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Feb 04 2009

No more Mr. Nice Physicist

In my recent post on the need to stop giving the ‘benefit of clergy’, I argued that we should not allow the notion of ‘respect for religion’ to be used as a shield to protect religious ideas from the scrutiny that any idea should deserve. For example, I suspect that some atheists, even when the topic of religion comes up, shy away from even saying that they are atheists out of a misplaced sense that this mere statement of fact might ‘offend’ the religious people around them. I know that I used to think this way, but not any longer.

As an example of how my attitude has changed, here is an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I am a subscriber to a listserv of physics teachers where the topics usually deal with how to teach physics better. Just before Christmas, one person sent the following message to everyone:

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession :

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crèche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said OK.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it… no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

I don’t know if this purported statement from Stein was genuine or not but the forwarder clearly thought that this farrago of nonsense was meaningful enough to send to an entire listserv of physics teachers. Maybe he was prodded into doing so by the clever implication in the last three paragraphs that if he did not do so he was a coward, not having the courage of his beliefs.

There was a time when I would have kept my disagreement with such a message to myself, out of a misplaced sense of ‘respect for religion’, despite the fact that my silence lent credibility to such absurd ideas. The ‘respect for religion’ mantra says that even if I think the sentiments are absolute rubbish and even despicable, the sender probably sincerely believed in them, and his tender religious feelings should not be hurt or his beliefs shaken by my challenging them.

But I no longer agree with that stance. Since the sender had put his ideas out into the public sphere, I felt they were open for criticism and this is what I wrote to the entire listserv in response:

So let me see if I got the point of this message: God is ticked off at America because the founders inserted the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. He is so thin-skinned and touchy that he got mad about this and so is not lifting a finger to help all the poor and helpless (and even infants) who are killed and devastated by things like Katrina. And Ben Stein and Anne Graham know all his because God explains his actions by whispering his reasons only in their ears.

Sure makes sense to me!

Was my response harsh? Yes, but I think the message and the sender merited it. What particularly annoyed me was that he would not have dreamed of sending a message to a group of physics teachers advocating some crackpot physics theory for which he had no evidence or which made no logical sense. But he felt free to do so about some crackpot religious theory, presumably because he had got accustomed to those ideas being either actively supported or met with a respectful silence that he could interpret as tacit support, thus reinforcing his belief in the correctness of his ideas. I no longer let such things pass unchallenged.

It is not that I am always a curmudgeon. There are occasions when I think you should let things go, as when people are using religious ideas as a psychological crutch to cope with some personal difficulty. And if a person had said something similar in the private sphere, I would have framed my disagreement more gently. But when people (like the sender of the above message) use the public sphere for no other purpose than to advance their own religious views, the gloves come off.

POST SCRIPT: “Ask an Atheist” forum

CWRU’s Case Center for Inquiry is holding an open forum where people can ask a panel of atheists any question they want. This is part of their effort to create a better understanding of atheism. I am the faculty advisor for the group and will be one of the four panel members.

When: Thursday, February 5, 2009 7-9 PM
Where: Strosacker Auditorium, CWRU campus

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Libby Archinal

    In defense of Ben Stein, snopes.com tells me that everything starting with “In light of the many jokes…” is a coda that was NOT written or spoken by Ben Stein.

    Also, Wikipedia tells me that Dr. Spock’s son did not commit suicide. He had two, and they are still alive. Just goes to show how nonsensical that whole forward e-mail is.

    I love this post, and I think the distinction between publicly-expressed ideas, which are open to critical analysis, and privately held or expressed ideas is a very valid one.

    (Dr. Singham: You may remember me as Libby Moore, from 2003/2004 SAGES. Since then, I’ve become an avid fan of this blog!)

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    “I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.”
    I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph. I’ve found that most atheists take issue with religious people speaking up about their beliefs. Yet they are outspoken about their beliefs and expect religious people to listen thoughtfully and agree with them, even when using such dismissive terms as “crackpot theory” and “crutch”.
    However, I agree with your reasoning towards replying to the message. Everyone should have equal opportunity to express their beliefs and have them rationally discussed, as I said above. The issue is when atheists refuse to allow that sort of discussion on religion, precluding it with the argument that religion is not rational to begin with.

  3. 3
    Brock

    Anonymous,

    I’ve become quite active in the atheist community, and out of the many dozens I’ve met, only a very few are outspoken about their lack of belief. In my experience, the anger and belligerence you encounter reflects a small but vocal minority, something like 10% of atheists. Please don’t take that to represent all of them.

    I agree with you that derisive terms like “crackpot theory” and “crutch” are for burning bridges and not building them. That tactic should be used carefully, taking into account venue (private vs. public argument) and context. But most people (myself included) aren’t always that careful or patient.

