Here’s something that’s been bugging me, so allow me a little rant.
It seems like every time an atheist makes a comment about some aspect of religion that bugs them, they are quite forcefully and specifically told to shut up. Religion is not a topic one is supposed to discuss in polite company (along with politics and sex, and we know how often that rule is broken). Atheists are made to feel like every time they criticize theism, they are stepping over some boundary of propriety. Due to my upbringing, I often find myself gauging the sensibilities of my listener to see if I might offend them, but I notice that never does a Christian (I don’t have much contacts with Hindus, Muslims and members of other religions) stop and think before they “thank god” or “god bless me” or otherwise inject their religious beliefs into a conversation.
Recently, in my locality the local non-believers in conjunction with the local chapter of American Atheists, put up a billboard in reaction to the Pennsylvania State Assembly’s enactment of a resolution declaring 2012 as the Year of the Bible. The billboard can be seen in the graphic. It was specifically designed to provoke, as all atheist billboards are designed to do. Not to provoke hurt or resentment, but thought and discussion, with a view to changing minds. That’s the American way. Provoked discussion is an excellent way to effectuate change for the good, or avoid change for the bad. Our First Amendment is specifically designed to encourage public discourse this way, without governmental influence. We learned that when we separated from Mother England. Broadsides and pamphlets were commonly published and disseminated to provoke what eventually became the insurrection that resulted in the good old US of A.
However this particular billboard used the issue of slavery to show the PA legislature that celebrating a book, that in turn appears to celebrate slavery, might not be a wise thing to do. Is the Bible a a guidebook of perfect morality? No, clearly not. Yes, that’s the billing it receives from its proponents, but it falls far short of perfection. It contains no admonition on the issue of slavery, and even when it is discussed, it assumes that slavery fit nicely in the natural world. Is this controversial? It shouldn’t be. The billboard message very clearly implies that slavery is bad, pointedly noting that the cited verse was used in antebellum times to justified slavery’s continued existence. Yet for some reason the people who reacted negatively to its message were the African-Americans, who claimed it was hurtful and disrespectful, and even racist. Those who commented often did so in religious terms, claiming that their god was also offended (ironically underscoring the message of the billboard.) Many loudly demanded that it be removed. One former director of the state Human Relations Commission (himself, black) went so far as to report it as a hate crime. Clearly, African Americans completely misunderstood the message, which was that:
- The state should not be in the business of celebrating one particular religion
- especially by proclaiming the goodness of that religion’s scripture that endorses evils such as slavery (not to mention child abuse, misogyny, genocide and other human horrors).
So blacks (and many others) demanded its removal. Before 24 hours were up, it had been vandalized, and then removed by the sign company, not to be replaced. In effect, the atheists were silenced for having the temerity to point out the unconstitutional encroachment the state was making into religion, and vice versa. Yet billboards proclaiming religious nonsense are rarely defaced (and never so quickly), and are never controversial; they are erected without any objection from anyone. I know this reflects the minority/majority nonbeliever/believer dichotomy of the culture, but still it’s irritating that the theist majority feels so threatened by the atheist minority that it must go to great lengths to feign religious persecution while it suppresses all contrary opinions.. Why? What are they afraid of? If the message of the billboards is not true, the lack of veracity of the message should be obvious, and simply ignored. Would they get so upset if we put up a billboard declaring green cheese as the composition of the moon, because that’s false?
No. They would laugh and ignore it.
I know the billboard was provocative, and I know it was purposely so, and of course many feel that it was asking to be defaced, and when it was that the atheists simply got what they asked for. Clearly the controversy was in the implicit message that religion is not true. And maybe we did get what we asked for, because the discussion that ensued, while pissing off the many, may also have managed to convince the few. We’ll take anything we can get.
However, much objection came from atheists themselves, who felt that in-your-face atheism such as this is not good for atheism in the long run, that it actually reflects badly on an otherwise desired movement towards rationalism.
I think that atheists, on an individual basis, lie along a broad spectrum of disbelief, just as Christians (to take a specific subset of theists) lie along a broad spectrum of religious belief (there are probably more varieties of Christian than there are of non-believers). There are atheists who simply disbelieve, and give it no other thought, happily accommodating their religious neighbors on the theory that as long as their pocket isn’t being picked, or their limb broken, there’s no harm, no foul. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that might, disingenuously, be called militant atheists, who take every opportunity to point out how silly even a sneeze-induced invocation of god is, on the theory that the culture is so imbued with religion that their pockets are being picked and their limbs broken continuously. And then there’s everybody in between who takes a little of each position in the measure that makes the most sense to them, and formulates a personal sense of disbelief.
There’s room for all these people; the former because they offer a quiet example of how a lack of gods has absolutely no effect on day to day living; the latter because they point out to the intransigent delusional on a daily basis just how stupid their beliefs are. You can’t dislodge a rock with a feather; you sometimes need a big-assed lever and fulcrum. Those in the middle contribute in proportion to their means. Taken cumulatively, you have a movement that encompasses everyone, and that should tolerate the means and methods of all.
You don’t like our billboard? Then get the message out your own way, in your own time. In the end, the billboard is just a board with words and pictures on it. Sensibilities, while hurt, heal quickly. Who cares? We should be more concerned with the effects that religion has on real people than the hurt feelings of theists, such as genital mutilation, honor killings, reactions to Qu’ran burnings, the cultural war on woman we’re watching in this Republican Presidential race, the Taliban, priestly pedophilia and the Vatican cover-up, the unfair exemption of churches from taxation, the religious war on science and knowledge and the concomitant embracing of ignorance, antisemitism, and so much more.
There is no one way, or the right way, to move from a culture of god-bothering to one or rationalism, non-supernaturalism and reason. All participants in the process have the right to their own means of effectuating change, within the limits of the law. This whole internal conflict that atheists and humanists have been having, setting up the accommodationist/non-accommodationist camps, is silly. They are both equally valid.
We’re all in the same camp. We just have different roles to fulfill. In tandem, we can reach everyone, because for every hardline atheist, there’s a soft-sell Christian, and for every fundamentalist rigid, Christian there’s…well…no hope.
OK. So we can’t reach everyone.