Thursday, January 7, 2010

If a response is beneath you, don't respond!

A few months ago, a pretty ridiculous anti-atheist article was published in Portland State University's student-run newspaper, the Daily Vanguard. The same article was just reprinted by the student newspaper at the University of Oregon, the Daily Emerald. It's a real gem, for sure:
Hmm, let’s see…I could either listen to someone pushing their religion on me, or listen to you aggressively espouse how not to believe. Either way, guilt is involved and, sadly, you come off a hell of a lot more like a pompous and arrogant bastard!
I can just bet that the author is so busy patting himself on his hypocritical back that he hasn't seen the furor this has raised. But that's not what this post is about. The article is practically a parody of itself, and can essentially be summed up as "I don't want to hear you, so shut up".

This post is about the response by the University of Oregon's campus atheist group, the Alliance of Happy Atheists. The official response was fine (if dismissive), characterizing the article as being of little more intellectual value than an angry YouTube comment. Later on, however, the following was posted over at Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog:

As a member and committee chair of UO’s Alliance of Happy Atheists, I would like to ask the FriendlyAtheist readers to please contact The Daily Emerald to let them know that re-printing this rant was a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass the non-religious students on campus, especially those who are members in AHA! Our group is not so much upset at the author of the article, but are offended and confused as to why our newspaper would pick this 3 month old hateful rant and print it now. AHA! supports the free speech, even of those who disagree with atheism or our group. But this was not an attempt at an intelligent, respectful debate between the religious and secular; rather it was a deliberate attempt to insult a group of students at this school. If any of you have the time and motivation, we would really appreciate if you could go to the Daily Emerald’s website and send them an email letting them know that this was extremely discriminatory and unprofessional. Please don’t waste anytime trying to counter the illogical statements made by Dick Richards (that would be beneath us). We don’t care about some obnoxious douche who can’t write or argue; we do care about whether our campus newspaper respects their students enough to print good-quality and tasteful articles.

AHA! Education Committee Chair,
Shireen Noroozi

All the responses I've seen so far seem to fall into two categories - either they follow Shireen's line of thinking above and call for people to take action and get in touch with the Daily Emerald's editorial staff, or they follow the strict free speech line and say that we shouldn't be engaging in censorship. For the most part, I don't have any problems with either of these.

There are a few things in Shireen's post that I feel need to be addressed. First:
AHA! supports the free speech, even of those who disagree with atheism or our group. But this was not an attempt at an intelligent, respectful debate between the religious and secular; rather it was a deliberate attempt to insult a group of students at this school.
I hate to say it, but they’re not supporting free speech through their actions. We really don’t have a right to be free from being offended. We can’t demand that theists allow us to be heard to say things they find offensive, then turn around and cry foul when they do the same. We’re all giving him what he wants by paying any attention to him at all. He’s an idiot; let his own words speak for him.

We don’t care about some obnoxious douche who can’t write or argue;...
Except that you clearly do. Your response has said so, and loudly. If you don’t care, don’t respond.

Essentially, Shireen's response, as I read it, is “we don’t think he should be canned, but we do think he shouldn’t be allowed to speak his mind if it offends anyone.” Being politically correct isn’t going to help. Saying that his language is discriminatory and unprofessional really isn’t saying anything about whether or not he’s wrong. Much better to respond by countering what he says with a level-headed tone than by calling the PC police, I’d say.

If it’s beneath you to respond, let it be beneath you, because going around telling everyone just how beneath you it is is a sign that it actually does matter to you. Plus, you're feeding the troll. DON'T FEED THE TROLLS!

If it matters to AHA!, then they shouldn’t be ashamed of saying so. But it should matter that he’s wrong, not that he’s a fool. Even a fool can occasionally be right, if he’s lucky. Dismissing him as a bigot won’t do anything to convince the people who might even slightly agree with him that his positions are unwarranted.

I understand that it’s not even a free speech issue. It’s not unconstitutional for a student-run paper to censor a rabid viewpoint. But it’s still censorship, and I’m deeply committed to preventing that whenever possible. Yes, do contact the Daily Emerald’s staff. Let your complaints be heard. But also:
  1. Don’t act like it doesn’t matter. It mattered enough for you to respond and send out a call to action.

  2. Don’t refuse to refute simply because he made an ass of himself. His diatribe might be convincing to someone. After all, we do have people like Glenn Beck with millions of followers…
If we really feel that it matters and we mount any kind of response at all, we can't afford to be dismissive of idiots just because they're idiots. Plenty of people will see the bits they agree with and ignore the idiocy for convenience's sake. But for goodness' sake, don't feed the trolls... pick your battles!

Friday, January 1, 2010

If God be for us, what is forbidden?

Romans 8:31-33 says:
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?

