Oh hell, is Elevatorgate going to ruin TAM9?

“What do women want?” Sigmund Freud once famously asked. Aretha Franklin answered him just as famously: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”

If you haven’t been keeping up with the current online eruption surrounding Elevatorgate — and I suspect most of you have at least heard about it, as Skepchick and Pharyngula are just slightly more widely read than our little blog — I will just direct you to those sites for the full-immersion experience. But to recap, here are the main bullet points…

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame attends a conference overseas. Gets hit on by clueless doof in the hotel elevator at 4 AM, brushes him off. Mentions the incident in her talk, as well as online, saying, in effect, “Hey guys, don’t do stuff like that, thanks.”

This being the Internet, the situation Escalates into full-on web drama. Loser guys with same sense of clueless entitlement blow Rebecca’s reaction all out of proportion, make her out to be stick-up-the-ass prude who pilloried some poor Nice Guy for the ghastly crime of asking her for coffee. Larger group of Rebecca defenders jump in, including PZ, Jen at Blag Hag, and many others, chiding the guys for not getting it and pointing to a very real problem of acculturated sexism that infects the skeptical/atheist community just as it does the wide world.

Then, out of the blue, Rebecca gets a “Methinks the lady doth protest too much” note from no less a luminary than Richard Dawkins, the boneheadedness of which stupefies everyone (except, of course, the clueless doof brigade). Short version: in a world in which women are undergoing such horrors as genital mutilation and death by stoning, any chick who has nothing more to complain about than an unwelcome pass in an elevator is clearly a petulant whiner. Seriously.

Understandably incensed — I mean, way to miss the point, Prof! — Rebecca publicly chastises and disowns Dawkins. And now, it appears the godless Internet is splitting into Team Rebecca and Team Richard camps.

From such pebbles do avalanches begin.

I will make my position so clear even a gerbil with dyslexia should be able to get it, because this is the Internet, and it appears one’s words can be wildly misunderstood and misrepresented here. (Who knew?) In six words: Dawkins is wrong, Rebecca is right. Dawkins’ point — which is fundamentally no different than telling atheists that in a world where the godless are burned at the stake, we’re being kind of petty to complain about “little” things like God in the Pledge or creationism in the classroom — is simply wrong. He’s as wrong as a wrong thing with the word wrong written on it by someone who can’t spell.

Now, TAM9 is coming up, and I am concerned that the backwash from all this is going to cast an ugly pall over a convention that ought to be the community’s annual high point. It isn’t that Rebecca and her supporters (hello, I am one) aren’t justified in their anger. They are. But…

The whole “throwing Dawkins under the bus” thing is, I think, unproductive. We are rationalists. We pride ourselves on our capacity for reason, which we boast of having more of than anyone else. So what do we do about this? Do we employ our reason, and turn this event into the teachable moment it needs to be? After all, Dawkins wrote TGD, in his words, in the interest of “raising consciousness.” Clearly, acculturated sexism is a matter about which Dawkins desperately needs his consciousness raised. Will we give him the chance to do this? After all, the man’s achievements over the last decade in the service of promoting atheism and reason — culminating in both topics today being suitable for bestselling books, rather than shameful topics you just cannot mention in polite society — are considerable, and the debt atheists worldwide owe him is incalculable. I am simply acknowledging a fact, not putting the man on a pedestal or anything. He’s done a lot, and that deserves recognition.

So how do we pay him back for this? Do we say, “You helped us gain stature and credibility. Now you apparently need our help, getting over some ideas of privilege you seem to have a problem with. Here. This is why you are wrong. Please think about these things and man up to your mistake.” This, is seems to me, is the path of rationality.

Or, do we abandon rationality, give ourselves over to emotion, anger and ego, and circle the wagons around the sense of righteousness gained from believing that we’ve taken the right side of a split? (Note: I do not accuse Rebecca of this, as she’s responding to a personal insult and has every right to respond as she chooses. But I think such a thing would be the case if skeptics en masse did so.) I can think of nothing that would disappoint me more than to witness the drama of a mass walkout of Dawkins’ speech at TAM. I would understand it, but I’d wish a path had been taken towards allowing this conflict to be something the godless community saw as an opportunity for education and problem solving, rather than digging in trenches.

Attitudes of sexism and male entitlement do exist among those of us who consider ourselves rationalists. You should see some of the fratboy bullshit that pops up in the chat room when either Jen or Tracie are on the show. It’s like, WTF? Who are you people?

