Archive for July, 2011

Stigmatizing Religious Wing-nuttery in the Public Square: Why Atheists Are Better Suited to the Task Than Either Moderate or Liberal Christians

July 31, 2011

Rick Perry for President

Many of the leading voices in the free-thought movement have opined that atheists would do well to model their political strategies on those of the gay movement since Stonewall. The overall trend among GLBTs has been to seek integration into mainstream society, and our successes have been pretty impressive, considering the strength of the resistance we’ve encountered. How did we do this? The answer is that nearly every one of us who is now “out” went through what can best be described as a conversion experience. The scales fell from our eyes, so to speak, and we understood how shame, fear, and self-loathing had conspired to keep us closeted. Once we began to respect ourselves, we were at last able to command respect from others. Slowly but surely, public opinion changed. People everywhere realized they had known gays and lesbians all along, that many of us were family, and that there was, after all, nothing to fear. The majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage.

Atheists have so far done pretty poorly as a political movement. Polls show that American voters are even less likely to cast their ballot for one of us than for a gay man or a lesbian. Could this be, in part, because so many of us atheists are closeted? Most people don’t even realize that they know atheists—even in their own families. Only by becoming visible can we ever become an effective force in shaping both political policy and social mores.

Anyone who doubts the urgency of the challenges has only to read the daily newspapers. On April 11, 2011, in response to a prolonged drought that has caused historic wildfires all across Texas, the state’s governor, Rick Perry, declared three days of prayer for rain. That was three months ago, and the drought has intensified, with conditions in about 80% of the state rated as “exceptional”—two notches up from “severe.”

If Governor Perry had taken the trouble to consult a meteorologist, he would have learned that, barring a tropical storm, hot and dry weather is likely to continue at least into early September. I can think of three possible reasons why he didn’t do so: (1) He actually believed that prayer could produce rain; (2) he was pandering to his Christian constituency; and/or (3) he had a vested interest in deflecting the public’s attention from scientific explanations that might mention climate change. Any one of these possibilities is frightening, not only because Perry is governor of one of our nation’s largest and most populous states, but additionally because he is considering a run for the U.S. presidency. A Perry presidency is an appalling prospect, and every American with a scintilla of sense should be alarmed about it.

There is one very good reason why Perry cannot address the drought issue in a truthful and rational way, and it is spelled O-I-L. Let’s not forget that Perry came to the defense of British Petroleum after the April, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But if BP was not responsible, then who was? Here’s is Perry’s assessment, from a speech he gave at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. shortly after the explosion:

From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented.

The BP oil spill was an act of God? Meaning, it was His will that nearly five million barrels of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, spoiling beaches, wetlands, and estuaries from Louisiana to Florida and creating an 80-square-mile “dead zone” around the drilling platform? BP was only the “instrument” of His divine will? Should we then “thank” BP for its instrumentality in the disaster?

This nonsense is so heavy, thick, and pervasive that it threatens to drag us under, but few moderate or even progressive Christians seem willing or able to challenge it. On what basis would they do so? Would they answer that God neither causes disasters nor allows them to happen? This is obviously untrue of the God “character” in the Bible and of the putative God who intervenes throughout history in the affairs of humankind. So moderate Christians can only say, “Well, maybe so. Who knows?”

Or they will go all “tolerant” and refrain from criticizing Perry, or Michelle Bachmann, or Rick Santorum, because, after all, everyone has a right to their opinion and, as good Christians, we mustn’t judge them. In particular, we mustn’t judge other Christians. Aside from some points of doctrine, they’re like us, and we all believe in the same God. Et cetera ad nauseum.

The “tolerance” stance  gives a free pass to almost any kind of craziness that is framed in religious terms. When applied globally, it comes up as multiculturalism: religious traditions, beliefs, and practices are not to be questioned. Genital mutilation and infibulation in the Islamic world are “okay” because “it’s just their tradition.” Stoning adulteresses is just a part of our wonderful multicultural rainbow.

What would a rational response to the Texas drought and the BP oil spill look like? For starters, it would have to be a completely naturalistic response, without any mention of supernatural agents. For any half-way sane person with eyes to see, the causes of these disasters are obvious: The proximate cause for the Deepwater Horizon explosion is that BP screwed up. The ultimate cause of the disaster is that there were drilling rigs there in the first place, and they were there because we have become too dependent on fossil fuels. The cause of the drought is global warming, which in turn has been caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the last couple of centuries. The solution to both these crises? Easy! Burn less fossil fuel. Develop alternative sources of energy.

That Governor Perry was unwilling or unable to think in this way about these disasters is evidence that he is an archaic man in a suit. He hasn’t earned his creds for 21st-century leadership. And yet he was elected governor of Texas and may be in line for the presidency. It isn’t just that Perry proposes fantastical solutions to problems; he also obstructs those who would like to find real solutions. And meanwhile, our planet is becoming hotter, 100-year climate events are happening every ten years or so, and the oceans are rising.

