The approaching storm

Today, in a correspondence with some people on an email list about atheist issues, there was some discussion about how, in the past, I had helped with some efforts in Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, while living in Philadelphia.  I replied thus, also making reference to prior discussions with people on the list about the lively issue, within the atheist and skeptic  community, about being offensive or dickish to believers.  I thought I would share my response, since I am that kind of guy.

Well, me trying to be logical and all, I figured what happened at my state capital might effect me at some point.

I know, silly….

I mean, sometimes I was too busy having interesting conversations with my professors and such, but sometimes one has to actually step up and do something.  Beliefs have consequences.  And what people in the world believe, as well as the perspective they have on what others believe, effects their decisions and actions.  I remember talking with those girls at the Capital building that time we had set up shop.  I remember how they, especially the one vocal and pious one, looked at us with “pity” and gave us literature.  Yet they refused ours.  These girls may not be in control of much directly (they were not representatives), but because they act as intermediaries between those with power and authority, they play a role in the halls of power.  Now, maybe our conversation, in which I was polite and respectful to them personally (although I was honest about what I thought about their beliefs) did not have an impact, and maybe over time it did.  I just don’t know.  But such interactions with people near the levers of power (as well as the more direct approach to the lieutenants and holders of such power) is important in the long struggle we have as citizens and our constitutional rights.

Those who insinuate that any such attempts make other nonbelievers look bad are buying the game they are selling.  They are, in fact, ironically being the very dick they tell us not to be.

You here a rumbling in the distance, and from the south approaches a storm.  His name is Shaun, and with him rides the gates of Hell for any person who tries to limit freedoms of speech and expression by threats from people too afraid or disinterested (and not in the Platonic sense!) to be themselves to the world, rationalizing it as an attempt to not be a dick.  I ride along with people such as Dave Silverman on a wave of honesty, one which hurts the eyes of those who have been stuck the the cave of theistic shadows for too long.  “Too bright!” they proclaim, and pretend their injured optical receptors excuse their hurt feelings which are only secondarily related and really are a defense mechanism of fear and insecurity exposed by such light.  And besides them, who are curled in a fetal position and lashing out at anything in their temporary overwhelmed state, is your philosophical brethren who (unknown to those blinded and hurt) carries the same light hidden under their heavy coat.  Hiding such light, they hold them close, patting their back and whispering to them that they are sorry, that those people don’t represent all of us.

“It’s OK,” they say, “you can believe what you like, I don’t care.  Let me be your friend and never be like them.”

While I sit back, amused and frustrated because I am aware that such a person could never really be their friend, because real friendship involves naked and bold honesty.  Real intimacy involves the ability to say what one thinks, although perhaps not at the moment of greatest pain, but afterwords when the shock has worn off.  I understand what my brethren means when they implore us to not be a dick, but what they don’t realize is that it is not our behavior that seems dickish; it is our perspective that offends, not our presentation of it.  And I will not withhold my perspective in fear of it offending, because if the truth offends then should we never speak the truth?  To live that way is to acquiesce to the fear and ignorance in which the theistic world lives.  It is also to not be honest, which says little for the light they carry, hidden and shameful.

There is room for polite conversations with professors, neighbors, and friends.  But there is a time when you realize that in order to talk with some people AT ALL, one must risk offense in order to maintain any level of relationship.  With some, you will seem a dick even if you say nothing more than “I don’t believe there is a god.”  In such cases, put away the silly desire not to offend, because such people offend themselves without your help.  The offense you fear is not from you, but from the world itself that you act as a conduit for.  Protect not those that fear the world, because you only protect cowardliness and thus take on its mantle yourselves.

What this email also refers to is the fact that I’m moving back to Philadelphia.  Exactly when…I’m not sure.  Latest April 2011.  But soon, nonetheless.

Good days and pleasant nights….

