Having too good a day to be annoyed by religion

It’s a gorgeous day in Austin today. Cold, but sunny and blue. In a few minutes, I’ll throw on the old hoodie, fire up the old iPod, leash up the old dog, and take a walk in the old park. Might even look for that old geocache that eluded me last time. In all, it’s simply too awesome a day, and, as the sort of godless person who does his best to make each day count knowing I don’t have an eternity of them waiting for me in Candyland, it’s entirely conducive to my best of moods.

Which is why I just don’t have any incentive to get all riled up by a text I got from a Christian acquaintance of mine this morning which read Merry christmas. Thank god for the gift that keeps on giuing ‘jesus (Errors in the original, but most people text without regard to proper spelling, capitalization and punctuation.)

The confrontational nature of communication between believers and atheists is a matter that often takes center stage. Having been involved in AETV since 1999, it’s not as if I shy away from such confrontation. I frequently enjoy it. I’m also a firm believer in holding the feet of believers to the fire, so to speak, to force them to argue competently for their beliefs and listen with some degree of actual understanding to atheists’ rebuttals.

Still, sometimes I find it fun to sit back, watch a believer do what he does, in situations where no forceful rebuttal is needed because the fail is apparent from the outset. Take Mike (not his real name), this fellow who texted me. Now, he and I get along in person. He knows I’m an atheist. When we talk, we don’t argue religion, not because I don’t want to, but because I’m perfectly happy to let him make the choice of whether or not to do that, knowing I can pretty well deflect anything his ORU theology degree can throw.

What Mike does is, in a way, more entertaining. He tries very passive-aggressive — often to the point of indifference — forms of proselytizing. You’d think a fellow armed with a bachelor’s in theology (which I don’t see as being any more relevant to reality than a similar degree in Star Wars Trivia) would have few worries about his game. But instead of taking me on with overwhelming force and shock and awe, he’s done things like play soppy Christian pop and R&B on the occasions we carpooled. (There are some good singers on those R&B tracks, I will admit.) So, it’s like a challenge. But it’s more like throwing down a mitten than a gauntlet.

When it was my turn to drive, I wouldn’t play Dimmu Borgir or Scandinavian death metal in retaliation. I wouldn’t play music at all — so he could sleep. Did he notice that gesture? Did he notice I was taking the high road? Did he notice, especially, that I was saying to him, “Okay, your approach here? It’s so not working.” Probably not, I don’t know.

It’s like this. You’d all agree that as atheists, we live good and happy lives without gods, invisible or otherwise, guiding our days. Christians see this, and it disconcerts them. It doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve been sold all their lives. So here we are, living the positive atheist life, and religion is this thing that people keep wanting to put in our way. It’s like the old story (is it one of Sagan’s? it might be…) about the two guys admiring a beautiful garden, and one says to the other, “You know, there are fairies tending this garden, that’s why it’s so beautiful.” Huh? Why can’t the beautiful garden be admired on its own, without introducing imaginary and superfluous fairies into the picture?

I get the idea Mike has been looking for that opening with me, but not in such a way that I’ll be alienated. In its way, this text marks something of an escalation, in that it’s the first time he’s come right out and directed a Jesusy remark to me. That it’s the kind of thing you’d read in a greeting card means the level of conviction he’s willing to put behind it still doesn’t entail too much risk. But the point is I saw this coming, more or less, and am utterly unruffled by it.

I’d be the last person to deny that many forms of Christian proselytizing are not nearly so harmless and feeble. In fact, just this morning we got an email from a viewer describing a distressing situation a friend of his is facing and asking for advice.

My question is in regards to a friend’s situation at work. He was told by his boss that his hours were being cut from 3 twelve hour days to 2 twelve hour days per week and that he needed to use this time to find god. He was also told to email a response to his boss about how he was going to find god. His boss is a fundamentalist Christian and we live is South Carolina. I know that this is illegal and completely asinine but I need some advice on how to encourage him. He needs to keep his job to support his family but he does not want to conform to his boss’s demands. He is not an atheist or if he is he is not out yet. His wife is a Christian and even she knows that its wrong. How can I help him?

