Update on Fort Worth Bus Ads
I have a short update on the atheist ad campaign running on Fort Worth buses. In my last post, I mentioned that a coalition of city pastors were furious over the ads and tried to organize a boycott. (Would it help to tell them that this is how atheists feel all the time? Probably not.)
The boycott appears to have gone nowhere fast, but something else did happen: another Christian group paid for vans displaying a religious message to follow the buses around town all day. Personally, I think this is hilarious. Do the Christians really have that much faith in the power of a two-second glimpse of an atheist message to change people's minds? Maybe they're imagining that the atheist bus emanates some kind of irresistible persuasive power, turning everyone it passes into a nonbeliever - but then the Christian van comes in its wake and changes them right back!
Take that, atheists!
In reality, what they can't seem to recognize is that the atheist ads aren't intended to change minds in the spot. They're aimed at people who are already atheists, or who are leaning that way, encouraging them to come out of the closet and to join local groups like DFWCOR. Surveys consistently show that there are far more atheists in America than most people realize; the goal of ad campaigns like this is to collect this low-hanging fruit. By contrast, it's safe to assume that everyone who wants to join a Christian church has already done so. But if the Christians want to waste their money on foolish stunts like this, I say more power to them.
I'm also pleased because the ridiculous bus-stalking idea is only going to draw more publicity and attention to the atheists. As this article points out, DFWCOR only paid for ads to run on the sides of four buses, out of about 200 in the city. But the frenzied reaction from bigoted Christians has enormously multiplied the impact of the campaign and ensured that far more people have seen or heard about it than otherwise would have. So, again: Thanks, Christians!
Finally, it amuses me to note that, in response to the campaign, the transit authority decided to ban all religious and atheist advertising in the future. (According to this report from Friendly Atheist, one of the board members ranted about how messages like this shouldn't be permitted in America.)
I'm not upset, exactly, but I'd be willing to bet that religious ads have run on these buses many times and no one ever complained. It was only when groups who aren't in the majority want to exercise their equal rights that people get angry - as I mentioned in my original post, Dallas did the same thing to block the atheist ads from running. Still, as hypocritical as this is, I'm not bothered as long as the new policy is applied equally and fairly. Atheists have plenty of other places to advertise, and if that's what it takes to make our government a little bit more secular, I'm happy about that too!
A Holiday Loss of Faith Story
Until a few days ago, I'd never heard of Drew Marshall, the host of an Ontario-based radio program that's advertised as Canada's most popular Christian talk show. But when I saw an interesting post about him on Facebook (more on that in a minute), I went and looked him up. From reading the bio on his site, I was favorably impressed by his refusal to toe the party line:
I want to apologize to everyone here for the dumb-ass things which I've done personally that have just been a complete misrepresentation of how Jesus people are supposed to live AND for the dumb-ass things that Christians have done for centuries, in the name of Religion.
The initial things that naturally come to mind, which I should probably apologize for, are the Crusades or the Salem Witch Hunt or for the countless missionaries and explorers and white folks who raped, robbed, and killed in the name of Christianity.
I am really sorry for all that stuff. I don't think that's exactly what Jesus had in mind when He said, "Go into all the world and tell everyone the Good News."
Of course I'd also like to apologize for some of the so-called Christian leaders of today; like Benny Hinn & Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson & the pièce de résistance... George W. Bush.
I'm so sorry for the dumb-ass things that have come out of their mouths... Things like; Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on New Orleans or that HIV/AIDS is God's punishment on the gay community... Or that God is a Republican and he fully supports "their" decision to start a war based on weapons of mass distraction. Please understand people, that the Christian right... is neither!
That's the kind of thing I wish we heard more of. But what pleased me even more was that the post I saw on Facebook was this one from the self-satisfied ignoramus Ray Comfort, bitterly complaining about - wait for it - yet another popular Christian becoming an atheist!
Ater seven seasons as host of Canada's "most listened to spiritual talk show," Drew Marshall announced to his listeners that he is no longer convinced there's a God... The doubting talk show host said that he became a follower of Christ in 1981. But it wasn't until recently that he verbalized that he wasn't convinced that God existed, saying "I feel pretty close to walking away from my faith."
Intrigued, I searched further and found Marshall's own account of his growing doubts. Although he says he'll probably never have the courage to use the "A" word to describe himself, it seems clear that he's drifting in that direction:
All I can say is at this point is that I still consider myself a "Christian" but before I reinvest another 30 years in Jesus I'd just like to know that God is real. I hope there is a God. I'm looking for him. (Wait, should I use a capitol "h" or not?) However, my fear is that if things stay the same as the last 30 years of my spiritual journey, I'll probably become a reluctant agnostic who still has great respect for the teachings of Christ.
