I like Cracked.com, I really do. Like a lot of great randomized comedy (I’m thinking Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall, Monty Python) it can be a bit hit and miss. It has a fair number of articles and videos that go nowhere, but when it’s great it’s really great; not just funny, but often shockingly educational.
For example, David Wong coined the concept of the Monkeysphere, which I love to use whenever I can to discuss the finer points of secular morality. They introduce me to bizarre pop culture history that I would never have seen otherwise. Sometimes they even take up the mantle of Snopes, debunking historical myths that people seem to believe for some reason.
And then occasionally, they’ll throw out a stinker like this one: 4 Things Both Atheists and Believers Need to Stop Saying.
Of course, I’m not opposed to calling out atheists for acting ridiculous. We’ve got our always-popular episode about “Foolish Atheists“; we’ve been paying a lot of attention lately to an undercurrent of sexism in the atheist community; and there’s nothing that fires up a good internal atheist argument like bringing up politics or conspiracies. The opinions of my fellow atheists are never above criticism. But for lack-of-God’s sake, hit us with some criticism that makes sense.
With such an even-handed title, let’s take a look at the things that Gladstone wants both sides to stop doing.
#4. Devout: God Hates X
As an atheist, I suppose I ought to agree. God seems to hate so many things: fags, figs, a woman’s right to choose, being asked snotty questions, evolution, science in general… the list goes on and on, and I don’t agree with most of it. I’m cool with God being against things like murder, I suppose, but those aren’t really the controversial ones, are they? When God hates something that is so obviously wrong that everyone hates it, no one bothers to form a political lobby around it.
Here’s what I’m going to go ahead and take issue with, though.These are the people who actually believe in an omnipotent Creator and the only thing inspiring enough for their protest sign is what that Creator hates? Why would anyone want to hold that up to the world? That can’t be the best way to honor God.
Why the hell not? How do you know in what way God likes to be honored?
As I said recently, I’ve been listening to Todd Friel, and this is a particular sore spot with him — nice, liberal Christians who only focus on God’s love and refuse to acknowledge that he’s really pretty short-tempered. There’s a long tradition behind this point of view, with my favorite example being 18th century firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards and his gloriously hideous essay Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Sure, I’d personally prefer a God to be a loving one, if I had to work with the assumption that any God existed, and if my personal preference mattered for anything. But what makes Gladstone so damn sure that he’s right about God and Fred Phelps isn’t? When you unpack it a little, his main objection to the devout is that they’re not all liberal Jews who think like him.
That’s a maddeningly insufferable trait about liberal theology. On the one hand, the article points out, correctly:
But even giving you and your Holy Book the benefit of the doubt, there’s still a problem: You’re still you. Just some dude. Are you so impressed with yourself or so intellectually uncurious that you think you perfectly understand the will of God just by reading a book? Hell, put five scholars in a room together and they’ll fight about Shakespeare’s actual intent with Hamlet.
Okay, fair enough, but that’s not an argument for how you should think about God; that’s a blanket dismissal that you can know anything about the subject. It applies equally well to his own point of vie. Sure, nobody’s got a perfect literary interpretation, but I’ve read the Bible, and a plain reading of it says that the “God” character in those stories really does hate an awful lot of stuff. Only by bending over backwards to ignore the stories of genocide and bizarre rules do we end up with something like the Talmud (which, as a fellow Jew, Gladstone seems very proud of) that overrides a lot of the Bible and substitutes in something more sensible.
I’ve got an easier solution: ignore the whole stupid book. I agree that we’re better off getting our views of reality and morality from people debating and discussing the matter in light of practical, real world issues, so why handicap the situation by starting with the assumption that God is real or any of the rest of those fantastical stories are true?
#3. Atheist:God Is Not Great
Oh boy, here we go.
Last week, Hitchens — known for his intellect, eloquence and insufferable arrogance — achieved his life-long goal of becoming God by ceasing to exist.
Hitchens didn’t have the goal of becoming God, and neither does any other atheist, dude. And no atheist thinks that being dead makes you a god, or else we wouldn’t be atheists — we’d be polytheists for everyone who ever died. Hitchens’ own words in his last couple of years frequently mentioned that being sick and dying sucks, and dismissed any attempts to imagine an upside. If you’re going to attack a position, make some effort to find out what the position is, mkay?
And yes, I recognize that this is probably an attempt at sarcastic humor, and maybe he doesn’t really think that Hitchens believed himself to be God. He’s just trying to get a laugh by referencing a commonly held belief about atheists. Commonly held by idiots, that is.
Also, how illogical. “Hey man, this God you believe in that I totally don’t believe in? Yeah, well, he sucks!” Kind of tries too hard, y’know? I mean, after all, if chicks think you’re a badass for saying your old man or your High School principal sucks, then, wow, imagine what a rebel you are for saying God sucks.