This is, of course, the most egregious sort of bullying. I hope our correspondent takes my suggestion to have his friend contact the ACLU at once. More often than not, religion is exactly this appalling in its disregard for common decency, and in all such cases it must be smacked down forcefully.

But then there are situations like Mike and his text message, that put a little grin on my face because they reveal just how weak the whole enterprise really is. Did Mike think hearing CD after CD of silly Christian songs might woo me to the Lord? Mostly, I couldn’t help noticing how the lyrics of every single one of these songs had the same trite message: “My invisible friend is totally awesome!” And then all I could think was, “Dude, you went to college and got a degree in a discipline designed to do nothing more than slap a veneer of intellectual respectability on the inane sentiments of these lyrics? Yeah, ‘heaven’ forbid you’d actually want to be a doctor or scientist.”

I mean, when it’s all shown in this light, proselytizing is simply funny. I look at the sort of half-hearted evangelism reflected in this text message, and I find myself playing the role (okay, work with me here, people) of an attractive woman in a bar who’s just heard Lame Line #563 from the fifteenth clueless beta-male who’s tried to approach her all evening. What do these women do in situations like this? Sure, they could laugh in the guy’s face, berate him in front of his and her friends until he dissolves into a puddle of ectoplasmic humiliation on the floor. But what these women usually do is simply walk away. Lameness of such lameitude barely merits notice, let alone an impassioned retort.

I’m sure some atheists would get a text like I got, and fire back with everything they’ve got. Dude, fuck u! I’m an ATHEIST and Christmas is bullshit ripped off from Saturnalia anyway. So stick ur Bible up ur ass sideways!!! Again, I saw this coming, and I don’t rise to the bait quite so easily. I did finally text Mike back: Hope you’re having a great Christmas! And I’ll just leave him scratching his head over that.

Like I said, I’m having a lovely day.

10 best Christmas songs…

Greta Christina has a new post about a story she wrote for AlterNet…trying to list the 10 best Christmas songs for atheists.

I don’t like the rules of this particular meme…which is why I wasn’t happy with her list (this isn’t a knock on Greta who I really like and look forward to talking to at the American Atheists National convention in April, as we’re both on the speakers’ list…but screw the rules, let’s go for fun!).

So, in no particular order, here are my 10 favorite Christmas songs (or at least 10 that I really like)…irrespective of any rules:

1. Billy Squier – Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You.
(This was the intro music for Saturday’s Non-Prophets and it’s downloadable content in Rock Band…what’s not to love?)
2. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – Snowmeiser Heatmeiser
(This hip reworking of the Rankin/Bass classic is one I can listen to over and over and over and…)
3. The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
(This video includes decent audio and a geeky synchronized Xmas light show.)
4. John Lennon – Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
(What’s not to love?)
5. Robert Earl Keene – Merry Christmas from the Family
(If parts of this song seem mildly familiar — you might be a redneck)
6. Brenda Lee – Rockin Around the Christmas Tree
(How did this miss even an honorable mention on Greta’s list?)
7. Elmo and Patsy – Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
(Unfortunately, I was only able to find this and remixes and not the original version)
8. The Beach Boys – Little Saint Nick
(This was close…but from the opening notes, I just want to listen to it.)
9. Gene Autry – Here Comes Santa Claus
(Yes, it says “say your prayers” “thanks to the lord above” and I couldn’t care less…)
10. Dean Martin – Baby It’s Cold Outside
(Because it’s my list and there has to be some Deano…Sway isn’t sufficiently Christmas-y, but this counts. Winter Wonderland is nice, but this is better.)

Obviously, there are many other songs and covers that I could add or change. But it’s a quick list of songs I’m happy to listen to this season…

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it’s a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there’s no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn’t true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn’t all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we’re prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I’m not a Malcolm X, “by any means necessary” atheist, because not all means work. And while it’s a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn’t necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. “Ah ha,” sayeth the atheist blogosphere, “does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?” Well, maybe, but then, let’s look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called “overplaying your hand.”

