Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Evangelical Atheism

I use this phrase sometimes as a joke, to refer to the more militant anti-religionites in my family. Really, I get that it doesn't make a ton of sense. To "evangelize" is not merely to preach or to persuade, but to spread the message of the Christian gospels. Still, even if I swapped the verb into "proselytizing" atheist, it's still only a half-sensible statement, because it then implies that a person could potentially preach a lack of belief.

There is no inherent belief behind atheism. It doesn't definte what I think, but what I don't think. So how could I proselyize?

But you get what I'm saying when I say "my cousin Michael is an evangelical atheist." It means, he dislikes statements of religious faith and desires for all the other people around him to stop believing in God.

I have never believed in God, pretty much since Day One, but I frankly don't give two shits about you. Believe whatever in the hell you want, just leave me alone, that is my Spiritual Philosophy in a nutshell. I deeply, deeply resent uptight assholes attempting to push their ludicrous, baseless beliefs on me. I want to do drugs, have pre-marital sex with girls who can potentially go and get abortions if they're not 100% satisfied with my seed, watch unseemly movies, buy beer on Sunday mornings, attend gay weddings, sponsor stem cell research and forget that there was ever such a thing as "The Da Vinci Code." And I hate the fact that pushy moralists want to stop me from doing these things.

But that's all I hate about religion. Nothing about the specific rituals and beliefs themselves, really. I mean, yeah, they're wrong, but a lot of people believe a lot of things that are completely wrong, and it usually doesn't bother me. (I've talked to individuals who actually enjoyed Garden State!)

I think my general, overall misanthropy probably has something to do with this. I think religious people are wrong about everything, but I think non-religious people are wrong about everything too, so there's no need to single anyone out specifically. I'm not one of these people who believes that we'd all be way, way better off without religion, either. Human beings are just massive pieces of shit, and we would be whether we all believed in Jesus, Satan or nothing at all. Our problems are all about tribalism, ignorance and avarice, not faith. Come on...this is obvious...

But I'll even take it one step further! I genuinely find the subject of religion fascinating. And so does every hardcore atheist I've ever met! If they didn't find it terribly interesting, they'd just be another lackadaisical, semi-religious American who never thinks about religion except when they are participating in it. It's counter-intuitive but true. The people who spend all their time wrestling with the Big Questions of religion and the universe are the non-believers. Those who have faith don't really bother with the small stuff, like the fact that the shit they believe makes no sense. "Who cares? I'm already saved already! Let's go get ice cream and hate sins but try our best not to hate sinners too bad!"

Sure, there are thoughtful, philosophical types who are also religious, but not many. It's not a worldview that lends itself to introspection. Your more inquisitive types kind of get turned off by any book that tells what to think and when to think it. This is how you can have a nation full of self-identified devout Christians who don't know shit about their own book.

That USA Today link is about Professor Stephen Prothero, who did a survey which made Americans look very silly. Many of Prothero's subjects were unable to name the authors of the Four Gospels and believed that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. (I guess the test was multiple choice?) The Professor takes this data and concludes...that we need to educate children more about religion in public school.

Wait, what? To me, that data suggests that America's churches are doing a shit job, spending all their time ministering against abortion and for the Republican Party and not getting around to the part about this guy Jesus and all the swell things he said and did.

I've argued on the blog a whole bunch that Christians don't seem to pay attention to what Jesus was all about any more, and this news just advances that theory.

Prothero, who is after all a Professor of Religion at Boston University, clearly disagrees with yours truly. It's not that Americans don't really care about religion and just go to church to be social or to fit in, he seems to believe. It's not false piety that they're constantly exhuding, along with nacho breath, flatulence and megalomania. The problem with Americans is that they're not taught from a young age what grows in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Olives, but I had to look it up).

The idea of World Religion or Comparative Religion education itself is a solid idea. I had a great class like this when I was a sophomore, and it really was my initial exposure to all non-Jewish religion. And it was great! We visited a Hindu monastery (where we took a tour led by the inimitable Swami Viprananda), discusses the wisdom of the Tao, and Mr. Antenore became the first in a long string of people over the years to get mildly frustrated with me after having to explain the concept of a "three-personed God." Catholics, PLEASE, do something about this...It's really confusing...

(For some reason, my parents had raised me and my brother Jewish, despite none of us really believing any of it. We later joined an entire congregation full of Jews who met weekly despite not believing in anything about Judaism, and openly admitting as much. I guess they were all just bored?)

So, I'm all in favor of teaching the older kids a bit about religion, provided you give equal time (say, two weeks each, as I seem to recall we did in Mr. Antenore's class) to all the religions and not frontload one or two preferred subjects. This, of course, will never happen, because most religious Americans don't want to teach children about the beautiful diversity of faith around the world. Rather, they want public schools to indoctrinate. Teach kids about how Christianity is the One True Faith and that all the Eastern religious are adorable but, you know, essentially incorrect and therefore subservient. (This message, I should note, is already taught in public schools to some degree, with the aid of movies like 300 on the side to reinforce the same concepts about Western, white dominance).

My point is, I don't think we need to pretend religion isn't there, like it's not one of the predominant forces behind human history. Because it totally is.

Which brings me, at long last, to an intriguing discussion at PZ Myers' place (another Professor!), Pharyngula.

