First thing this morning, way before my first cup of coffee (my first mistake), I read an article about the Blasphemy Challenge (thanks for the heads up to the Autodidact). For those of you not in the loop, the Blasphemy Challenge is a collaboration between Brian Flemming, a documentarian who directed "The God Who Wasn't There," and Brian Sapient, cofounder of RationalResponders.com, who are using YouTube as a forum for atheists to come out of the closet (so to speak). The New Atheists are little more evangelical in their call to speak out, but the message is similar, according to Wired. The tone of these articles bother me nearly as much as what their contents reflect. In both the MSNBC article and the Wired article, their tone reveals a marked derision towards atheists. Could it be that the authors reflected the hostility of outspoken critics of religion? Am I over-sensitive to articles that might hinder an open dialogue? Confused and unsatisfied by the topics’ treatment in these pieces, I decided to discuss the issue with Annie and The Rooster, whom I knew would offer me well-thought out, if radically differing opinions.
First: my conversation with Annie:
Harley: We could talk about blasphemy, but it's only blasphemy for half of the participants. Even labeling it "blasphemy" may be construed a judgmental label because it presumes a religious truth or, at the least, religion as normative.
Annie: Religion is normative
Harley: Yes, it is, but that doesn't change the effect
Annie: I am not worried about offending blasphemers. They are being intentionally provocative. Deny my beliefs, that's cool, but do you have to be a jerk about it?
Harley: They're trying to start a conversation about a topic they see as detrimental to society
Annie: I find that line of reasoning very worrisome: that religion itself is an evil, then all belief systems can be labeled as such, like environmentalism or veganism. I should be able to believe what I want. My belief in G-d is normative
Harley: Well, able to believe what you want and living in a society where your belief is normative to the detriment of unbelievers are different matters. Plus, your analogy between belief systems doesn't hold water
Annie: But is that detrimental to blasphemers? I benefit from the same freedom of religion that they do. It is the freedom of NOT religion. You are right, that was a bad analogy
Harley: Think of it this way: an avowed atheist cannot run for office, certainly not high office. The first avowed atheist was just elected to the Senate. The first atheist ever. In they history of the country.
Annie: They can run—they just won't make it, but that is because American are idiots and vote for people whose religious/family views match their own, not whose politics are best for their interests
Harley: Yes, but then you can see why atheists might be a little aggressive about their views, especially in today's political and social climate
Annie: Then they should present their views as in line with America's. Spin doctors can do amazing things
Harley: That's not good enough. Freedom of religion/belief should mean what it proclaims and those who don't believe should be free from the tyranny of belief
Annie: They are free to believe what they want. I just don’t have to vote for that belief and neither does anyone else. I am deeply ambivalent about democracy. I don’t really think that it is driven by society's needs, as much as by society's wants. Competing wants doesn't build a moral society
Harley: It's not government's job to ensure morality
Annie: I disagree. That is what laws are about: creating a group morality, an idea what is right and wrong in a specific place
Harley: Laws don't always enforce what's ethical and it's not a government's job to police morality. That's why the separation of church and state
Annie: Ethics are different. That is my issue. I think that there should be some objective ethics and that democracy does not create that
Harley: For example, you may think abortion is immoral, but that should not govern some one's right to access it. I agree that there should be ethics that we follow; that used to be the job of manners and social mores
Annie: Ah. Not specifically my morals, just morals in general. Society shouldn't be amoral, which is what we think that we have created with church and state. Instead we just lie to ourselves, then we get characters like Henry Kissinger: great diplomat, totally amoral
Harley: But you can never say "morals in general" and society is never amoral, but government should be. This argument is not about realpolitik and you can't argue that moral government works
Annie: I think that it has to be
Harley: Think of Carter and Cambodia. Reagan, too, for that matter, and Bush the 43rd
Annie: Yeah, but that was HIS morals
Harley: Well, then, to what morals are you referring, if not morals in particular? When you get down to it, it's always morals in particular.
Annie: I think that the job of society is to create an objective morality, of the society
Harley: Yes, but an objective morality incorporates specific morals. You can't build something completely on abstractions. You have to be talking about a real entity codified in law
Annie: We can't trust society [to govern itself without the legal codification of morals]. Our society is driven by wants, not needs
Harley: That may be so, this society may be driven by wants, but so long as that's what this society votes for, so long as it's what it desires, then who are you to judge that? Some arbiter of an objective morality? That's the issue that the "blasphemers" are confronting
Annie: I understand their point, but I think that they are too inflammatory to be taken seriously
Harley: The inflammatory is a major issue, I agree and one that prevents them from being heard, but it does not discredit their ideas and to some extent they are viewed as inflammatory in a similar way as the queer movement of the 80s was viewed as inflammatory because they weren't normative, everything they said was seen as outrageous and b/c they saw their role in society as marginalized, they sounded angry
Annie: I think it does [discredit their ideas]. I worry about radicalism.
Harley: I worry about a society that drives intelligent people to radicalism
Annie: Or marks them as radicals, true. But I worry about a society that doesn't seem to have middle options
Harley: well, you're hearing the screaming. Plus, through the lens how the media portrays them
Annie: But I read a lot and it is hard to see the middle. It isn't just "the media." I think that there is truly a lack of middle
Harley: I disagree. I just think that the middle does not tend to publish its opinion
After mulling the issue over a bit, I filled The Rooster in on the conversation:
The Rooster: What's the crux of the argument?
