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.

On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: “While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it’s doing them harm. It’s driving them deeper into their psychosis.”

This is simply not true, and yet it’s unfortunately a very common meme among the “Don’t be a dick” crowd. As a counterpoint, I’d like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don’t post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.


For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don’t misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I’m not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met ‘christians’ who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.



I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don’t refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:



Hi, Mr. Glasser,


I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I’d drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I’d let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn’t heard them (I’m sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I’d like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That’s a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus’ father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod’s death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it’s thanks in part to you guys and what you’re doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the ‘Don’t ask questions, God did it’ train of thought.





So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people’s minds. My answer is always “Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive.” This is what I would consider a happy exception.

Still more on being a dick

This started as a comment on Matt’s post about being a dick, but when it got to a certain length, I decided to barge to the front of the line and write my own post. That is, no doubt, a dick move on my part. :)

The problem with Phil’s approach isn’t that there are no dicks in the atheist community. Obviously there are, as highlighted by the “all Christians are retarded” post linked in that thread. All Christians aren’t retarded, and that’s a dick thing to say. One point for Phil.

The real problem is that by focusing on it in a speech this way, Phil gives the clearly false impression that this is systemic to the “leaders” of the “new atheist” “movement” (to the extent that there are leaders and it is a movement that is new, although I join many in despising the “new” designation).

There’s a bait-and-switch which always seems to go on in these discussions. PZ Myers, Dawkins, and we on TAE, do what we can to attack ideas and not people at every opportunity. Some people are dumb, but none of us wants to paint with a broad brush everyone who holds a belief as universally dumb. We say that up front, and we don’t hesitate to call specific ideas dumb, if it’s warranted. By focusing on the ideas we can pay attention to WHY they’re dumb, rather than calling names of people who, after all, are complex individuals with many different ideas and motivations.

We do attack ideas, but we attack them in a way that sometimes offends people. The point, though, is that the people who are taking offense are often doing so due to unreasonable beliefs. Like PZ Myers and his “frackin’ cracker.” It’s less about the offensive language and more about the fact that certain people believe the cracker is the body of Jesus — which it clearly isn’t — and they are willing to terrorize and intimidate people who don’t treat it with the respect due to a magical cracker — which it isn’t. It’s about the fact that people should be allowed to draw cartoons with Mohammed as a character — clearly an activity that harms no one except by annoying them — without receiving death threats.

In a nutshell, this is about drawing attention to an activity which shouldn’t be offensive but is. It is taking a stand to say that religious devotees cannot draw arbitrary battle lines and say “We hereby intend to be offended by activity X, and unless you cease and desist from doing X at all times, you are a dick.” I actually see a lot of parallel between this issue and the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, which is neither a Mosque nor at ground zero. On that subject, an opinion seems to be coalescing, even among people who are trying to appear reasonable, that “those Muslims have the right to build a cultural center there, but good taste dictates that they should not do it.”

I reject that. I think if anything, this whole crapstorm has made it more apparent that those Muslims should build their cultural center right where they damn well said they would, because if they give up ground on this issue then there won’t be a spot in America where they are allowed to build anything, ever. Free speech and free assembly aren’t just symbolic. If those rights aren’t exercised then we can still lose them.

I’m willing to have a reasonable discussion about what are the best methods for exercising our free speech to deal with unreasonable taboos. Sure , Phil, in a few situations it may be preferable to be polite and observe the taboos that you disagree with, depending on how important the fight is. I reject, however, the categorical statement that you shouldn’t do things that might make some group think you’re a dick. That way lies capitulation to every unrealistic demand of a new Taliban.

But Phil Plait would also like to strengthen his case by sneakily conflating two things. On one hand, we have posts that say “All Christians are Retards,” a statement which is both dickish and false. On the other hand, we have PZ Myers throwing his cracker in the trash. By conflating the two, we can be left with the impression that PZ Myers calls all Christians retards, when in reality the two acts are not equivalent.

It just seems to me that way too often, saying “Don’t be a dick” is actually code for “Shut up and accept it when other people are dicks to you.”