...I'd like a nail hole experience. One of the guys who actually got to hang out with Jesus also had a problem with doubt. (For some of us, it might be less about our circumstances and more about our nature or personality – but if anyone knows the best way to work with our individual idiosyncrasies, you'd think it would be God.) So this guy Thomas said he wouldn't believe Jesus had risen from the grave and come back to life (therefore being God) until he could put his finger in the nail hole of his crucified hand. THAT'S WHAT I WANT! Passive Revelation/Rumors Of Glory/Pascal's Wager/Tribal Conditioning has sustained me for years but today my faith is weak. I'm at the point where my soul is crying out for a "super" natural encounter.
For obvious reasons, I think Marshall is going to be disappointed. But it's interesting to see him openly admit that "rumors" and "tribal conditioning" have sustained his faith for years - something we atheists always say, but that most believers staunchly deny. And it's even more interesting that his saying this has struck a chord among his listeners, some of whom are in the same place:
After I let the cat of the bag I asked the listeners if they thought I should just go away and process my crisis of faith privately or is this something that could be done on the show, publicly. I was inundated with listeners who were in a similar spiritual condition, asking me to continue.
This is a commentary on religion's power to stifle honest questioning - that so many of Marshall's listeners are voicing doubts that they never felt they had permission to express, until someone they looked up to did the same. And the reason so many Christians feel constrained from expressing their doubts can be seen in Comfort's reaction. As is usual with small, weak-minded men, Comfort is unable to accept that Marshall's doubts might be genuine, and has to attribute secret, dishonest motives to anyone publicly questioning Christianity and accuse them of never having been a Christian at all:
Spurious converts don't experience the "power" of the gospel (see Romans 1:16). The message they heard didn't come to them "in power, in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance." This is because the cross is the center of the gospel. It is the supreme expression of God's love to the sinner and there is a good reason it was obscured to them... If we haven't personally seen the cross, then we haven't personally experienced the love of God. This is the tragic case of Drew Marshall...
Comfort's polemical mindset treats doubt as an enemy to be suppressed at all costs, including by attacking the character of anyone who expresses it. This defensive, belligerent reaction is typical of apologists who see faith as nothing more substantive than a marker of tribal membership, a weapon to be wielded against any outsider. It's Marshall who took his faith more seriously than Comfort ever has or will, and that's precisely why he's losing it. As with the other Christian artists and entertainers who've deconverted, an honest examination of religious truth claims can only have one result.
Yes, Atheists Still Face Censorship
Nothing fills my heart with Christmas cheer like seeing atheists' holiday ads, so I was glad to hear of a new campaign starting up in Texas, courtesy of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason. Starting this month, they'll be running ads that read "Millions of Americans Are Good Without God" on Fort Worth city buses.
But it didn't happen without a struggle. Just look at how far the city of Dallas was willing to go to keep our ads off its buses:
"We'd have run these ads on Dallas buses as well," noted DFW CoR Coordinator Terry McDonald, "but when we approached DART, they chose to stop running all religiously-related ads rather than include ours."
And even in Fort Worth, where the ads are running, city officials have made clear their desire to censor them:
Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said Friday that although the city does not fund the transportation authority, he disagrees with its decision to allow what he calls "these divisive ads"....
Granted, this may just be media posturing; proclaiming outrage and then doing nothing is a standard item in any elected official's toolbox. Even so, it sends a strong message that atheists are political outsiders who can't expect to get the same support or representation from their government as everyone else. But what really tips the scales of absurdity is the response from the local Christian churches:
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church, said not only the community but also some bus drivers have been offended by the ads... Tatum called for a boycott, saying about a dozen churches would try to provide rides for anyone who refused to ride a city bus over the atheist ads.
Tatum accused the transportation authority of putting "profit over principle."
"So why would you support an enterprise that's trying to demean the Christian principle?" he said.
Apparently, a message that atheists can be good people is an offensive insult to Christianity. (Another theist quoted in the article calls the ads "hurtful"). The implication, it would seem, is that Christians believe themselves to be the only good people in the world, and that no one else is permitted to act morally without their permission.
And it's not just in the Bible Belt that atheists face condemnation and censorship for proclaiming their existence. In Pennsylvania, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia's annual "Tree of Knowledge" display was banned from the county courthouse lawn. This comes after several unsuccessful attempts by the county to exclude the freethought display by confusingly changing the application process. Finally, the county commissioners changed the rules to disallow all non-county-owned displays - and then, remarkably, the displays that did go up were virtually identical to the ones that had been there before.
Even in Hawaii, a local freethought activist was roughed up, forcibly removed, and arrested after voicing a brief, non-disruptive complaint over official prayers in the State Senate. (The judge took less than an hour to find him not guilty.)
In all these stories, we're hearing the shrill screams of Christians who've discovered that they're not the only ones allowed to speak in public, and are furious over the perceived loss of that privilege. It doesn't matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist. Nothing less will satisfy them.
It happens all the time. Two years ago in Colorado, a billboard campaign which simply said, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone," drew a flood of hate mail and threats directed at the Colorado Coalition of Reason, which paid for the ads. How can you get less offensive than a mere statement that atheists exist?