I know that I myself had to unlearn a lot of my own acculturation, and I am equally sure I’d get a “Needs Improvement” grade on my efforts even today. But I know that when I was younger, less secure and a bit more arrogant, I reacted poorly to rejection in ways that I can only now, years later, understand were wrong and, yeah, pretty damned creepy. I had to outgrow feeling sexually entitled, just like I had to outgrow homophobia. My perceived loneliness and need to dip my wick was not, I had to learn, any woman’s problem to solve. There is so much about my 20-24 year old self that embarrasses me to remember.

But I learned, and am still learning, and I want those who still need to learn — even if they are 70-year-old celebrity scientists — to be able to do so. It’s harder to change your attitudes as you get older, as you get set in your ways. But I think it can still be done.

For the most part, I do see an effort to correct and educate Dawkins has been made. Dawkins has asked to be led to understanding of where he is wrong, even if, as far as I could tell, he may still not yet get it.

What I want to happen out of this is consciousness-raising. Will TAM9 be the event that helps that occur, or that divides us further? I guess we will see.

In case you’re feeling prankish on Facebook…

There’s an amusing page called Pray for Richard Dawkins, and it’s maintained, as you might guess, by someone guzzling whine-and-cheese by the gallon.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Richard Dawkins’s story reads very much like Paul’s. Dawkins is arguably the most influential atheist and persecutor (although not physical) of Christians in the world today. Like Paul, he believes that Jesus is a lie. Like Paul, he’s a well-respected leader of a movement that opposes Jesus. Like Paul, his conversion would be nothing short of a miracle from God, and an amazing witness to people everywhere.

I’m dying to know exactly how and when Dawkins has ever “persecuted” anybody. Unless, of course, this is the typical Christian usage of the term “persecution,” usually parsed as “Waaah, you’re not validating me! You’re telling me my beliefs are wrong, and I can’t respond to you, and that takes away my feelings of entitlement! How dare you disagree and make me feel stupid!” I’d say that’s pretty well confirmed by their careful admission that Dawkins’ “persecution” is “not physical.” Then what, simple disagreement with your beliefs is “persecution”? Yeah, asshole, tell that to someone who knows what persecution really looks like — they’re the ones with numbers tattooed on their arms — and see how sympathetic they are.

Bogus “persecution” claimed as an exercise in ostentatious self-regard is, of course, the Christian’s problem, not the atheist’s. But what else is funny is how the screed goes on to reveal how silly Christian beliefs are, and how its own most devout believers don’t think through the ramifications of what their faith calls them to do.

To wit: the page owner is flush with excitement at the prospect of Dawkins’ possible conversion. An “amazing witness,” to be sure! And so the point of the page, apparently — because if it weren’t for his Facebook fans God would just be totally SOL — is to rally Christians to pray en masse for just such a miraculous conversion. Evidently God can’t be bothered to give prayers a hearing unless they’re part of a class action.

But wait a teeny tiny little sec. Isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and everything? And if that’s so, isn’t he pretty well aware of Dawkins and his very public atheism already? It’s not as if he needs a heads-up. So wouldn’t he already have made up his mind, knowing the future infallibly and all, about converting Dawkins? Suggesting otherwise just makes both God and his followers sound like some idiot kids in a chatroom.

Xian4Ever yo HeavFather whats up?!?

YHWH Im good, my child

Xian4Ever dude I mean God there’s like this d-bag Dawkins? Totally wrote a book, talking shit saying you dont exist!!!1! Srsly!

YHWH ORLY? WTF!!

Xian4Ever No shit its like a WHOLE FUCKING BOOK. Says your like a teapot or something

YHWH OMme! Heh no worries, I’ll totally school that bitch LOL

Xian4Ever LOL!!!

No, something tells me an omniscient God would pretty much already have a fellow like Dawkins on his radar. Which, of course, prompts the question of why said conversion hasn’t occurred yet. After all, Scripture does make it abundantly clear that God, once he’d had enough of Saul’s bullshit, just came right down and laid the divine smackdown on the guy, and it wasn’t as if he needed a bunch of Facebookers jamming the prayer lines then. No, God just got shit done.

So either God knows, and he’s waiting for some great stage moment for maximum dramatic effect. Or maybe he wants Dawkins to remain an atheist. Maybe God’s divine plan is to reward not the believers, but the skeptics, the more vocal the better, for using their gift of reason so well. Or maybe God just doesn’t care. Or maybe he’s just made up.

Anyway, if you’re on Facebook, I think ‘twould be amusing to flood the page’s membership with atheists cheering Dawkins on, eh? If Dawkins’ fans vastly outnumber the prayer “warriors,” maybe that’ll get God’s attention and get that miracle conversion underway, eh? Or it may just be another opportunity to mock playfully how childish the whole concept of God really is.