New Atheists, Skepticism, and the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule, with its various incarnations, permeates religious thought.  And while it can be formulated in many ways, the most common way to express it essentially states that you should treat others as you would want to be treated.  It emits an attempt at fairness in action, making sure that one does not make a double-standard  by making exceptions for yourself that you don’t allow for others.

Fair enough.  And while I think that the Golden Rule is best said when it attempts to treat others as they wish to be treated, due to the fact that what I want is not necessarily what others want, I think that this is often problematic because we do not know what others want.  We could ask what people want, I suppose, but the practical application of this is insurmountable on a societal scale.

I think that the general idea is to act such that those actions create a world that is consistent with our desires, while keeping in mind the desires of others and their ideal worlds.   Thus, as a general rule, to act in such a way that would be consistent with a desired world which is created by those types of actions is a good place to start. Figuring out an ideal world that we can all agree on is probably the biggest problem.

And so what do we, the new atheists, do? (And yes, I still dislike the term).  Our criticisms are not always appreciated by other people, especially strongly religious ones.  We try to speak out in order to be able to gain acceptance in culture, to stop theocratic intrusions into government policies,  and to make sure that theology stays away from science so that we can continue the process of understanding unimpeded by silly mythology (i.e. creationism) and other superstitions.

But are new atheists following the Golden Rule?  Should we follow the Golden Rule?  Are faitheists and other critics of the new atheists following the Golden Rule?

Skepticism and Atheism

Not all atheists are skeptics, nor are all skeptics atheists.  I agree with people such as Matt Dillahunty, that to be a skeptic should lead a person to be an atheist.  Why? Because I don’t think there is any evidence to believe in any gods, and without evidence in such things, one has no cause for a belief in any gods.  Thus to be skeptical concerning the question of gods, without sufficient evidence to believe in them, must lead to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion.  As soon as there is evidence, then a skeptic has to address that evidence.  But there is no good evidence that I know of, and I have been looking.

Skeptics, at least “real skeptics” (I’m being playful, not trying to drag in a “true Scotsman”), encourage criticism of all kinds of beliefs.  Skeptics are all about the evidence, use of rationality to address that evidence, and accepting as true what the evidence points to.

As an implication of this, I think that skepticism would desire a world where open debate, conversation, and challenges to beliefs would be encouraged.  A world where all of the data is explored, all sacred cows inspected, and people are encouraged to have a real desire to know what is true and not just what is preferable or easy.  This is antithetical to faith, by definition, and is what the current public atheism is all about, at least concerning the questions of religion, gods, and faith.  The criticisms of religion are ancient, in many cases.  These ideas being promulgated is what is new, and religious people are not used to hearing these ideas.

Another, hopefully obvious, implication of being a skeptic is that a person should be open to have their own beliefs challenged.  Thus, when the superlatively respected skeptic James Randi wrote this piece the other day about Global Warming, he was appropriately challenged by various people in the skeptical and atheist community.   And while his point may be valid (or not), he is willing to accept the criticism and respond to them, rather than claim persecution as many Christians often do when criticized in the same way.  I would think that Randi  encourages the challenges in general, even if he may not have liked some of them specifically (As his follow-up seems to imply).  The bottom line is that when skeptics make claims, hold beliefs, or sign on to something, they should be willing to accept criticism when it comes their way.

These implications are an essential part of a skeptical worldview.  It is how we want to live, the kind of world we want to live in, and how we think one should act with other people.

Including theists.

Therefore, when the new atheists, insofar as they are also skeptics (and many of the leading atheist speakers and writers at least attempt skepticism), offer public criticism of religion, faith, etc, they are following the rule of treating others as they want to be treated.  They are acting in such a way that is consistent with creating a desired world that the actions they make will create.

I want a world where people’s beliefs are challenged when such criticism is warranted.  I want a world that is not simply based upon faith, but rather evidence, reason, and an attitude of curiosity.  I want to help create an environment where skeptical inquiry is supported by people rather than blind (or at least partially obscured) faith.  And I know that many of my fellow atheists share this desire, and so we are simply following what we think the right thing to do is, according to the very “Golden” rule that religions share.

