Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eating an atheist turkey: Non-belief and civil rights

OK I'm about to take off this evening for the mandatory pilgrimmage home to Virginia to eat turkey that I didn't have to cook (my favorite kind). I thought about a nice, sentimental schmaltzy post that covers the leaves in autumn, the warmth of family, word pictures of my adorable children--something to bring a tear to your eye.

Then I thought: Naaah. Too easy.

I didn't become a baptized Catholic until I was forty-six, and my kids had a lot to do with conversion. Being me, my most memorable moment of the ceremony was the unexpected discover as Father Mast dipped me into the water (and almost lost his balance because I outweigh him) was that Holy Water in the Baptismal Font is chlorinated. My eyes turn bright red in chlorination. Seems that, according to the State, a Baptismal Font is legally a swimming pool, and therefore....

At any rate, such are my deep theological qualifications to discuss Greta Christina's post about angry atheism. Greta Christina is a blogger in California, whose blog subtitle is "Sex, atheism, politics, dreams, and whatever. Thinking out loud since 2005." How could you not like that, especially with her picture in a Minuteman uniform beside it. Her fairly recent post (I can't find the date) is entitled Atheists and Anger, and its too long to quote here in its entirety. I've included a couple excerpts below, but I encourage you to check out the whole post--it IS angry, but extremely substantive and well-written:

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.


I'm angry that according to a recent Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for President.


I'm angry that atheist soldiers -- in the U.S. armed forces -- have had prayer ceremonies pressured on them and atheist meetings broken up by Christian superior officers, in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that evangelical Christian groups are being given exclusive access to proselytize on military bases -- again in the U.S. armed forces, again in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that atheist soldiers who are complaining about this are being harassed and are even getting death threats from Christian soldiers and superior officers -- yet again, in the U.S. armed forces. And I'm angry that Christians still say smug, sanctimonious things like, "there are no atheists in foxholes." You know why you're not seeing atheists in foxholes? Because believers are threatening to shoot them if they come out.


I'm angry that the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, said of atheists, in my lifetime, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." My President. No, I didn't vote for him, but he was still my President, and he still said that my lack of religious belief meant that I shouldn't be regarded as a citizen.


I get angry when advice columnists tell their troubled letter-writers to talk to their priest or minister or rabbi... when there is absolutely no legal requirement that a religious leader have any sort of training in counseling or therapy.


I'm angry that so many believers treat prayer as a sort of cosmic shopping list for God. I'm angry that believers pray to win sporting events, poker hands, beauty pageants, and more. As if they were the center of the universe, as if God gives a shit about who wins the NCAA Final Four -- and as if the other teams/ players/ contestants weren't praying just as hard.


I'm angry about the Muslim girl in the public school who was told -- by her public-school, taxpayer-paid teacher -- that the red stripes on Christmas candy canes represented Christ's blood, that she had to believe in and be saved by Jesus Christ or she'd be condemned to hell, and that if she didn't, there was no place for her in his classroom. And I'm angry that he told her not to come back to his class when she didn't convert.


There's more, and Greta makes arguments that everyone should consider, not as a religious problem but as a civil liberties issue.

Demonizing people has a long, dismaying American tradition. I can remember Senator Jesse Helms running for re-election in NC in the 1970s-1980s talking about the scourge of "block voters," which meant "black voters" no matter how you spelled it. We've had politicians, entertainers, and clergy demonize gays, conservatives, muslims, evangelicals, atheists, bkers, soccer moms, ad infinitum ad nauseum.

But demonizing atheists is a different issue.

(Aside: don't you just love my use of the religious/mythological metaphor of "demonizing" for people who don't believe in the supernatural?)

All ideologies (including religious ones) are inherently dangerous to individual freedom and the health of the body politic when they achieve near-monopoly status. (Think of Christianity as Windows and atheism as the MAC OS X. Does anybody really think the Microsoft near-monopoly on operating systems is healthy?)

Monopolies not only marginalize dissent and stifle political dialogue, they protect themselves by any means necessary from the critical reflection of the tiny minorities left around in their wake. One of the tactics they inevitably use is to characterize those minorities as dangerous to our culture, our children, and our way of life--as if the small fraction of atheists in this country are actually going to shut down the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Theological monopolists don't get the fact that when they complain about the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens while standing beside the multiple shelves of Christian Inspirational books in their local Borders Bookstore that they are the hypocrites their favorite savior was apparently criticizing: splinters and logs anyone?