Regarding Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™

Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, is the world’s stupidest Christian. When you consider the competition, that’s quite a feat. Ray’s degree of stupidity is truly stunning to behold. It’s so monumental it serves as a kind of strange attractor towards which other Christians, not necessarily as stupid as Ray but not especially smart either, are inexorably drawn. It’s Stupidity as a force of nature, implacable, unwavering as the tides, and entropically hurtling towards greater and greater stupidity until any remaining vestige of what might be determined intelligence has been broken down into its constituent molecules, and scattered to the voids of space.

So like, the guy’s frackin’ stupid. Really. I’ve blown boogers into tissues during a bad cold that are Nobel laureates compared to this guy. Stoo-pid.

Not content with the minor notoriety one gains from being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, Ray has decided he really needs to earn the title. After all, a man’s gotta have something in the way of an achievement in life. So, to this end, as those of you who’ve been hanging out on RDnet and Pharyngula have already heard, he has “challenged” Richard Dawkins to a “debate”. This is as funny as Verne Troyer challenging Mike Tyson to three rounds in the ring.

But it gets funnier. Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins will be impressed by money. So he’s offered $10,000. Thinking a millionaire will be impressed by your $10,000 is like thinking a supermodel will be impressed by your Honda Fit. But, bless his heart, that’s why Ray is the World’s Stupidest Christian™!

Dawkins was unimpressed with the $10,000 offer, shockingly enough, replying to someone claiming to rep Ray that the offer “is less than the typical fee that I am ordinarily offered for lecturing to a serious audience (I often don’t accept it, especially in the case of a student audience, because I am a dedicated teacher). It is not, therefore, a worthwhile inducement for me to travel all the way across the Atlantic to debate with an ignorant fool.” Gold! Dawkins then added (and you can see him smiling as he wrote it) that he’d consider playing along if Ray donated $100,000 to the RDF “so that that money will NOT be available for buying animatronic dinosaurs with saddles, or other similar nonsense. The fact that he would be making a substantial donation to a charity dedicated to Reason and Science adds to the humour of the situation.”

Now it gets even funnier. Get this: Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins is haggling. So he raised the offer to $20,000, imagining, I suppose, that Dawkins is now obliged to come back with something like, “How about 90?” At which point the haggling continues as a matter of form until they settle on 50.

Of course, Dawkins isn’t playing. He doesn’t have to. And the funniest thing of all, in a long list of funny things, is that without this stupid “debate” even taking place yet, Dawkins has already humiliated Ray! D’oh! That’s what you get for being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, cupcake!

And Dawkins has humiliated Ray simply by letting Ray be Ray. It’s uncontrollably funny the way Ray’s very offer essentially amounts to nothing less than an admission of inferiority in all respects. To wit, Dawkins doesn’t need Ray. Ray desperately needs Dawkins. Dawkins has everything Ray doesn’t have and cannot gain through merit: prestige, respect, authority, legitimacy, expertise. Ray wants all of those things, and hopes an association with Dawkins will cause them to rub off on him, especially as he’s deluded himself into thinking he can prove evolution false in a debate with one of the world’s leading scientific authorities on evolution. But you see, that’s Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, all over!

I love Ray. Really. I heart him like a hearty thing. He cannot know what joy he brings into the daily lives of atheists, just by the million little loving ways he reminds us that he’s the World’s Stupidest Christian™.

So Dawkins has named his price, because he can, because Ray has nothing Dawkins wants or needs. And the mere fact that Ray has already upped his previously pathetic offer to a slightly less pathetic level has pretty much bagged this “debate” for Dawkins right out of the gate. In the same way it’s funny to see the no-hopers at the Discovery Institute still trying to convince themselves of their relevance more than three years after Dover put a howitzer shell through ID, by their continuing efforts to find scientists to debate them, it’s even funnier seeing Ray running after Dawkins, like some loser at a bar trailing after a hot chick pleading, “Well, maybe if I gave you my number…”

Gang, this is exactly the right way to treat creationists every time they try to make a grab for legitimacy and shore up their inflated sense of importance: pure derision. Because you know, it works! It really gets their gander up.

How did Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, react to being dubbed an “ignorant fool”? Well, nosir, he dint like it! And he whined about it in entirely predictable fashion over at — where else? — the Christian Worldview Network.

During the more than 5,000 times I have spoken in the public forum, I have engaged hundreds of little Richard Dawkins’ and have noticed that when their argument is very weak, they always revert to personal insults. While I won’t condescend to insults, I will point out that Mr. Dawkins does believe that we were created by aliens.