Atheists would be uniquely positioned to undercut Perry’s presidential aspirations if we were more mainstream. Unlike moderate and liberal Christians, we could declare Perry delusional and lay out our reasons in clear and cogent terms. No equivocations. No hedging. No contortionist theologies that aim to reconcile archaic craziness with its contemporary counterparts. Unlike the ultimate progressive religionists (Unitarians), we could cut the “tolerance” crap and judge these candidates on their merits, just as we would judge any candidate for a job that we’re hiring him or her to do.

For atheists to effectively call out Perry and others of his ilk, we need to be strong in numbers, sure of our arguments, vocal in our rebuttals, highly visible, and capable of using ridicule and satire in a strategic way. In other words, we need to get our crap together, recognize the perils of inaction and apathy, and get creative.

This week in San Angelo, Texas, Warren Jeffs, the leader of a Mormon polygamist sect, was on trial for having sexually assaulted two under-age girls. At one point, he interrupted the proceedings to announce that he had to read a statement from God. The judge allowed him to read it. It said,

I, the Lord God of heaven, call upon the court to cease this open prosecution… If the trial continues, I will send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to make [them] humbled by sickness and death.

I think we all recognize that the defendant was delusional. It is significant that virtually everyone recognizes this, even fundamentalist Christians and most other Mormons. Atheists have very clear reasons for claiming that he is delusional. But what reasons can Christians offer? Jeff’s claim is no different in quality from that of Rick Perry or Pat Robertson or any number of other public figures who claim to have a hot line to God. Who’s to say they are not right?

Atheists are.

The “Calling” as Cover for Raw Political Ambition

July 25, 2011
Texas Governor Rick Perry

Jon Perr of Crooks and Liars, has this to say about the rash of pledges that Republican party purists have recently required their presidential candidates to take: (Read the entire article here.)

For weeks, Republican presidential candidates have been a running a gauntlet of ever-more draconian pledges put forth by party purists. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax oath, the Susan B. Anthony List anti-abortion manifesto , the “Marriage Vow” and the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge are just some of the multiplying litmus tests now demanded by social and economic conservatives alike.

But as the 2012 primaries approach, another de facto requirement for GOP White House hopefuls is emerging. That is, candidates must not only (a) proclaim that they have been called [by] God to seek the presidency, but (b) declare that divine intervention is the cure for what ails America. Call it the Divine Right Pledge. And so far, it’s one [that] most of the GOP field seem more than willing to take.

Takers, so far, include …

  • Rick Perry (“This is what I’ve been called to do.”)
  • Michele Bachmann (“I’ve had that calling.”)
  • Rick Santorum (“We have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants.”)
  • Herman Cain (“God said, ‘…I’ve got something else for you to do.’ And it might be to become the president of the United States of America.”)

What is going on here? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Christian god is real, that He is watching over America, and that He has personally encouraged one of these candidates to enter the presidential race (He would have selected a Republican, of course). Let’s even assume that He makes His wishes very clear to this Chosen One during their daily conversations together: the candidate is “called,” like the prophets of old, to serve the Lord by leading the nation out of moral relativism and iniquity. The Lord will provide strength and guidance, because it is His will that a righteous man or woman should sit in the Oval Office.

Christians who know their Bible stories will resonate to this trope and perhaps recall Moses or Jonah, or indeed Jesus. All three at some point argued with the Lord, claiming they were not worthy or that they did not relish the task the Lord had set for them. Moses protested that his stuttering made him ineffective as a leader. Jesus prayed to his Father to “let the cup pass” from his lips. Jonah even went so far as to flee, thinking God would not find him.

In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Rick Perry made a point of his indifference to the allure of power:

I’ll be real honest with you. I don’t wake up in the morning–never did and still don’t today–and say, ‘Gee, I want to be president of the United States.’

The prophet’s reluctance is an essential component of the myth insofar as it reminds us that what the Lord requires is not always easy and that we are only His “servants.”

Our presidential candidates would have heard these stories countless times from the pulpits of their churches—so often, in fact, that the concept of leadership is now firmly linked in their minds to that of “calling.” They have become so marinated in religious myth and metaphor that they have no other language to use. The God talk just keeps pouring forth, even in the public sphere of our secular society.

But this is not to suggest that any of it is inadvertent or miscalculated. The “calling” trope—together with its “reluctance” (or “indifference”) component—serves an important political purpose and has proven its worth over time. Naked political ambition is repugnant to most Americans, and we prefer to think of our leaders as public “servants,” not overlords or masters. The claim of a “calling” and of one’s reluctance to answer it is reassuring to nervous voters.

