August 09, 2009

More Reading on Civil Atheism

It all started with a little lament that we atheists allow people to convince us that pointing out unequal (and even illegal) treatment is being strident. It went from there to an elaboration of the social pressures used (even by our friends) that make us think that. And then it exploded into a classic example of the consequences of telling an articulate minority to pipe down.

Lou didn't care much for having a Christian step in to tell him he was the person being too uncivil.

The non-delusional have been trying for a couple of centuries now to have a quiet, rational discussion with the religious and what’s it’s gotten us is more, not less, marginalization. What it’s gotten us is a society hell-bent on theocracy and longing for the dark ages. What it’s gotten us is suffering of innocents and willful ignorance that is cartoonish and nearly unparodiable.

Phil debated whether Lou's post meant he should just give up on us atheists.

So, rolling all this around, what should I do? I’ve stayed in the fight thus far, in part because I do believe that America as a nation can benefit from a lot more discussion, and a lot less internal warfare. I am also of the belief, based on what I was taught in church, that my response as a Christian needs to be acceptance of everyone, and the extension of as much understanding, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance as I can to those who do not share my beliefs. And, if they are being discriminated against, in any way, I have to stand with them against that discrimination.

(Still no recognition, though, that I woke up Friday morning to being told I should die as soon as possible. Just for the record, Phil, when one of my atheist friends sees that and doesn't say anything, I know they've gotten similar treatment. When you don't say anything, as part of that majority, but instead talk about your feelings, I don't even know that you've seen it, much less whether you care about it.)

Jason put together a nice summary of the different issues at play in the discussion.

Thirdly, not every theist is as irrational as the people who are actively trying to abridge our rights, however they are also not stepping up to the plate when people say things like “atheists are worthless fuck stains and should die”. However, they do get the vapors when someone dares to suggest that all religious folks feel the same way. In the thread over at Almost Diamonds, you’ll see a so-called reasonable theist jump as soon as he realizes Lou gets paint on him in his characterization of religion as a whole as damaging to human rights. I know a number of very reasonable theists who are able to reconcile their belief systems with the universe as it exists and as science has come to understand it; and this is fine. As an agnostic atheist I do allow for the sliver of possibility that something “caused” all this; I just don’t feel the evidence as presented at the moment by theists is compelling (or even truly amounts to anything worth considering in fact). So, to those that do not directly attempt to abridge the rights of gays, the faithless, women, or any other group that is not WASPy enough for their liking, I apologize in advance when you get tarred with the same brush as the whackjobs, but if that’s the case, then you’re obviously not doing enough to distance yourself from said whackjobs. Get in the fight or get out of the way!

Skeptigirl points out to the moderate Christians that they can do more good by actions other than telling atheists to "play nice."

Many don’t understand, or won’t, that when we try to get Christianity out of school, we’re not attacking Christianity. If they want to believe that Jesus was awesome, great. But they should do it at home or in church where it belongs — they should not force kids in public school to have to sit through revised science and history classes for the sake of Christianity. This isn’t only about atheists — it’s about every single other religion that’s marginalized by this practice. And I don’t for one second believe that if they were in our position, they wouldn’t fight buildings being adorned with Muslim scriptures or Greek/Roman mythology being taught as literal interpretations of creation.

Rystefn tells them what we hear when moderate Christians think they're being so reasonable.

Every day, I hear some asshole say we’re alienating potential allies by being so vocal. Really? There are people out there whose willingness to see us get the freedoms that are our right hinges on how polite we are? You know what I say to that? Fuck those people! I’m not interested in trading angry oppressors for kinder, gentler oppressors. I will not allow my rights to hang on the whim of another, whether that other wants to deny them as a matter of course, or simply because I said the word “fuck.”

And finally, Dan does his gentle best to explain what civil is all about.

You see, I’ve been missing the fact that the moderates have been out there all along, and they do have the majority over the fundamentalists. I was just confused about the name. You see, the other members of the church have a name that they’ve used for the moderates all along, but I had failed to make the connection. Not to worry, though, as I’ve got it now.

Anybody I missed?


Jason Thibeault said...

Damn. That excerpt of mine has two howevers in close succession. I really gotta learn to proofread -- the moreso when I'm posting about something to which I have an emotional attachment.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I found you through the Wayward Skeptics blog.