Which, of course, he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point. Ray doesn’t realize that Dawkins is not insulting him by saying he’s an ignorant fool. He’s simply stating a fact, as I am when I refer to Ray by his unofficial title, the World’s Stupidest Christian™. It’s like, imagine that Dawkins has a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of him. And he looks at it and says, “The flavor of this ice cream is chocolate.” Is he calling the ice cream a name? Is he insulting it? No! He is merely stating an observable fact about the nature of the ice cream. Likewise, when he points out Ray is an ignorant fool, he is merely stating an observable fact about Ray Comfort. Ray will never get these points. Because &#151 what is he, everybody…? All together now…

Time to hit the gym, Wagner!

Okay, Elze has finally posted her collection of photos from Dawkins’ appearance last week, and these include some nice shots from the pre-speech reception. I’ve been reluctant to post the link, though, because they also include a couple of depressing shots of me at the AE Blog Meetup, in which I look to weigh about 653 pounds. Given that I was something of a major gym rat ten years ago, these are…ahem…well, let’s just say I pre-emptively accept every morsel of ridicule with which I’m about to be heaped, and let it go at that. Meanwhile, I think it’s time to dig out the MetRX and the creatine and wheel on down to Gold’s — where I suspect I’ll be pelted with water bottles and dirty jockstraps the minute I walk in the door. O the ignominy.

On the whole “being offensive” thing

In my Dawkins report, I discussed the way many Christians — primarily of the conservative stripe — can’t stop whining about how horribly offensive the anti-religious rhetoric of the “new atheists” is, while intentionally ignoring, and even defending, far worse behavior from their own. A perfect example is this odious hypocrisy I read via Ed Brayton’s blog.

Oklahoma representative Sally Kern, not surprisingly a sponsor of the anti-education bill HB 2211, recently had a sickening homophobic hate screed of hers recorded and made public. Is she apologizing? Of course not. She’s a Christian, and morally superior to you, after all. So not only is she sticking to her guns, she’s got the lunatics at the WorldNutDaily (to which I refuse to link, so go over to Ed’s if you must immerse yourself in such filth) concocting a nice little conspiracy theory in her defense as well. Get a load of this. Here they are talking about how the thousands of gays and lesbians whom Kern gratuitously offended with her hate speech are the ones with the problem, and how they’re victimizing her.

Basically, they’re trying to silence her by threatening, intimidating, harassing and frightening her until she can’t take any more abuse. No dialogue, no debate – just crush her.

Only a fundie would think there’s something meriting “dialogue” and “debate” when some foul-tempered, hideous old cow (oh noes, the eebul afeist is calling her naaames!) rants about how gays and lesbians are more dangerous to America than terrorists, that they’re bringing about the downfall of civilization, and who lies about non-existent “studies” that support such idiotic ideas.

From where I’m sitting, the entirety of the “dialogue” and “debate” hate speech like Kern’s deserves can be summed up as, “You’re a sick individual, a disgrace, and a vile liar, and would you please go crawl back under your rock, you ignorant useless bitch. Thank you. Signed, The Human Race.”

That’s their game. It’s despicable, and utterly un-American.

While religious hate is just so praiseworthy and “pro-American,” of course.

In a sense, Kern does a better job of validating Dawkins’ points than Dawkins does. When Dawkins wrote in his essay “Logical Path from Religious Beliefs to Evil Deeds”

Religion changes, for people, the definition of good…. For non-religious people, the behavior of consenting adults in a private bedroom is the business of nobody else, and is not bad unless it causes suffering – for example by breaking up a happy family. But many religions arrogate to themselves the right to decide that certain kinds of sexual behavior, even if they do no harm to anyone, are wrong…. The following quotation from the Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg has become well known, but it is so devastatingly true that it is worth quoting again and again: “With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

…he was talking about you, Mustang Sally.

Now, back under the rock with you. Here, take your Bible. You’ll need that, since you haven’t got a brain.

Oh gee. Did I offend someone?

Dawkins at UT, Part 2

II (cont’d): The Lecture

To wrap this up: Another memorable part of the talk involved Dawkins’ response to Christians who take offense at the supposedly rude and aggressive tone he allegedly uses. While saying that he’d rather be known as a “friend of truth” more than an “enemy of religion,” he admitted to being unable to resist “humorous broadsides” against religion and its believers. He compared some of the passages in TGD that Christians have singled out as especially offensive to other examples of criticism, like restaurant reviews in British newspapers, some of which are so scathing and insulting they must be seen to be believed. And these kinds of verbal assaults can be harmful, Dawkins pointed out, as chefs “really exist, while blasphemy is a victimless crime.”