And in 2006, when the freethinking student Matt LaClair recorded a popular high school teacher threatening his students with hellfire if they refused to convert to Christianity, he, and not the teacher, became the target of threats and harassment. As he later said about the experience, "The nicer you are, the more they hate you."
We'll never appease religious people by being nice enough, and in fact, it will only encourage them to attack us more if we give the impression that we can be cowed. What we should do instead is speak boldly, refuse to apologize for our existence, and make it clear that we're not going away and that we intend to claim a voice in the marketplace of ideas. When society gets used to our existence, when they accept that we're not going away, the threats, harassment and censorship will naturally diminish and die off.
UPDATE: And as soon as I post this, another example comes along: In Texas, an atheist group joined the town's annual Christmas parade, playing "Jingle Bells" on vuvuzelas. Not to protest, not to attack believers - just atheists participating in a Christmas parade. The result?
"Wasn't exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don't feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade," said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.
..."If you have younger children they weren't going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don't believe in God," Corgey said.
That poor, oppressed woman, having to explain to her children that there are people who believe differently. Won't someone shelter her from the burden of having to be in contact with new ideas?
Making Non-White Atheists Feel Welcome
I was reading this outstanding essay by Alom Shaha, an atheist and ex-Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, who describes what it's like to come out as a nonbeliever in a tightly-knit, intensely religious community. But as he makes clear, the social and cultural pressure on people in his situation isn't just a matter of happenstance; it formed as a defensive reaction against a wider society that was bitterly prejudiced:
My family was one of a large wave of Bangladeshi families who emigrated to the UK in the early 1970s. It was a horrid time to be a young Bangladeshi in Britain – a time when pubs displayed signs saying "no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs", and violent racism was rife. We got used to the shouts of "go back home you dirty pakis", and lived in fear of physical abuse ranging from being spat at to being beaten up on the street. In these circumstances, it's not surprising that the Bangladeshi community was a close-knit and insular one.
It was not only our shared experiences as immigrants that unified us, but also our shared religion. Islam was the religion that defined many of my cultural experiences as I was growing up... For many of the people I grew up with, being a Bangladeshi is inseparable from being a Muslim.
This is, to put it bluntly, something that most white male atheists have never had to worry about. Yes, there are oppressive religious communities of every race and ethnicity which use brainwashing, peer pressure, and xenophobia to keep their members in line. But in addition to all those obstacles, which are common to every fundamentalist community, deconverts like Shaha faced the painful reality that much of the outside world genuinely was, and often still is, deeply prejudiced toward them. Under those circumstances, it's not irrational to fear that if you leave your own community and the social safety net it provides, you'll find no friends anywhere.
All this is by way of commenting on another post Shaha wrote recently, about the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to non-white atheists (HT: Jen McCreight). Typically, the comments section erupted with people - I'm going to go out on a limb and say most of them are probably white males - who angrily, defensively protested that they're not racist themselves, so this can't possibly be a problem. Here's one representative example:
Perhaps it's such a complete non-issue than only the most ardent proponents of identity politics have ever given it a second thought.
Judging by the sneer hanging over the phrase "identity politics", I can only conclude that this statement was made by someone who's never personally had to deal with racism or sexism, and from that single data point, believes that it can't possibly be an issue for anyone else either. If you want to know why non-white (and, often, non-male) people are underrepresented in the atheist community, if you want to understand why they sometimes feel unwelcome, look to comments like this.
This is why, as Shaha suggests, we need to make more of a concerted effort to "reach out to [non-white atheists] specifically, not generally" - to make a point of not overlooking them, of inviting more of them to be speakers and presenters, of making sure we give them their fair share of media attention and focus.
It has nothing to do with the fact that people who have the same skin color are privy to a secret means of communications not available to others, or that we have some kind of diversity quota to meet. It has everything to do with the fact that people who didn't grow up in a community like this, people who've never faced these kinds of social pressures, aren't likely to have much good advice for those who are still in that situation and want to escape. And on the other side of the equation, consider things from the viewpoint of people who are still a part of those communities. If they look to the atheist movement and see only white faces, they may conclude that no one else from their community has ever made it out and found a safe haven among us, and that may well discourage them from trying.
In other words, being more inclusive isn't something we should do as an act of charity. It's something we should do because it makes the atheist movement as a whole more powerful, more influential, and more able to effectively communicate with a broader range of people.
Help the Foundation Beyond Belief Finish Off 2010
Earlier this year, I wrote about the Foundation Beyond Belief and encouraged atheists to join, and I'm happy that some people took me up on that invitation. Well, the end of 2010 is almost here, and it's fair for FBB members and potential members to look for a year-end recap of the group's achievements. What did we do this year? Dale McGowan has the answer:
In 2010 our members fed, clothed, and paid school tuition for 22 impoverished children in Nepal. We have funded science education in India and in US public schools and supported efforts to fight global warming and protect biodiversity.
