Archive for September, 2009

Nice Guise

atheist_catNote: This is awfully close to a “Sunday Sermon” (where I stop being nice and just rant), but it does touch on the subject of being (or seeming) nice, so I guess it fits. And surely it’s more etiquette-oriented than doing something for Blasphemy Day.

When I saw Five things that would make atheists seem nicer, I thought it might have some good advice, with a Christian’s point of view on how atheists might present themselves to make a more favorable impression. What better topic for a blog on atheist etiquette?

Turns out, it’s not quite as good (or as “nice”) as one might hope. PZ Myers has offered his take, but I thought it might be worth having a look at it from the POV of someone who actually does have an interest in being nice, rather than someone (like PZ) who bristles at the very concept (that’s not a criticism, just an observation). So, here goes:

“1. Stop being so smug.”

PZ smirks that if Christians want him not to be smug, they’d better give him a reason why he shouldn’t. I’ll just point out that if someone thinks all atheists — or most atheists — are smug about it, they’re drastically underestimating the number of atheists they know. I’d venture to guess that most atheists tend to keep a low profile about their worldview (as do most Christians).

“2. Don’t assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you – we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.”

I’m not aware of any atheist ever claiming that every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at atheists. But (or, perhaps, therefore) I’ll happily admit that lots of Christian evangelism/apologetics/etc. is aimed at fence-sitters, not committed atheists or even agnostics. And, of course, honest Christians will admit that lots and lots and lots and lots of Christian evangelism is in fact directed at — or rather, aimed at — atheists. We hear about how there’s no such thing as an atheist, or atheists consider themselves asGod, or atheists have no foundation for morality, or atheists are slaves of Satan. Even if those remarks are intended to sway the “undecideds” toward Christianity, only an idiot or a liar would claim they’re not directed at atheists.

“3. Admit that the debate about God’s existence is complex – and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.”

Well, now, it would be a bit more intelligent and rational if that belief didn’t involve an infallible deity who communicates through a book filled with falsehoods and internal contradictions, but let’s be charitable and say that we’re talking about a God who communicates not directly through the book, but indirectly by inspiring the authors of the book. I do indeed think (and think others should think) that believing in the mainstream Christian version of God does not preclude intelligence or rationality. In fact, even people who believe in wacky offshoots of Christianity — fundamentalism, Mormonism, etc. — can be highly intelligent, and can think quite rationally (especially about topics other than their religious views). It would be not only mistaken but nearly malicious to deny that religious views (however wacky) can be held by intelligent and rational people.

“4. Admit that the scientific method – which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) – is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.”

No. Just no. First, as PZ also notes, science uses both induction and deduction. But more importantly, there’s a huge difference between saying “let’s take this hypothesis and test it, and try to prove it wrong, and if we still think it holds up let’s invite everyone else to try to prove it wrong” and saying “let’s take this hypothesis and refuse to test it, and accuse anyone who does test it of committing heresy.”

“5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.”

Sorry, but there really are “millions of people” who believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed, and as for quoting obscure Old Testament laws, how about you go first? When you stop quoting Leviticus to brand homosexuality an “abomination” (while conveniently omitting to mention that it brands eating lobster as an “abomination” as well), then we’ll stop hoisting you on your own petard.

Sunday Sermon: I think they’re hiding

rapturePssst … are they gone yet? The Rapture was apparently scheduled for earlier this week, and apparently nobody got zapped up to heaven, but the failed prediction got me thinking (often a bad idea), which led me to Big Idea No. 1:

What if Christians decided to stage their own fake Rapture, just to get people thinking? A school in California recently staged the deaths of several students (with those students’ cooperation, but without any others’ knowledge), arranging for the kids to stay home and then announcing to the students in school that the absent kids had been killed in drunk-driving accidents.

The incident backfired, but maybe the Rapture Ready folks don’t know that (or don’t care). They could put out the word that on a given day, Christians should just take a detour on the way to work or school or the supermarket and head to pre-arranged hiding spots for a few days, just to get people thinking the Rapture had really happened, and ponder their own existence and all that.

And that idea led to Big Idea No. 2, inspired by Douglas Adams’ tale of the planet of Golgafrincham in the “Hitchhikers Guide” books, where a spaceship full of middle managers, marketing consultants and other useless wastes of oxygen are blasted off in a spaceship, after being fooled into thinking everyone else will be right behind (trust me, it’s funner in Adams’ telling).

Here’s the idea: What if, instead of the fake rapture being organized by Christians, it was organized by atheists? And what if we just “forgot” to tell the Christians when it was time to come out again?

(cartoon via Atheist Nexus)

Deathbed duties

deathbedThere’s an interesting Reddit thread on whether you should pretend to convert if you have a dying loved one who really wants you to.

Most commenters seem to agree that it’s no big deal (as I would phrase it, it’s not like non-God is going to non-condemn you to non-hell for non-non-belief), although there’s an interesting discussion about the value of honesty vs. the value of doing something good for someone you love.

