You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments
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The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments
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Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there's a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won't meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I've heard plenty of "Why are you angry at God" and had to explain I don't believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you're less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren't particularly well versed in their faith, they've probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they're ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn't last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn't offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they've had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we're most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It's well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you'll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You're not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it's not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they've been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It's  no good raising questions and smirking if you can't rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn't.  You might know that WLC's arguments are bunk, but if you can't make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can't back it up with argument, you're handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn't deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I'm not sure why you're having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you're in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It's one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I've spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway's The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

May 26, 2011, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments
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Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments
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The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I'm sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it's fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don't receive the "but who can ever know" kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who've set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with "WINNING!" I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen's troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they've gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It's hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther's childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark's discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that's funny, but it's actually traumatic. That's why no one forgets the horror of such moments...

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you'll see that Camping's followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don't plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he'll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we've given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

May 20, 2011, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments
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