Look, you won’t get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole “time and place” concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message…well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren’t going to read that last sentence and think, “By golly, they’re right. How gullible and foolish I’ve been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions.” No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you’re all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens’ faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you’re a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don’t have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that’s what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a “War on Christmas”?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn’t mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to “promoting positive atheism.”

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read “Imagine No Religion.” That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins’ words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that’s where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole “religion is superstition and, really, isn’t it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky” thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, “What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?”

“But Martin,” you say, “the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, ‘consciousness-raising’ billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!”

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I’m sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”) then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it’s easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it’s all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say “the Capitol grounds is everybody’s turf,” but I’m dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I’d have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person’s goodness comes, not from what they believe or don’t believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it’s from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don’t have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that’s more than the FFRF’s present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountif
ul Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.


Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of “Uncle Tom” atheism. Another commenter wrote, “What you are saying boils down to, ‘If you’re not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.'” Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I’ve responded in detail in the comments myself.

I just don’t have a problem with Christmas

It’s true. I know O’Reilly and any number of the folks running the right-wing Christian-persecution industry want to think I’ve declared “war” on their holiday. But I haven’t. If anything, they’ve done so, by loudly claiming the entire holiday season as their own and not wanting anyone else to play. I thought this was a time of peace on Earth and good will to all men. Not for fearmongering religionists who see enemies beneath every rock, I suppose.

The things I dislike about Christmas are mainly the things most people dislike: the traffic, the congestion, the crowds. I’m able to avoid most of this, because I’m not a family man myself so I don’t have an obligation to race to the mall and bow to the gods of commerce every year so I can get the kids the latest awesome video game. No, I get to go at my own pace and pick that game up for me whenever I want it. Hah!

When I was a Christian in my childhood and adolescence, I recall having more of an investment in the religious aspects of the holiday. Today I find much about the holiday that engendered those same feelings of warmth in secular motifs — and in fact, I realize now that what I really loved about the holiday back then was mostly secular, as well. I dug decorations, and hanging out by the tree, and the anticipation of opening presents. Going to church on Christmas Eve was okay, I guess, the only really sucky part having to do with getting dressed up and going out in the cold when I’d rather be at home curled up under blankets. But I do remember liking one thing about the Christmas Eve church service when I was a kid: they’d kill the lights in the sanctuary and everyone would be holding lit candles, and that created a really great ambiance.

As an atheist adult, I don’t miss the church services or religious carols, but there’s still plenty about the holiday for a secularist to enjoy. I have often been asked by Christian friends why I celebrate Christmas if I’m not Christian. I hasten to remind them that the holiday wasn’t exclusively Christian to begin with (as with all major Christian holidays, it’s an absorbed pagan celebration), and that today, there’s the Christian Christmas and the secular Christmas, the latter of which embraces all the good, humanist sentiment of the holiday (the peace and goodwill thing) with none of the baggage involved in taking the mythological parts seriously. We shouldn’t need a particular time of year set aside during which it’s the proper thing to do to be good to one another. But with all the sectarian ideologies around the world eager to divide humanity into warring factions throughout all the rest of the year, clearly we do. A shame that in this country, the Christians who claim to be Christmas’s most ardent supporters want to turn it into a divisive time, too.

Finally, here’s one more bit of childhood Christmas nostalgia that still rocks my world. Who doesn’t remember growing up with this bit of awesomeness? In fact, I think I’ll watch it tonight over a cup of hot chocolate.

So if you don’t celebrate Christmas but something else (the solstice, or whatever), then Happy Holidays. If you do celebrate Christmas, then Merry Christmas. (There. I said it.) If you don’t celebrate any holidays at all, but are looking forward to a day off work, then have a great day. In fact, have one every day. As best we know, this is the only life we have. There’s no excuse not to celebrate every day of it.