And I do tend to come down on the side of saying it’s OK — maybe even just plain right — to tell a religious loved one on their deathbed that you’ve found Jesus (or whoever they desire you to have found). It’s not much skin off your nose, and it’ll give comfort to someone who really needs all the comfort they can get.

But I do have to wonder about something. If someone is dying, and they really want you to be religious, then don’t they believe (assuming it’s a Christian or Muslim) that they’re going to heaven? And that everything will be hunky-dory?

Sure, the prospect of a loved one going to hell seems pretty bad, here on earth. But what kind of heaven is it that doesn’t make you happy pretty much all the time? Presumably the powers that be have arranged things so that once you see the big picture and know everything (and for me, it wouldn’t be heaven if I didn’t know everything), it all gets put in perspective and existence seems pretty darned good. I mean, that’s why it’s called heaven, right?

If that’s the case, why should they be alarmed at the prospect of someone they love not being there? Is heaven going to be a big bummer if that happens? Will they be moping around their cloud all day, disconsolately strumming their harp?

I suppose it could be that as they face the terrifying forever darkness, it’s only natural that they’d have such fears, no matter how great their faith that they’re going to a better place. But how would such fears be relieved by your pretending to convert? I mean, if the only reason to be afraid is if their cherished religious beliefs are wrong, then how would it comfort them to know that their loved one has converted to those selfsame beliefs?

(cartoon via Shoebox Blog)

Sunday Sermon: In praise of subversion

The word “subversion” (or “subversive”) is often misunderstood as being some sort of synonym for “opposition” or some such thing. It’s actually subtler than that. Subversion is an act of destroying or attacking from within — it involves getting inside the thing you’re attacking, and persuading other people inside that thing to participate in destroying or weakening it.

From the perspective of religion, a song like XTC’s “Dear God” isn’t really subversive, except to the extent that some religious person might look at the title and decide to check out the song, thereby being exposed to the explicitly anti-religious sentiment in the song itself.

But there’s an anti-religious anthem that really is subversive — so subversive that most people (including, I suspect, most atheists) don’t actually realize it. The song is Julie Gold’s “From A Distance,” popularized by Bette Midler a few years back. It’s wonderfully subversive, in that it can get a crowd of people singing along with “God is watching us, God is watching us … from a distance,” without realizing what the song is actually saying.

At first blush, the song appears to be yet another bromide in a long tradition of attempts (some simperingly well-meaning, some downright scary) to find good news (or Good News) in the midst of tragedy. It looks like yet another iteration of “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no,” or something along those lines.

It’s closer to the mark to say the song addresses what theologians call the “Problem of Evil” — how can an omni-max God allow evil to exist?

What the song actually says becomes clear when you look at the verses and chorus together (and separating the message between verse and chorus helps slip it into the minds of people who might notice if the whole premise were put into one verse or one line).

From a distance (the song says), the world looks like a nice place. You don’t see that it’s full of poverty, disease, war and hunger. From a distance, you might think the world is a place of harmony, with hope and peace echoing through the land.

And the chorus, of course, supplies the punchline. God is watching us — from a distance. Why is there evil? Because God can’t see it. That’s what all those folks are saying when they join in on the chorus, waving their hands over their heads and singing “God is watching us, from a distance.”

Best. Joke. Ever.

Being polite to Jehovah’s Witnesses

jehovahs_witnessesA Redditor wonders if there’s something wrong with him for being polite to missionaries who knock on his door. I don’t think so. While I do think it’s maybe a bit excessive to refrain from throwing out their pamphlets (mine always go straight in the “circular file”), I don’t think there’s any need to get all high-and-mighty when dealing with such people.

First of all, it’s not like you’re going to convert them to atheism or agnosticism, even if you decide to argue with them. And secondly, it’s not like it’s a big news flash to those folks that lots of the people they talk to don’t believe in what they do — especially fringe groups like the Jebbies and Mormons, who don’t even have the support of their (arguably) fellow Christians.

That doesn’t mean I think it’s a breach of etiquette to tell them to keep their pamphlets, or to argue with them — after all, they opened themselves up to that dialogue by knocking on your door to talk about religion — but neither is it some moral imperative. If you’re more interested in getting them to go away, and taking their pamphlets is the quickest and easiest way to achieve that goal, then go for it.

(cartoon — based on a real sign controversy in England — via the Campaign Against Political Correctness)

Please allow me to (re-)introduce myself

Many thanks to Dale McGowan for giving me a shout-out today on his Parenting Beyond Belief blog . For those who are visiting from there, let me tell you a little about how this blog works.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on atheism, etiquette, or anything else. And I tend to take a “live and let live” attitude, and to try to avoid passing judgment (a holdover from my born-again Christian days — luckily, I was one of the liberal, non-fundie ones). I’m interested in how people can get along with other people, not so much in how to win arguments or confrontations (and to whatever extent I do take an interest in such things, there are many others who can provide better arguments and ammunition than myself).