So, if there is a problem with the actions of atheists these days, then the problem is with the rule itself, not with our actions.

But wait, didn’t I say that I liked the other formulation of the Golden Rule better?

I said, above, that I prefer the idea that one should treat others as they want to be treated, and not merely as how I want to be treated myself.  I said that the issue was that I didn’t know how others wanted to be treated all of the time, creating a practical problem with implementing the idea, not a problem with the idea itself.  I also stated that this will lead to inevitable conflicts of opinion about what kind of world we want to live in.

We know that many religious people tell atheists that they do not want us speaking out.  They don’t want our billboards, our books, or in many cases they don’t even want us (to exist).   Now, if they are willing to lay down their arms, then they might have a point.  And many religious groups do not proselytize, advertise, or otherwise bother the public.  But the simple fact is that religion is part of pur culture and public life, and so to demand that atheists keep quiet is a double standard, violating the very essence of the Golden Rule itself.  We have as much of a right to speak publicly about our lack of beliefs (as well as whatever actual beliefs we hold in addition to that lack) as theists do.  It does not even matter if the United States were a Christian nation (which it is not), because that would not take away our freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of opinion.

To simply capitulate to some religious people’s desires to not have us vocal, they further create a double standard when they don’t treat us as we want to be treated; to be allowed to speak publicly if we want to.  The result is the collapse of the rule.  They want to be left alone by us, we want to have a dialogue in the public square where they are, and both cannot be attained.  Some compromise must be reached.

Atheists do not, and should not, disrupt private worship.  Atheists do not, and should not, take god away from people’s lives, mostly because we could not possibly do so anyway.   And despite the mythology by many in the religious community, we are not taking their god out of the public square or schools.  We are only arguing and working towards government neutrality concerning religious ideas.  The government should be secular (which is not the same as atheistic).  Do what you want privately, just don’t expect the government or it employees to condone or lead those activities.

Religious groups should not tell atheists that they cannot advertise on billboards.  They have a right to be offended.  They should not claim that their faith is beyond criticism out of some misplaced desire for respect.  They have to keep in mind that if they do bring their beliefs to the public square, they have to accept the criticism along with the conversions.  If they want to recruit new members, they have to accept that potential new members might offer that very criticism.  And if they want to write books, then they have to accept that we will write books as well.

And, of course, most do except these rules, even if they do so unhappily.  That’s fine, because here we have the right to pursue happiness, not necessarily to be happy.

What I find fascinating is the idea that this criticism is itself is bad.  The idea that we should not criticize is worthy of criticism itself; why is criticism bad? Isn’t the idea that criticism is bad a kind of criticism? What if I am offended by that opinion? What if my strong belief is that criticism is good, and the accomodationist or faitheist  critic of my criticism is violating my rights and tastes? Perhaps they should shut up.  No, I don’t believe that.  They should, I think, re-examine their assumptions and reasoning, however.

I am doing unto others what I would want done unto me.  The believers who want us to shut up are just protecting their beliefs from scrutiny.  Those faitheists who say I should not criticize are not following this Golden Rule, violating it because they don’t want their own beliefs, the idea that people should not criticize certain things, to be criticized .  They might see some hurt feelings if we keep this up while making them look bad, while hiding beneath our shadow, to the rest of our culture.

No.  They are doing a good job of looking bad without our help.

The War on Christmas

Over the last few years I have noticed, every time Thanksgiving comes around, this issue arise.  It arises in different places, with slightly different issues, but it arises nonetheless.  For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about, allow me to induct you into some crazy:

Now, I do not wish to hold up Bill O’Reilly as the standard here, but this is a fight he picks and he speaks for a fair amount of people.  O’Reilly and others on that side (pdf) of this issue seem to think that those of us on the other side want to take away people’s holidays. Why would we want to do that?

Let’s use a couple of recent examples.

