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.

Roman Polanski

Once again, I’ve been away from the blog for a few days, this time because I was attending the fantastic Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse, and my mind has been in movie mode for a solid, wondrous week. Which means that while ACA’ers were busily batcruising a week ago, I was a few blocks away at the Paramount theater squealing like a little girl while George A. Romero signed my ticket to the premiere screening of Survival of the Dead. Much as I love the gang, I’ll have to miss a batcruise for that one, folks. Too bad the movie was crap, though.

Anyway, another incident involving a film legend went down recently, and while it may seem to have nothing to do with atheism, it was an event that gave me lots of food for thought about matters I’ve often discussed here on the blog and the TV show. I speak, of course, of the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant for his drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago.

Opinions have been divided over Polanski ever since he fled the country upon realizing that the judge handling his case at the time — who, it must be said, has been revealed as something of a publicity hound — was about to renege on a plea deal. On the one hand, there are those who have categorically condemned Polanski as a slimy pedo, and on the other, cineastes who point to Polanski’s great films and stature as one of the world’s master directors, and the crime as simply some sick aberration that shouldn’t tarnish the man’s entire life. And besides, the victim, now in her 40’s with a family of her own, has forgiven him.

Debates along those lines can and will go on for ages, and they are. Following Polanski’s arrest, battle lines were drawn along familiar borders. Many of Polanski’s industry pals have rushed to his defense, demanded his release, and offered all manner of apologia for his misdeed. Conversely, read feminist blogs, and it’s clear they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than Polanski’s mutilated corpse dragged down Hollywood Blvd. behind a truck.

For my own part, I would not want to live in a world in which an artist like Polanski wasn’t able to create. His best films are landmarks. Repulsion is the great film about psychosexual neurosis. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror masterpiece, dealing with religious horror themes in a way the campy and atrociously scripted The Exorcist could never touch. Chinatown is one of the best movies ever to come from a major studio. And even his underrated adaptation of Macbeth, shot while he was still grieving over Sharon Tate’s murder, is the darkest and most violent version of Shakespeare ever filmed. So yes, that Polanski is a great artist ought to be beyond dispute.

He also drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.

This is a bad thing.

In deciding where I should draw my own conclusions here, I had to consider the way in which I like my atheism and overall fondness for rationalism to inform my thinking. The key factor is moral and intellectual integrity. By that. I certainly don’t mean adopting inflexible dogmatic views and attitudes, but I do mean being consistent and not a hypocrite.

Repeatedly, on this blog and the TV show, I have been ruthless in my condemnation of religious pedophiles. Tony Alamo, Warren Jeffs, adult Muslims in the Middle East who enter into arranged marriages with girls as young as eight or nine — I’ve seen no reason to cut them slack. And so I cannot cut Polanski any either. Certainly, I do and will always revere him as an artist. But the crime is a crime is a crime. Time doesn’t make it go away. Nor does the minor detail that the difference between Polanksi’s rape and those committed by the likes of Alamo and Jeffs is that Polanski never tried to justify it on religious grounds. Do I plan to denude my DVD collection of Polanski’s films? No. Why? They’re great films, that’s why. But just as O.J. Simpson’s double murders don’t diminish his accomplishments as a football star, neither can his football accomplishments be waved around as if they diminish the murders.

So if I cannot cut Warren Jeffs, Tony Alamo, and whoever-the-frak-else among religious wackaloons any slack when they victimize kids, nor can I cut Polanski slack. As an atheist, I think it’s an important factor in retaining my own integrity that I do not allow personal anti-religious bias to influence my opinion, and make me treat crimes by the religious more harshly than the same crime committed in a context where religion had no role. It’s hard for people to free themselves of biases, and those of us who pride ourselves on reason must be doubly diligent that we don’t make excuses and plunge into the same hypocrisy we see from the religious.

I think the arrest needed to happen, if only so that the whole affair can now play out as it must, and neither Polanski nor his victim have to go on living with it as some sort of Sword of Damocles hanging over their lives. Polanski will always be a great filmmaker. But he drugged and raped a kid. At 76, it’s past time for him to man up and face the consequences. If the court is harsh, so be it. If it’s lenient, so be it. But it must be faced. And Polanski’s defenders ought to know better than to embrace the casual insouciance of that last line in Polanski’s greatest movie: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”