We put textbooks in Uganda's humanist schools and peacebuilding teams in Uganda's conflict areas. We funded efforts to improve access to health care for marginalized populations on four continents and in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. We helped launch a new Camp Quest in Virginia and helped build a new school for girls in Pakistan.
We've added humanist voices and dollars to the fight for LGBT rights, the key civil rights struggle of our time. We've empowered adoptions, fed the hungry, and worked to protect the most vulnerable—refugees in war, victims of torture, women under threat of religious violence, political asylees, people struggling with addiction, and those hoping for dignity at the end of their lives.
In total, FBB members have raised over $70,000 for 37 charities. For less than a year's work, that's pretty impressive!
In addition to all this tangible good, the Foundation Beyond Belief serves another important purpose: it enables atheists to make our charitable donations a positive collective expression of our worldview. Instead of our donations being blended invisibly into society's overall giving, it makes us visible; it shows that atheists are people of good will and compassion and that we care about creating a better world. In a society where atheists are still widely viewed as immoral and selfish, this is no small thing, and it makes us that much more credible and persuasive when we argue that discarding religion would improve human well-being.
The point of all this is that I believe the FBB is a more than worthy group. And now, it needs our help to finish off the year on a strong note. Unlike many non-profit groups, the FBB doesn't skim off the top to cover its administrative expenses: 100% of the money which members earmark for its chosen charities goes directly to those charities. This is a laudable policy, but it means that they do have some administrative debt that needs to be retired, so as not to finish the year in the red. I want to see the FBB's work continue and expand next year, so I'm making a donation for this end, and I urge you to do the same - even if it's just a few dollars. Donations are fully tax-deductible. The Foundation and I thank you for your help!
This Holiday Season, Consider Atheism!
I was happy to read that this week that atheist groups are launching a new ad blitz, with ads extolling the virtues of atheism on billboards, buses, trains and print media. Significantly, atheist ads are also hitting the airwaves for the first time ever - thanks to a $150,000 donation from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which is underwriting a TV ad campaign by the American Humanist Association.
And the very best part of the AHA campaign is that the ads aren't just saying that atheists can be good people too. They're hitting the religious where it hurts - by quoting some of the more notoriously evil verses from the Bible and contrasting them with positive quotes from famous humanists and freethinkers. (See the quotes here - I'm pleased with their selections.)
The most important reason for advertisements like these is that we still have a lot of low-hanging fruit. Most atheist groups have membership only in the tens of thousands - not an insignificant number, to be sure, and many of them are growing rapidly. The FFRF, for example, has tripled its membership in just the past few years. But the number of Americans who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic is in the millions, and the number who are nonreligious is in the tens of millions. Clearly, if we can reach even a fraction of these people and convince them to join up, we could be much larger and more influential - and we'd punch much harder against the incursions of the religious right.
Granted, when it comes to organizing, religious groups have a built-in advantage: they already have a hierarchy which they can use to communicate with their membership. This means we have to work harder to catch up with them, and both positive and negative ads have a place in this effort - positive, to emphasize the benefits of atheism and show our neighbors that we're good and moral people. But ads highlighting the cruelties and violence of the Bible are just as important, for the simple reason that they puncture the claim made by religious people that there's a single source of morality and that they have sole custody of it.
After all, just look at how absolutely terrified the religious right is of this campaign:
"They are trying to show that they can be good without God but that's ridiculous," said Dr. Craig Hazen, founder and director on Biola's MA program on Christian Apologetics, in an interview with The Christian Post.
...Although Hazen said humanists have no business interpreting the Bible [my emphasis], he concluded that the ads may have some resonance due to the biblical illiteracy among Christians today.
I find it vastly amusing to see religious bigots petulantly complaining that we're not allowed to be good and decent people if we don't believe in their god. Of course, they define "being a good person" as "believing in our religion", so in their eyes, atheists are immoral by definition. But that definition is what you'd call a "term of art" - a specialized meaning that's very different from the way people ordinarily understand the word.
And this is a fight we should be glad to have. I welcome the religious right's claims that they're the only moral people. After all, it will only increase the cognitive dissonance when people see our ads contrasting the vicious and bloodthirsty verses of the Bible with famous nonbelievers advocating conscience, reason, compassion, and other good things. It will make our ads that much more effective. So, to the apologists for superstition and prejudice, I say bring it on! And for everyone else, I have this friendly reminder: This holiday season, consider atheism - and if you're inclined towards our side, then please join one of these worthy groups, and help us spread the joyous and liberating message of reason.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation
The American Humanist Association
The Secular Coalition for America
From the Mailbag: Atheism in Nigeria
I've said in the past that the internet is an incredibly beneficial invention for atheists, since it provides a truly global platform for speech. Sometimes, you get a potent reminder of just how true that is. A few days ago, I got an e-mail from a young man in Nigeria - about the same age as me, in fact - who recently became an atheist. I invited him to tell us his story, and he agreed. The following e-mail is reprinted with his permission, and I think you'll agree that it's a powerful and deeply moving testimony.
