention the blog seems to load a bit slowly. I've noticed on both Mac Safari and Windows Firefox, the main body of the blog loads normally, but there appears to be something in the sidebar causing a traffic jam. I suspect it could be that scrolling blogroll, but I'm not sure. Can't be the Paypal button; that's very simple code and I've never known a Paypal button to slow down any other page they're on.

Anyone else experiencing this?

Just sat here counting in my head, and by golly, the blog took a full 17 seconds before it fully loaded (that is to say, it was 17 seconds before the cursor stopped being an hourglass and I had full mouse control over the page). In Internet terms, 17 seconds is a small eternity. Hmm, what to do? Kazim?

Have we mentioned lately that Islamic culture is evil?

Well then, let's take up the slack, shall we? From Saudi Arabia, that oasis of egalitarian, progressive civilization at its apex [/snark], comes word that a court has ruled that the 8-year-old child bride of a 47-year old man, married off to him by her father as a way of paying off the father's debts to the man, will not be able to have the marriage annulled. But hey, at least the court is doing its best to let everyone know how fair they're being about all this. After all, they've gotten the groom to agree not to consummate the marriage until the girl reaches puberty, which means, lucky thing, that she's got until about age 11 or 12 before she gets raped. And once she hits puberty, she'll be allowed to file for divorce with the court. I'm sure they'll just as fair to her then as they're being now!

There are human rights organizations, apparently, even within Saudi Arabia, who are vehemently opposed to these arranged child marriages. How these organizations manage to exist without being regularly raided and their members dragged into the street and shot (oh, I forgot, "beheaded" is more Saudi style) is a question for another time. All we need to remember now is how this is just another indicator of how sick a society can get when fundamentalist religion — especially one as barbaric and misogynist as Islam — runs the show, and how, even a full decade into the 21st century, there are still victims of pre-medieval injustices living and suffering around the world today.

It would be nice if the US were willing to take a principled stand on this sort of thing. But you see, a little bit of oil is enough to lubricate a conscience rusty with such built-up gunk as "integrity" and "principle". And Saudi Arabia has much more than a little bit of oil to go around. Let's see, they force pre-pubescent kids into marriage, their radicalized young men crash planes into our buildings...but they'll always be our "allies". As long as the pumps are going.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ray probably exists, I think...

Ray has asked for evidence that Darwin existed and, as expected, has decided to imitate his strawman view of atheists by declaring every piece of evidence unacceptable because we can't be absolutely certain.

Here's my response:

"Ray's right, we can't be absolutely certain that Darwin existed. We can't be absolutely certain about any historical event.

But absolute certainty is a red herring, the only issue is one of reasonable certainty - that a claim has been verified as 'most probably true', to the best of our ability to do so. Some claims have more supporting evidence than others. Additionally, some claims require more evidence than others before they become 'reasonable'.

The only answer anyone needed to give, and the only answer that is correct is this:

We have sufficient evidence to claim that Darwin most probably existed and that the events attributed to his life (the voyage on the Beagle, his writings, articles about him by contemporaries - favorable and unfavorable, his family line, etc) are most probably accurate.

The same is true for George Washington, though the "I cannot tell a lie" story is most likely false, and there may be other romanticized, mytho-heroic tales attributed to him which aren't very accurate.

The same cannot be said for Paul Bunyan or King Arthur... or Jesus.

When we try to determine whether a particular historical figure existed, we have to collect the stories about them to define the personage we're trying to verify. If the preponderance of evidence confirms a significant portion of those stories, it's very probable that the individual existed.

If the stories are supported by nothing more than anecdotal evidence or hearsay, they're unreliable. If they also include claims of supernatural/magical abilities, they're better relegated to the "tall tales" bin.

Ray has mistakenly tried to represent the case for Jesus as being of a similar nature to the question of Darwin's existence. They're not remotely comparable - and if we find out tomorrow that Darwin never existed, that he was a fictitious invention, it doesn't change a single thing about the science of evolution or the value of the discoveries attributed to him. The same isn't true for Jesus.

Ray is comparing apples and motorcycles and making a childish appeal to absolute certainty where no such appeal is required or justified."

Though that will come as no surprise to anyone.

Merry Christmas (to those celebrating it for any reason). Happy Holidays, or not, to those who celebrate something else, or nothing at all. :)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Tis the season for naked commerce!