Again, we go back to the problem of religion’s unmerited privilege of being considered outside the purview of criticism. Everyone today, but especially believers, have gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t be offended, ever, Dawkins noted. But there’s no rule that says we have some innate right to expect that, especially in a culture that promotes the free exchange of ideas. In fact, there are many things we should be offended by, like religious fatwas and female genital mutilation. Dawkins went through a list of human atrocities we have a moral duty to find offensive — many of them doled out with the tacit approval of someone’s religion — accompanied by a series of slides that elicited ever-increasing applause. It was a touchstone moment of the whole evening’s talk.

The idea of how offensive believers find challenges to belief struck a chord with me, as one thing I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which Christianity in America has managed to become, despite its overwhelming presence in the cultural mainstream, something of an isolated subculture at the same time. There are Christian bookstores, and Christian radio stations, and Christian colleges, and Christian rock bands, and Christian sports teams, and Christian versions of the Yellow Pages that help Christian consumers shop only at overtly Christian businesses. All this sort of thing contributes to an environment where believers can effectively shield themselves from any viewpoint that doesn’t embrace and reinforce Christian dogmas and beliefs. To many Christians, you don’t even have to be overtly offensive — Don Imus or Ann Coulter style — to offend them. Merely declaring your atheism openly, and not having the good taste to keep your distasteful disbelief to yourself, can be enough to set many believers off.

And it’s a fact as well that many Christians who whine about how offensive Dawkins is never think to see what’s coming out of their own camp. Even in the comments a few posts down, we get Rhology whining, “Come on, are you really trying to make Dawkins into a guy who never says anythg offensive about Christians?” Well, sure he does, but it’s usually in the form of jokes and jabs, as he did last night, in a crack comparing “Christian thinkers…and intelligent people. (Raises hands, chuckles) My apologies!”

Yeah, I guess compared to the recent hateful homophobic rant against gays spewed by Oklahoma representative Sally Kern (a rant enthusiastically supported by her fellow GOP Christian right colleagues and the Thomas More Law Center, who vowed to follow up their wonderful epic fail in Dover by defending Kern against the onslaught of whatever legal action teh gayz were sure to hit her with); compared to the sewage you hear spew from the likes of Coulter and Michael Savage; compared to the way pricks like Ben Stein and Dinesh D’Souza draw links between science and atheism and Hitler and Joe Stalin; compared to the way Judge John E. Jones had to have his whole family protected by U.S. Marshals following his ruling in the Dover trial due to all the death threats they received by loving anti-evolutionist Christians…

Yeah, compared to all that, I can see just how offensive Richard Dawkins is because he wrote a book and went on a promotional tour and cracks the odd joke.

Cry me a river.

Anyway, those are just a couple of highlights from what was, on the whole, an upbeat talk, entertaining, witty, informative, but also passionate and serious in its message and its aim of raising public consciousness to the free ride ancient superstitions have gotten in our culture, and our need to question just how long that free ride should continue. Dawkins ended on a moving and elegaic note, reading the opening paragraph to Unweaving the Rainbow, which he’s earmarked to be read at his own funeral and which I’ll let you read for yourself.

III. The Q&A

The Q&A only went for about seven or eight people, I think, mainly because he took a couple of questions at the beginning. But one or two of the questions were memorable.

One guy asked about Expelled, and Dawkins wasted no time in castigating the film and informing everyone of the way in which he and PZ Myers and Genie Scott were lied to by the producers in order to secure their participation. Based on the internet trailer that’s been up for a while, Dawkins felt confident the film would not “convince anyone who wasn’t already an ignorant fool.” Of course, as the whole planet now knows, Dawkins saw the movie Thursday night in Minneapolis, at a screening Myers was bizarrely ejected from. I’m sure we’ll now hear his informed opinion of what a loathsome pack of lies it is now he’s seen it, pretty quick. (Especially the way the filmmakers doubtless edited his interview to make him look a fool. As a filmmaker myself, I can attest: you can create any effect you wish on the editing suite.)

However, Dawkins did make a very good point regarding effective ways to mount rebuttals to Expelled that I hadn’t considered.

The questioner had also asked whether the scientific community needed to rush a pro-evolution documentary into production to counter Ben Stein’s bullshit conspiracy-theory agitprop. This was also a topic brought up in a thread on Pharyngula. After pointing out the obvious fact that making films professionally is a damned expensive hobby, Dawkins suggested that such venues as YouTube would work just fine for taking down Expelled‘s campaign of lies. In this age of ubiquitous self-documentation and pervasive video cameras, it’s a head-smackingly obvious solution.

