Archive for July, 2009

A polite smackdown

A polite smackdown So, an atheist group is lo0king for someone to redesign their website. And a web design firm turns them down, saying, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we are a good fit for developing your website as we are committed Christians. I think it would be difficult for us to give our all to a website promoting values and beliefs with which we don’t agree.”

He replies, “Our foundation is dedicated primarily to the encouragement of charitable giving among the nonreligious but will be supporting both religious and secular charities. I would only want to work with someone who shares those values of generosity and openness, who sees the importance of reaching across lines of difference. Thanks for letting me know that you don’t agree with such values.”]

And then sticks the knife in (oh so politely):  “My current website was created by two committed Christians, one of whom is a past administrator for the Campus Crusade for Christ. They noted our differences but recognized that we share the same core values of mutual respect and a desire to make the world a better place.”


Sunday Sermon: Is “Dear God” really the best we can do?

I really like XTC (the band, that is — I’ve never tried the drug), and I’m an atheist. So logically, I should love their atheist anthem “Dear God,” right?

But I don’t love it. I don’t even like it. I can stand to listen to it (Andy Partridge writes good tunes), but I actively dislike the lyrics. Here’s why:

First of all, there’s the underlying assumption that God actually does exist, whether we believe in him or not. The same assumption behind the question “Do you believe in God?” The same assumption that gets some atheists’ backs up because they’ve already been put in a rhetorical box just by the way the question is framed.

Secondly, there’s the assumption that the God in question is the Judeo-Christian-Muslim one, as if it’s the only one worth talking about. You could argue, therefore, that “Dear God” isn’t an atheist anthem, merely an anti-Christian (or anti-Judeo-Christian-Muslim) one, but I don’t know of anyone who thinks of it like that.

But my main objection is that the lyrics are just so simplistic, superficial and, frankly, childish. They sound like the rantings of a 14-year-old who just discovered that the universe isn’t perfect. It’s the kind of argument that Christian apologists set up as a strawman, just because it’s so easy to knock down.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the universe having some overly simplistic whining about religion. But the problem is, because XTC is a fairly famous band (and a good one), “Dear God” is easily the most famous song in the world (at least the English-speaking world) that carries an atheist or anti-religion message.

As such, it creates the impression that the fatuous, petulant whining found in the song is the best the atheist side can do when it comes to critiquing religion through song. Surely that’s not the case … is it?

Could any you, my legions of loyal readers (and by “legion” I of course mean “tiny handful”), come up with better examples? I’d love to hear about them.

Being polite vs. being respectful

truth_v_lies_cartoon“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”
H. L. Mencken

Respect for religion vs. respect for people who are religious — what does it mean to respect someone’s beliefs, or to respect someone who has certain beliefs? And is it the same thing?

Who’s being more respectful, “accommodationists” who tiptoe around people’s religious beliefs like adults who don’t tell kids there’s no Santa Claus, or “New Atheists” who treat religious believers like adults rather than like children who should be condescended to because they’re not mature or intelligent enough to handle the truth (or at least someone else’s version of it)?

As Mencken notes, respecting someone’s right to believe something (or acknowledging that it’s polite not to disabuse someone of cherished notions) isn’t the same as respecting the belief itself.

Let’s say you believe (as some people actually do) that sexually molesting children can be good for them. Do you have a right to believe that? Absolutely. Do you have a right to proclaim that view? Yes, you do. Do you have a right to demand that you be respected as a human being, with human rights and human dignity? Yes. Do you have a right to demand that your view on molestation be respected? No. Sorry, just no. Not at all.

Of course, as Mencken also notes (or at least implies), there are some viewpoints we’re not supposed to take issue with, even if they’re obviously untrue. And one could certainly argue that a religious belief could be right up there with a belief in a spouse’s desirability or the intelligence of one’s children.

The interesting question is, how should we respond if someone asks us how we feel about their belief? Maybe the best response is to simply note that it’s a big world with lots of different people who believe different things. And if they try to push it beyond that, then maybe they don’t get to be picky about the response they get.

(Cartoon via Atheist Comics blog)

A new word is created – but is it intelligently designed?


“Faitheists” is a newly coined word for the “I’m an atheist, but …” crowd I referred to in an earlier post — the folks who go beyond merely tolerating religion to actively praising it. I’m not sure the word’s all that great, and it’s certainly subject to misinterpretation (e.g. some people might think it means having faith in atheism or some such nonsense), but it has the advantage of being short and sweet.  (via Pharyngula) (T-shirt pic via Zazzle)

Sunday Sermon: Holy Eucharist, Batman!

communionI’ve been talking a lot about “New Atheists” and “accommodationists” recently, so this might be a good time to take a look at a controversy from last year, when militant atheist PZ Myers deliberately desecrated a Catholic communion wafer and provoked a storm of controversy.

From the “atheist etiquette” POV, of course, it’s anything but polite to deliberately offend someone, and very few things are more offensive to Catholics than a deliberate desecration of what they believe to be the actual body of Jesus Christ.

But there’s an interesting double standard at work here. The assumption seems to be that if somebody views a wafer made of flour and water to be the body of Jesus, and treats it accordingly, we should respect that view, no matter how silly or misguided we believe it to be.

If that’s true, then what about the belief that a wafer made of flour and water is, well, just a cracker? What if someone believes that, and treats that wafer accordingly — that is to say, with no more respect than we’d give to any other inanimate object? Shouldn’t we respect that viewpoint, and that action, just as much as we respect the other view?

Last time I checked, the Golden Rule was one of the “biggies” in Christian doctrine. Why aren’t any of the outraged Catholics applying it? If they would have others respect their view that a communion wafer is more than “just a cracker,” shouldn’t they respect the view that it isn’t?