See that sexay Atheist Experience blog logo to the right there? It's currently being silk-screened on T-shirts. Admit it, you're too stylish not to wear one. I'm printing up a hundred (real screen printing, not the transfer stuff you get using online p.o.d. services), but it's easy enough to place a phone call if more are needed, so don't worry about size availability.

For those of you of a green bent, I'm considering totes too. What think you?

Matt Dillahunty has also been asked by some of the TV show viewers about offering a wider variety of ACA or AE TV show merch — stuff like shirts, mousepads, more mugs, whatever. He replied that he's thinking about that. If he or the organization ever decide to offer such stuff, assuming there's an interest, he'll offer it here as well as the regular TV show site if he wishes. What might you like to see, specifically?

And now, a rant: Christians can't be happy unless they're making gays unhappy. That's mean. Mean people suck.

What a sickening cesspool of hate and fear Christianity has become. How can so many of its adherents live with themselves, when they actively take steps to bully, victimize, and bring misery to the lives of a group of people for the sole crime of being different? Word comes from California that it isn't enough for the supporters of Proposition H8 that they've banned gay marriage. Now they want to nullify the thousands of marriages that were performed in the few brief weeks that gays and lesbians actually got to see what having a basic human right was like.

Look, I know there are many decent and tolerant Christians out there who were (and are) opposed to Prop H8, and supportive of gay rights and marriage equality. I'd suggest that if those people are intelligent enough to support those things, then they're intelligent enough to know that all of Christianity's superstitions about God and Satan and Heaven and Hell and choirs of angels and talking donkeys are bullshit, too. And the moral character they possess that, in addition to their intelligence, allows them to support equality and tolerance is something they possess despite, not because of, their Christianity. You can't get morals from an immoral religion. If you're progressive, tolerant, humane, decent, and Christian, well, one of those things is a fifth wheel. Pop it off. You don't need it.

After all, it's that fifth wheel that allows these confused people to set up websites called ProtectMarriage.com whose stated agenda is to destroy marriages by the thousands. See, a person who really was both intelligent and moral would see the oxymoron there, and say, "Hey, I'm being conned!"

Honestly, why is it that conservative Christians (who would be likely, actually, to agree with my assessment that tolerant progressives shouldn't be Christian either, as everyone knows they are the only True Christians) can't be happy unless they're making gays and lesbians unhappy at every opportunity? Because, you know. That's mean. Mean people suck. But then, so does Christianity. So it makes sense, I guess.

I get the impression that these are the family "values" True Christians enthusiastically favor, eh?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's first big screwup

Everyone is bitching about Barack Obama's ill-advised choice to ask pop-pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. I agree. Bad move, bad choice, total pandering. Warren talks a moderate game, but his views are not basically less conservative than the more blustery evangelicals out there. Warren's support of Proposition 8 (aka Proposition H8) in California last month sends a message to the gay community that this supposedly liberal new president may not necessarily be as friendly to their concerns as one might think.

I know that Obama and Warren likely don't see eye to eye on every single issue, and gay rights may be one of those issues. But you know, the company you keep says a lot about you. You'd think Obama might have learned a lesson about dubious religious affiliations earlier this year, what with all the flap about Wright. But maybe not. This could just be show business and not an indicator of how Obama's first term will play out in the big picture. But...it does seem as if Obama will bear watching. We shouldn't take him for granted, as many of his supporters have done, as some great progressive "messiah" who will usher in a new golden age in America, not just yet.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dec 14th Atheist Experience Topic

In a recent AE list dialogue, I was referred to as a Conspiracy Theorist on two counts. The first count was that I stated that while I would not say Jesus never existed, I also could not say that I am certain that he did. The second count was that I stated that the church drove the "official" doctrine by creating an environment where the more powerful and popular positions simply eliminated opposition--sometimes by execution, exile or destroying dissident books.

So, the intended topic for today will be a bit about Christian history, the shaping of doctrine and the historical response to "heresy." Assuming we get to it, we'll cover the idea that there were, in fact, divisions from the time the foundations of the church were being laid. Arguments between the apostles themselves and problems between apostles and the churches are clearly recorded in the New Testament texts.