I was barely 13 when my father fell sick. He was an ex-soldier, retired after sustaining serious bullet wounds during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). I grew up to witness how he used to complain about body aches and so on which they said was a consequence of some 7 bullets still in his body (it was on the x-ray) resulting from the haphazard treatment one gets during a war. When he eventually fell sick in 1996, it was like we were waiting for that moment: He never fell sick - as much as I can remember. This happened 1 year after he got separated from my mum for no apparent reason. Although he later claimed he was suspecting her for sleeping around with church members, this I knew was not true. I know my mum, she was a good christian, a righteous one - in my own sense of the word. Unlike my father, who as far as I can remember, never went to church. He was popularly known as a church critic (though he believed in god), my mum was a sunday school teacher ever since before I was born and she still is.
I was the only one at home when my father's health suddenly failed: my siblings were either in boarding schools or something. We were surviving through his little pension and my mother's peasant farm. We were ignorant about the hospital. But even if we weren't, it wouldn't make much sense because here, instead of a doctor confessing he lacks the professional skill applicable for an illness, or no appropriate equipment, he would simply advise you to go home and consult a herbalist, unprofessionally claiming that "this sickness is not a hospital type."
As my father's health condition worsened, I cooked his meals from the food stuff my mum will never hesitate to provide, bathed him, changed his clothes - you may not be able to imagine how it was for a 13-year-old child caring for an ailing 70+ year-old father. I'm not trying to be emotional or something, you know, I don't even like being sentimental. Neither am I trying to convince any one on why I rejected the god belief: no, I just don't want to pretend I do. That's it. After weeks with little or no medication, my father's brothers decided to take him to a witch doctor, carrying along my cousin Esau (6-7 yrs old). Two days later they returned with the news that the boy said he saw my mum and my 3 sisters in the calabash (you might be familiar with this type of cases). Indicating they are witches, geting at my dad through me as their agent.
This story was spreading around the village (Raba) without us having an idea about it for some time until - I can't remember how it came to us. Everywhere I go people gave me a look that told me my presence was not welcomed. I would lock myself in my room weeping. Wondering how it came to this, I was confused. One night (past 1:00am) I sneaked out of the village into the forest. Looking for an explanation, I wanted to talk to god. I thought: God doesn't want to appear in public but to a young innocent boy? I thought he would; I read about such things in the bible! At about 1 and 1/2 km from the village, I stood in the footpath and called out to 'god!', crying, I was so loud that my entire body vibrated. But all I had in response was the silent echo of my shrill voice and the distant hum of forest creatures. I wanted god to let the people know I didn't do it. But he disappointed me! I slept under a tree waiting for him all night. In the early hours of the morning, I walked back home so dejected.
In god's absence, my mum was my comforter, with her bible quotations and godly promises which I came to despise. I was never satisfied but pretended I was just to keep her from worrying about me. The day my father died I was the only one with him, my mum and sisters never visited for fear of further accusations (we used to be a happy home). Past 4:00am, I was in his room (his brothers abandoned him when they realised they couldn't help him with their witch medications). I never knew how it was for one to be dead but I knew something was wrong. I ran to my mum's house and described the situation. She started to cry but refused to come with me saying I better let his brothers know about it quickly. Later, he was confirmed dead. He was buried and forgotten.
People saw me as a witch and it bothered me. I became involved in church activities; bible recitation competitions, choir, boys brigade, youth evangelism and and so on: I tried to please god according to how it is said in the scripture. Leaving my mum behind, I moved to the city (Minna), got a job and made new friends. My new pastor seemed to like me; I was upfront, always willing to volunteer. I'm sensitive to lies and I always oppose deceit. I became a sunday school teacher yet, I couldn't reach god, nothing to prove 'he' really cares or tell the people I was falsely accused ('cos that's primarily what I labored for; to clear myself of all charges). Instead, those who seemed to sympathize with me concluded I was seeking for forgiveness. I figured out they pretend to love me but actually don't trust me (once a witch always a witch). And actually as my late father use to say: "only the guilty goes to church" (as in "only the sick goes to the hospital"). I had a series of unbelievable experiences in my quest for "supernatural" evidence. Not to mention how I slapped the chief of my village (the case is presently in court). As my faith dwindled further, I left the church and joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. For 3 years, though they seemed better than my previous churches in terms of response to questions, I was never satisfied. So I quit.
Then, on my own, I felt free to explore my psyche and solve my problems my way. I have 6 million reasons for why not to believe in god anymore but I have virtually none to do the opposite, however, I wanted to know how other people beyond my community view this things so turned to the internet. About 4 months ago I hit Ebon Musings. I read "A Ghost in the Machine" and I couldn't believe what I saw. It felt like the end of the road. You know why? My father was acting exactly the way it was described in the "alien hand syndrome"! At times he would ask me to bring him a cutlass to "chop off this stubborn hand." Each time he wants to eat I had to hold the left hand to stop it from spilling over his meal - oh my! I simply couldn't contain myself, I was so excited: to realize I belong to a community, a people who knows I didn't do it. At the time I was made to understand life had shut down its ears from me, suddenly I bumped into aliens like me - no, I no longer feel like an 'alien', I think am the rightful owner of this beautiful green planet. I feel pure and free untrammelled by religious nonsense. I'm human! I'd stopped worrying, I no longer had to shut myself crying my pains out. Now I close my eyes in tears with a smile on my face; someone, finally, can hear me - at last I found "god" - someone who can materially answer my basic questions that gave me the real meaning of life. Thank you very much.
