We’re having a quick break at the conference, so I wanted to thank Hemant for asking people for help about my panel problem, and for all the advice that I’ve received. Last night I wrote a long email detailing what happened and my concerns, and sent it to the head of one of our main diversity programs here at Purdue. He was the one initially asked if he knew any non-theists who could participate, and he has been very friendly to us in the past. I wanted his advice before going straight to a TA or the professor or a dean. Like I said, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt (innocent until proven guilty and all), so I didn’t want to stir up trouble for no reason. Saying that, I made clear that I believe they should both know about my concerns so at the very least this doesn’t happen again in the future.

I’ll keep you updated on what happens. Until then, back to my biology conference!

Duped and Annoyed

I’ll be leaving for a three day biology conference in Nebraska early tomorrow morning. If the blog is dead, that’s why.

On Monday I agreed to be a part of a panel for a class here titled Communicating Across Cultures…one of those required classes everyone loves to take. All I was told is the class was discussing religious oppression on campus, and that needed a non-theist for a panel to answer questions from the audience. I said sure. I asked for more details about what specific questions were going to be asked, but they never replied. I shrugged it off, thinking it was just short notice, and along with my agnostic friend (who was the one who directed them to me), went to the panel this morning.

Unfortunately, I felt like I’d been duped.

Maybe duped is too harsh of a word. I generally like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re not being malicious, but either way, I was seriously annoyed. I arrived about ten minutes early and sat waiting with Agnostic Friend until class was going to start, with no real instruction from the professor. She then asked us to sit down with the other panelists…one of which is a middle aged man. Okay, I think, maybe he’s in charge of some diversity program.

She introduces us to the class, and says that we’re going to take about 5 to 7 minutes to explain why we believe what we believe, and then we’ll open it up for questions. Agnostic Friend and I exchange looks of “Eep, wish she would have warned us about that.” Unfortunately for him (and thankfully for me), she asked him to start first. He talked for about 2 minutes, basically just briefly defining what it meant to be an agnostic. It was then my turn, and I probably stammered on about atheism for about 3 or 4 minutes. It’s hard enough listing all the reasons why you’re an atheist in less then five minutes when it’s taken you a decade to figure out, but I tried my best. I thought I did a pretty good job for having absolutely no notice about the question.

That is, until the next person spoke. The older guy wasn’t just some diversity person…he was a professor and doctor at our student health center. And not only was he presenting the Christian view point, but he had a typed up perfectly organized speech, full of all the usual horrible arguments for God and Christianity (which I will talk about after the biology conference). On top of all that, he’s beautifully eloquent, charismatic, and filling his introduction with personal, emotional, funny stories. I know they’re horrible arguments, but that they’re going to sound amazing to the audience, especially after my improvized talk. To make matters worse, the fourth panelist was a graduate and former head of the Muslim Student Association…and had an actual Powerpoint presentation that he had obviously given many times before.

You can understand why I’m pretty annoyed. The two non-theist junior undergraduates are sitting up there, not even notified what the main question (or even PURPOSE) of the presentation is, while two eloquent, older, and more prepared theists make us look like unprepared fools. It was honestly embarassing…not because I’m not able to make good presentations or arguments (because I can *grumble*), but because I had absolutely no warning while they obviously did. Not only am I personally embarassed, but I regret losing this opportunity to present atheism to a large group of students who 1. probably never encountered it and 2. now won’t ever want to encounter it again.

Of course, even if I was prepared, would it really have been fair facing me off against Mr. Professor Doctor “I’ve Traveled the world and dined with Kings” Former Atheist Saw the Light Jesus Cures What Even Medicine Can’t? I’m fairly certain even the brightest 21 year olds with the best arguments will look foolish when debating a charismatic “adult” with horrendous arguments.

The cherry on top was that because the format was Q&A, I never got a chance to refute any of the garbage the Christian and Muslim were saying. I guess that gives me some blogging material for after my trip.

Is Anti-Theism Necessarily Bad?

Today I went to an event titled Non-Theism and the Right to Freedom from Religion, which was part of a diversity conference on campus. What could have been a decent presentation was ruined by the fact that a whopping 8 people showed up, including myself. Regardless, we still had some interesting discussions about the public perception of atheism in the US and the separation of church and state.

One key point the presenters repeated was that atheism does not necessarily equal anti-theism. Now, this is completely true – not all atheists are necessarily against religion. In fact, I’d say the vast majority of atheists are apathetic about the whole atheism/theism debate. The problem, however, is that the presenters kept labeling anti-theism as this horrible thing that atheists need to distance themselves from in order to be publicly accepted. Before I say anything, I want to clarify that by anti-theism I mean being against religion, religious beliefs, religious practices…but not religious individuals. This is the same definition that the presenters were using.

But is anti-theism really that bad?

I’d argue no, it’s not, assuming you’re not treating the actual religious individual poorly or trying to oppress their rights to have such beliefs. In fact, I think it’s crucial that we are able to criticize beliefs and customs that we find dangerous, ridiculous, and/or false.* What if we didn’t speak out against these things we disagreed with? Why is it okay for me to disagree with Republicans, pro-lifers, racists**, but not with Christians, Muslims, or Hindus?

I know the answer: Nobody enjoys having their beliefs criticized, but especially not ones as important as religion. If we didn’t feel strongly that our beliefs are correct (or at least the best option), we wouldn’t have those beliefs! So it’s understandable that people get upset when you say “There probably is no God,” “Scaring children with hell is tantamount to child abuse,” or “Homosexuality is not wrong.” But just because their annoyance is understandable doesn’t mean we should go out of our way to not offend their sensibilities. It doesn’t mean when someone says “It’s my religious belief” to defend an argument that we need to throw up our hands and go “Oh shucks, well, can’t beat that!” Of course not.

Religious belief shouldn’t be sacred (pardon my word choice). It needs to stand up to criticism in the marketplace of ideas just like every other belief or practice. By giving religion a Get Out of Jail Free card and having criticism be taboo, we create an environment where bad ideas spread because…well, no one gets to point out that they’re bad ideas.

Now, should atheists still distance themselves from anti-theism in order to gain public acceptance? On one hand, I feel strongly that we need to be able to speak up and voice our disagreements. On the other hand, it’s a lot more difficult convincing people you’re a decent person when they view your opinions as attacks on what they hold dearest. I think our best chance is to convince people that religious belief must stand up to criticism like any other idea, and that acceptance of atheism will eventually follow. Not exactly an easy task, but stuff like this is never simple.

*I’m in no way saying that all religious things fall into these categories, but I think even most religious people will agree with me that some do.

**Again, not saying these groups are equally bad or anything silly like that. Just examples of things I disagree with.