The idea, that seems to be widespread in modern Christianity, that there was a time of doctrinal unity in the early Christian church, to which they should also adhere, is simply incorrect. There has never been a unified Christian doctrine, but Constantine (Roman Emperor, 272-337 CE) attempted to remedy that when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. If Christianity was to be endorsed and promoted by the government, it had to be defined--and that proved to be quite a task. He appointed Eusebius to work on producing a collection of texts while he called for a series of meetings (Nicea) to try and determine what would become the official church doctrine moving forward. The manuscripts Eusebius would collect would be used in conjunction with the doctrines determined in these debates. And his anthology would eventually (some centuries later) become the Bibles (there are still multiple "official" versions that contain different books) we recognize today as authoritative--meant to reflect and support a doctrine determined not by Jesus and his apostles, but rather by processes put in place much later by the Roman government. The Bible is, then, the result of an attempt to unify the Christian schisms in Rome under a legal Christian doctrine endorsed by Constantine, and to put an end to dissension, by force if necessary. Despite well documented history, the idea that the book is a message from god to Christians today has somehow sprung up and entrenched itself with modern fundamentalist Christians--many of whom are sometimes completely unaware of the basic facts surrounding the production of what today they labeled as "God's Word."

Some names and events to bone up on: Arius, Montanus, Priscillian of Avila, Nestorius, Library of Serapeum in Alexandria, Peter Abelard, Cathars of Languedoc / Albigensian Crusade.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Baby-eaters of the world, unite!

Just an amusing bit of edible art...nothing more.

Edit: I wasn't skeptical enough and didn't check this out - evidently they're made of clay and not marzipan. Still - if someone could make them out of marzipan, you might have a market! ;)

Ray's idea of justice...

Ray wrote:
"...would you want Dahmer to go to Hell? Or are you quite happy (assuming that you are an atheist) for him simply to be dead."

Since he's censoring many of my responses, here it is:

I'm not Alex, but I'll answer.

I'm satisfied that Dahmer was imprisoned for the remainder of his life and, unlike some of my liberal friends, I'd have been content to see him put to death by the state (a position that Dahmer is reported to have shared), though I generally oppose capital punishment on the grounds that the legal system isn't structured in such a way that we can satisfactorily prevent unjust executions.

I also wouldn't want to see him tortured, and certainly not forever. I don't think that's justice, it's revenge. He was beaten to death by a fellow inmate and some might consider that justice, but that's a very simplified view of justice that I don't share.

Interestingly, Dahmer is reported to have repented and accepted Christ as his savior. I have no idea if this is true, and neither do you, but it does raise two points:

1. If it is true (and if your religion is true) then any decent Christian should oppose the death penalty and, instead, prefer to give convicts as much time to repent and avoid hell as possible.

2. If it is true (and if your religion is true) then Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven, right now.

Do you think that's just? Clearly not, as you just used him as an example of someone that you feel most people should want to see sent to Hell.

You also mentioned Hitler. Hitler was, according to his public and private statements a devout Catholic and whether or not you accept that, you must accept that you don't know his 'heart' and aren't his judge, and that it's at least possible that he, too, could have been saved - even if only during his dying breath.

Your religious views have nothing to do with justice because they aren't based on punishing the wicked and rewarding the virtuous. There is no system of merit associated with salvation by grace. To you, salvation is a matter of capriciousness. A death-bed conversion is more valuable to your God than a life spent as a good person.

So, your dichotomy is false on several grounds. As an atheist, I don't have to simply be "quite happy" with the death of a murderer - I can be satisfied with a proper implementation of justice that denies the murderer liberty and, on occasion, life. Also, as an atheist, I never have to rationalize blood lust as justice or be dissatisfied that justice might be overturned by the whim of a divine dictator. I can, instead come to a proper understanding of justice that isn't bound by bronze-age myths.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The unofficial Atheist Experience response to Zeitgeist

So many people email us asking if we have seen the online movie "Zeitgeist" that we've had to come up with a stock response to people so that we don't have to keep explaining why it sucks so much.

Matt has been sending this response to emailers, and I have gotten his permission to repost it here on the blog.

Thanks for writing! Most of us have seen Zeitgeist and we've commented about it numerous times on both shows. I've actually watched it several times, and if others hadn't already done a brilliant job of debunking the nonsense in that film, I'd probably devote more time to doing exactly that.