Theological monopolists don't get the fact that the acceptance and propping up of one monopoly through the power of the state and the government-run education system is an open invitation to normalize the existence of other monopolies with even greater powers of oppression.

And they conveniently ignore the fact that the people they are marginalizing are American citizens.

Do I think that Dennis Dennett and his "Bright" idea about renaming atheists is a bit geeky and doomed to laughable failure? You bet I do. So what?

Dennett has done more to explicate Darwin's theories to popular audiences than almost anybody else I could name (sorry Richard Dawkins, but you don't write as elegantly), and if he is an uncompromising atheist who disdains religion (even while using several suspicious rhetorical tricks to do so), he's still a professor of the type I hoped my children get in college. He'll make them think.

And any idiot, whether saved or not, who argues that atheists can't be moral, spiritual, loving, caring, responsible people as doctors, politicians, counselors, construction workers, or anything else is unamerican. That simple. When you reject individuals on the basis of a group identification, you're a bigot.

But that won't stop our politicians, even in Delaware. We have legislators intent upon enforcing their own religious views (and, to be fair, the views of many of their constituents) on everyone else, from the anti-cloning bill that is a shill for a rigid "pro-life" definition of a human being as including a fertilized egg to the Still-Venables disgraceful attempt to nullify the US Constitution with their anti-gay marriage, anti-civil unions amendment.

So while I'm eating the turkey I didn't cook, among the things I will be thankful for is individuals like Greta Christina, who have the common sense (thank you, Tom Paine, atheist) and moral courage to continue to fight for uncomfortable and unpopular beliefs.


Sam said...

As a Christian believer, and an activist for freedom (yes, I am a Libertarian), I often overlook the discrimination of those who call themselves atheists, for they are as deserving as any other "religion" for the right to believe as they choose. Removing all faith, as it is, from children, is not right, but forcing one or the other is just as wrong. Tolerance for all is the phrase I'd use. But people are inherently intolerant of other views when they differ from their own, hence the bigotry.

I often use the word "Christian" to describe living one's life, and harm no one. In reality, it simply means know right from wrong and live your life with honesty and integrity. I will be more careful in the future to be more inclusive when I get on my soap box about religions or discrimination.

Thank you for bringing this blog to my attention. I always appreciate it when another pushes the envelope from one extreme to another.

P.S. I wish my own children had had a teacher like you. As it was, they hated public school and they nearly lost the desire to learn because of some of their teachers. However, their "dominant" mother prevailed. But now I must listen to them tell me, albeit more maturely, how much distaste they have for one or more of their professors at college, some of who insist on pushing their liberal ideas at them, and in an art class no less!

Steven H. Newton said...

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for being a Libertarian. (There are few enough of us at this point that I figure I'll eventually get around to personally thanking each one.)

There is a book called "God and the World" which is a lightly edited series of interviews given by Pope Benedict about 10 years before he got the big hat. In one of them he is asked whether there is any hope for those like muslims, atheists, etc., who live and die without accepting (or actively rejecting) Christianity's message. Interestingly enough, to paraphrase him, he says something like, "Since God's mercy is infinite, nobody down here has the ability to predict anybody's chances."

OK, so he also responded to the pedophile scandal by throwing homosexuals out of the seminaries, even though 99% of all pedophiles are hetero. Can't have everything.

I'm a pretty mild Christian of an even milder Catholic persuasion, who happens to believe that the only hell that exists is one each individual manages to create for himself/herself.

Where I get into trouble is in my belief that evangelical Christianity (which has a definite beginning just after the Reformation) is a human movement with a finite lifespan, and that we will possibly see its demise within the next century. Of course, I also believe that about strictly materialistic belief systems.

None of which is an excuse to discriminate against anyone in a civic sense on the basis of their beliefs.

Let's see, now I've done porn and atheism in the first month of this blog--where will we go from here?

Jay said...

As a former Catholic, being brought up in a strict Catholic family, I saw a lot of what the article discusses on idealogy: broken marriages staying together for the sake of kids, shunning of one or both of partners to show their disapproval, calling homosexuals, "evil sinners", and many of the other stereotypes.

As Steve said in his comment, Your hell is the one you make for yourself.