Don’t Get in a Car with an Atheist!

Spotted on, a “job listing” from a Texas mother looking for someone to help her transport her teenage daughters to school and activities, emphasis mine:

I am a mother who is 38 years old, I am a teacher in Tomball ISD, my husband is American and I am Mexican. I need to find a woman or girl that is nice, kind, and has good manners because you would be a role model for my daughters too. Christian or Catholic would be best. If you think you are atheist, please don’t take the job, I do not want those ideas in my daughters’ heads. We are a very kind and positive and affectionate family.

Just stretch your imagination and think about what folks might say if instead the ad feared for the effect of Christian “ideas in my daughters’ heads.”

You know what? I’ll bet she’d be “kind and positive” toward an atheist applicant before she called the police.

Constructive versus Destructive Atheist Activism

Chris Stedman gives voice to a concern I’ve had of late (and unfortunately does so in the Huffington Post, but we’ll let that go):

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

I have been guilty of this myself, and like Stedman, I have no qualms about actively questioning all forms of irrational, baseless belief, but I also have in recent years come to feel less adamant about casting all forms of spiritual seeking into the same ditch as fundamentalism.

Stedman’s prime example of the ugly confusion about what it is nonbelievers ought to be doing with their energies and activism is the embarrassing and grossly wrongheaded campaign by American Atheists to remove the “World Trade Center Cross” from the 9/11 Museum, something I also noted as a wrongheaded move because it focused to stopping religion willy-nilly, rather than acknowledging the object’s place in history. I wrote then:

I don’t have to like it. The World Trade Center cross was there [in the aftermath of the attack], and the people of New York divested it with meaning, and thus it became a character in the story of the 9/11 attacks. Its placement in the museum is not an endorsement of Christianity, it’s a page in that story. Whether I like that part of the story or not.

Suing to have it removed was vindictive rather than productive or consciousness-raising. Perhaps that’s the key difference: what can we do that is improves people’s awareness and sensitivities versus waging merely a zero-sum game of conflict?

Recently, Andrew Sullivan did a video post explaining his approach to prayer, and it was about the least objectionable explanation of what prayer is or can be that I’ve ever heard. I obviously don’t subscribe to his position or believe there is any mystical force listening to one’s prayer, but if Sullivan’s version of belief and prayer were the dominant one, there’d be little need for the anti-religious movement that Stedman sites.

Food for thought as we approach December 31, at this socially-constructed-yet-somehow-poignant time of reflection.

My Atheism Will Not Save the World, Ctd.

Friend-of-the-blog Marty Pribble picks up on my lamentations about the state of atheist/skeptic activism, and explains my point about there being a deeper core of crisis than religion alone better than I did:

I feel we are lacking focus. The problems of the world are not caused by religion alone, rather abuse of religious privilege, abuse of political power, and pressure from those who have the money to quash the forward thinking ideas that could see us into the next millennium. As sad as it may seem, the role of religion in this whole debate is only a minor player. Rather than attacking the religion, we should be attacking the root of the perceived need to believe, and replace it with reasoned and rational thought. Religions can only thrive on ignorance, willful or otherwise, for when one starts to ask questions, the theistic claims start to crumble like chalk.

Steve Barry at Left Hemispheres takes the opportunity to look at his own work on this amorphous cause’s behalf:

I started this [blog] to have a voice and for fun. Somewhere along the line I started to take myself too seriously and treat this as a job. That was a mistake. I am hoping that this realization is a turning point in the blog’s existence and these conversations about “what’s next?” are the next step in the movement… . I can only tear apart so many HuffPo Religion section articles. I mean…it’s just low hanging fruit, ya know?

I do. And they should be torn apart, but there’s more. I hope we can soon figure out what.

My Atheism Will Not Save the World

After working professionally in the atheist movement, something about my passion for the cause dwindled. This happens a lot to me — I take on a given subject as my profession, and I subsequently grow disillusioned in said subject. Something about a thing becoming one’s job can spoil it.