The first third of the film is an unscholarly, sophomoric, horribly flawed, over-simplification that tries to portray Christianity as nothing more than the next incarnation of the astrologically themed religions that preceded it. Like all conspiracy theories, they combine a few facts, focus on correlations and build an intriguing story that seems to fit the pieces together nicely - provided you don't actually dig below the surface to find out where they might have gone wrong.

The second third of the film is full-on conspiracy theory nonsense that is a virtual cut-and-paste from the "Loose Change" 9/11 conspiracy video. The flaws in this portion have been expertly addressed on numerous websites, video responses and investigated not just by responsible publications like Scientific American but also thoroughly debunked by peer-reviewed science. There is no reliable evidence to support the fascinating fairy-tale they weave. Again, like all conspiracy theories, a few facts a compelling story and as long as you don't look behind the curtain, it can be fairly convincing.

The final third of the film is complete bullshit. The claims that taxes are illegal and that one doesn't have to pay taxes have been bandied about for years - and they've been tested in the courts. Anyone willing to actually refuse to pay their taxes based on the information in this film is likely to find themselves in a court room appearing very foolish as mountains of case law and precedent demonstrate the absurdity of their claim.

Zeitgeist is perhaps one of the most damaging films I've ever seen, because people who don't exercise proper skepticism buy into a flawed story and then repeat it. They may convince other folks, and what we'll end up with are a bunch of people who reject Christianity, for example, for very bad reasons - and the minute they come face to face with someone who can defend Christianity from these easily dismissed claims, they're likely to not simply be convinced they were wrong but also convinced that Christianity is therefore true (after all, we're talking about folks who weren't bothered to investigate the truth in the first place).

There are some facts in the film, but it's not particularly difficult to take a few facts, spin a clever story and make a very convincing case for something, despite having no rational, evidence-based justification for their beliefs.

I'd highly recommend you spend time looking around for websites and videos that offer rebuttals to the information in Zeitgeist. You might find that it's far less impressive than you originally thought.

To Matt's very thorough answer, I will add some links of my own.
  • This is an episode of the TV show that Matt and I did on conspiracy theories. While it is not about Zeitgeist in particular or even any 9/11 conspiracy, we touch on similar issues that are obviously intended to apply.
  • This is a blog post I wrote earlier describing my general reaction to the so-called "9/11 truth" movement.
  • This web site is a very thorough response to most of the various claims of the "9/11 truth" movement.
  • Everything you could possibly want to know about the ridiculous notion that you don't have to pay taxes is here. And here. And also here.
  • Updated, 6/24/09: A full critical analysis of the movie as a whole is here.
Future questions about Zeitgeist or any individual component of the claims in Zeitgeist will be directed to this post.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Ray's threat of hell...

In today's post at Ray Comfort's blog,

Ray wrote:

"...but I don’t think that people should become Christians because of a fear of Hell. Rather, they should come to Christ out of a fear of the God that can cast them into Hell.."

I've submitted the following response and I don't care if it gets posted there or not, it's worth adapting for our blog as well.

Ray, you cited Luke 12:4-5 to justify your position that we should fear God. While I'd normally point out that this is still an absurd doctrine of fear that isn't something I'd expect Christians to be proud of (and I will), you've attempted to avoid that response by claiming that there are two types of fear.

It's curious that you quoted 1 John 4:17, yet you didn't bother to note that it's verse 18 from which you draw the idea of fear as torment.

The text of verse 18 reads:

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love."

So, the question, Ray, is this:

What is your authority for claiming there are two different types of fear referenced in the passage in Luke?

The same word (English and Greek) for fear is used in both references (in Luke and 1 John). The passage you quoted from Luke also appears in Matthew (10:28) and relies on the same Greek word in that instance as well.

The 1 John passage doesn't say 'fear (phobos) can also mean torment (kolasis)' it says 'fear (phobos) involves torment (kolasis)'.

The author of 1 John isn't giving an alternate definition of fear, he's explaining that fear has/contains (a more accurate translation of the Greek 'echo') torment, intrinsically.

Or, more accurately, 'fear (phobos) does (instead of 'can also') mean torment (kolasis)'.

This is a subtle but significant point that will be important in a moment.