I was a heterodox Christian, but fairly conservative in some beliefs. Dialoguing with Pliny and other atheists has been beneficial.

I've become more liberal and now loosely define myself as a deist.

Forgive me, my opinion is only based off of the information in this post, but if a more relational tack was taken on both sides this might ease certain tensions.

I know it's simplistic, but for me it's been effective.

Dan J said...

Ease tensions? Why on earth would I want to do that? I wouldn't have nearly the amount of fun that I do now.

There's also the fact that I don't think there really is an effective way to ease the tension. Well, I think there may be, but I know the religious folks don't want to hear it.

Many thanks for the link love, Stephanie. :)

Jason Thibeault said...

oneblood, this is one part of the overarching thread of this conversation that I have crystallized in my thought process on the matter. That is, "it takes all kinds." Where the aggressive fundies don't make up the bulk of the religious, neither do the vocal, mocking types make up the bulk of us atheists. However, civility has left us in the closet for decades. If we soften our collective voices, I can pretty much tell you where we'll end up once more.

Anonymous said...



Philip H. said...


1) For the record, I deplore any and all threats of any kind, including threats of death, that have been directed at you personally, and at any other atheists (including those directed at Webster Cook). Persons calling themselves Christians, who resort to such degrading and debasing tactics as death threats have lost their moral compass, and have forsaken the teachings of the religion they claim to cling to so fervently. They are, in my view apostate. They should also be reported to the police, and prosecuted fully for their actions.

2) In reading and re-reading both my posting and all the comments this weeknd, I realize , given your life experiences and those of Jason, Lou FCD and others, how and why my comments about the effectivness if Crackergate appeared to you as just another irrational Christian telling you to go sit quietly in the corner. I meant no such thing, and one of my continuing hanidcaps as a person is that I am not mentally well equipped to see the hidden meaning in what I write. I am a verbal literalist, and it keeps getting me into trouble.

3) I am trying, to the best of my ability, to understand and respond more, and more forcefully to the discrimination you face. It is not right, and it clearly violates (IMHO) the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

4) Finally, if I may, the next time a fundie comes up and starts attacking your saturday morning coffee clatch for not believing, ask them if they remember the story of the good Samaratin. When they answer that they do, I would suggest responding "as an Atheist, I'm the Samaratin." and then proceeding to ignire them. Based on my run-ins with Jimmy Swaggert's followers as a kid in Louisiana, you'll drive them off because they won't be able to reconcile their vile hatered of you with Christ's teachings about a non-beliver who acted more morally then the believers.

Anonymous said...

Seems a pretty good summary of what's going on, Steph.

Philip, I think there's another point you're missing. It's the point PZ was trying to highlight by what he did. Every time someone says he went too far, they forget to say exactly what he did that was so offensive: he poked a hole in a cracker, then he threw it away. You might remember that he also poked a hole in a few pieces of paper and threw them away as well. No one seems to care too much about the paper, for some reason.

His response to threats, against his job, against his life, against the life of his family, to physical assault against Mr. Cook... was to throw a cracker in the trash.

And somehow, PZ is the one who went too far.

Just think about that for a few moments. Think about the enormity of difference in scale here, and see if you can't understand why someone might be a little upset at the assertion that we need to tone it down and show more restraint.

Dan J said...

rystefn, that's an excellent point. It made me think that there's a similarity to situations where the American flag is burned in protest. Some people jump up and down, scream, stamp their feet, and call for someone to be arrested because that person isn't respecting their symbol.

Philip H. said...

You are correct that, in the grand scheme of things PZ's actions were not of the same scale and scope as those who literally attacked Webster Cook. I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong, but I don't believe that I ever said they were. I also don't believe I said he went too far (Though I know others have said just exactly that).

What I did say, I think, is that I viewed it as an ineffective response (to me alone, if no one else), both in terms of demonstrating the insanity of of the position of those apostate Catholics, and in terms of generating allies in the moderate Christian community who might well stand up and defend Mr. Cook - and anyone else who is having their lives threatened. My initial reaction to Crackergate, which I think I have also been clear on, is that PZ looked as foolish to me as those who attacked Mr. Cook. My second reaction was to look around and see if Mr. Cook had pressed charges, since the assault on him, and subsequent death threats are violations of the law. I don't read everything on the internet, but I have to find a source that says he did.

Anonymous said...