It’s really a whole lot simpler than you’re making it out to be. Look, theists commonly make two kinds of claims, among others:
- It is factually true that a God exists and created the universe and everything in it.
- Belief in God, and adherence to the tenets of (insert religion here) is necessary to act morally.
Atheists dispute both these points, and they’re both important. The first one is probably wrong because there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it that has arisen in thousands of years of looking for some. The second is not just wrong, but dangerous in a very real way, because it encourages theists to view atheists as amoral at best and evil at worst.
It is entirely fair to point out that the God of the Bible, while fictional, behaves in a way that would be considered sociopathic if a human did them. Real or not, we don’t want to be getting morality from someone who thinks it’s cool to “test” people by ordering them to kill their children and see if they’ll do it.
And it’s not some kind of “rebellion” that makes this a valid point. When George Carlin stood on a stage and said “If there is a God, may he strike this audience dead,” he wasn’t trying to show the audience how awesome and intimidating he was; he was trying to show how comical the whole idea really is, that there’s supposed to be a God who punishes people for wrongdoing.
But my main complaint is that most purveyors of this sentiment don’t really have a beef with God. Even Hitchens’ book mostly tears apart the abuses of organized religion, particularly Judaism, Islam and Christianity. I’m surprised how often atheists conflate the two things. Of course organized religion sucks. It’s run by people. Religion, like government or anything structured and administered by humanity, will always be flawed and ruined by all of our weaknesses and failings.
What surprises me is why that should surprise him at all. Of course atheists don’t “really” have a “beef” with God — there is no God. And of course atheists don’t distinguish between “God” and “organized religion” — from our perspective, the only aspects of God are those that are made up by people, and the chief people who make it up are in organized religion. Sure, you don’t like this point of view, but how the hell are you surprised by it? You understand what “atheist” means, don’t you?
#2. Devout: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
Well, okay, this seems pretty random. Of all the things you could tell the devout to stop saying, that’s the one you settle on as most annoying? At least this particular cliche encourages people to get up and do something rather than passively pray for it. Of course, God doesn’t help those who help themselves. But then again, those who help themselves, help themselves. So, there’s that.
#1. Atheist: God Is a Fairy Tale For Morons
There are two halves to this complaint.
- “God is a fairy tale” — damn straight it is, and I’m not going to quit saying it. Also not going to stop comparing God to Santa Claus, leprechauns, and Bigfoot. If you want me to stop saying it, don’t just tell me I’m not allowed to; give me a reason the comparison doesn’t hold.
- “…for morons.” Let’s talk about this one for a minute.
All right, I’m going to have to be cautious here. I don’t know Gladstone, and I’m not in a position to personally deny that anyone has ever called him a moron for believing in God. I’m just going to say, while all the rest of the “things I don’t want people to say” appear to be direct quotes from somebody or other, “God is a fairy tale for morons” does not. I certainly can’t put anything past random cranky folks on the interwebs (present company included), but he’s spent this whole article complaining about folks like Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, Jillette… which one of those supposed insufferably arrogant pricks actually said that all theists are morons?
As an atheist, I believe that a belief in God is mistaken. Obviously. If I didn’t, then I’d believe in God, and then I’d be disqualified from these complaints. But you can believe somebody is wrong, even regard their beliefs as fairy tales, and still not think they are stupid. People believe all kinds of things in this world, and being right or wrong on one particular point does not make you an idiot. Conversely, as Gladstone correctly says:
Reading the God Delusion is as likely to transform you into a genius as reading the Holy Bible will make you a saint. And by the same token, faith need not be a sign of a feeble mind.
Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. And by still the same token, throwing up straw men about these mean old atheists who are calling you names need not be a sign that they all think you’re a drooling nimrod.
This seems to be a common defensive position that some theists jump to when you criticize their point of view. “Where’s the evidence?” an atheist will ask; and the believer, like Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, will demand, “HOW DARE YOU CALL ME STUPID?”
As proof that atheists hold all theists in contempt, he cites the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a joke which was invented specifically to make fun of creationists pushing their agenda in school, ridiculing the idea that all ideas should be seen as having equal weight in a science curriculum. In the very next paragraph, Gladstone agrees that creationism is an obstacle to progress, so why take issue with this? If the shoe doesn’t fit…
Look, here’s the bottom line. I think I understand what you’re trying to do with this article — hopefully try to promote greater understanding, communication and harmony between believers and unbelievers. I support that intent. Hell, that’s pretty much exactly our aim in having a public atheist visibility movement. You think atheists are so dense that we expect to get anywhere by calling 85% of the population morons? Asserting mental superiority over all living things is just not what we’re interested in — we want to be treated decently as functional, moral human beings.
I suppose that if you just want to get folks on your side, an easy way to do it is to pick a minority group like atheists, make up some caricatures, and dismiss them with an article that amounts to “Fuck all those people, am I right?” But if you’re aiming at harmony and understanding, you’ve got a long way to go.