Now, I'm well aware that this word (fear/phobos) has several meanings, that's not my point. My point is that you're claiming that it means one thing in the first sentence and a different thing in the second sentence and you've provide no justification for that - nor have you offered a valid alternate definition (you appealed to some sort of 'common sense' fear).

Let's re-write Luke 12:4-5 substituting your definitions (or with the most valid definition to replace your 'common sense' pseudo-definition):

“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid (tormented) of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear (be in awe of): Fear (be in awe of) Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear (be in awe of) Him!"

It's worth noting that this passage is attributed to Jesus and one would presume that you consider it to be an accurate Greek representation of what he originally said.

I find it patently absurd for you to claim that this passage, is referencing two different types of fear.

Firstly, there is no indication from 1 John 4:18 that there are two different types of fear, as you claim - that's simply an explanation that fear includes torment.

Secondly, you're implying that Jesus was such a poor thinker that he would construct a 'not this - but this' comparison with predicates that have entirely different meanings and, as if that wasn't enough, you're implying that he was so careless with his words that translators were forced to use the same word to mean two different things (despite other words being available), even though he surely must have realized that this would lead to centuries of confusion over what he meant.

The verse is clear - 'Don't fear those who can simply kill you, but fear Him who can kill you and punish you forever.'

This is a clear threat of hell.

It's clear in the Greek and in the English. Your appeal is a sophomoric apologetic that simply rationalizes your preferred softening with sophistry.

What's worse is that even with your softened re-rendering, the text is still simply a threat of hell - because that's the power that determines which personage one should fear.

There are only two reasons that I've been able to come up with for why you didn't simply say "Yes, we're supposed to fear God because he can send us to hell." (A position that, while I despise it, would have at least earned you some respect for honesty.)

1. You really don't have any firm understanding of what you're talking about.

2. You were afraid of facing the contradiction that arises when one verse tells you to love god, another tells you to fear god and a third says that there is no fear in love.


Now, as a quick end-of-post comment:

The simple truth is that the fire-and-brimstone preachers used to use this precise passage to support their message. After all, we have Jesus directly telling you to fear God because of what he can do to you after you're dead. Ray, I believe, knows this and he knows the distaste the general public has for fire-and-brimstone preachers, so he's twisting and turning like a twisty-turny-thing in order to convince someone - anyone - that he's not like those guys.

He doesn't think we should fear Hell, just the guy who can send us there - because he can send us there - but not really fear, in the sense of being terrified, but fear in the common-sense, 'healthy respect for'-fashion.


I therefore request that Fred Phelps of Shirley Phelps-Roper take a few minutes and call Ray to explain why his particular brand of exegesis isn't Biblical. It may be more pleasant to Ray, but that's only because he's desperately trying to soften the message.

Ya hear me, Shirley? I'm tired of beating on Ray, it's your turn!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Can't we kick Cynthia Dunbar to the curb yet?

Good grief. If it weren't bad enough that this woman is a far-right wing space muffin who actually thinks Barack Obama is in league with terrorists, now we find out that this person who sits on the Texas State Board of Education, for fuck's sake, has actually written a book (I hope she got a lot of use out of her Speak & Spell) excoriating the very concept of public schools as "unconstitutional," "tyrannical," and "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

If this isn't putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, I don't know what is!

I've always been both amused and bemused by the way in which right-wing Christian fundagelicals not only actively resist knowledge and education, but take bizarre pride in their own intellectual and educational deficits. Fine, let them live out their lives as clueless idiots. But when they have the power to influence the educations of an entire generation of students, potentially derailing the future of the entire country as a consequence, that's going just the teensiest bit too far, is it not?

Please, write the governor. This cannot stand.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it's a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there's no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn't true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn't all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we're prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I'm not a Malcolm X, "by any means necessary" atheist, because not all means work. And while it's a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn't necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. "Ah ha," sayeth the atheist blogosphere, "does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?" Well, maybe, but then, let's look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called "overplaying your hand."

Look, you won't get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole "time and place" concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message...well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren't going to read that last sentence and think, "By golly, they're right. How gullible and foolish I've been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions." No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you're all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens' faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you're a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don't have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that's what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a "War on Christmas"?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn't mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to "promoting positive atheism."

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read "Imagine No Religion." That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins' words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that's where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole "religion is superstition and, really, isn't it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky" thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, "What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?"