For one thing, I don’t think Expelled is going to do much theatrical business beyond a possible “church bus bubble” in its first few days of release. (And it helps to remember that the producers are offering Christian schools cash payouts to take their classes on field trips to see it!) As an independent and a documentary (sorry, I’m now slipping into movie biz mode), it won’t open wide and it won’t do Narnia numbers. Whatever audience it has will almost certainly come through DVD sales campaigns to churches. So there’s no need to rush a cinematic rebuttal before the cameras, and in fact, to do so might have the ironic effect of legitimizing it.

But I can certainly see thousands of biology undergraduates simply dismantling Stein’s folly piece by piece and scene by scene with their webcams. Bring it on, gang.

Another questioner asked Dawkins what he thought about the transhumanist ideas of Ray Kurzweil, and the possible future in which biology and technology began to merge. Dawkins allowed as how, as a “product of the century I was born in,” the notion of such a merging kind of frightened him. Much of transhumanism sounds like science fiction, he noted, but went onto add that he liked science fiction, and who knows, it might be possible that the biotech future some people predict may in fact occur.

The talk finally ended with another rapturous ovation,
after which Dawkins signed books for a line that bled out onto the sidewalk. An enjoyable evening for one and all. Except, perhaps, for any religious fundamentalist cowering in the nosebleed seats.

IV: The Meetup

When I announced the AE Blog Meetup for the Spiderhouse following the talk, I expected maybe five or six people to turn up at most. I eventually took a head count of around 18 of us at the peak of it, and we ended up taking over the Spiderhouse’s entire front room (chasing off some poor woman who up until then had had it all to herself, sitting with her coffee, iPod, and reading her book — sorry, whoever you were). I saw some old friends I hadn’t talked to in ages, and met quite a few awesome new folks, including several students from Atheist Longhorns. (And boy, was their profile on campus ever raised by this event!) It was a great way to wind down at the end of a long and most gratifying day, and after a Shiner and one slice of rich chocolate espresso cake, it was time for me to turn into a pumpkin. Fade out.

It will be kind of difficult for CFI-Austin to top an event like this in scale and public enthusiasm. But still, this is a hell of a long way for the positive promotion of atheism to have come, just since the days nine years ago when I first joined ACA, and you could fit all of Austin’s outed atheists into one dinky bagel shop on 5th Street. An event like tonight really made me feel like I’m part of an exciting and vital community, hopefully one that will someday succeed in taking Richard Dawkins’ goal of consciousness-raising to an even larger scale.

Good night and good luck.

Report: Dawkins at UT, Part 1

Okay, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, gotten a few morning errands done, and now I’m ready to sit down and hammer out my report about yesterday. The short version: a phenomenal and surprising success. If you had told me a scant four years ago that atheism would have such a high public profile, let alone that a prominent atheist scientist wouldn’t just be a guy who wrote books only grad students bought but be traveling around the country treated like a rock star, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dawkins’ wrote in The God Delusion that his primary goal was “consciousness raising,” and in that he’s been a runaway success.

To see all the photos I took of yesterday’s events, check my Flickr set here.

I. Book People

For me the day began at his signing at Book People, which was attended by close to 200 people at my best estimate. As I mentioned in the previous post, Dawkins read the new preface to the paperback edition of TGD, followed by a friendly Q&A and a book signing.

Tangent: While at Book People I bumped into Dr. James H. Dee, a retired professor and friend of CFI, who has written a number of guest editorials espousing atheist and secularist views for the Austin-American Statesman as well as essays for Free Inquiry. Dr. Dee is brilliant and always has interesting insights into religious belief — he tells me he’s preparing a book specifically on the afterlife, which ought to be interesting — but one area where he and I (not to mention he and Dawkins) disagree is on the importance of being up to date on cutting-edge theology for those who wish to critique religion. Dr. Dee is very critical of “The Four Horsemen,” as they call themselves, because none of them have this advanced scholarly knowledge of the most abstruse theological arguments and Biblical research he believes is vital.

I think Dr. Dee has a point, but I don’t think such knowledge is as essential as he thinks. At best, it would be an interesting exercise for someone who had the free time to blow on it. Dawkins has been critiqued, quite inanely, I think, for supposedly ignoring more “advanced” views of God and debunking only the most simplistic and crude forms of Christian belief out there.

What these critics, including Dr. Dee, miss, that I tried to point out, is that the elaborately arcane and abstruse God of the theologians isn’t the God that Jack and Jill Churchgoer worship. The overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Christians are no more well versed in the most obscure Biblical scholarship or cutting edge theological legerdemain than Dawkins. To most Christians, God is a grown-up version of Santa Claus; he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake! If a lack of “sophisticated” theological expertise isn’t required for over 99.9% of the world’s Christians to feel they’re justified in believing in God, why should such knowledge be required for an atheist to declare he doesn’t believe in God? As Dawkins has said, why should you have to bone up on leprechaunology before deciding you don’t believe in leprechauns?