But after putting aside theatre a few years ago, I rediscovered my love for it, and now I find all the opportunities to return to it that I can. I once worked on behalf of electoral reform, and though I eventually felt saturated by it, I now recall why it was so important to me, and my desire to see major reforms to our electoral system has been rekindled. Etcetera.

But this has not happened yet with the atheist/secularist movement. I still feel very strongly that theism and superstition are dangerous and silly, but I can’t live and breathe the atheist culture like I once did. I never visit the major blogs anymore, I rarely blog on the subject myself, and on the whole I find myself rolling my eyes at 90 percent of the online content generated in the atheist/skeptic genre. Yes, yes, I get it, a literalist interpretation of the Bible is stupid. Agreed.

Don’t we have anything to talk about after that?

Not much, it seems sometimes. The last time the atheist culture crept back into my attention was during the risible “elevator-gate” hubbub, and that was mainly because it included some unforgivable bile-throwing at my Bespectacled Blog Twin. This was not what I had signed up for.

What had I signed up for, then? As with almost any field I dive into, it is usually with the quixotic hope that it will save the world. Fix elections, give people the gift of great art, elect progressive candidates, etc. In this case, I wanted to save the world from dangerous beliefs, from the imposition of those beliefs in every corner of our lives.

But we aren’t getting anywhere.

So this has forced me to reexamine what I really believe to be the core issue. Is it really that theism and adherence to astrology is the problem? Of course not. It’s the mindset that brings so many people to those belief systems, whatever it is about our civilization that makes it fertile for a kind of foolishness that is nearly universal within the species.

Sam Harris is perhaps the only figure of which I’m aware who is beginning to get to that core, and that’s why he continues to be cited on this blog despite my waning interest in the greater atheist movement. He may have captured my feelings in his infamous speech to the Atheist Alliance International conference a few years ago, in which he admonished the movement’s members to stop referring to themselves as atheists, and to simply devote themselves to “destroying bad ideas” wherever they appear.

But that’s not quite enough. Bad ideas need to be destroyed, but we also need to do something about whatever it is about us that allows those bad ideas to flourish to begin with. I don’t want to say that the point is to eradicate all “irrationality,” because I feel it implies a doing-away with explorations and indulgences in intuition, feelings, and art in their appropriate contexts. It’s something deeper than bad ideas. It’s about our brains and our culture, nature and nurture, and how they create the conditions for these bad ideas.

The bad ideas? Sexism, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, unfettered capitalism, the celebration of ignorance, and any institution, philosophy, or myths that form the foundations for oppression and suppression. How do we stop whatever makes those?

Getting the word “God” out of our national motto isn’t going to do it, as embarrassing, excluding, and absurd as that fact is.

I desperately, passionately want to see atheists treated as equally valued members of our society. But even if we get there, I don’t know what to do about the rest. Not yet. But that would be a movement I could join, that would be a blog I’d keep up with.

Disbelieving Outside the Lines

Ross Douthat writes in defense of the Yahweh concept, reminding we stuffy atheists that it’s not as silly as Russell’s teapot assumes:

This analogy – like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is.

I’m fairly certain that atheists’ diselief in God is not contingent upon the assumption of some conspiracy of Jesus Christ Superstar-type priests looking to fool the drooling masses with a prefab script. It is the lack of any evidence that is the beginning and end of the story.

Douthat doesn’t discount atheism entirely, but if you don’t disbelieve within his parameters, you’re probably just a weirdo (emphasis mine):

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn’t thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

Ouch! But truly, the best reason I can think of that one would not see the two ideas as equally absurd is that the concept of God is either incredibly vague or incredibly anthropomorphic; that is to say, fuzzy yet familiar enough not to jump out in our own minds as patently nutty. Orbital teapots and sentient pasta, not so much. But there is equal evidence for all of these things: none.