Where, Oh, Where Are the Atheist Women?
Last week, I noticed a pingback on my blog from a post on Ms. Magazine by Monica Shores, "Will New Atheism Make Room for Women?"
There are some good things about this piece. I have to say that I'm glad to see the atheist movement making an impact in wider, more traditional media circles. The need to diversify the atheist movement and ensure that we encourage and fairly value the contributions of women and people of color is a valid one, and I've written about it before as well. I welcome more attention being paid to this issue and people being willing to point it out if we've fallen short.
However, Shores' post isn't written in the spirit of helping atheists improve on this issue. It's more in the style of a hit job, taking the stance that we must all be sexists whom no woman would want to associate with:
If you've been following the rise of so-called "New Atheism" movement, you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion. The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger - are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75). Sam Harris, another popular figure who bears mention, has the distinction of being in his early 40s.
Ironically, she spends all her time focusing on the white men who are prominent in the atheist movement, and then at the very end bemoans the fact that atheist women lack "visibility and name-recognition"! Well, Ms. Shores, why do you think that is? Could it possibly be because mainstream, traditional media outlets - even ones as allegedly progressive and feminist as Ms. Magazine - refuse to give atheist women the space and fair coverage they deserve?
What makes this even more bizarre is that Shores is clearly aware of the existence of many atheist women. She references Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and links to essays by Susan Jacoby, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina and Jen McCreight, as well as a post by Sikivu Hutchinson right here on Daylight Atheism. Yet, again, she gives all these excellent writers and advocates only passing mention, so that she can continue to criticize us for the utterly inexplicable invisibility of women and people of color. (It kind of reminds me of this skit from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000.) To compound this, Shores writes that there's "little indication that atheists are receptive" to the idea of diversifying - and to support this assertion, links to two posts arguing the exact opposite! This is clearly a case of the established media narrative driving coverage of the facts, rather than vice versa.
There are a few other annoying inaccuracies in Shores' post I want to point out. She writes that atheists "can't abide by tolerance of religion", when what we actually say is that religion shouldn't get special privileges or be immune from criticism. She writes that we "dare not hope for eradication of religion outright", whereas many of us do hope for this (by victory on the battlefield of ideas, of course, not by coercion or violence) and have no fear of saying so. And she ridiculously and insultingly mischaracterizes this piece by my fellow blogger vjack of Atheist Revolution as "overtly sexist", when it's actually a thoughtful exploration of the reasons why women may not feel as welcome in the activist segment of the atheist movement as we'd like.
Thankfully, Ms. magazine gave a follow-up post to Jen McCreight, who corrected many of these inaccuracies and pointed out some of the atheist women who are making major, meaningful contributions to the movement. This was a much better piece that rightly highlighted the accomplishments of atheist women, rather than ignoring them and then inexplicably complaining that they're nowhere to be found.
Tinkerbell the Accommodationist
Because we New Atheists haven't been told to shut up nearly often enough, Matt Nisbet has an editorial on BigThink this week. I was so glad to read it, because it had been a disturbingly long time - possibly as long as a whole day - since we'd last heard from someone saying we need to be shoved back into the closet (and the closet door nailed shut). Thankfully, this essay ends that worrying drought, calling it a "strategic blunder" that the Council for Secular Humanism gave a speaking spot to P.Z. Myers at its recent L.A. conference.
Nisbet begins with that much-used and much-loved rhetorical tactic, the false dichotomy:
On one side, "accommodationists" argue that non-believers should build bridges with others around shared values in order to work on common problems such as climate change and failing schools. On the other side, "confrontationalists" argue that they should close ranks and engage in relentless attack and ridicule against all forms of religion...
Nisbet has an enviable advantage when arguing against us: he's not confined by petty limitations such as the truth. Does he actually provide any citations of people saying this to substantiate the razor-sharp line he draws?
Let me see if I can straddle that line. I'll freely admit to the charge of being as fiery, uncompromising and New an atheist as you'll meet. I also attend a Unitarian Universalist church and, in the past, have given money to liberal religious charities. I can only presume that Nisbet, if presented with this contradiction, would start stammering "Does not compute" and then we'd see sparks shoot from his ears, like those androids in the original Star Trek whose computer brains couldn't cope with people doing things that didn't make sense.