Harley: Annie’s arguing that the blasphemers are inflammatory and it undermines their message and that governments should build a moral society and I'm arguing that marginalized view points are always portrayed as radical and that the government should not legislate morals
The Rooster: What I'm confused about is this: how could the blasphemer's change their message to be less inflammatory? As long as we live in a religious society, their message is inflammatory; there is no way they could soften their message and retain any semblance of their point
Harley: That's my basic argument, but I think that question is a good one beyond its rhetorical power: is there a way for the "blasphemers" to not appear inflammatory?
The Rooster: Exactly. There isn't and their point is to be inflammatory
Harley: Yeah, but then we go back to my point from the blog: if we're all yelling past each other, then nothing changes and what's the pt if there's no effective change
The Rooster: I hope people are offended. For one thing, every person has a niche and I say let the people in the middle find middle ground, but the people in the middle need people like the blasphemers, so they don't forget that there are ideals. We need secularists who are trying to find common ground with religious people, but we also need atheists to remind the secularists, "Hey, those religious people believe in some pretty insane, scary and, at the end of the day, evil shit." It's like Malcolm and Martin [Malcolm X and Martin Luther King]. Malcolm X always dissed MLK, but secretly, Malcolm admired MLK. And Malcolm knew that if he got up, and started yelling about how the white man is the devil, then white moderates would look at MLK and say, "Ok, let's listen to this guy; that other guy is too extreme." Politically, the reason you and I would fail as politicians is because our views are too extreme, but it does not make sense for us to water down our views so that they are more palatable for moderates and people [who are religious]. We fulfill a necessary place in society.
Harley: But I don't consider myself an extremist. A radical to some extent, but not an extremist. Although, maybe that answers my question. I think that my views, were they written plainly, would be considered radical, but I would write them with tact and diplomacy and then you'd yell at me for stepping lightly and cow-towing to people you consider beyond hope or help.
The Rooster: Yes, I would, because oftentimes, writing with "tact and diplomacy" obscures the reason you feel the way you do, which is because of one or another strong feeling you have
Harley: But this issue shouldn't be about feelings
The Rooster: Well, you are correct that intellectual inquiry is not supposed to be about feelings, but when you talk about, for instance, the War in Iraq dispassionately, you might not convey the extent of the humanitarian disaster, the way we were hoodwinked, and the dangerous precedent it sets
Harley: I didn't say dispassionately, but we can have a reasoned debate without hurtling ad hominem attacks or assuming a priori that the other side will have no valid points
The Rooster: Straw man alert: you are equating using radical rhetoric with ad hominem attacks and assuming a priori that the other side will have no valid points. The blasphemers just stated that they denied the existence of the holy spirit and I am saying that what they said is, most importantly, TRUE, and that it needs to be said and while I appreciate the efforts of secularists to foster dialogue with Christians, we need both types and I have no real interest in having a dialogue with religious people, but I am glad that there are other types of people. And you are a hybrid, really, because you have extreme opinions and yet you want to find middle ground and frankly, you are going to be very disappointed because people are not ready to hear the things you have to say, not the people in the middle anyway. By the way, I don't assume a priori that religious people don’t have points, but I've heard most of their points already, and they are not very good
Harley: I agree that I overstepped when I said ad hominem attacks, but if you argue that the other side's belief system is based on false premises and deny that they have the right to believe it because you think it's detrimental to society, then doesn't that imply an a priori assumption that they will have no valid arguments to defend their beliefs?
The Rooster: I don't deny their "right" to believe. They are free to believe whatever they want, but it is a FACT that "the other side's belief system is based on false premises" and it needs to be shouted from the rooftops and taught in 10th grade biology class
Harley: You don't think that they are free to believe whatever they want. =You've explicitly compared their belief system to the KKK and Nazi ideology and expressed that it should be stopped
The Rooster: Yes, I have and it should stop, but it should not be forced to stop. People need to wake up. I would defend that Nazis and the KKK on 1st Amendment principles, but I would also let those guys know that what they believe is based on completely irrational and detrimental to society
Harley: It's that attitude that those on the other side of the issue see as combative (and those parallels). When you draw those analogies, it's staunches the conversation and how could you have a discussion with those guys and why would they want to have a discussion with you, given your opinion of their content?
The Rooster: Yeah, but I am not interested in a conversation; that's not a function I see myself filling. Remember: Malcolm X.
Harley: You're Malcolm, I'm Martin?
The Rooster: I don’t know what you are, but I know who I am. I am someone in his heart believes all the inflammatory things I say; someone who tries to piss off the other side
Harley: What’s the purpose of trying to piss off the other side? It's to make those who are espousing radical views but less aggressively than you appear moderate in comparison?
The Rooster: I could pretend that's the reason, but in reality, I like making religious wing nuts uncomfortable. I come from the metal and hardcore punk "fuck you" school and that ethos bleeds into other arenas of my life, for better or for worse. But, if I scare the shit out of someone like [that], maybe [they’ll] be more willing to listen to other people
For atheists looking for a more constructive approach to coming out, Daniel C. Dennett offers advice on The Washington Post’s On Faith. I also recommend Mark C. Taylor’s Op Ed in the New York Times, “The Devoted Student.” He echoes a sentiment I hope we’ll all consider: “The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.” I'll expand on the Malcolm/Martin paradigm soon.
Happy New Year everyone.