Dr. Dee thinks, with the increase in public awareness and acceptance of atheism in the post-God Delusion cultural climate, that atheists ought to throw the tent wider, so to speak. While guys like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens can be, shall we say, popularizers of atheism and religious criticism, we ought to make room for those scholars who do keep up on more advanced theological thought, just to know what those arguments are and how to counter. While I still agree with Dawkins that most theology is little more than rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors, as most of it takes God’s existence as a given and goes from there as opposed to establishing God’s existence with hard evidence first, I think Dr. Dee’s got a good idea there. Maybe he can be that scholarly atheist writer, to produce the books that have the academic rigor critics of Dawkins think he lacks.

I know I’m running on about this conversation, but it was really interesting and, I think, relevant. One valid criticism Dr. Dee had of Dawkins, I think, is that when he interviewed Christian leaders like the disgraced Ted Haggard for his documentary The Root of All Evil? (a title chosen by the producers that Dawkins doesn’t like), he made the mistake of asking these guys questions pertaining to science. Dr. Dee thinks that if Dawkins were more versed in Biblical scholarship, to the extent of being able to read the earliest available versions of scriptures in their original languages (something Dr. Dee can do), then Dawkins could have called out these prominent Christians on the extent to which they were not only ignorant of things like science, but their own beliefs as well! It’s a compelling thought, I must admit.

II. The Lecture

I was advised to turn up on campus no later than 5:30, but traffic held me back until about 6:15. I was gobsmacked by the line. I knew it would be big, but damn!

If you know the UT campus, the following will have meaning for you. (If you don’t, just visualize a big-ass line of people.) The line wrapped itself around Hogg Auditorium, then flowed out and around the adjacent Undergraduate Library (UGL), spilled out onto the South Mall, and finally doubled back on itself, coming up alongside UGL once more. I’ve never seen anything like that on campus. I eventually found Matt D., got my reserve ticket, and ended up helping him and some of the Atheist Longhorns guys wrangle the line a little bit.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any of the campus Christian groups putting in a visible appearance, clustering around Hogg handing out tracts and the like. Someone told me that a lot of them actually were there, but to attend the talk. To whatever degree there were Christian organizations and their members there, I wouldn’t know. If they came, they came to listen, not protest. That’s cool. (By contrast, when Dan Barker came to UT — to a much smaller reception, obviously — not long ago, Christian students turned up in force and bombarded him with as many challenging questions as they could think of.)

Once everyone finally filed in — with hundreds having to be turned away — Dawkins was introduced by one Dr. Buss (I think that was his name — I suck remembering names) to thunderous applause. But as there was some problem getting the Powerpoint projector to work properly, Dawkins actually began an impromptu Q&A to fill time while his assistants scrambled with cables behind the scenes. I liked the way that turned out, because it gave the whole lecture a more accessible feel. By interacting with the audience first, he established rapport with them right away, and never came across as the ivory-tower professor lecturing to the masses, as it were. (Maybe Dawkins is really only good at being “personable” before a large audience, but if it’s what works for him, fine.)

As expected, the lecture was a recap of most of the main points of TGD, primarily those parts of the book dealing with the harmful effects religion has on culture as a whole. But I was grateful the talk wasn’t just one big reading. Dawkins has truncated his book and created a real presentation out of it, accompanied by a slideshow both informative and humorous, and quite often sobering as well.

Just to touch on a couple of bits that stood out for me: One of the book’s efforts at consciousness raising is to question the privileged position religion has always held in culture. It’s been considered something that is above criticism. To express doubt about a person’s belief in this or that imaginary sky fairy is to be uncouth and ill-mannered in the extreme. You can tell a person their favorite band suck
s, and that their politics are full of shit, and even — in desperate situations — that their spouse is a gold-digging bitch or drunk abusive shitheel and they’d be better off alone. But don’t touch their religion! Why should this be? Why should religion deserve this privileged status among all of humanity’s ideas, especially as its ideas are usually the ones least supportable by rational argument and evidence?

If there’s one part in all of TGD that makes the steam erupt from Christians’ ears, it’s what Dawkins has to say about the religious indoctrination of children. The brutal fact is that the man is on point. Isn’t it interesting that most people almost always fall into the religion of their parents? And why should this be? Childhood indoctrination, pure and simple. But is this right? How can it be, any more than it could be right to indoctrinate a child too young to understand what they’re being taught into one or another political ideology?