Before the accommodationists' brains melt down entirely, let me solve the paradox for them: what New Atheists actually believe is that we can work together with good-hearted religious people on areas where we share common cause, but without surrendering the right to criticize them when it comes to other areas where we disagree. We can join with theists on, say, climate change, but still maintain - and advocate - the opinion that faith is more harmful than helpful. In Nisbet's black-and-white world, you're either someone's servile ally or their sworn nemesis, with no gradations in between.
The accommodationist mindset must be like being Tinkerbell from the original Peter Pan, who'd get homicidally jealous of any girl flirting with Peter because she was too small to contain more than one emotion at a time. Similarly, Matt Nisbet seems to think that because we criticize religious groups, it must mean we categorically refuse to associate with religious individuals. Fortunately, our brains seem to be just big enough to allow us to hold both those concepts in mind together.
The Council for Secular Humanism — and its parent organization the Center for Inquiry - erred considerably in giving Myers a forum. His appearance and remarks have gained news attention, but at what price?
This is not about censoring Myers, but about making wise choices relative to the public image of the organization and the future of the movement. There will always be a need for iconoclasts and pundits such as Myers who exceed the boundaries of civil discourse and who grab attention by saying foolish and embarrassing things. But that doesn't mean that major organizations should affiliate with him by making his remarks the news that comes to define their annual meetings.
An aside: Can we now put to bed, once and for all, the canard that accommodationists aren't just trying to shut us up? What is this if not a naked plea that secular groups not invite people who disagree with Matt Nisbet to come and speak?
It strikes me that if the Center for Inquiry erred by giving P.Z. Myers a platform, and worse, by making his speeches the news that defines them, then Matt Nisbet has committed that very same error, only in even greater magnitude. If you follow the writings of Nisbet or his ilk, like Chris Mooney, you'll soon see that practically their sole avocation these days is constant complaining and bellyaching about how impolite the New Atheists are. Reacting to us is the sole thing that's come to define them.
It's incredible how single-mindedly focused our critics are on us. Scan the headlines, and what do you see? Religious fundamentalists assaulting, murdering and terrorizing people who hold different beliefs; bombing buses and slashing throats; enslaving women and brutalizing gays; working to dismantle democracy and erase culture and history; and spreading ignorance about basic truths of life, the world, and human biology. And what have we, the New Atheists, done in response that's so terrible? Our catalog of crimes consists of the following: drawing cartoons, writing books, speaking at conferences, and occasionally being rude to inanimate objects.
Daniel Dennett asked why these people aren't "equal-opportunity sneerers", but I'd take it a step farther: their myopia makes them ridiculous. Their umbrage is wildly disproportionate to our actual deeds. It has nothing to do with what advances justice or freedom for humankind, and everything to do with whether they'll feel comfortable at cocktail parties.
Much like the current appeal of the libertarian movement and Reason magazine, the sharp iconoclasm of Myers and others appeals to young people seeking something novel and anti-establishment, an outlook easily captured in a T-shirt and expressed as an identity by way of a label such as atheist.
I'm sure P.Z. Myers, a happily married university professor with several grown children and a recent heart ailment, will be very pleased to find out that he's now numbered among the "young people". Doesn't this guy sound just like those snide, smarmy religious apologists who insist to our faces that our atheism is just a youthful phase we'll grow out of?
As I discussed in a Big Think video interview earlier this year, the Center for Inquiry and its magazine Free Inquiry were relatively slow to invest in Web-based content and applications. This in part created a vacuum online and the opportunity for bloggers such as Myers to rise to global prominence and gain a following.
I absolutely love that paragraph; you can practically taste the bitterness seeping through the page. It must be anathema for Nisbet to consider that people have flocked to P.Z. Myers or Richard Dawkins' banner because they agree with them, because they're saying the same things that many more people were already thinking and doing it loudly and fearlessly. No, it couldn't possibly be that - it must have been some sneaky, underhanded New Atheist trick we pulled to hypnotize people into agreeing with us! If only they'd listened to their betters, like Matt Nisbet and the Templeton Foundation, they'd be in their proper place: sitting quietly at home and not making any trouble.
Young people are also deeply supportive of science, especially when science is connected to progress, a system of values and ethics, and the solving of social problems. Secular humanism can offer a positive message about science as progress. In contrast, confrontationalists tend to celebrate the "poetry of science" while simultaneously using it as a rhetorical bludgeon against religion.
Yes indeed! It's a very efficient and clever strategy called "killing two birds with one stone". Although it must come as a grave shock to Tinkerbell over there, we can celebrate the beauty and the transcendence of science while also firmly believing that it tells against ancient and primitive religious superstitions, which are, by comparison, laughably small, simplistic and human-centered.
The bitterness and resentment evident in this column are proof of one more thing: this is a fight the accommodationists have already lost. Since their goal is to silence us, they can only win if they persuade us to stop talking or other atheists to stop listening. Given the evident popularity of the New Atheist movement which Nisbet decries, they've failed on both counts. All they have left is insult and jealous sniping, neither of which will accomplish anything more than make themselves look foolish.