"But Martin," you say, "the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, 'consciousness-raising' billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!"

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I'm sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read "Don't believe in God? You're not alone.") then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it's easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it's all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say "the Capitol grounds is everybody's turf," but I'm dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I'd have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person's goodness comes, not from what they believe or don't believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it's from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don't have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that's more than the FFRF's present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountiful Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.

Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of "Uncle Tom" atheism. Another commenter wrote, "What you are saying boils down to, 'If you're not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.'" Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I've responded in detail in the comments myself.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

For those of you still dubious about Ebert...

...he has just delivered unto Ben Stein pwnage for the ages. Some choice tidbits.

Hilariously, [Expelled] argues that evolutionists cannot tolerate dissent. If you were to stand up at a "Catholic and mainstream Protestant" debate and express your support of Creationism, you would in most cases be politely listened to. There are few places as liberal as Boulder, Colo., where I twice debated a Creationist at the Conference on World Affairs, and yet his views were heard politely there. If you were to stand up at an evangelical meeting to defend evolution, I doubt if you would be made to feel as welcome, or that your dissent would be quite as cheerfully tolerated.

And there is worse, much worse. Toward the end of the film, we find that Stein actually did want to title it "From Darwin to Hitler." He finds a Creationist who informs him, "Darwinism inspired and advanced Nazism." He refers to advocates of eugenics as liberal. I would not call Hitler liberal. Arbitrary forced sterilization in our country has been promoted mostly by racists, who curiously found many times more blacks than whites suitable for such treatment.

Ben Stein is only getting warmed up. He takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.

And my own favorite:

Why are [creationists] always trying to push evolutionists over the edge, when they're the ones clinging by their fingernails?

Bask, people, bask.

Proud dad

Yesterday my son Ben, age 6, brought me Dan Barker's "Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong" and told me he had read it. I hadn't asked him to. He just found it in his bookcase and started reading, and apparently finished the thing on his own.

I was a bit skeptical since I've never yet known him to read anything that long, so I asked him some questions about it. He remembered the part where the girl had to decide whether to put her cat to sleep. I asked him why she decided to do it. He thought for a few seconds and said "Because of her principles. But it's not like the principal in school."

Then he wanted to read the book to me, and I noticed that he does voices like I do when I read. It's subtle, but in a cartoon scene where a kid and an adult are talking, the kid definitely has a higher voice.

That book, by the way, is signed by Dan Barker: "For Russell and Ben, Freethinking Friends."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Kirk Cameron, ACTOR!

I want to give a shout out to this great post on Slacktivist. Fred has been doing a long critique of the "Left Behind" series of books, and he's recently turned to the first movie as a break from reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed his merciless critique of Kirk Cameron as an actor. Here's just a taste:

This is where Cameron confesses that he doesn't believe or understand that virtue is a craft and craft is a virtue. Cameron describes his life before his conversion:

"There was this aching, empty feeling that left me very disillusioned with the business I was working in," he says. "What else was there? What else did I have to shoot for? I'd basically reached the top of the ladder, and I was 18."

He had "reached the top of the ladder," Cameron said. And he still seems to believe that this is true.

That's an astonishing thing for him to believe when you realize that at this same time he was being introduced to the newest member of Growing Pains' cast: Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now certainly DiCaprio's work as Luke Brower-Seaver, the show's Cousin Oliver, wasn't on the same level as the quality of work he would later go on to do, but he was already clearly a talented and committed actor. Just one year after Growing Pains was canceled he was astonishingly good in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, so I think it's safe to assume that he was already an obviously better actor than Cameron at the time they worked together.

So for at least one year of his professional life, then, Kirk Cameron was confronted, regularly, by an example of what a real actor his own age should look like. And yet he spent all that time on the same set with and in the same scenes as DiCaprio without apparently learning anything -- without even seeming to realize that he needed to learn anything.

I really have to admire how much this post hit the nail on the head in terms of what bothers me about many Christian testimonials -- often they are simply incredibly arrogant about how successful they supposedly were before their conversion. The whole thing about how "I had everything, and I felt so empty." Come on, seriously. There's always more you can do. You never have everything. Especially if "everything" to you is being an actor with the talent level of Kirk freaking CAMERON. (I neither endorse nor reject Fred's opinion about Leonardo, however.)