Michele Cottle, writing about “Rick Perry’s Divine Calling” in The Daily Beast, finds a touch of political genius in the “calling” trope:

Thus the genius of being “called” to run. It allows [the candidate] to commit himself wholeheartedly, even passionately, to a presidential bid, all the while saying it’s not a job he’s ever personally desired.

For some, the strategy works its magic on a subliminal level. Fundamentalist Christians are more easily conned because they cannot think critically about religious faith or its expressions within the cohort. “He’s one of us,” is all they need to know, and then any sort of outlandish claim will be taken at face value as long as it is correctly and familiarly framed. To any sort of logic-based question like, “Why would God “call” all the candidates simultaneously?” the answer will predictably be, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Who are we to know His purposes?”

Moderate Christians may be less impressed by the candidate’s claim to a divine calling, but they are, after all, still Christians and are thus prone to believe that God intervenes in human affairs. One of the candidates making this claim might, after all, be right! Or God might be working more discretely with a candidate who refuses to play this particular political game. However, these moderates won’t have ruled out the possibility of divine guidance for one or more of the candidates.

Then there is the vast and more-or-less secularized “middle” stratum of Americans—the folks who attend church twice a year and generally avoid being pinned down about their beliefs. Their reaction to the Divine Right Pledge will range from indifference to mild annoyance, and if they have any stronger feelings about the matter, they’ll keep them to themselves.

The free-thought community (atheists, secular humanists)–or those who have dedicated one partition of their brain to free thought—are likely to recognize the Pledge for what it is—a litmus test for the Republican candidates—and to regard the pledgers as either dangerously delusional or cynical, mendacious, and hypocritical. Either of these possibilities should put American voters in a heightened state of alarm.

If this particular pledge is a litmus test for religious conservatives, it can also be one for the rest of us, including the moderates. It identifies candidates who are either so delusional that they believe God talks to them or are so unethical and opportunistic that they would lie about the matter. Unless we have become totally numb to political shenanigans and faith-based craziness, our alarms should start to sound. The election of any one of these candidates could have appalling consequences for those of us who value separation of church and state and responsible leadership.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, looks forward to the day when all faith-based claims—those not supported by either reason or evidence—will be treated with the same suspicion—or wariness—that we now exhibit toward those who claim to have sighted Elvis or to have been abducted by aliens. Such claims are almost universally recognized to be delusional, and anyone making them will not be taken seriously. If you happen to mention during a job interview that you’ve been conversing with the ghost of Jimmy Hendrix, you’re not likely to get the job.

So what are we to do? How are we to restore some sanity to our political process and flush out the charlatans, the opportunists, the liars, and the crooks–starting with those who wrap themselves in the mantle of religion?

A first step might be to deprive hyper-religious candidates of their cover. Expose their language, give no quarter. Laugh them off the dais when they claim to have talked to God or received instructions from Him. Don’t just “let it go” or “play along.” To hell with accommodation. Put them on the defensive. Keep asking them to explain themselves on this point, and don’t hide your contempt for their claims.

A more radical step might be to encourage an end to all “God talk” in the public sphere. Let’s revive the ancient Judaic tradition that prohibits saying or even spelling G-d’s name. How, indeed, did we ever wander from that precept? Those of us who have had profound and transformative experiences should immediately stop framing them in religious terms. If we must describe what we have experienced, we do so without any reference to ancient traditions, or we draw our images from so many traditions that no single one of them can lay claim to our experiences. The word “God” has been so co-opted, exploited, polluted, and debased that we should no longer use it at all. Let’s go “cold turkey” for the rest of the millennium, until the word “God” has been thoroughly cleansed.

Then we really start treating politicians who claim to have had conversations with God as one-short-of-a-six-pack. We banish God from the public sphere by means of ridicule, and He will go back into the hearts of believers where He belongs, and there He will remain nameless and unnamable as He always should have been.

Is such a proposal so radical as to be useless? Not entirely. Sometimes we are “called”—by our conscience—to change our own behavior even when there is little or no chance others will come along with us. We do the right thing not because it will “change the world” but because it’s the right thing to do.

A Gay Catholic’s Imagined “Confession” to Archbishop Dolan

July 9, 2011

Micro-credit financier John Mattras shares his fantasy of a frank conversation with Archbishop Dolan during the confessional. The subject is same-sex marriage and gay parenting.

Can Science Kill God? (Continued)

July 5, 2011

"Adam and Eve," by Tiziano and Vecelli

My question to Andrew Sullivan was whether specifically Biblical notions like “fallenness” are necessary or even useful in understanding our human condition and bettering ourselves. The term doesn’t map to anything that we know from science about human evolution or the way our minds work. Even terms like “flawed” and “defect,” though not uniquely Biblical, should be used very judiciously when talking about human nature.