Some people may think that what I mainly do is provide shy or closeted or just wimpy atheists with excuses for not standing up for their worldview in public. Maybe that’s accurate. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s not like non-God is going to send you to non-Hell for failing to non-evangelize for your non-belief.

I’m currently unemployed, and I have a “regular” blog (yet another link blog), and I know that blogging can be a major time-suck, so I try to avoid spending too much time blogging, so as not to take away from my job search.

As a result, I basically only update Atheist Etiquette twice a week, and one of those is my “Sunday Sermon,” where I indulge myself and rant semi-spontaneously about something about religion that amuses me or pisses me off. During the week, I try to focus on various questions or issues that may arise as atheists try to live (and hopefully let live) in a world that is often ignorant of, or openly hostile toward, those who don’t believe in any deities.

So, basically, you get one blog post a week on the subject of etiquette for atheists, and one a week that’s the same sort of religion-bashing you could find at pretty much any atheist site.

If I ever get a job, I might pick up the tempo (or I might be too busy), but for now that’s what I’m doing. I’ll probably do another post during this week (consider this one a freebie), and then a Sunday Sermon on Sunday.

Sunday Sermon: Worth a thousand words


(via Godless Blogger)


angel_unicornPZ Myers gives a well-deserved shoutout to TMBG for their new album, “Here Comes Science,” and especially for the song “Science Is Real,” but misrepresents the position of more moderate atheists in a discussion of the teapot-tempest over the line about “stories of angels, unicorns and elves”:

“This is why the accommodationist strategy is doomed to failure. There is no gentle demurral from religion that will not offend someone — even fun songs about science are expected to pretend that angels are real.”

Well, no. The religious folks don’t demand that fun songs about science pretend that angels are real. They’re merely demanding (or at least asking) that fun songs about science not mention the inconvenient fact that there’s no evidence whatsoever that angels are real. That’s not quite the same thing. Indeed, it’s not even close.

An “accommodationist” can quite easily emphasize that science is “real” (including evolution, the Big  Bang and other things that give fundies conniptions) without going out of the way to deny things like angels and other things religious folks believe in.

Of course, people who support science have every right to declare that angels are just storybook characters, just as people who support religion have every right to declare that angels are real. And it’s not the science folks’ fault that singing “science is real” just has a much stronger ring of truth (not to mention obviousness) than singing “angels are real.”

(unicorn/angel pic via Zazzle)

Sunday Sermon: Dhimmi eat world


There’s a word that’s becoming popular among the more hysterically Islamophobic wingnuts these days. The word is “dhimmi,” and while it technically means people who are allowed to remain non-Muslim while living under Muslim law, it loosely refers to someone who gives in to the demands of Islamic extremists, or even enables them.

When someone on a Christian online forum suggests that maybe not all Muslims are evil terrorists, or that maybe they’re human beings with the same rights as other human beings,it won’t be long before some Christian fundie accuses them of Dhimmitude.

So, then, what does that say about American society, in which separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution, but where the Pledge of Allegiance describes America as “one nation under God,” and the legal tender includes the phrase “In God We Trust,” and our main legislative body opens its sessions with a prayer offered by a Christian minister?

Looks to me like Muslims aren’t the only ones capable of establishing religious rule, and “generously” allowing non-believers to tag along, provided they know their place.

(cartoon via Yoism)

Science Is Real

science_is_realThis is awesomely awesome: My favorite-ever band, They Might Be Giants, has a new kids’ album out, “Here Comes Science.” And in the song “Science Is Real,” they lay it all out:  “I like those stories about angels, unicorns and elves … but when I’m seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract, the facts are with science.” And they make it clear that you can’t just pick and choose: “Science is real, from the Big  Bang to DNA/Science is real, from evolution to the Milky Way.”

So, is this polite? Is it a breach of etiquette? Well, maybe. It’s perhaps a bit rude to suggest to religious folks that angels (which are mentioned in the Bible, not just in populist pablum spouted by feel-good New Age-y types) are in the same category as unicorns or elves.

But is it rude to say that if you’re seeking knowledge, you should look to science rather than religion? I don’t think so. Unless, of course, you want to argue that it’s rude to say that if you’re seeking divine/godly/spiritual/religious guidance, you should look to religion rather than science. I’m guessing most religious types don’t think it’s rude to make such a suggestion, or to say that science can’t tell us about God since science deals with the natural while religion deals with the supernatural.

So, sauce for the goose, etc. If you want people to respect what religion has to tell us about spiritual matters, then have some respect for what science has to tell us about material matters. It’s a two-way street.

Sure, Richard Dawkins says his scientific perspective tells him that there aren’t any deities (a position not advocated by most atheists), but it’s not like he’s trying to get the government to force religious preachers to stop preaching religion, or to preach scientific concepts as if they’re religion. Whereas there are plenty of folks trying to get the government to force science teachers to stop teaching science, or to teach religious concepts as if they’re science.