    I think you have a particularly good point about arguments being precluded by assumptions, especially “religion is not reasonable”. However, that statement has been thoroughly dissected, and I can’t find any solid evidence against it. By all honest accounts, it’s true. You should read more of Mano’s post to understand exactly what I mean: I recommend starting with his (23-part) series The End of God.

    If you read that and still think it’s unwise to assume “religion is unreasonable”, then we’ll have a good foundation for discussion.

  4. 4
    Greg

    “I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period.”

    Can someone please explain something to me? Approximately 2.3% of the worlds population is athiest. (In america I believe atheists are about 15%. And about 78% christian.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Worldwide_percentage_of_Adherents_by_Religion.png

    So 2.3% of the worlds population is bullying the rest of the god believers? You have got to be joking. Seriously.

    I, too, have become more expressive in my athiesm again. As a kid I was extremely argumentative against people trying to force christianity down my throat.

    So bad that I had to be moved to a different school because my “reborn again” teacher, in standard 3 (or grade 5), isolated me from the rest of the class when I argued against him.

    My desk was shoved to the front corner of the class and I would be punished for just about anything. In one instance I was forced to write 800 lines because I made 3 spelling mistakes in some homework.
    Not a single other person in the class, many of whom made alot more mistakes than me, got punished.

    As soon as my father found out the extent of the isolation, towards the end of the year, he moved me to a new school.

    Fortunately the teachers at the school I moved to were alot more tolerant. Even still I ended up keeping my athiesm to myself. Just ignoring all the religious talk around me.

    Over the last few years have I started coming out and not keeping quiet. I only recently listed Athiest on my facebook profile. I hadn’t before out of some ridiculous notion that I might offend some people. Now that I think about it… if one of my friends got offended by that then what does it say about him? I’ve known about his christianity yet that didn’t stop me from been friends with him. So why should that change if he knows about my stance?

    Much thanks goes to Mano, Dawkins, and a long list of comedians. I feel better now that I’ve realised that there is nothing wrong with me talking about my stance on religion. When have religious people ever felt bad about bombarding the public with their ideology?

    This bus advert was, in my opinion, a great way to show people that you don’t have to keep your mouths shut anymore. I’ve never seen anything like this before yet I’ve seen countless religious adverts.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7813812.stm

  5. 5
    Mano

    Can I defend the use of the words “crackpot theory” and “crutch”?

    I am not sure why the word crutch is seen as being pejorative. It signifies extra support at a time of need. We all use metaphorical crutches to get us through difficult times. Sometimes an aphorism such as “It is always darkest before dawn” serves that purpose. When people go through difficult periods, they look for ways to help them get through it and religion is one of the most common crutches that are reached for.

    As for crackpot theory, I am at a loss to know how to otherwise describe a theology that says that god lets huge numbers of people die and suffer because he is miffed that we don’t allow prayer in schools. I actually thought I was being mild in my choice of words. The words hateful and despicable would have been appropriate. Can you imagine telling someone who lost loved ones and perhaps also their homes and all their possessions due to Katrina that this was because of the government and courts enforced the First Amendment? Wouldn’t that be the height of insensitivity and offensiveness?

    I have to concede that I am harsher and more outspoken in my public persona than most atheists, probably part of the obnoxious 10% that Brock refers to. It is because of a deliberate strategy on my part to play the “bad atheist”, the one who does not let religion hide behind the usual smokescreens. This allows the “good atheists” to seem much more acceptable by comparison.

  6. 6
    Greg

    Correction to my post.

    Should read:

    “So about 14.2% (Non-believers) of the worlds population are bullying the rest of the god believers?”

  7. 7
    Josh

    Being an atheist in a theistic world can be a difficult task. It’s absurd to suggest, however, that atheists are bullying theists in any way, especially here in the US where not only has no openly atheistic person every been elected to congress, but congressional candidates used atheism to vilify their opponents as recently as this last election (Elizabeth Dole)!

    As far as dealing with theists, I’ve leaned it’s important not to be rigid in my methods. Harsh people need to be dealt with harshly, and light hearted people more light heartedly.

    Using facebook as an example, I too at one time listed my belief as “atheist”. It now says “kindness”. I’ve found people are more likely to listen when you don’t speak over them. If you say “this is how you should be” they say “no” and that is the end of it. But if you say “this is how I am” and leave it at that, then they are more likely to say “why?” Then you can really engage in conversation.

  8. 8
    Anonymous

    Dear Professor,
    Did your mail prompt a response from the original sender? More importantly, did people in the mailing list take any sides?
    Arvindh

  9. 9
    Mano

    Arvindh,

    There were two kinds of responses. One group said that the original poster should not have introduced religion into a physics listserv.

    Another group said that we are a diverse group and that all beliefs should be accepted and tolerated.

    It died down pretty quickly!

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