(Communion cartoon via St. James Westminster Anglican Church, London)

Easier said than done

moonhoaxDennett on the “I’m an atheist, but …” crowd

Philosopher and “New Atheist” Daniel Dennett basically says we shouldn’t be overly solicitious of beliefs we consider silly, and that people need to be helped to get over their religious notions, rather than being coddled for refusing to let them go.

Nothing really new in that, but note the Guardian’s correction at the end, and how it undermines Dennett’s goal of calling a spade a spade without fear of causing offense:

• This article was amended on Thursday 16 July 2009. Moon-landing sceptics were referred to as “loonies”, contrary to the Guardian style guide. This has been corrected.

Looks like atheist accommodationists aren’t the only ones who show an extreme, perhaps excessive, regard for others’ beliefs.

(moon landing pic via Master Jerome Entertainments)

Making accommodations


Answering the Accommodationists isn’t really etiquette-oriented (it’s mainly a discussion of how far the promoters of evolution education should go in reaching out to religious types who might want to ban it). But it does tie in to the subject of this blog, which involves deciding just how far to accommodate oneself to the reality of a world where most people are religious, and even some of the nicest ones have a deep-seated prejudice against atheists. Here’s a particularly relevant passage:

“The accommodationist strategy implicitly validates the very prejudice it seeks to counter: that faith is superior to science and should win out if the two conflict. This would be like a person who lived during the suffragist era conceding the anti-feminist argument that women are intellectually inferior to men, but arguing that they should get to vote anyway, because after all, we don’t make men pass intelligence tests to vote, do we?”

That last bit strikes me as interesting, and probably wrong. Was nobody in those days making an argument along those lines? Really?

IIRC, lots of abolitionists (and Abe Lincoln, who wasn’t exactly an abolitionist, but was close) believed whites were superior to people of other races, but simply felt that slavery was cruel. Lots of people think lab rats have the same rights as humans, but I doubt those people think lab rats are equally as capable as humans. And surely nobody thinks everyone with a right to vote is intelligent enough to vote sensibly. I’d bet money that there were suffragists (perhaps even suffragettes) who were happy to concede that men were more intelligent.

But I’m getting off track here. Perhaps the anti-accommodationists are as well, and/or the accommodationists.

One group is focused tightly on the teaching of evolution (properly) in schools, and happy to distance themselves from, or even write off entirely, atheists (especially the more militant ones). Ignore Dawkins and his ilk, they say — we’re not all like them, and lots of us are religious. Belief in God and Jesus and even the Bible (interpreted the right way) isn’t threatened one bit by modern science.

The other group is fighting to promote understanding and acceptance of atheism, and perfectly willing to alienate the devoutly religious by stating baldly that such a worldview is starkly incompatible with a reality-based view (including, but not limited to, the fact that we evolved from apes and that our ape ancestors evolved from much more primitive forms, etc.).

One problem with this schism, a problem that plays right into the hands of creationists, is that it creates the impression that the accommodationists are lying, that they’re hiding the incompatibility of science and religion as part of a devious plot to lure impressionable youth into the “science” camp.

Creationists can claim that the accommodationists’ real objection to Dawkins et al isn’t that they’re strident or alienating, but that they’re giving away the secret. Perhaps there’s a bit of psychological projection going on here — creationists assuming that their enemies practice the same strategies and tactics as themselves.

Certainly there are religious movements (including some very large, very mainstream ones) that cloak the sillier and nastier aspects of their worldview behind innocent-seeming platitudes, and wait until new converts are firmly hooked before getting into the nitty-gritty details of what their theology really states and implies.

But I’m getting off track again. Overall, I have to say my gut feeling is that we should at least show respect (whether we feel it or not) for diverse views (no matter how silly), and surely the world is big enough not only for both religion and atheism, but for accommodationism and anti-accommodationism, and for even those who are certain they’re right to admit that there’s at least a slight possibility that they might be wrong.

After all, if creationists and other Christians want to complain about the “dogmatism” of some atheists, why don’t the rest of us agree to drop the dogmatism — and suggest the Christians do the same?

(Creationism cartoon via Pharyngula)

Sunday Sermon: Sometimes a scarf is just a scarf

atheist_melonAssuming Jesus of Nazareth really existed (and I have no problem with the notion that he did), there’s still no record of what he looked like, or what his mom looked like. Maybe he had a beard and long hair, maybe not. Maybe his mom went around in a head shawl, maybe she didn’t.

But why is it that whenever someone looks at a tree stump or a piece of toast or a pattern of light on the side of the building that looks like a guy with long hair and a beard, they think it’s an image of Jesus rather than, say, John Entwistle? Why does every image of a woman in a scarf or shawl remind people of Mary, rather than Benazir Bhutto?

There have been guys with beards and women with scarves throughout pretty much all of modern (or semi-modern) human history. And there’s no record, oral or written, that says either Jesus or Mary looked the way they’ve traditionally been rendered by European artists.

Sure, an all-knowing and all-powerful God might choose to take into account a particular culture’s iconography, and make His miracles conform to those traditional images. But wouldn’t an all-knowing and all-powerful God have created an iconography that’s a little bit less generic? Maybe a distinctive facial scar, or chin dimple, or harelip or something to make an actual image of Jesus next to Mary somehow distinguishable from an image that could just be from a sidewalk in Cairo or Riyadh (or New York, for that matter)?

And BTW, am I the only one who thinks there are lots of Christians who will fall down and worship an image of a woman in a headscarf if it appears on a piece of toast, but who make a wide path around a real, actual woman who’s dressed that way? Especially if she looks like she’s Middle Eastern — just like Mary was?

(Atheist melon pic from Mitchell and Webb sketch via Buzzfeed)