In West Chester, PA, there is some trouble getting a “Tree of Knowledge” erected next to the courthouse.  They city could not legally prevent the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia from putting it up, so they had to capitulate, although reluctantly.  Thank the FSM for the law forcing people to be fair.  We’ll see what happens next, as the last I heard a creche was put in the only spot the tree easily fit.  Updates to come….

In Chambersburg PA, right in the center of town, is a little public space.  Carl Silverman, a man I have met several times, is a member of PA Nonbelievers (PAN), an organization I have worked with several times, but am not a member of myself.  Chambersburg seems to understand that if they can allow something like a Christmas decoration–say a creche–to be displayed on public ground then another group can put up a display of their own.  There are a bunch of details (and if you wan them you can find them here, here, and here (don’t forget the comments from those loving Christians on that last one).  The bottom line is that the city didn’t just reject the display from PAN, knowing that would be egregiously illegal (it is good that they were aware enough for that), but instead said that no display from anyone would be allowed.  Whether PAN will sue due to viewpoint discrimination or not is to be seen.

But I don’t want to dig into these particular issues any more, while I did want to mention then because they are timely and relevant.  What I wish to explore is the issue itself in the larger view.  Why are Christians so touchy about other displays going up (and not all are, certainly), and why do other people wish to put up their other displays when it is Christmas time?

Well, that’s it right there; it is not Christmas time.  As I write this, it is barely December, let alone December 25th.  And during the next several weeks we will see many holidays.  There will be that Jewish one, that one based upon African traditions, and then there is that one on the 25th, you know, Mithras’ birthday.  Oh, right, Jesus’ birthday too (although even Christians should know that it is likely not his real birthday, if he ever had one).  I get Jesus and Mithra mixed up all the time.

So, this is not the Christmas season, then; at least not wholly.  It is the end of the Fall season (here above the equator anyway), and it is a time when, symbolically, the world dies and, for a few days, there is a transition from the days getting shorter to the days getting longer.  That is, the return of light into the world, the coming of the Son (I meant to type the ‘sun’, of course) into the world, which has been celebrated by many cultures for millennia as a time of year of transition with the various mythologies that accompany the seasonal changes. Christianity is no different.

This time of year is for mythologies of the returning light into the world, and thus a good time of year to have holidays, celebrations, and so forth to keep up our spirits (or a time to find ways to increase the appropriate hormones and neurotransmitters to make us feel happy) in the colder and darker time of year.  For this primarily Christian culture (notice how I didn’t say ‘nation’?) it would then be expected that part of our traditional practice would be to do things like put up nativity scenes, Santas, or Christmas trees, despite what Jeremiah says:

10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

Now, whether or not this is actually saying to not have decorated trees to celebrate Christmas is open to interpretation, especially since Jeremiah wrote before Jesus was ever thought up and thus before O’Reilly and his cohorts started their ramblings.  Personally, I don’t care if that is what the character “God” is saying in the Bible or not, because I don’t think he is a real thing.  But if Christians are trying to be consistent…

Just sayin’

The bottom line here is that I understand why the tradition became to emphasize (to the point of exclusivity, it seems) Christmas during the time between Thanksgiving and New Years in the United States.  The cultural tradition of the United States has been predominantly Christian, and this religious identification has informed the secular traditions as time marched on.  The image of Santa Clause, derived from an historical character from Christianity, eventually became a secular symbol of gift-giving and all of that.  That is, it’s derived from Christian traditions and became something secular.  Just like this season as a whole.

But in the meantime, with the influx of Jews, neo-Pagans, etc as well as the increase in secular communities, Christians-in-name-only, and even atheists, the culture became more diverse than it’s origin.   As a result this time of year includes holidays for many people of various faiths and even celebrations for people with non at all (such as Human Light).  It has become a time of year that includes multitudes of attitudes, a variety of piety, and a party of parties.