And yet you’ll never see a Christian’s face turn redder than when Dawkins points out that’s there’s no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, that all you can really say is that this is a child of Christian or Muslim (or whatever religion) parents. Dawkins presented a slide of three children taking part in a nativity play, that he clipped from some British newspaper. The children — each only 4 years old — are identified as Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and the original article, we were told, went on gushingly about how lovely it was that these little 4-year-olds from different faiths could come together in the same nativity play. Obviously it never occurred to the reporter to think that maybe those children weren’t aware — being 4 years old — that the fact they were from “different faiths” meant there was a presupposition they should reflexively hate each other. Or that what their “faiths” were even all about. After all, they’re 4 years old. Dawkins’ next slide showed the same caption, but he had replaced the names of the faiths with those of different political parties. Now the absurdity of the whole thing was clear as day.

If you wouldn’t identify a 4-year-old child as a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Marxist, or an Objectivist, or a Libertarian, or even an atheist or agnostic, then how can it possibly make sense to identify them as Christian or Jewish or Muslim? How can a 4-year-old be expected to comprehend religion when they’re too young to comprehend politics or philosophy? You can’t. A 4-year-old is no more capable of being a “Christian child” than it is of being an “Objectivist child.” And here’s the part that makes Christians’ heads completely explode: to impose a belief on a child too young to understand that belief, Dawkins opines, is tantamount to child abuse.

That’s pretty heavy. But in principle, I agree. Now naturally, when people hear the word “abuse” in the first place, their immediate association is with physical abuse. And so you hear Christians time and again wail that Dawkins is comparing them to child beaters for taking their precious widdle babies to Sunday School. This is emphatically not what Dawkins means. He simply means that — intellectually, developmentally, psychologically — it is abusive to impose ideas and beliefs upon the mind of a person incapable of understanding what it is they are being told they must believe. A 4-year-old is not intellectually equipped to evaluate ideas critically, is not emotionally capable of standing up to parental authority, and not mature enough to make its own decisions. Given this fact, while parental guidance is necessary for the child in most things (basic care, really), when it comes to beliefs, imposing a religion upon them is as wrong as imposing a political ideology.

But is the use of the word “abuse” here too strong? I’ll grant, having been raised by Christian parents, that in most cases it may be, and that Dawkins’ use of the term may be overreaching. I think most parents just raise their children into their own religion because their religion is so woven into the very fabric of their lives it just doesn’t occur to them they shouldn’t. So in most cases, where I might differ from Dawkins is in preferring the word “negligence” to “abuse.” A parent who simply imposes their religion upon their very young children, but isn’t motivated by any sort of malice and are simply doing what they’re doing because they haven’t stopped to wonder even if it’s a thing they ought to be doing, is at most guilty of negligence. They may not be abusing their child by not letting them come to whatever religion they might choose (including, perhaps, none) in their own time. But they are being unfair to the child by forcing that decision on them when they’re too young to understand. Remember, I said in most cases.

In some cases, though, there is no denying that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.

Behold.

This photo shows Catholic children — ahem, children of Catholic parents — being escorted to school in Belfast by police, in order to protect them from being attacked by Protestants.

And yes, Dawkins is dead on when he says it’s also child abuse to scare the shit out of a kid and tell them they’ll burn forever in hell if they don’t love Jesus, too.

Frank Zappa, when he was alive, actually espoused a view similar to Dawkins vis-a-vis kids and religion. I remember a few years before he died, Zappa was interviewed on either The Today Show or Good Morning America, and the subject got around to his family; the Zappa family was always a very closely-knit unit. Zappa, warning the interviewer that she wasn’t going to like what he was about to say, gave his formula for raising perfect children: “Keep them away from religion…Choosing a religion is a very important decision, and a child should not have that decision forced on them when they haven’t got enough data to make their own choice.”

Personally I can’t see what it is that people find so appalling and horrible about this idea. It’s simply one that supports freedom of conscience, even for our society’s youngest members, and Dawkins just has the guts to criticize those parents who don’t allow their own children to develop their own freedom of conscience where religious belief is concerned.

But that ties back into his point about the privileged position religion holds in our culture, as this subject that is granted immunity from criticism. Most parents would probably object to the notion of indoctrinating children in some radical political fringe. But tell them they shouldn’t shove Jesus down their kids’ throats either, and suddenly you’re the asshole.

End of Part 1. This is taking longer than I thought, in and among all the other things I have to do today. But you know me: thorough. Or is that “long-winded”? Anyway, I’ll wrap up my report of the talk either late tonight or early in the morning. Go ahead and start commenting and Digging if you like.