The notions of sin and redemption do map to a secular and scientific (biological, anthropological) understanding of human history. However, there is no transcendental grounding for these notions; they involve very real human transactions that can be discussed without reference to the Judeo-Christian god. If God is the community, as Durkheim proposed, then we can remove transcendence from the equation and carry on with our struggles to live in community with other individuals.

The notion of “fallenness” doesn’t help us in these struggles because it requires buying into the whole package of misconceptions such as original sin and expiation through sacrifice.  As animals who know we are going to die, we already have more than enough free-floating anxiety. Why add to it a theology that tells us we are born into iniquity and that our guilt can only be absolved through complete surrender to the will of the community (God) as represented to us by his priests and prophets? What is required by these intermediaries will vary in detail, but it is sure to include observance of ritual, belief in designated myths, and strict avoidance of prohibited behaviors. These are the major role-players in the universal grammar of religion. Needless to say, things can go seriously awry when God’s representatives on earth screw up. (Search this site for “Pope Benedict.”) And that’s where individual autonomy, where it has been allowed to emerge, can serve as an effective counterbalance.

Balancing individual autonomy with community constraints is always a tricky business, but the Biblical theology of fallenness, sin, guilt, and redemption are a huge thumb pressed down on one side of the scales. People in this secular, democratic age are much more self-regulating than ever before, and we may not be doing such a bad job of it considering the challenges. We may ultimately fail, but our chances will be greatly improved by switching off some of our unnecessary internal static about sin and guilt. Spending one’s years feeling guilty about behaviors that are not, by any rational standard, harmful to anyone is a waste of a precious resource: a single human life.

Novelist David Foster Wallace Gives Atheism a Bad Rap

July 5, 2011

In May of 2005, David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest (1996), delivered a commencement address to graduating seniors at Kenyon College. A transcription of it is still getting a lot of hits on the Internet.

In paragraph 4 of the transcription, Wallace uses what he calls a “didactic little story” to make a point about the arrogance, self-centeredness, and closed-mindedness of atheism. Here’s the story:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out, ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that happened was a couple Eskimos came wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

To convey how this story struck me, an atheist, I transposed it to an entirely different religious culture, Hinduism, with Vishnu (the “protector” god) replacing the Judeo-Christian god. Here it is:

There are these two Indian chaps sitting together in a cafe enjoying chai somewhere in remote Rajasthan. One of them is a devout Hindu, and the other doesn’t profess any religion at all; his parents were non-observant members of two different faiths, and he decided as a young man that he was an atheist.

The two men start arguing about the existence of Vishnu (the Hindu “protector” god) with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth cup of chai. And the atheist says, “Look, my good friend, I actually have reasons for not believing in Vishnu. You might say I’ve ‘experimented’ with prayer to him. Just last month I got caught away from camp in the desert. I became totally lost and couldn’t see any sign of life on the horizon. The sun was beating down on my head and I was becoming dangerously dehydrated. Then I decided to try it: I fell to my knees in the sand and cried out to Vishnu, ‘Oh great and eternal protector of mankind, if you exist, then help me now, for otherwise I shall surely die!’

And now, in the cafe, the Hindu looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then, you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, my friend,” he replies. “All that happened was that a couple of camel-drivers found me and showed me the way back to camp.”

Now, here is Wallace’s interpretation of this story, which I have edited to fit the Indian version:

Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing camel drivers had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

My first question is: Should we consider the atheist “closed-minded?” After all, in his time of greatest need, he was at least willing to “try” praying to Vishnu.

My second question: Is refusing to believe in the reality of something for which there is no evidence a sign of close-mindedness? Maybe it’s a sign of healthy-mindedness.

My third question: What could be more arrogant and self-centered than imagining that a god who ignored the prayers of six million Jews in Nazi death camps would rescue you from a mess you got yourself into?

Later, Wallace writes:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

Wallace is talking about two different things as if they were the same. One is belief and the other is worship. First you believe, and then you worship. How can you worship if you don’t believe? Is belief something we “choose” because it brings benefits like redirecting our worship away from material things to more spiritual ones?

And I don’t accept his premise that not worshipping God (any God) leads to worshipping material things. I don’t “worship” material things. I do, however, value “earthly things” like a healthy ecosystem, an end to hunger, and education and healthcare for all. I simply believe this life is all there is and we must busy ourselves making it better for everyone. Is that crass materialism?

Wallace apparently believes that there are only two choices: You worship God or you worship body, beauty, money, and power. This is just not true. What are we to make of Carl Sagan or any number of other atheists who have dedicated their lives to education, to science, or to public service?

I think Wallace has given atheists a really bad rap.