So, when people started saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas,” it was a natural progression of culture.  It does not make sense to say “merry Christmas” to someone, especially if you don’t know them, because you don’t know what holiday they celebrate (or if they celebrate any at all).  It is not a means of removing Christmas, but a courtesy in a culture that recognizes that Christmas is not the only game in town.  Bill O’Reilly says that saying “happy holidays” is offensive, while he’s missing the point that saying “merry Christmas” to some people is offensive.  He just does not get it.

Christmas is the reason for the season, but only in a very narrow and historical way, a way that already is colored in secular images even before the other religious traditions stepped in.  This ‘Christian’ culture is what is dominantly responsible for how Americans celebrate during this time of year.  But most of the season is pure consumerism (and the economy says thankya) and belongs to snowmen, Santa, and some reindeer.  I guess they were Jesus’ pets of something.

Those who wish to celebrate Christmas in their personal and religious manner, can.  I nor any other defender of the wall of separation between church and state (which, while not in the Constitution is implied in the Bill of Rights, and even if it were not it is still a fair and wise idea for both religious and non-religious) will take away your ability to worship or celebrate as you wish.  All we ask is that when you bring your celebration into the public squares of our towns, you either allow others to join in or step back respectfully.

So Christians, nominal or not, this is not your time of year.  You can have it along with all of us, but you cannot own it.  You do not get special privileges simply because you are the majority.  You cannot say that we are taking away anything from you while you are, in the same breath, taking something away from others.  You cannot demand to put up your creche while demanding that atheists, Pagans, etc take away their displays.  There will be no double standard here, if you wish to be fair.

And if you do not wish to be fair because you believe that it is your season and that your holiday is more special because it is the truth, well then you are an imbecile.  You are allowed your idiocy, but you are not allowed to demand that it is simply accepted in the public realm.

This is not your country nor your time of year.  Space and time belong to all of us, so carve out yours and practice as you wish.  But when you come out of your homes, churches, etc and demand that the space we cohabit follows your rules, you are overstepping your boundaries as if you were to tell other people how to dress (like many Muslims do to women).  The false idea of the United States being a Christian nation is being stretched into a view that this time of the year is a Christian time of year.

It is not.

A war on Christmas is not a war, it is a public admittance that Christianity is not the only game in town.  And some people don’t like this particular competition.  They have grown up with emotional ties to the images of Santa, Jesus, and trees decorated with lights and other things.  They are comfortable with that images which are with them from childhood.

Putting up something different, especially if it is derived from people who may not even be Christian, is scary because is disrupts the tradition and interrupts their obliviousness to the harshness of the world for many people  They wish to bury their head in the sands of tradition, and when reality pulls it out, they look like reindeer-in-headlights as they try to adjust to the fact that their illusion of cultural exclusivity of this space and time is just that; an illusion.  And they don’t like it.  It feels like their joy, their childhood, and their identity is being taken away.  When in reality space and time for other views is simply being made along side theirs.

What they do not understand is that this new display is meaningful to other people, and that their creche and their tree may be disliked by others in the same way that they new sign may bother them.  And because we, the non-Christians, are the minority we have just gotten used to shutting up about it and just dealing with it.  You, spoiled and rotten traditionalists that you are, have had your way all this time and have not had to deal with seeing things you disagree with in your town and so now you whine.

Grow up.   You can’t have it all your way.

Our culture has changed and your old myth about the Christian nation and Christian time of year is dying.  You are like children that, for the first time, are beginning to realize that you can’t have everything you want.  You are beginning to realize that your demands and tantrums will not be heeded to by strangers on the street.  You have left the comforting home of believing the world is yours, and are realizing that your traditionalist and conservative worldview are in a public square with others, and that you are only whining for the competition to go away so you can have what you are used to.

Well, guess what; I’m used to something else, she’s used to something even different, and that other guys thinks that all of us are crazy.  Tradition is relative, my friend.  Yours is not special any longer.  Now share the world or go home to mommy and daddy (or to your church) where you don’t have to share, and live in your imaginary world of Christian dominance of space and time.

Happy Holidays