He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth.
I've often thought of these verses whenever I hear about the latest hypocrisy and theocratic nonsense to emerge from the fundamentalist Christian set. To believers and to atheists, they have two very different meanings. For most of the believers I know, it's a source of comfort. It means that no matter what the world throws at them, God will be on their side, offering defense and protection. It's reassurance that God is obviously willing to do anything to help them out, since he's willing to sacrifice his son (himself) for our sake.

As an atheist, I read it differently. It's essentially saying that anything a believer does is justified and above repute; that since God is the one who justifies actions, non-believers have no right to question anything a believer does. I'm pretty sure that some believers see it this way, too - specifically, the kind of hardcore fundamentalists who are just slightly closer to the sane end of the spectrum than Fred Phelps.

Take, for example, Mission:America, an organization with a focus of reforming America according to Biblical principles - part of what is known as the Dominionist movement. On their "To Christians" page, in the middle of a lengthy screed denouncing American Christians for their tolerance of homosexuality (and feminism, and paganism, and pornography, and violent media, and......), they say the following:
And the big question is: why do you let the world define what's right to do? What will be "accepted" or not? What is "hate" or not? This defense of inaction completely undermines who Christ is and what God is able to do. Such cowardice should make us tremble. For God would not only be with us if we tried to talk some sense into the world, He is just as able to judge each Christian and the society we live in for our disloyalty and cold-heartedness. I believe right now, He is doing just exactly that.
Emphasis added. By the way, when you see this kind of Christian talking about "the world", they're not just talking about the people of the world. They're speaking in the Biblical sense - that the world is materialistic, sinful, fallen, and disgraced; that it is in the grip of Satan, which is the justification for disregarding its opinion.

They believe that God must approve of what they're doing, and as a result, they simply don't care what anyone thinks of them. This is an incredibly dangerous mindset. Not only are they dismissive of anyone who disagrees, but they almost seem eager to redefine hate to be "whatever we don't like". Nowhere in this message is even the barest semblance of Christian humility. These people believe that they know the mind and the will of an omnipotent, omniscient being, and that it agrees with them and will justify any action they take.

Recently Linda Harvey, the founder of Mission:America, posted an article called "The Top 10 Ways to Make Kids Truly Safe in 2010". The list begins somewhat well:
Let’s teach our children to refrain from honoring oppressive, liberty-denying practices and beliefs. Children should be civil to all, but refuse to be manipulated...
Which I think is fantastic. But, of course, it continues.
...into “respecting” Islam, praying to Allah, etc., no matter how many points it counts on the social studies/diversity unit test. They should urge every girl they know wearing a hijab to remove it and no longer submit to a system of subtle bondage. They should share the Gospel of Jesus Christ deliberately with every Muslim they know— and make sure these lost kids know that Christians believe in a loving God who gives us free will.
Sigh. The rest of the list isn't much better. It's a full menu of shameless bigotry, hatred, and intolerance, all in the name of "what's right". And, of course, since they think God is on their side, nothing is off the table.

But how can we deal with this? Nothing we say will change their minds; they've already made that perfectly clear by saying that they won't let the world define things for them. Even other Christians likely won't be able to reach them, since they think that most Christians have lost their way and should conform to their example. We're talking about people who are infinitely immune to criticism. Essentially, their dogma is a religious conspiracy theory. They're the only Enlightened Ones who see the Truth Behind Everything and have to strive to bring the Blinded Dupes into their fold. Any argument against their position is seen as evidence that they're right.

The best approach that I can think of is to forget working directly with them and work on bringing around anyone who might be tempted to buy into what they're saying. Over on Hemant Mehta's fantastic blog, Friendly Atheist, a commenter said:
Don’t hold your breath. People who think of their god as a “shepherd” are going to act like sheep.
I wouldn't paint with such a broad brush, honestly. Unless we make them aware of people like this vile woman, they likely won’t even know this sort of thing is going on. Her viewpoint is not mainstream in Christianity, from what I can tell. Most people have never heard of her or the damnable things she’s said, so it’s not exactly fair to condemn them for their ignorance.

The problem for us isn’t that they’re not speaking out – the problem is that we have to figure out a way to make them aware without being dismissed as anti-Christian. I’d bet that the vast majority of Christians, being the silent moderate majority, would likely vilify her as well. I know that when I was a believer, people like this made me just as sick as they do now, only for different reasons (e.g., they were misrepresenting Christianity). I just didn’t think they were significant enough to bother with; either that, or I just had an abstract idea that people like this existed, rather than concrete examples.

But this kind of apathy isn't acceptable to me now. I can't silently sit by and let bigotry go on unchallenged. This is a war for the minds of the world, and the less we do, the more minds they'll win. The bottom line is this: Mission:America is a hypocritical, bigoted organization that distorts the book it claims to revere to make it work for their purposes (moreso than most believers). They simultaneously claim moral superiority and an immunity to judgment. As a result, they have no moral basis for anything they claim, and reasonable people everywhere should be insulted that such people think they know what's best for our children.