Oh, Billo

I wasn’t surprised when I starting seeing around the Interwebs that Bill O’Reilly, in an interview with David Silverman of American Atheists and meme fame, claimed that Christianity was a philosophy rather than a religion. What did surprise me, however, was that he was so adamant in the claim. I had figured he just said yet another stupid thing in passing, but that wasn’t the case. He really meant it. Check out the video.

Billo goes on to call atheists fascists for having objections to government-endorsed religious icons, symbology, and content. That, of course, was quite silly. I think Silverman held his own quite well, not letting Billo push him around. I do, however, think he had two points of falter. First, he said atheism was a philosophy. It isn’t. It is highly compatible with certain philosophies, such as humanism, but it is not itself a philosophy. It can’t be. It’s descriptive. Second, he said he would be forced to take Christmas off because it’s a federally mandated holiday. I think what he meant was that federal employees and those who work in certain other areas of the economy would be forced to take the day off, being prevented from conducting business as usual at the post office, city hall, etc. This was a small trip due to a lack of specificity. Overall, I think he did very well.

All that said, I do happen to be okay with Christmas’ status as a federal holiday. Past court rulings have provided a legitimate basis for why this is not an endorsement of religion: The day has been sufficiently secularized. Between the commercialism and routine traditions such as vacation time (and maybe even watching A Christmas Story), the day is not about Christianity as far as the government is concerned. Perhaps 100 years ago a different ruling would have been in order (though, given the cultural context, unlikely), but such a reaction is no longer needed today.

But then, what do I know? I’m just a fascist.

‘Flagged for review’

The American Atheists have billboards posted again. Here is this year’s:

This is better than last year’s design, but it still isn’t that great. The devil guy on the right makes the whole thing ugly, plus he is featured very close to the word “atheists”, which is printed in a similar red font. All it does is serve to associate atheism with the magic evil that Christians and other religidiots think exist. If they changed the font color and inserted an alternative myth in the final panel, I would say this is an excellent ad.

What I think is hilarious about this whole thing, though, is the CNN article I used as my source. This is what I get when I go to the page:

Under review

The following contains content that has been flagged as inappropriate, and is currently under review. Do you want to continue?

It’s actually a straight forward report. It does only cite those who support the message, but I can’t say that’s all that upsetting. After all, when Christians have some message to put out there, I don’t see the media running out to talk to any atheist organizations.

Of course, we all know why this was flagged. A handful of Christians can’t deal with the fact that some other group would dare not show them the utmost respect – “respect” being code for “shut the hell up, atheists”. It’s sad and pathetic, if anything. But who knows. Given the actions of these people, I guess I could see Jesus being an Internet troll if he was still kickin’ today. At least then a lot of his followers would be consistent with who he is for a change.

Update: The article has apparently been reviewed. And gasp! it’s appropriate.

The American Atheists lawsuit

There’s a bit of a hub-bub over a lawsuit by the group American Atheists. Some of it is expected while other reactions are mildly surprising. Here’s the gist. An atheist group is suing over attempts to use a World Trade Center crossbeam as part of a public memorial. The crossbeam is a “t” and basically is viewed as symbolic of the cross of Jesus. We all know this. The atheist group knows it, Christians know it, liberals know, conservatives know it. Anyone who says the beam is not being revered because it represents a particular aspect of a particular religion is just being insincere.

As expected, most Americans find this lawsuit offensive. By and large, it is Christians who really care – this is a symbol of their religion and they believe it is okay to display it publicly while using public funding and government property. But those who are sympathetic to religion also believe the crossbeam ought to be displayed. Or, perhaps more commonly than that, people believe this is a trivial issue. Of course, if we were talking about a Mosque a few blocks away, it might be a different story.

One other reaction has been from PZ. His beef is that this is the wrong battle to pick. People aren’t going to see this at all rationally (plus he sees it as relatively trivial). September 11, 2001 was an emotional day for a lot of people. Attacking any method they use in order to cope is going to be viewed extremely negatively. I can understand that, but I still find this disappointing. PZ doesn’t tend to be one to back away from controversy. Besides that, I’m not sure when the last time it was that he cared about how people are going to react to offensive things. Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins have also come out against the suit. Stewart did so in part because he views this as a trivial issue over which to sue, but also probably because he has so much emotion tied up in the whole day. Dawkins has posted articles on his site which defends the display as one of many.

As for myself, this seems like a fine lawsuit. Yes, it is politically difficult, and no, it isn’t going to help the image of any atheist group, but so what? The short-term effect will be negative with all the press, but should American Atheists succeed, it will represent a significant win. That crossbeam is only being viewed as special because it is being viewed as representative of the cross on which Jesus died. Atheists, Jews, Muslims, deists, agnostics, and Buddhists don’t see it as special. Why should any of us have to pay for it to be displayed? Why should we be forced to remember all the murdered non-Christians with a Christian symbol? Why can’t we just leave it at the church where it has been? I don’t see any particularly good justification for why it ought to be used as part of a public memorial. And besides, if anyone found any piece of rubble which represented the symbol of any other religion, we all know there would be an uproar against its public display.

Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

A Gregory Paul/Phil Zuckerman article has been making its rounds in my Facebook news feed for the past week or so, and I’ve been mulling it over since I first saw it: Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Paul and Zuckerman go through a number of correlative facts about atheists that point to a number of positive traits: low rates of racism and sexism, high scientific literacy, opposition to torture, and many more. Yet despite all this, atheists are still denigrated – and they’re denigrated for supposedly being bad or not-as-good people as Christians. Since it is abundantly clear that the statistics of the matter prove the Christian accusers to be objectively wrong, there must be some other reason why atheists are so disliked.

Unfortunately, Paul and Zuckerman don’t especially answer the question. They see it as enough to point out that the given reasons for atheists being disliked are wrong. There is value in that – on honesty points they’ve won the intellectual battle – but I want to go further.

Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the cultivated stigma around the word “atheist”. Richard Dawkins mentions in one of his books a story of a person telling his/her mother about not believing in God. All that is fine, but then the word “atheist” crops up and the mother replies, “To not believe in God is one thing, but to be an atheist!” I’ve paraphrased the story, but the point is that there is a stigma that has kept millions of atheists in the closet. Friends and families of atheists have historically had no idea that they even knew an atheist. As lawmaker Harvey Milk preached about gays, if people learn that they know even one member of an ostracized minority, that minority will be slowly become more accepted – it’s usually harder to hate a person one understands. That’s why coming out campaigns for gays have led to so many civil rights strides over the past 15 years.

But dislike of atheists isn’t anything new. Atheists have been maligned for centuries, even when they represented no threat to the prevailing religious order of the day. It’s simply easy to go after a minority. It’s even easier when that minority holds only a descriptive position, giving its members little reason to unite under any cohesive banner. Indeed, the largest atheist organizations to ever exist are ones which exist today, and their membership levels are not wildly high. With little historic organization, atheists have made for relatively easy targets.

Yet even today we can be seemingly easy targets – key word “seemingly”. Take The God Delusion, for example. One of its biggest problems is how easily opponents have created strawmen around it. Even non-religious people have made notable errors concerning the book: the creators of South Park had an episode where they portrayed Dawkins as claiming that religion is the root of all wars and that there would be peace without it. He has never said any such thing. On any other topic such a glaring mistake would be highly embarrassing.

And, of course, there’s the simple (indeed, very simple) idea that God is good. This is pounded into religious minds, even the mind of the general public, over and over and over. So when something shows up that challenges that notion, it’s the notion itself which has not merely a foothold, but an iron grip on the debate. Our very existence suggests that all these deeply held beliefs of the religious are wrong, and that makes for a tough fight – and a lot of dislike. It’s an uphill battle.

I’m sure there are even more reasons for all this unwarranted hatred. It’s a complicated issue that has a multitude of factors involved; it would be naive and/or dishonest to try and whittle it all down to one issue, whether it be the organizing power of religion or the recent aggressive tone of the “new atheists”. But I do think the best strategy in fighting this negative public perception is probably the Harvey Milk angle. Be vocal and be heard, whether it be in a nice way or an aggressive way. What matters is that people know, hey, atheists exist and, hey, you actually otherwise like us.

Catholics create funny sign

There is a sign by American Atheists in New Jersey that says, “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!” I personally disapprove of the capricious capitalization, but the message has reportedly been making an impact.

Mr Silverman said despite the fact that the billboard has only been up for a few days, he and his group are calling the campaign a success.

‘We’re getting a lot of response from closeted atheists saying: “Thank you for putting it up.”’

I’m sure it’s also causing a lot of discussion, and that’s always good for a minority position when it is the minority that is directing the initial talk.

But now the Catholics have responded with a sign of their own.

“You know it’s real,” the newer billboard tells drivers passing the corner of Dyer Avenue and West 31st Street in Manhattan. “This season, celebrate Jesus.”

That capitalization in the Catholic sign is better than in the atheist sign (and not as depicted in the news article), but it could be improved.

But I digress.

Look at how the signs match up. The Catholic sign, intentionally placed on the other side of a New Jersey-New York tunnel as the atheist sign is suppose to be a direct response. The atheist sign says (ignoring its particular capitalization), “You know it’s a myth”, with the Catholic sign responding, “You know it’s real.” Okay, fair enough. That’s pretty straight-forward. Not really all that great or especially effective since it doesn’t distract from the atheist message, instead implying that the atheist message is worthy of some sort of attention, but it’s at least not terrible. But then the next line in the atheist sign is, “This season, celebrate reason!” And how do the Catholics respond? This season, celebrate Jesus.” While I appreciate the decision not to use an exclamation point, do they really want to imply there is a contrast between reason and Jesus? I mean, of course they aren’t trying to do that, and of course there really is quite a stark contrast, but anyone comparing the two billboards is forced to conclude that there is a divide between the two – and the Catholics surely do not want that.

But I guess I shouldn’t expect the Catholic church to offer a thoughtful response.

Atheists score higher than religious on religious survey

Pew has a new and unsurprising poll about what Americans know about religion.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

One head of an atheist organization has an idea why we’re seeing these results.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

And for some, I suspect, the deep conflict between science and religion helps to inform people about the religions of the world. People see the truth of what science has to tell us, then they hear the lies of religion (miracles, for example), and they look into both more deeply. I lend much more weight to Silverman’s more straight-forward explanation, but I think there’s something to be said of my suggestion; people want to know what’s true and religion hasn’t a single answer.