PZ received a letter, which I will reprint in part:

Today I went to get my car inspected as my state requires it annually, and you will get a ticket for having an expired inspection sticker. The inspection place I went to had a Christian radio station in the waiting room. I politely asked the guy at the desk (who I later confirmed was the owner) to change the channel to one that was not religious. He said he would not.

Eventually, the letter writer left the shop after the guy behind the counter flat-out refused to change the channel.

Now, I'd agree that this is not the best business practice for this guy, turning off anyone who differs with him on religious grounds and kindly makes a simple request. But still...could the letter-writer be any more of a whiny, petulant little child? I mean, I wouldn't listen to Christian radio on my own, but it's hardly going to actively hurt me to hear it for 10 minutes while I wait to have a smog inspection or whatever in some guy's place of business. The letter doesn't say what the Christian DJ was actually discussing, but it's highly unlikely that anything being said was actually Offensive with a capital O. Probably just a lot of God-this and Jesus-that. Maybe a little Satan-the other thing.

Who gives a shit? I mean, to me, it's almost more silly and superstitious to believe that 10 minutes of Christian radio is going to somehow hurt you than it is to listen to the stuff in the first place! I mean, yes, a lot of people are very devout and it's very difficult to take seriously, but God talk isn't Atheist Kryptonite or anything. Unless you're ridiculously weak-willed, you can still be a freethinker with James Dobson on in the background.

Here's PZ's advice:

I think a smart strategy in this kind of situation is not to go after the shop owner, but go after the source. Write a letter to the paper, highlighting some offensive stupidity from that radio station, and make it clear that you won't frequent businesses that play that kind of inanity.

Geez, really? Make trouble for a Christian radio station just because they're talking about being Christian? I don't really believe all this right-wing distracting rhetoric about a "war on Christians" or anything, but that's cutting it pretty close. How about you just don't listen to that station? And bring a magazine when you go to get your car smog-checked? Or go somewhere else? Or, you know, you could start a boycott...Either way.


Uncle Swim said...

Best I've read on the subject. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

interesting page..
As to why evangelical atheist exist, well they exist for the same reason that evangelical believers exist: they are not self-centered in their world view.
Within this post is repeated many times the idea that "I don't care what other people do, as long as it doesn't affect ME"
This is an Ok philosophy for an individual, but have you ever thought where this world is going?

Would you be willing to fight for the lives of people who will live a century from now, just as people who lived 2 centuries ago fought for you and the comfortable life you now enjoy?

Religion deludes people by making them hope in things that are non-existent. It makes them worry about demons and angels and their principles instead of worrying about the here and now. One of the basic aspects of religion is the belief that "God will provide" , that the wicked will eventually be punished, so no need to do so here and now. If something doesn't happen it is because it was not meant to happen - that sort of thing. All this takes people away from worrying about the here and now and believing that the life they lead is important and can alter the future if they struggle enough. No one is going to kill themselves if they are at peace in a life-long Buddist trance.

Militant atheists dream of a world in which we can slap people in the face and snap them out of it. A world in which human beings develop to their full potential as thinking reasoning creatures. Yes, a world devoid of romance - if to romance you need to believe in fairies. But in the long run a world in which people see things as they truly are instead of wasting their LIVES on illusions.

Naturally, atheists like true believers are mad-men. But it is better than being asleep!

And finally, in the pit of our collective souls there is a small germ that worries about whether world-wide atheism will not have its problems too.

Lons said...

Well, Anonymous, I have two major thoughts on your comment. First is that you should avoid statements like this: "Within this post is repeated many times the idea that "I don't care what other people do, as long as it doesn't affect ME" " I never actually say that in the post. I said this:

"Believe whatever in the hell you want, just leave me alone, that is my Spiritual Philosophy in a nutshell."

but that's different. That's not about what other people DO, just what they BELIEVE. I stand by the statement 100% and feel it has nothing to do with "not caring about future generations." They are impacted by what we do and say, not how we feel. Do you know how Grover Cleveland felt?

This means you're arguing against a total straw man, which wastes our time and needlessly obfuscates the real discussion we should be having, which is about whether or not those that reject religion for personal reasons should actively try to persuade the faithful out of their beliefs. You said (and I quote):

"Naturally, atheists like true believers are mad-men. But it is better than being asleep!"

I am an atheist, but I don't think I'm a "mad-man" on the subject. Nor do I think I am "asleep." I am fully aware of the implications of what I believe about the world. I just don't think I need to enforce this belief on others who see the world differently.

"Militant atheists dream of a world in which we can slap people in the face and snap them out of it."

Do you count overself among this group? It sounds like you do when you say this:

"Would you be willing to fight for the lives of people who will live a century from now, just as people who lived 2 centuries ago fought for you and the comfortable life you now enjoy?"

Why do we have to fight about it? Is fighting on behalf of atheist more morally justified than fighting on behalf of religion?

I want you to really think about this, really. You want to violently attack people who disagree with you about the nature of the universe? WHY? This, to me, indicates far more uncertainty on your part than on mine. I am comfortable enough in my beliefs to fully tolerate the beliefs of others. You encounter different opinions and are tempted to assault the source. That's messed up...

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read the Book of Daniel in the Bible? It gives many ancient prophecies about the coming of Christ, proof that Jesus did exist as the Son of God. Since the Red Sea Scrolls can be dated, it is possible to say that the Book of Daniel is accurate since it can be dated before the New Testament. Just curious as to what your argument would be against this?

nuniek nur sahaya said...

yea i agree with God made mud.
God got lonesome.