Thoughts on CfI and Paul Kurtz
The New York Times reported this month on a rift at the Center for Inquiry, whose founder Paul Kurtz claims he's been unjustly expelled by the board of directors and the president, Ronald Lindsay. Kurtz was also interviewed by my friend Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection.
It's very unfortunate the way this turned out. It clearly wasn't handled well, and bad feelings and an embarrassing schism within the secular community were the result. It's especially unfortunate that this involves Paul Kurtz, a lion of the humanist movement who deserves the credit for founding the Center for Inquiry, as well as its influential sister organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP). If he now feels aggrieved and considers himself to have been cast out by the groups he himself founded, that's much to be regretted. Still, after reading these interviews, I'm not convinced that Kurtz has a strong case here.
The first of his two major complaints is that, since his departure, CfI has taken more of a confrontational stance than he's comfortable with:
According to Mr. Kurtz, skeptics must do more than just deride religion.... he contrasted his affirmative vision with recent projects under Mr. Lindsay, like International Blasphemy Day. (The 2010 version, held Thursday, was renamed International Blasphemy Rights Day.) Mr. Kurtz was also a vocal critic of a contest for cartoons about religion that included some entries that could be considered deeply offensive.
This is ironic, considering that I and others have criticized CfI for being too conciliatory and disdainful of vocal atheism. But with all due respect to Paul Kurtz, the vocal, aggressive, confrontational New Atheist strategy is working. We're winning converts, eroding the authority of religion, making our ideas ubiquitous and familiar in a way that would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago. Projects like Blasphemy Day are a part of that effort, a way to make an important point about free speech with humor while tweaking the noses of self-righteous fundamentalists. Unless Kurtz has concrete evidence that these are hurting the cause more than helping, he should cease from baseless objections.
But the question of strategy is beside the point: Kurtz's criticism boils down to the fact that CfI isn't being run exactly as he'd prefer. Well, yes - because he left. He can't rightfully expect that the organization will continue to adhere to his every preference. Even if it's true that CfI's aims have changed, there's nothing wrong with new directors taking the group in a somewhat different direction, so long as they continue to uphold the original mission.
This leads to Kurtz's second major criticism, which is that he's been unfairly shut out from CfI, especially in that they changed the locks to keep him out after he refused to give up his keys. But again, I don't really see that he's got much of a substantive complaint here. As Russell Blackford and others pointed out, if he resigned from the organization, he should have turned in his keys. Since he refused to do that, changing the locks was a perfectly legitimate response. And when he voices this complaint:
Barry Karr said that since I resigned, I have no right to be made aware of internal matters within the organization. I asked, "What about my moral authority?" I said, "This is similar to what happened to Galileo when placed under house arrest."
But this is true! When he resigned, he gave up the right to be informed of day-to-day internal matters about the running of the organization, That's what resigning means. His comparison of himself to Galileo being placed under house arrest is ludicrous and wildly inappropriate, and makes me less inclined to take his other concerns seriously.
Moreover, according to comments by CfI officers Ronald Lindsay and Barry Karr, Kurtz still has an office in the center which he's free to use during normal business hours - he even has his own parking spot - and the only thing he's no longer able to do is enter the building on his own when no other staff members are present. If this is true, then Kurtz is being dishonest when he claims to have been denied free access. (In fact, according to a comment in this post, Kurtz staged a photo-op where he came to the building, tried to open the door without ringing the buzzer, and then fled when an employee saw him and came to let him in. If true, this is especially deceitful and reprehensible.)
Considering he has no more formal connection with the Center, I think it's quite generous of them to allow him continued use of an office in their building during normal operating hours. They would have been perfectly within their rights to box up his possessions and leave them out on the curb, especially considering that he's founded a new organization, the Institute for Science and Human Values, which is actively competing with CfI for donors.
The other thing I'd point out is that Kurtz seems to be alone in voicing these criticisms. He claims that CfI employees have been terminated for expressing dissenting views, even in private communication. But he doesn't name these employees or say what views those were, which makes it impossible to judge the truth of his allegations. Nor have any of these people come forward on their own to corroborate this. Kurtz also complains that the Center has refused to publish his statement of resignation, but if he wants us to see it, why doesn't he just release it himself? Again, if he won't tell us what's in it, we can't judge whether CfI was right to reject it (for example, if it contains false or unfounded allegations against them, they'd be well within their rights to turn it down).
I'm sorry that Kurtz feels he's been treated unjustly, and I wish that CfI had made more of an effort to prevent that, but my reading gives me the impression that he wanted to have it both ways. He can't simultaneously resign and still expect to have access and control over the organization, especially not when he's founded a competing group. Whatever important organizational work he's done, he still has to step down and pass on the torch eventually; he has a responsibility to ensure an orderly transfer of power and responsibility so that the Center will continue functioning after him. It seems he was unwilling to do that, and I think that accounts for his embittered comments.
UPDATE (10/24): Dangerous Intersection has posted the response interview with Ron Lindsay of CFI.