Again. You're missing the point. It wasn't about winning allies. It was about pointing out insanity (and taking some of the heat off of Cook and onto himself, I think). If you think it failed at that... well, I guess you must have a much higher tolerance for insanity than I do.

I guess it's balanced out by your much lower tolerance for foolishness, because, frankly, I can't see the folly in throwing away garbage no matter how hard I try.

apthorpe said...

My feeling is that we need more voices and a wider diversity of voices from the secular and atheist community. And for all those that huffed and puffed about PZs juvenile kook-baiting, I just couldn't take it very seriously, at least not as seriously as the nutjobs shooting up churches (one to assassinate an OB/GYN, another because Unitarians are too ... uh ... liberal?) And while Fred Phelps and his litigious whelps are whooping it up at some random funeral with their special brand of hatred, I simply don't have time to chastise Dawkins or Dennett or anyone else more popular and interesting and intelligent than Mooney & Kirshenbaum.

I'm more than willing to be civil, because it's easy. It's the path of least resistance and that is precisely why I want to turn it up a notch. I don't have to be thin-skinned or terribly offensive, but I do need to remind theists, gently or no, that theirs is not the default status. And if that makes some people uncomfortable, that just too goddamn bad.

One reason we're in this divisive state of theist/atheist tension is because too many people (religious or not) let the fundamentalists and extremists hijack the conversation. Instead of being pointed out as getting their ideas from the discount rack at Crackpottery Barn, people just avoided conflict and let the assholes run amok. It happened in the GOP, the Boy Scouts, and all over the place. Those who desire to subvert the secular state have taken over a lot of the media and politics. Let no-one forget that Baptists were some of the original separation-of-church-and-staters because at that time the choice was either a state-sponsored Anglican church or freedom of religion and the Baptists hadn't reached their current pervasiveness.

Frankly I could not care less if you believe in a hundred gods or none, whether you dance naked in your rec room to Pat Boone or Alice Cooper under a full moon. Your house, your church, your business. That's freedom of conscience.

However, once someone - anyone - starts writing their freak-ass theist dogma into civil law there's a big problem - for everyone else. What seems to be missing is this acknowledgement by the nice, polite mainstream religious out there (all three of you, if Fox News is any guide) that freedom from religion is freedom of religion. Atheists are canaries in the coal mine and you nice people are next if the nutjobs get their way. It has always worked that way and it always will.

I don't buy the argument that if you're not with us, you're against us. However, if you're guilty of avoiding conflict and letting the nutters take over, you have no cause to complain when someone tars you with the big brush. At least when someone calls me out for PZs bullshit, I can at least answer back that while he may have been overly offensive, at least he's not the one making death threats over a mere cracker. After all, in the grand scheme of things, he's done nothing to disown, compared to (say) flying airliners into skyscrapers or covering up serial child rapists.

Lou FCD said...

Hey Steph, good summary, and thanks for the link love.

I see Phil is still as lost as he was at the beginning. Perhaps he'll keep reading the comments in this thread until he gets it.

I'm not holding my breath. If the five or six very eloquent posts mentioned in your post haven't gotten through...

Stephanie Zvan said...

Lou, I'm not going to tell you to be fair, but I'm going to work fairly hard at it myself.

Phil, there's a lot more than your literalism going on. You probably (almost certainly) don't notice it when it happens, but there's a barrage of information coming at you that says atheism isn't normal and automatic respect for religion is. As a religious person receiving that respect, you (the non-specific "you") are going to come to expect it. It takes a lot of suppressing your own defensive reactions to hear anything but "I disrespect you" when someone says "I don't respect religion" or "I hate you" when someone says "I hate the assumption of religious privilege."

It takes more effort to shake it off when someone makes an example of you because they've dealt with the same thing one too many times, but that's part of civil rights struggles too. Minorities do not have any greater requirement to be cheerful or grateful than the majority does, and that's a right worth protecting.

As for PZ's actions not being effective, I have to say you're dead wrong. They might not have had a huge impact right then and there. A single action almost never will, no matter how dramatic. However, this whole discussion is a result of what he did with that cracker and those pieces of paper and your response to it. Had PZ been more reverential, I'd be writing about something else right now. And I'd at least like to think that some progress has been made here.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I have added my two cents - lets give those nice fellow type liberal theist folks a motherfucking cookie!!!!!